The Place of Illusion in Art
All art is based on the willing acceptance of illusion. You look at a landscape painting. You know that it consists of paint and canvas. It is a flat surface of only two dimensions; yet you see in it a view of three dimensions. By a trick of perspective, those mountains in the background appear to be miles away from that tree in the foreground. By lift and shade, flat layers of paint appear as solid objects — trees, buildings, human figures.
Or you go to the theatre to see a play. You know that the scenery is only paint and cardboard ; the plot is a made-up story ; the incidents and the characters are imaginary ; and the men and women you see on the stage, laughing or weeping, making love or fighting, are only actors, pretending. Yet, if the play is a good one and the actors are up to their job, you will willingly accept the illusion. You will voluntarily put yourself under the spell, and, during the play, actually feel the emotions you would feel if you were witnessing real happenings.
It is the same with the arts of novel writing and poetry. The poet Coleridge has told us how he came to write his most famous, and perhaps his best poem. “The Ancient Mariner”. He said he wanted to tell a romantic tale about supernatural events and characters ; yet in such a way as to make it seem for the moment possible and real ; or, in his own words, “So, as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to pro-cure for these shadows of the imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. With this object in view I wrote the ‘Ancient Mariner’.”
Note the phrase in italics. It means the same thing as the voluntary acceptance of illusion, on which all art is based. The story told in the “Ancient Mariner” is in the highest degree romantic and supernatural. It is a sailor’s yarn full of marvels which are incredible to the cool reason. The outline of the tale told in plain prose would make it appear not only incredible but absurd. But Coleridge does not tell it in that way. In the way he tells it, in his magical poetry, he makes the unfamiliar familiar, the incredible credible, the impossible possible, and the unreal real.