Sunday, 13 December 2009

To Seem or Not to Seem: On the Concept of Verisimilitude

In my last post ("A Not So Invisible Man: On H. G. Wells"), I briefly mentioned the term verisimilitude; a term I already brought up at the end of "Leaps of the Imagination" (posted way back in June), then promising to return to the term and the concept. And so, here we are.

Merriam-Webster's on-line dictionary traces the word verisimilitude back to circa 1576, etymologically stemming from the Latin verisimilitudo (in its turn from verisimilis verisimilar, from veri similis like the truth). The word is defined as:
1 : the quality or state of being verisimilar
2 : something verisimilar
Verisimilar then being defined as:
1 : having the appearance of truth : probable
2 : depicting realism (as in art or literature)

For obvious reasons, being that our topic relates to fiction (whether in the form of literature, comics or film), it seems appropriate to first turn to the notion of realism. Merriam-Webster defines realism as follows:
1 : concern for fact or reality and rejection of the impractical and visionary
2 a : a doctrine that universals exist outside the mind; specifically : the conception that an abstract term names an independent and unitary reality b : a theory that objects of sense perception or cognition exist independently of the mind — compare nominalism
3 : the theory or practice of fidelity in art and literature to nature or to real life and to accurate representation without idealization
For the purpose of our discussion here, it is obviously the third one that applies. What is important to note, is that the term itself has gone askew over the years. First because of the 19th century literary movement of realism (which still to this day, stylistically speaking, governs a great deal of the literary output to varying degrees), the existence of which makes it easy to assume that realism, at least in literature, does not exist outside of this time period or somewhat time specific genre. The second factor is the advent of the camera and its explosive impact on our perceptions in particular during the 20th century. With the camera (both photography and film, I might add) comes the notion of photorealism and the photo real; and together with the aforementioned 19th century literary genre, this leaves us with an understanding of realism as not merely pertaining to the real, but almost being the real itself; a perfect representation, as it were.

Here, however, is the rub, because as we can see in Merriam-Webster's definition, it is a "theory or practice of fidelity in art and literature to nature or to real life and to accurate representation without idealization" and as such it can never escape the layer of representation separating it from the real... whatever the "real" is.

Being representation, realism – more than anything else – is all about convention; about what we, as an audience, perceive to be real, truthful or, simply, realistic. This can be seen very clearly in the artistic development and handling of the film medium in the documentary genre, for instance. One of the reasons why documentaries held on to using black and white, and later grainier resolution, has do with using a visual that the audience perceived as depicting the truth, because precedents were laid out that made us trust these images more, simply because conventions had taught us that they were more strongly related to the real. Now, I think we can all agree that this is in fact convention and that neither black and white images nor grainier images actually are more realistic in the sense of pertaining to actual reality; or, more real, if you want.

This brings us back to the word of the day, that is verisimilitude. The Latin origin could be translated as "like the truth" and what is like the truth is not necessarily the truth. In short, verisimilitude has nothing to do with being actual truth or reality. Rather, as a convention, it is all about making something seem true or real. It is this which takes us into the territory where I've previously used the term; that is genres of the fantastic (e.g. fantasy, horror, science fiction and superheroes).

My first real encounter with the word itself (and an encounter that altered my own discourse on the subject, I might add) occurred some years ago. I was watching extra material on the DVD edition of Superman: The Movie and the word popped up. The director, Richard Donner, realised early on in the project that the main problem or challenge would be to convince the audience that Superman could fly. Don't get me wrong here, this is not a scientific question, not about explaining away the laws of gravity or whatever else. At the end of the day, it is about that age old concept of suspension of disbelief. Most (if not all) fiction relies upon that concept at some point or other, to some degree or another, because obviously a representation is never that which it represents (not even when that which it does represent is real; and let's remember that fiction problematises such notions even further by not necessarily representing or referring to an actual real event or occurrence).

Donner's film was presented with the slogan, "You'll Believe a Man Can Fly!" (i.e. the mantra the crew worked with throughout the production) and audiences did. Not because they were given lengthy explanations about how it worked, but because the film makers visually managed to sell the idea that a man could, in fact, fly. The audience suspended their disbelief and bought into this fantastical element of the fiction.

This is an approach that some films today would do well to remember (and that goes for some comics and literature as well). We sometimes seem to live in a world where the notion of verisimilitude is either all but forgotten or gravely misunderstood.

The former could arguably be seen in films (or fiction in other media) that do not seem to even make an effort in making us believe in the fictional world projected. Here we, for instance, find stories about vampires that throw all kinds of logic (narrative or otherwise) or credibility out the window, seemingly saying to the audience that "if you can suspend your disbelief to the extent of accepting vampires, well then I presume you'll swallow anything I offer, no matter what it is or how shoddily I attempt to sell it to you."

On the other hand, the grave misunderstanding of verisimilitude is no better, really. Here we have the over explainers, the people who in their pursuit of "realistic" depictions of the fantastic tries to go beyond selling it as like the truth or real, and find a way of explaining it as actually real, preferably in a scientific manner. The question being, do we really need to know (with great in-depth understanding) why the dragon can breathe fire or how Superman can fly? Do we? Really?

Suspension of disbelief requires that we can accept that what is happening on the screen or page is happening within the confines of the fictional universe at hand. It is the question of accepting the fictional fantastic as believable, as like truth (rather than as true) and move on from there. Over explaining things rarely helps to sell what is essentially an illusion to begin with. After all, how many people actually knows how an aeroplane works and flies? How many people knows in great details how a computer functions for that matter?

And before someone cries "I know" – I'd like to quickly add; that's not the issue. Sure, there are people who know these things (obviously). But my point is that far, far from everyone in the general public does. Yet this does not make them express disbelief in either aeroplanes or computers. And, for the record, aeroplanes and computers were merely two examples from a list that could go on and on and on. We live in a reality most of us know fairly little about on a multitude of levels and with regards to a multitude of functions. Yet we do not disbelieve in all of these things, despite the fact that we might not know or understand the how or the why of it.

An over explanation of a fantastic element is often more likely to reveal flaws in logic and presentation, ultimately rendering the over explanation counter-productive. The more you tie a fantastic phenomenon into a scientific explanation, the more you depend on that scientific model to hold and to in itself contain verisimilitude. Because here is another rub: that which is true needs not always seem like truth. This is why more realistic stories (in a traditional sense) can fail in depicting things that are actually true or real. Because verisimilitude is not a question of being or not being real. It is a question of seeming real, of seeming true.

And when it comes that question... well, then what actually is, is much less important. After all, we tend to believe in that which seems real.

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