Suspension of disbelief — While used all the time in story-telling, the phrase always struck me as a particularly awkward and unwriterly agglomeration or words. It seems more appropriate for a turn-of-the-century magic show than for literature.
To begin with, the human brain cannot grasp a negative without first comprehending or at least thinking of its positive. The mind first considers ‘belief’ and, after momentary processing, pulls up ‘disbelief’. Then the grey cells attach ’suspension of’, resulting in complex mental gymnastics for a simple concept, even if we remain unaware of the internal computing at the time.
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‘Suspend’ is one of those words that can mean virtually its opposite, a contronym if you will, like the word ‘citation’ in North American English. You can suspend fruit bits in Jell-o or suspend a balloon in mid-air. But if you suspend the suspending, they come crashing down, much like my faith in our phrase under discussion.
Imagine an author constructing posits like fragile clouds floating in the sky. That writer has suspended his beliefs. He wants his audience to believe those illusions hover there in the magical atmosphere of his tale.
|Science and engineering students play sly and sometimes
sophisticated jokes on one another such as disassembling a
Volkswagon and reassembling it in a boy's dorm room.
An urban legend has it Coca Cola will dissolve metals overnight, engine blocks or some such. A freshman went on about this and sophomores suggested the only way to prove or disprove it was to run the experiment himself. They helped him gather half a dozen different types of nails to leave in a jar that night.
The next morning the freshman awoke to find the nails had dissolved into nothingness, thus proving the urban legend. Upperclassmen clapped him on the back and complimented him on his research.
They didn’t compliment his naïveté, his suspension of disbelief. As you figured out, the sophomores silently removed the nails in the middle of the night.
Coming to Terms
Everyone knows what ‘suspend disbelief’ means, but nobody’s bothered to come up with more elegant wording. We could toy with ‘enbelief’ or ‘sur-belief’ or even ‘lief’, although that last means ‘gladly’.
English often adapts foreign words for concepts. We could try ‘glauben’ in German, ‘foi’ or ‘croyance’ in French, ‘creencia’ in Spanish, ‘убежден’ in Russian, and my favorite, ‘credinţa’ in Romanian. Feel free to leave off the çedilla. (Pardon the childish play on that word.) Would professionals accept this following term? “A writer asks little more from his audience than credinta.”
Frankly, I’m surprised our literary forebears haven’t borrowed an equivalent phrase from French or Russian authors. All the Russians I know are in Washington busily working on the next election, but I do have good French friends. I asked two of my closest, Micheline and Jean-François, for their opinions. J-F responded with this:
“Suspension of disbelief” is a useful concept, and quite hard to render accurately in French. The direct translation is clumsy. It is close to “licence poétique” but poetic license designates a liberty of the author rather than the reader blindly following the enchantment.
Actually, “enchantement” or “envoûtement” is a good path, with the idea that the reader is so charmed by the story that he forgets about reality and plausibility. I would suggest “succomber à l’enchantement” (succumb to the enchantment), e.g. in full context:
“Readers of Tolkien willingly suspend their disbelief” ➔
“Les lecteurs de Tolkien succombent de plein gré à son enchantement.”
Succomber à l'enchantement— I like that. If I can’t have credinţa, I vote for that.
Does ‘suspension of disbelief’ seem awkward to you? What are your ideas, your suggestions?