No phrase in the language has acquired such wide and universe popularity, and has had such a profound impact on subsequent literary theory as Coleridge’s phrase, “Willing suspension of disbelief”, which he used to indicate the nature of poetic dramatic illusion. All through the Neo-classics era the question of dramatic illusion and credibility had exercised the mind of critics, and the observance of the unities was considered essential for, their violation puts too severe a strain on the credibility of the audience and thus dramatic illusion is violated. The topic was hotly debated and both Dryden and Dr. Johnson have expressed their views on it, views which are in advance of those of their contemporaries. However, it was Coleridge who said the last word on the subject, and finally put the controversy at rest.
Coleridge uses the phrase in connection with his account in Chapter XIV of the Biographia Literaria of the origin and genesis of the Lyrical Ballads. He writes:
“In this idea originated the plan of the Lyrical ballads; in which it was agreed that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith”.
Thus he was to treat of characters supernatural, which are incredible and improbable and which under normal circumstances we would not believe in but the treatment was to be such that as long as we were reading his poems, there would be, “a willing suspension of disbelief”, and we would believe for the moment in what is essentially incredible and improbable. In other words, the treatment should be such as would send the judgment of readers to sleep, so that they would pursue the poem with delight.
In Chapter XXIII of the Biographia Literaria he explains himself further and writes:
“The poet does not require us to be awake and believe; he solicits us only to yield ourselves to a dream; and this, too, with our eyes open, and with our judgment pursue behind the curtain, really to awaken us at the first motion of our will, and meantime, only, not to disbelieve”.
The poet sends our judgment to sleep, for as long as we are reading his word or seeing his play. He does not ask us to believe in what is presented to our mind; he only requires that we should not disbelieve. Only a momentary suspension of disbelief is required for an enjoyment of imaginative literature. We are not under any illusion that it is reality; only, for the moment, there is a voluntary remission of judgment, we enjoy what we dream of. Similarly, the poet, if he is sufficiently skilful, sends our judgments to sleep so that we neither believe nor disbelieve, it to be reality, but merely enjoy what is presented to the mind’s eye. Our reason, or rational judgment, our consciousness, is in voluntarily suspension and this suspension of judgment enables us to enjoy what is in our waking moments when the spell is broken, we would condemn as incredible. Distancing in time and place, humanizing of the marvelous and the supernatural, etc., are some of the devices used to procure such, “willing suspension of disbelief”.
Further light on Coleridge’s views in this connection is thrown through a comparison with the view of Dr. Johnson. Dr. Johnson was of the view that the reader or the spectator deludes himself into believing a play to be a reality, as long as he is witnessing it. The spectator knows, “from the first to the last that the stage is only a stage and that the players are only players”. But knowingly he deludes himself and regards it as the reality. Not unlike Johnson, Coleridge is of the view that it is not in this state that a tale or play is enjoyed, or that the reader or the spectator allows himself to be deluded even temporarily, to be able to enjoy it. On the contrary, he just takes leave of his judgment for the time being. ‘The true stage-illusion consists not in the mind’s judging it to be a forest, but in its remission of the judgment that it is not a forest’. While Dr. Johnson believed that the spectator is in full exercise of his judgment and knows that what is being presented to him is not reality, Coleridge believes that the spectator does not voluntarily exercise his judgment for the time being. His critical faculty is asleep so to say. Thus Coleridge’s position is a middle one: the spectator or the reader does neither actively believe nor disbelieve. His judgment is in a state of suspension for the time being. Voluntarily he is persuaded not to exercise it as long as he is reading a poem or witnessing a play. Imaginative literature owes its appeal to such suspension of disbelief.