Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner and the Suspension of Disbelief

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In a narrow sense, media is a means of conveying stories, real and unreal. And in the sense of entertainment, fictional media – be it literature, television, or cinema – allows us to encounter and digest stories bound in circumstances entirely outside our personal realms of experience. We encounter stories on a daily basis that range from the vaguely unrealistic to the utterly fantastic; from domestic action-adventures to science-fiction sagas that unfold on distant alien worlds. If you will remember, I said we not only encounter these stories, we digest them. We put ourselves in these stories, we relate to them. We manage somehow to believe things that are utterly unbelievable, and make them parts of our selves.

But how do we do this? Rarely do we ask ourselves how we manage to be convinced of the “truth” of things that are blatantly untrue, or that we know on a logical level cannot be. This phenomenon is called, as you may know, the “willing suspension of disbelief” – the manner in which we allow ourselves to be convinced by implausibility. This suspension of disbelief was a term coined by author Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817, himself a craftsman of ballads that oftentimes conveyed events of a fantastic and supernatural nature. Coleridge himself wondered what it was that might allow his readers to be sucked into a narrative that was unrealistic by nature, and conjectured that it was the job of the writer to interject “human nature and a semblance of truth” into their work so that their audience might be capable of relating to it personally.

Coleridge’s enduring poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, written almost twenty years prior to his coining the phrase, serves as a perfect window into how Coleridge managed (and consequently how any entertainer might manage) to craft a believable, albeit supernatural, tale.

The framing of the tale is the first key to the reader’s buying in. Before we are drawn into the mariner’s past we find him first at a wedding, selecting a certain young man to whom he will deliver his story:

“He holds him with his glittering eye-
The wedding-guest stood still,
And listens like a three years child:
The Mariner hath his will.”

This introduction grounds the events to come within a believable reality. Doubtless, most people have endured (willingly or not) the storytelling of a family member or acquaintance; the stereotypical elderly man imparting tales of his past seems an indelible figure in our world. As the reader comes to relate with the reluctant recipient of the Mariner’s lesson they consequently become the listener, accepting the narrative within their personal realm of experience. On a further level the listener in the poem is reduced to the level of a three-year-old child, “So the Guest is now psychologically vulnerable to fantasy,” (Uddin). In turn, we become the child, lost inside a fantastical story.

Once we enter the world of the Mariner’s ill-fated voyage, Coleridge sets us in a world that, while being grounded within natural reality is nonetheless as distant and mysterious to us as it was to the general reader in his own day. If there is a part of our world that is most outside the realm of human installation, it is the ocean. Even now, with a certain level of demystification and exploration, the ocean maintains a certain amount of depth, darkness, and mystery that can be attributed to few other Earthly places. Even with our modern capabilities, the sea almost becomes a singular entity – uninhabitable, impenetrable, and destructive. It is for this reason that we are still capable of latching on to Coleridge’s attribution of mysterious descriptions to the Mariner’s ocean. As it is written:

“Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.

About, about, in reel and rout
The death-fires danced at night;
The water, like a witch’s oils,
Burnt green, and blue and white.”

Certainly not a welcoming ocean. Coleridge taps into our inherent fear of such a distant place in our experience; his initial descriptions of it’s glowing, barren iciness and foreboding character make it easy for us to believe that such is a place where one could be acted upon by great, mysterious forces beyond their understanding, as “…Coleridge’s aim is… to show the strange, uncanny experiences of an individual who is placed in such unusual circumstances,” (Uddin).

As the Mariner endures his punishment, the reader easily places his trials inside a religious context. Although not every reader is inherently religious, religious morals and mythology are still very much an ingrained part of us. As the Mariner desecrates the world governed by an ominpotent spiritual power, so he suffers his due. The supernatural figures who play for his life take on the forms of powerful deities, and though they punish him, his punishment is not without a powerful lesson. In fact, it serves a higher importance and makes him a more penitent person. This idea of trespass, punishment, and transcendence follows the seemingly familiar pattern of religious fable. These fables

Finally, we place ourselves willingly with the Mariner because we understand his psychological turmoil. We relate to his fear of the unknown, his isolation, and his intense guilt – all common, relatable human sufferings.

“But oh! more horrible than that
Is the curse in a dead man’s eye!
Seven days, seven nights I saw that curse,
And yet I could not die.”

The mariner endures the deaths of his mates, their consequent resurrection, and his subjection to a bizarre spiritual realm, but he also endures human suffering. We feel his isolation and desire to redeem his mistake, and remember that he is very much a real person. Not only do we take on the role of the listener, we take on the role of the mariner himself, a victim of his faults and failings. “Coleridge’s mastery lies in that he has properly utilized this basic and universal humanity in attaining acceptability for all those unnatural happenings that turn natural with this helpless forsaken guilt-ridden tragic figure,” (Uddin).

Coleridge delivers of tale deeply rooted in a supernatural realm beyond our own, but he also contributes the human element that allows us to put ourselves inside it, and even “believe” it, for a time.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature.Ed.
David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar.New York: Longman, 2010. 567-582.

Uddin, Nasir. “Coleridge’s Exploitation Of The Willing Suspension Of Disbelief In “The Rime Of The Ancient
Mariner.” Language In India 14.3 (2014): 249-258. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 21 Mar.
2014.

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