Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

by John MacBeath Watkins

I recently watched Bell, Book and Candle, a film I hadn't seen in many years. The plot has Gillian (Kim Novak), a witch, place Shep (Jimmy Stewart), a publisher, under a spell to fall in love with her and dump his fiance, who Gillian has a grudge against. A witch cannot fall in love or cry in the mythology of the movie. This struck me, because in my own novel, The Book of Forbidden Words, power over the mind of others is also incompatible with love.

My thinking in making this the case was that love cannot be compelled. Having power to manipulate people against their will is a sociopath's dream. In the film, cold lighting and pale makeup emphasize the emotional coldness of the witch. Once she falls in love, she looses her power as a witch and is given warmer makeup and warmer light.

The wider message here is that emotionally genuine relationships are not compelled, and to the extent that relationships are compelled, this interferes with and can prevent them from being emotionally genuine. Shep does not have power over Gillian, but her part of the relationship cannot be emotionally genuine either; the power to compel dehumanizes the her as well. It is not until the spell is broken that either is able to fall in love with the other.

Evangelical Christians have told me that faith is a choice we make, but this seems wrong to me. If that were true, Pascal's wager would be the best means of conversion. (If God exists and you act as if he didn't, you burn in hell. If he doesn't exist and you act as though he did, all you've done is waste a few Sunday mornings.) The Church didn't buy his logic in Pascal's day, and it's unpersuasive now, because belief is not a choice. It is more like an emotion, more like love than shopping.

To co-mingle the two, if my lover is unfaithful, I may decide to believe she is faithful, but it won't work. Truth will seep in past the door I've chosen to close, because knowledge is not so easily denied.

If belief is an emotion, it is complex, not a thing of reason and evidence only. We may espouse a belief because our social or economic position requires we do so, then conclude that it must be true because we are not bad people and wouldn't say so if it wasn't true. This sort of cognitive dissonance may be necessary for social movements to form and sustain themselves. It may, in fact, be that the more outrageously unlikely are the things we are required to believe, the more we have shown our allegiance to the group that espouses it. It may be that the lies we believe together are more important than the truth we know alone, because they can result in mass action.

This, I think, is why demagogues are so universally condemned. They manipulate emotions, not the least the emotion of belief; in so doing, they dehumanize their followers.

And what of the truth we know alone? Like love, or the pain of knowing love has ended, it seeps past the doors we've tried to close, changes us, and makes us feel more real for knowing it. Such a thing may be painful, and may be at war with the allegiance sworn to our social milieu with our existing beliefs. Others see the change, and react with curiosity or fear, and are changed by it, either being compelled to learn and be changed by this new truth or to deny this newly discovered truth and protect themselves from change.

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word

On being a ghost in a soft machine
On the illusion of the self