Over the last few days I have repeatedly heard a common refrain from people in regard to very different circumstances.
From a prominent philosopher and a well-meaning theologian we hear that the scriptural claims of the dead rising and walking after the crucifixion of Jesus must be the inclusion of a legend not to be taken literally because it is otherwise unbelievable. (Matthew 27)
From several television journalists we hear that the actions predicated of a person in a very public case are so improbable as to be inconceivable, unbelievable.
These incidents and others reminded me of an essay by Ambrose Bierce in which he defended his art form from novelists who were criticizing the validity of short story composition. In the process of doing so he addressed the issues of probability and believability. Here is an excerpt:
“Among the laws which Cato Howells has given his little senate, and which his little senators would impose upon the rest of us, in an inhibitory statute against a breach of this “probability”– and to them nothing is probable outside the narrow domain of the commonplace man’s most commonplace experience. It is not known to them that all men and women sometimes, many men and women frequently, and some men and women habitually, act from impenetrable motives and in a way that is consonant with nothing in their lives, characters, and conditions. It is known to them that “truth is stranger than fiction,” but not that this has any practical meaning or value in letters. It is to him of widest knowledge, of deepest feeling, of sharpest observation and insight, that life is most crowded with figures of heroic stature, with spirits of dream, with demons of the pit, with graves that yawn in pathways leading to the light, with existences not of earth, both malign and benign–ministers of grace and ministers of doom. The truest eye is that which discerns the shadow and the portent, the dead hands reaching, the light that is the heart of darkness, the sky “with dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms.” The truest ear is that which hears
Celestial voices to the midnight air,
Sole, or responsive each to the other’s, note
not “their great Creator,” but not a negro melody, either; no nor the latest favorite of the drawing-room. In short, he to whom life is not picturesque, enchanting, astonishing, terrible, is denied the gift and faculty divine, and being no poet can write no prose. He can tell nothing because he knows nothing. He has not a speaking acquaintance with Nature (by which he means, in a vague general way, the vegetable kingdom) and no more find
Her secret meaning in her deeds
than he can discern and expound the immutable law underlying coincidence.
Let us suppose that I have written a novel–which God forbid that I should do. In the last chapter my assistant hero learns that the hero-in-chief has supplanted him in the affections of the shero. He roams aimless about the streets of the sleeping city and follows his toes into a silent public square. There after appropriate mental agonies he resolves in the nobility of his soul to remove himself forever from a world where his presence can not fail to be disagreeable to the lady’s conscience. He flings up his hands in mad disquietude and rushes down to the bay, where there is water enough to drown all such as he. Does he throw himself in? Not he–no, indeed. He finds a tug lying there with steam up and, going aboard, descends to the fire-hold. Opening one of the iron doors of the furnace, which discloses an aperture just wide enough to admit him, he wriggles in upon the glowing coals and there, with never a cry, dies a cherry-red death of unquestionable ingenuity. With that the story ends and the critics begin.
It is easy to imagine what they say: “This is too much”; “it insults the reader’s intelligence”; “it is hardly more shocking for its atrocity than disgusting for its cold-blooded and unnatural defiance of probability”; “art should have some traceable relation to the facts of human experience.”
Well, that is exactly what occurred once in the stoke-hold of a tug lying at a wharf in San Francisco. Only the man had not been disappointed in love, nor disappointed at all. He was a cheerful sort of person, indubitably sane, ceremoniously civil and considerate enough (evidence of a good heart) to spare whom it might concern any written explanation defining his deed as a “rash act.”
Probability? Nothing is so improbable as what is true. It is the unexpected that occurs; but that is not saying enough; it is also the unlikely–one might almost say the impossible. John, for example, meets and marries Jane. John was born in Bombay of poor but detestable parents; Jane, the daughter of a gorgeous hidalgo, on a ship bound from Vladivostok to Buenos Ayres. Will some gentleman who has written a realistic novel in which something so nearly out of the common as a wedding was permitted to occur have the goodness to figure out what, at their birth, were the chances that John would meet and marry Jane? Not one in a thousand–not one in a million–not one in a million million! Considered from a viewpoint a little anterior in time, it was almost infinitely unlikely that any event which has occurred would occur–any event worth telling in a story.
(Excerpt taken from Tales of Soldiers and Civilians and Other Stories by Ambrose Bierce)