Imaginative resistance. I’d heard the chilly phrase for the first time, just a short while ago, in one of New York Public library’s cavernous lecture rooms. Yet it already feels familiar, as if the phrase had always been in my possession. The speaker had been a philosopher of literature from Harvard, one Doctor Tamar Szabo Gendler.
Imaginative resistance, she said, was the unwillingness of readers to imagine morally deviant fictional worlds.
I had been so busy wondering if readers could be, would be, so perverse, I almost didn’t recognize the man in the elegant overcoat outside Macy’s on 34th.
‘Indeed,’ says Humbert Humbert, smiling in that cautious way he has. ‘Coffee?’
He doesn’t introduce his young companion. The look they exchange is apparently an instruction, because she disappears into Macy’s. There is something about her mouth’s appealing pout that invokes clenched fists and crumpled white sheets.
Over coffee, I tell him about fiction and imaginative resistance.
‘Sounds like a medical term,’ says Humbert, ‘an absolution for cures that fail to cure.’
‘Dr. Gendler’s given a name to one of Hume’s puzzles. Hume claimed that a story can do a great many things, but it cannot persuade a reader that an immoral fictional world is right. It seems there’s a fundamental unwillingness.’
Humbert considers my claim. His fingers grip his cup formally, as if he were drinking tea rather than coffee.
‘Unwilling? My dear fellow, an author seduces. What is seduction without unwillingness?’
‘Let’s not shift topics. Consider this two-line story: In killing her baby, Giselle did the right thing. After all, it was a girl.’
Humbert smiles. ‘And?’
‘Well, which reader will find that story morally acceptable?’
‘Trivial. I imagine Giselle has some horrid, extremely painful disease, peculiar to women. Alas, it is also transmissible and incurable. Why shouldn’t she kill her baby? After all, it’s a girl.’
Even if morality was necessarily independent of the imagination, Humbert went on to say, that very necessity could be used to unbutton the reader.
I remain unconvinced. ‘Let’s try another. Imagine a deviant, a connoisseur of innocence. Nymphets, perhaps.’
He waited, eyes glittering.
‘Now imagine a story in which a nymphet’s mother knowingly gives lodging to the deviant. I dare you to find it moral.’
Humbert puts down his cup. ‘Yes, readers must be dared. I claim it is an allegory about a God, a deviant serpent and a curious child-woman; to wit, Genesis, chapter 3. Didn’t God know what would happen in that Garden? Yet, millions find the tale quite moral. Imagine that!’
His claim had a certain piquancy.
‘Perhaps God’s Hands were tied.’ Humbert has the air of a man nursing a personal sorrow. ‘What must be done may be forgiven. Who cannot forgive necessity?’
It was a Valentine’s day morning, happy, pure, a premature Spring morning on which anything could be forgiven. His companion smiled and waved at us through Macy’s glass windows.
‘She’s in there supposedly to buy me a card, but I imagine I’ll end up buying her a hat. She’s developing quite a passion for hats.’ Humbert sounds resigned. ‘They grow up so fast these days.’
They do indeed. I remember we talked of other things. Teaching. Transitions. Raising teenagers. We shared many interests, Humbert Humbert and I. Yes, yes, I’ve heard what people say. I imagine he had good reasons.
– The End –
Anil Menon worked for about nine years in software before wising up, he says, about easier ways to write fiction. His stories can be found in a variety of magazines and anthologies. His novel The Beast With Nine Billion Feet (Zubaan, 2009) was short-listed for the 2010 Vodafone-Crossword award and Carl Baxter Society’s Parallax Prize. [He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]