Watching the BBC’s ‘Survivors’ last night brought tears to my eyes. Not because it’s an especially brilliant drama; but because of the eerie timing. The dispossessed, teaming up to free victims of a collapsed building; the injured, buried alive under rubble. It was painful to realise that the very same scenes I was watching on screen, the terror, despair and grief, were being played out almost identically, for real, at the very same moment in Haiti.
Inevitably, I felt guilt – what kind of heartless voyeur was I to find entertainment in a catastrophe at the very same time it was being mirrored in reality? – and it caused me to think about the role of fiction and drama in mediating reality. Fiction provides a safe place in which to experience the horrors and the joys of human existence, the extreme emotions and unlikely behaviours that we may never encounter in our own humdrum lives. We commit ourselves to the drama and trust the conventions of story-telling to resolve its conflicts and passions in a way that is satisfying and makes sense of the journey, secure in the knowledge that there will be no consequences in our own lives.
This is ‘entertainment,’ and it needn’t make us feel guilty. Through fiction we can explore and develop our understanding of the human condition, of the ways that our fellow planet-dwellers live their lives, and sometimes illuminate our own with insight.
But, of course, real life is not a narrative; it is messy and full of loose ends and consequences. Sometimes it is barely tolerable. For the people in Haiti today, it is filled with unspeakable horror. The danger with entertainment is not that it trivialises genuine experience, but that it tidies it; that in consuming it, we absorb an expectation of resolution that makes us complacent.
There’s not going to be any ending, happy or otherwise, for the victims of the earthquake in Haiti. The misery will continue for years. Of course we can continue to enjoy our stories, but let’s help out in the real world too.