Theories and speculations

Superposition in fiction (WIP)

Superposition is the simultaneous and concurrent existence of conflicting states in probability. Schrodinger’s Cat is the most famous example of an hypothetical superposition. Schrodinger’s Cat was the famous physicist’s thought experiment, in which a cat is placed in a box with a poison and an unpredictable trigger release. The cat may or may not be poisoned at any time. The lid of the box is closed. In probability, the hidden cat is considered both alive and dead. These two concurrent and opposing states are considered to be a superposition of states.

But superposition was not invented by quantum physicists.

Fiction constantly uses superpositions to consider and resolve conflicts. Sometimes these are trivial – whodunnit? – but they are sometimes used to consider and attempt to resolve significant cultural change, and even to catalyse such change.(According to the laws of causality, fiction is also an event.) Fiction which undertakes this kind of superposition is highly regarded and is often written at considerable political and personal risk.

Much of our most famous and celebrated literature is driven by superposition. Disguise, mistaken identity, stories within stories  and dream states are all means of positing an alternative realities within narrative.

So it will be immediately apparent that Shakespeare’s comedies make an intriguing and delightful use of superposition by creating temporary worlds with a background narrative. This happens for instance via disguise, in Twelfth Night, and via a dream world, in Midsummer Night’s dream. In both instances the temporary transformation modifies the narrative and changes outcomes. They present us with fictions within fictions.

Hamlet does the same in a much more sophisticated way. Hamlet is the most significant literary artwork in the formation of modern secular world view because of the way Shakespeare questions reality through superposition. As I have written elsewhere the vehicle for Hamlet’s two worlds is the ghost of his father. The ghost is for Hamlet, a modern educated man, literally both alive and dead. It is used to propose an alternative reality in which Hamlet is obliged to intervene while he exists at the same time in an entirely different narrative. Hamlet tests the ghost with a ghost of his own, a play which he writes to portray the ghost’s version of events. But the proof of the ghost which it provides only confirms the unresolvable concurrence. Hamlet finds himself living in a superposition of two belief systems, one in which the King is the ordained instrument of God and one in which this world order is a palpable absurdity. The bloodbath at the end is the only possible outcome. The entire cast is both living and dead.

Clearly this is a superposition in which all subjects of the Tudors found themselves as Henry VIII usurped the Pope and dismantled the catholic church. It would have been hard to give the concept of divine authority much credence after that. But by what other right is a king a king?

The question is clearly revisited in Macbeth and the later history plays. But the later comedies are perhaps Shakespeare’s subtlest and most far reaching explorations of superposed realities. The Tempest, in particular, is entirely located in such a world, where the story is created and manipulated by Ariel, a fairy being captured and controlled by Prospero’s magic. Prospero’s plan is to reform his own story, which is again one of deposition, through the temporary authority of fiction, represented by magic. Shakespeare uses Prospero to tell the story of fiction – the whole narrative is a play within the suspended belief of the audience’s attention. The Tempest is possibly Shakespeare’s last play and I like to think of Prospero’s final speech as the last thing the great playwright ever wrote:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors, 

As I foretold you, were all spirits and 

Are melted into air, into thin air: 

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, 

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, 

The solemn temples, the great globe itself, 

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve 

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, 

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff 

As dreams are made on, and our little life 

Is rounded with a sleep. 

The reality we inhabit, Prospero says, is a superposition in itself, analogous to the one we have just watched, as insubstantial, and as temporary. The permanent objects that appear so firm and reliable all dissolve as we do, and each conscious state is in a continual state of passing, always in its presence and absence both living and dead.

Of course, Prospero may have marked the end of Shakespeare’s fiction, but he does not conjure the end of fiction. On the contrary, he reveals the essential function of the superpositions of fiction within our culture. This is an end and a beginning. 

Superpositions are arguably the most important tool of serious literature to question, disrupt and assimilate cultural economic religious and political change into social consciousness. This is why all fiction uses superposition to create tension. Songs of Innocence and Experience is a work organised by the superposition of two concurrent states. Jane Austen and the Brontes use superposition to disrupt iseas of class and femininity by planting ‘disruptive’ rebellious or anti-conventional individuals into social norms. Dickens uses it markedly and  constantly throughout his novels’ successive attempts to assimilate the wildly unpredictable consequences of greatly increased social and economic mobility into an increasingly fragmented culture. 

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