02 October 2011

Endings and Beginnings

At the new year, I’ve been thinking about endings and beginnings.
Trollope’s narrator in Barchester Towers concludes his lengthy narrative with the following rather extended apology:
These leave takings in novels are as disagreeable as they are in real life; not so sad, indeed, for they want the reality of sadness, but quite as perplexing, and generally less satisfactory. What novelist . . . can impart an interest to the last chapter of his fictitious history? Promises of two children and superhuman happiness are of no avail nor assurance of extreme respectability carried to an age far exceeding that usually allotted to mortals. The sorrow of our heroes and heroines, they are your delight, oh public! Their sorrows, or their sins, or their absurdities; not their virtues, good sense, and consequent rewards. When we begin to tint our final pages with couleur de rose, as in accordance with fixed rule we must do, we altogether extinguish our own powers of pleasing. When we become dull we offend our intellect; and we must become dull or we should offend your taste . . . And who can apportion out and dovetail his incidents, dialogues, characters, and descriptive morsels, so as to fit them all exactly into 567 pages, without either compressing them unnaturally, or extending them artificially at the end of his labour? Do I not myself know that I am at this moment in want of a dozen pages, and that I am sick with cudgeling my brains to find them. And then when everything is done, the kindest-hearted critic of them all invariably twits us with the incompetency and lameness of our conclusion.
Endings are impossible, really, because they seem to put an end to events that really do not end. Our lives may end, indeed, but not the events we have begun. Endings in literature are a contrivance, but our lives are not so. Though death ends a life, it does not end Life; for the most part, we keep on keeping on. Endings in novels are artifice: we read to the end to learn how things turn out, but on the day following the novel’s end everything might change. Indeed, the reader hopes they will, and certainly not for the better. We are dissatisfied with happy endings, our narrator says; readers prefer to read about sorrow and unhappiness. Tolstoy said, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” We prefer in our reading to keep company with those whose misery gives us comfort, and not with those whose good fortunes reveals us as the inadequate, unfortunate creatures we truly are. Endings that promise future delight remain unsatisfactory and inconclusive: we know from our experience that things rarely, if ever, turn out the way we have planned. And when the novelist imposes the rose colored filter over his narrative, the story pales. Eden may be beautiful, but finally, it grows boring and life there lacks great interest. In fact, ending are impossible.
And I am thinking that beginnings lack credibility as well. One defines a beginning mostly in retrospect and arbitrarily. Such is the case, of course, with Tristram Shandy. The novel begins:  “I wish my father or my mother, or indeed, both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they got me; had they duly consider’d how much depended on what they were doing.” Tristram refers to the event of his conception, his ostensible beginning, and what is to my mind the most well-known instance of interrupted coitus: in the middle of the event Mrs. Shandy wondered to Mr. Shandy if he had remembered to wind the clock, an event that always coincided with his monthly fulfillment of conjugal relations. As his wife knew the confluence of his ideas, in the midst of coitus she interrupted Mr. Shandy with the question concerning the winding of the clock! In such an environment was Tristram conceived, and that occasion, he avers, has made all the difference. Things are put in motion, but we can never know where they might lead; the existence of the beginning is defined by the outcome. Beginnings are all a step into the dark.  

Happy New Year.


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