Thursday, January 06, 2005

This is the end

According to Steven Winn,

"Endings once seemed a more straightforward matter than they do now. Shakespeare rounded off his sonnets with rhyming couplets and his comedies with a comforting final speech or song. Victorian novelists married off their heroines. Composers sent their listeners off with a resounding resolution from dominant to tonic chord."
Or as Jim Morrison once wrote:

"This is the end, beautiful friend
This is the end, my only friend, the end
It hurts to set you free
But you'll never follow me
The end of laughter and soft lies
The end of nights we tried to die
This is the end"
It all sounds a bit easy. Surely it wasn't always like that? I wrote a little about novelistic endings for a project some years ago.

According to George Eliot "beginnings are always troublesome, but conclusions are the weak point of most authors ... some of the fault lies in the very nature of a conclusion, which is at best a negation". Alternatively, endings can be described as endings "only when they are not negative but frankly transfigure the events in which they are immanent".

In a 1934 letter to Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald described his own sense of an ending, and also Hemingway's and Joseph Conrad's:

"The theory back of it I got from Conrad's preface to The Nigger, that the purpose of a work of fiction is to appeal to the lingering after effects in the reader's mind.... The second contribution...was your trying to work out some such theory in your troubles with the very ending of A Farewell to Arms. I remember that your first draft - or at least the first one I saw - gave a sort of old-fashioned Alger book summary ... and you may remember my suggestion to take a burst of eloquence from anywhere in the book that you could find it and tag off with that; you were against the idea because you felt that the true line of a work of fiction was to take a reader up to a high emotional pitch but then let him down or ease him off. You gave no aesthetic reason for this - nevertheless you convinced me."

What is this preoccupation with endings? Winn argues that

"Endings took on a special cast in the 20th century, when world wars and the specter of nuclear holocaust gave finality a darker shade. Every ending, however distant, held the seeds of ultimate destruction. Beckett spun out an infinite, unresolved slow fade in Waiting for Godot. Charles Ives composed his Unanswered Question. Joyce spooled the last line of Finnegans Wake to the first, as if to evade the essential anxiety of beginnings and ends. Endings became provisional, fraught and charged with deeper meanings."
This much is true. Robert Musil certainly fits the description. And we can add that as the century drew to a close there was an increasingly shrill attention to and interest in, endings. It fitted a postmodern millenial outlook neatly. It was all about 'closure'. But haven't we passed that stage?

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