False Apocalypses and Neverending Stories
A report on the incomprehensible challenge
of the short story vignette
“Paradox ist: wir wissen, dass wir sterben müssen, aber wir glauben es nicht, weil wir es nicht denken können.”
- Hans Blumenberg -
This report proposes that our minds are inherently uncomfortable with the literary form of the short story because we are unable to comprehend the finality of our own existence. Even in societies which base their decisions largely on science and reason, a staggering majority of the population believes in an afterlife – a conjecture for which there is no evidence, but which nonetheless continues to find expression in every culture and religion. By allowing the reader to follow complete strands of narrative which end by offering a sense of moral closure and by generally devoting a few pages or paragraphs to the depiction of a kind of ‘narrative aftermath,’ most novels suggest that there is an ‘ever-after,’ however happy or unhappy – an afterlife from which we may look back retrospectively at the arc of the story, reconciling the characters’ actions with their consequences, experiencing a sense of catharsis, and imagining the lives of the characters beyond the story. In contrast, most short stories offer no such closure. I refer especially to short fiction written in the style which continues to dominate the literary landscape since its emergence within the American tradition of realism during the twentieth century. Subtle genre-definitions within the short story form, such as “minimalism” or even “dirty-realism” – labels habitually applied to Raymond Carver and his literary heirs – are of little use to this report. I would like to note, however, that the stories I allude to can be seen as aspiring to realism, in the sense that they attempt to construct, or at least emanate from, an accurate impression of life – or reality – as we know it. The modern short story is characterised by what Richard Ford, in his introduction to The New Granta Book of the American Short Story, calls “endings as manifestations of writerly authority.” (Ford 2007:xvi) These endings are not ‘natural closures,’ as Susan Lohafer makes abundantly clear in her indispensable study Reading for Storyness (Lohafer 2003:59). Instead, “we readers feel the story’s ‘geometry’ fiercely close down” (Ford 2007:ix), before any moral resolution is achieved. I will argue that the short story remains an unpopular form because it deprives us readers not only of a ‘natural’ ending, but also – crucially – of the possibility to imagine the afterlife of its protagonists – the literary platform from which we may finally “make sense of the world,” as Frank Kermode puts it in The Sense of an Ending. (Kermode 2000)
However, rather than attributing our relationship with narrative endings, as Kermode does, to the Western Classical and Biblical tradition with its notions of linearity and changing eschatological discourse, this report proposes that the underlying difficulty in making sense of a story which offers no definitive ending is of a fundamental, cognitive nature. Therefore, it looks for answers in area which is more resistant to change than philosophical, theological or any other theoretical currents: the basic layout of the human mind. The report will reconsider Frank Kermode’s idea that we can only assign meaning to a story if it offers multiple instances of closure from a cognitive viewpoint, because such a viewpoint can offer unique clarity by precluding cultural, religious and even historical considerations. In this sense, the report may appear to over-simplify the approach to the problem at hand, but if it does, then only to fathom and finally illuminate what appears to be an ongoing mystery to those engaged in the writing, reading and study of a beleaguered form, the modern short story. I will first apply Frank Kermode’s central argument specifically to the short story by tracing it back to Walter Benjamin’s Der Erzähler, and then use the approach of cognitive psychologist Jesse Bering to suggest that if we force ourselves to understand one crucial fact of human existence, we may derive a greater sense of insight from reading a certain type of short story than we are otherwise likely to expect.
In investigating a literary problem from the perspective of cognitive science, I claim expertise neither in cognitive psychology, nor in the philosophy of mind, but will offer what I hope is a starting point for a uniquely important interdisciplinary point of discussion, which may yield new answers to old questions, or, at the very least, lead to the posing of new questions to tackle old problems.
I have structured this report in two parts. The first is a brief adumbration of the theoretical journey from Walter Benjamin to Frank Kermode, while the second applies the rewards of this journey practically, in an analysis of Edward P. Jones’s short story A New Man, which I have chosen foremost for its capacity as a vignette-like short story which ends without a sense of completion, and also because I believe that Jones is a true master of the short story who deserves more recognition than he has hitherto received.
At no point in history were there more stories available to us than today. When we yearn for a good yarn we can; or rather must, choose whether to immerse ourselves in the forms prevalent until the mid-twentieth century: the novel, the short story, a book of poetry, the opera or the drama – or whether to devote time to the forms which have come to prevail since: the popular song, the feature film, or the television series. Often, we face the additional choice of how we would like our stories told. Do we take a printed copy of our favourite novel on the train to work because we champion the written word? Or do we download the audiobook version of the same novel to an mp3-player so we can listen to it from the moment we leave the house until the moment we arrive, thereby entrusting the act of reading to the voice of an actor? If so, do we choose the abridged, or the unabridged version? Perhaps we prefer to ingest the eternal themes in the form of a well-written song, where love is gained and lost in the space of three to five minutes. Quite conceivably, we may choose never to read another novel, but instead to get our share of sustained narrative with multiple, complicated story arcs from truly well-made episodic television such as the sublime and much-discussed Six Feet Under, The Sopranos or The Wire.
Considering the abundance of available narratives facing the contemporary reader, it seems counter-intuitive that short narratives should be so unpopular. In a time commonly described as “fast-paced,” and more uncommonly as “hypercanonical,
” why do we not find stories more attractive which we can read in one short sitting, before moving on to another writer, another style or another medium? Although several cultural publications, most notably Time Magazine in August 2008, have attempted to herald the age of “mini-lit,” testimonies to the contrary abound. A 2008 article by Leon Neyfakh in the New York Observer pinpoints the facts, as well as the mystery arising from them, most concisely. Neyfakh writes
“There is a persistent idea that people don’t like to read short stories anymore. The consensus at the major houses seems to be that story collections don’t sell, and editors are discouraged from taking them on unless a literary agent selling a very desirable novel refuses to sign a contract unless they do. There is a shortage of explanations for why this is: All anyone seems to know is that it has always been this way, and always will be for as long as any of us are on this earth.” (Neyfakh 2010)
Indeed, the search for an explanation “for why this is,” both within the publishing industry and the academic study of literature, yields very few, and rather vague results. This is because what we have come to call ‘Literary Theory’ is a set of ideas appropriated and developed eclectically from certain branches of philosophy, and designed to monitor social changes and their effect on the individual. As I will go on to argue, however, at the root of our problem with narratives which have no definite ending lies a basic cognitive problem, which, figuratively speaking, slips under the radar of the traditionally socioscientific methodologies of literary theory because it is not subject to sociopolitical change. Some of the ways in which we “make sense of the world” (Kermode 2000) lie deeper, and are best viewed through the lens of cognitive science.
In order to illustrate why I intend to stray from those thinkers commonly cited in the study of literary endings, I will begin by criticising Walter Benjamin’s assertion that a move towards the short story as modernity’s narrative mode of choice is a consequence of society’s growing secularisation.
In section IX of his famous essay Der Erzähler, Benjamin quotes Paul Valéry. “Der heutige Mensch arbeitet nicht mehr an dem, was sich nicht abkürzen lässt.” (Benjamin 1977: 394) He goes on to find truth in Valéry’s observation by applying it to the short story:
“In der Tat ist es [dem heutigen Menschen] geglückt, selbst die Erzählung abzukürzen. Wir haben das Werden der short story erlebt, die sich der mündlichen Tradition entzogen hat, und jenes langsame Einander-Überdecken dünner und transparenter Schichten nicht mehr erlaubt…” (Ibid.:395)
Benjamin sees this process of layering as analogous to the modus operandi of the novelist. He implies that the short story, its precious few layers a sharp contrast to the nature-like anatomy of the novel, is symptomatic of modern society’s detachment from nature. Thus modern society, according to Benjamin, commands a replacement of the novel with the short story as the dominant narrative form because of its decline into artifice.
The fact that this analysis has not held true – the short story is not the dominant narrative form in 2010 – is directive. It suggests that our preferences for types of narrative are more resilient to social change than Benjamin could predict in his sociopolitical approach, and may be part of a faculty closer to the unchanging core of what it means to be human, than those attributes which can be seen to change in shifting cultural contexts and may be explored using a strategy of analysis such as Benjamin’s Marxism, which monitors human behaviour through large-scale social change with particular attention to economic determinism.
It is interesting to observe how Benjamin’s argument seems to edge closer and closer to a cognitive analysis while just stopping short of identifying the psychological heart of the problem. At the beginning of section X of Der Erzähler, Benjamin introduces the notion of eternity, once again quoting Valéry as ending his observation “mit diesem Satz: ‘Es ist fast, als fiele der Schwund des Gedankens der Ewigkeit mit der wachsenden Abneigung gegen langdauernde Arbeiten zusammen.’” (Ibid.) As I will show, the notion of eternity remains intrinsically linked to our perception of endings, but not in the way it seems to be proposed by Valéry and Benjamin, who are mistaken to lament a loss of the “Gedanken der Ewigkeit,” which are, in fact, far from lost and remain “an inevitable by-product of self-consciousness.” (Bering 2008:34)
When Benjamin goes on to ascribe our “Abneigung” against long narratives to what he perceives to be the growing secularisation of society he is both right and wrong. In introducing the notion of eternity into his discourse of social transformation, Benjamin once again misses the static nature of the problem. Of course Western society has undergone some secularisation on a superficial level.
But on the level of the individual, an overwhelming number of people continue to believe in an afterlife, despite tides of secularisation and desecularisation in the public arena, and cannot be said to have undergone individual secularisation.
Crucially, however, Benjamin’s incorporating into narrative discourse the notion of eternity – which in the context of the individual can only mean the belief in an afterlife – establishes a link between a secular mindset; one which does not take eternal life for granted, and a mindset which champions the short narrative form. This is worth bearing in mind as we turn our attention to a scientific approach which serves to preclude, as I have announced, considerations from the discourses of culture, history and religion.
“People in every culture believe in an afterlife of some kind or, at the very least, are unsure about what happens to the mind at death,” writes cognitive psychologist Jesse Bering in a 2008 article for the Scientific American. “My psychological research,” he continues, “has led me to believe that these irrational beliefs, rather than resulting from religion or serving to protect us from the terror of inexistence, are an inevitable by-product of self-consciousness.” (Bering 2008:34)
I am inclined to believe on the basis of Bering’s postulate that Benjamin remains so precisely beside the point throughout his argument because he follows an erroneous chain of causality. It is not a religious belief in our own personal eternity or afterlife (or a secular lack thereof) which determines our relationship with endings or the length of our narratives. Rather, both our baseless religious impulse to believe in the posthumous continuation of our individual existence and our inability to reconcile narratives without definite endings are products of the same cognitive failure to imagine our individual inexistence.
It is not the case, as Benjamin deduces from Valéry, that once we are intellectually aware that our existence is temporally limited, we become reluctant to devote large amounts of what little time we have left to the composition – and to the reading – of long fiction. It is also not the case that
our relationship with narrative is the result of a conscious or subconscious bourgeois effort to remove us from the experience of death, as Benjamin goes on to lament in section X of Der Erzähler:
“Im Verlauf des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts hat die bürgerliche Gesellschaft mit hygienischen und sozialen…Veranstaltungen einen Nebeneffekt verwirklicht, der vielleicht ihr unterbewußter Hauptzweck gewesen ist: den Leuten die Möglichkeit zu verschaffen, sich dem Anblick von Sterbenden zu entziehen.” (Ibid.)
Benjamin suggests that this removal from the experience of death deprives us of the ability to tell stories. “Nun ist es aber an dem, daß vor allem [das gelebte Leben des Menschen] – und das ist der Stoff aus dem die Geschichten werden – tradierbare Form am ersten am Sterbenden annimmt.” (Ibid.) Harold Schweizer, commenting on the same section of Benjamin, sums it up as follows. “Walter Benjamin points out that it is from the ending backwards that everything acquires meaning. (Schweizer 1994:126)
At this point Benjamin’s argument is picked up by Frank Kermode, who suggests that in order to make sense of a narrative “we project ourselves . . . past the End, so as to see the structure whole, a thing we cannot do from our spot of time in the middle” (Kermode 2000:8).
I would like to treat Kermode’s central idea as axiomatic without exploring The Sense of an Ending further at this stage, because like Benjamin, Kermode does not look to human cognition to reinforce his argument. Kermode concedes that “at some very low level we all share certain fictions about time, and they testify to the continuity of what is called human nature…” and even concludes that “It seems to follow that we shall learn more concerning the sense-making paradigms…from experimental psychologists than from scientists or philosophers…” (Kermode 2000:44), but the time in which Kermode is writing does not permit him to take into account what we know about the great constants of “human nature” today.
Thus, having demonstrated the unsuitability of Benjamin’s argument in addressing the problem of our relationship with endings because of its focus on sociohistorical changes, I will continue my investigation of the short story by applying Kermode’s “sense-making paradigm” that “we project ourselves . . . past the End”, now stripped of its long and eloquent elaborations on history, philosophy and religion by Bering’s preclusive idea that the way we think about the end of our own existence is “an inevitable by-product of self-consciousness.”
If what Bering says is true, and we lack the ability to comprehend that what we perceive as our mind will one day cease to exist, thereby consciously, sub-, or unconsciously expecting life after death for ourselves, then we are likely to project this expectation of an afterlife onto the characters we are introduced to during the course of a story. If we see the beginning of a story as the birth of a character, and its middle as the character’s life, then we will see the end of the story – whether the character actually dies or not – as the character’s death, at which point we will expect to be shown the possibility of the character’s afterlife, which, in the example of the fairy-tale, takes the form of an ever after. Kermode’s “[projection] past the End” is a projection of the reader into the afterlife of the character. What we miss when Ford’s “writerly authority” shuts down the short story before the expected point of closure is, by Kermode’s argument, not the death of the character as an ending proper, but the possibility of an afterlife.
Our inability to reconcile the idea that all our emotional and mental capacities will one day cease to exist along with our bodies, an attitude Bering tentatively describes as “extinctivist” (Bering 2008:37), becomes particularly apparent when we consider those narratives which concern themselves explicitly with the end of human civilisation. The focus of this report on narrative endings permits me to list a number of apocalyptic fictions briefly without considering their beginnings and middles, in the interest of the present investigation.
Before I consider, as would seem pertinent, the most recent popular apocalyptic fictions in the form of two Hollywood blockbusters, again following Kermode, who writes that “the paradigms of apocalypse continue to lie under our ways of making sense of the world” (Kermode 2000:28), I would like to introduce the term “apocalypse proper” to define the total physical and spiritual annihilation of human civilisation, as opposed to the traditional theological concept of apocalypse by which human civilisation may cease to exist physically but continues to live on in variously defined spiritual dimensions. A common occurence in apocalyptic narratives is also what I would like to call a “false apocalypse,” by which the world as we know it is considerably altered by a comprehensive disaster which claims the lives of most, while leaving a select group of protagonists alive to face an uncertain future. A recent example of false apocalypse is the film 2012. Here, writers Roland Emmerich and Harald Kloser offer a narrative of large-scale destruction, but the characters with whom we identify soon learn of a pan-governmental project to build a number of “arks” designed to withstand the throes of a dying world, and the viewer spends the better part of the narrative hoping for the protagonists’ safe arrival. The film’s last shot shows the protagonists disembarking their ark in Africa, which has been spared by the global flood, and we are presented with the actuality of an afterlife, whence we may make sense of the world (or what is left of it) in the Kermodian sense. Although the film pays heed to the Mayan prediction of apocalypse in the year 2010, Emmerich and Kloser chose not to let their narrative end in an apocalypse proper. The author who comes closest to realising such an apocalypse is Mary Shelley in her seminal apocalyptic The Last Man. The narrative’s beginning would have allowed for the comprehensive annihilation of humankind at its end, thus offering no afterlife from which to reflect upon the narrative. In her fictitious Author’s Introduction, which is actually part of the narrative, Shelley claims to have discovered a Sibylline prophecy from the future, heralding the comprehensive end of mankind. This parachronistic postulate of a retrospective account from the future puts Shelley in the unique position of being able to plausibly narrate from her position in the past an entire history with an ending in which all human consciousness is annihilated, constituting an apocalypse proper, but as her narrative closes, she devotes the final sentence to a musing by protagonist Verney in which he imagines that “angels, the spirits of the dead, and the ever-open eye of the Supreme, will behold the tiny bark, freighted with Verney – THE LAST MAN.” (Shelley 2004:375) It is this formidable, and presumably eternal, audience of discarnate consciences which prevents the idea of an apocalypse proper in which nothing remains but the unthinking emptiness of the universe. Like Emmerich 184 years later, by stopping short of apocalypse proper, Shelley donates to us readers the possibility of an afterlife. We are given the opportunity to hover among “the spirits of the dead,” look down upon lone Verney and retrospectively make sense of the complete narrative from what Kermode would call our spot beyond the end. In this respect, then, apocalyptic narratives do not differ from any other type of narrative.
At two roughly defined ends of the same spectrum, The Last Man and 2010 are representative of a writerly reluctance to offer visions of apocalypse proper which leave no vestige of human existence intact and offer no possibility of an afterlife. Wherever we turn, even in apocalyptic fiction, writers seem compelled to offer us the comfortable platform of an afterlife within the narrative. P.D James ends The Children of Men with the quasi-Christian anointment of the only newborn in a world gone infertile, signifying a new genesis, Richard Matheson’s I am Legend offers the vision of an afterlife, however undesirable, in which vampire-zombies roam the earth in a perversion of human consciousness, while its most recent screen-adaptation finds it appropriate to present the viewer with yet another false apocalypse by proposing that the zombie-plague was part of a divine plan and that somewhere there exists a community of uninfected humans representing a new hope and a physical afterlife for one of the story’s protagonists.
It is not impossible to think of a properly apocalyptic narrative in which planet Earth and all its inhabitants are comprehensively annihilated and even Carl Sagan’s samples of human achievement aboard the Voyager spacecraft never find their way onto an alien gramophone. Such a narrative could offer beginning, middle and end, complete with protagonists who make their peace with impending doom and conclude their earthly affairs before the end of days, leaving the reader to contemplate what would surely be the most complete narrative of all, from her own, very real position in the still intact world outside the text.
An yet, what Jesse Bering refers to as an “extinctivist” attitude, finds clear expression not in the epic apocalyptics of literature, but in the form of the modern short story with its minority readership. “Because we have never experienced a lack of consciousness, we cannot imagine what it feels like to be dead”, writes Jesse Bering (Bering 2008:34), and to emphasise the truly mind-boggling nature of the problem he quotes philosopher Shaun Nichols, writing in a 2007 article for Synthese: “When I try to imagine my own non-existence I have to imagine that I perceive or know about my non-existence. No wonder there’s an obstacle!” (Ibid.:36)
The apocalyptic fictions I describe above, and indeed the overwhelming majority of all narratives we encounter, spare the reader the truly Herculean feat of having to overcome the obstacle of envisioning non-existence. But this is exactly what the kind of short story I want to examine in the culmination of this report asks of its reader. The vignette-like, never-ending story which “shuts down” without supplying us with the most obvious points of closure, shows us life but not death, and thus, crucially, no afterlife whence we may assess its narrative retrospectively.
One such story is Edward P. Jones’s A New Man. In it, a girl disappears after an argument with her father. The parents’ search extends indefinitely. With the daughter’s absence as a catalyst we see the parents’ love-life grind to a halt, we feel the sweltering racism they encounter in their interaction with a white policeman, as well as the prejudice they themselves harbour towards white Americans. We are given a concise impression of the difficulties a black American from rural Georgia faces in building his family life in Washington D. C., and we gain insight into the difficult, quietly painful relationship Woodrow, the girl’s father, has with his own father, a patriarchal, semi-literate cotton-worker who governed his many children in a crude show of open favouritism. The circumstances of the daughter’s disappearance give rise to a meditation on urban gang culture and its implications for a minority which continues to struggle in its effort to transcend into the American middle class. Crucially, however, the story’s main catalyst, the girl’s disappearance, does not find resolve. Its internal timeframe spans several years, but when the story ends, Elaine remains missing, with no clues as to her disappearance and no indication whether she is dead or alive. Elaine’s parents are not shown to find resolution or closure, and the last paragraph describes Woodrow’s half-hearted effort to visit yet another house in the neighbourhood with a picture of his daughter. In this way, Jones deprives us of a sense of death. It is vital to note that this missing death is not Elaine’s literal death, the death of a marriage or the death of the parents’ hope, but the death of the story’s main arc; the death of the story itself. Jones’s story remains alive and never-ending, and we are harshly ejected from the prime of its life; from what we will inevitably experience as “our spot of time in the middle.” (Kermode 2000:8) Of course, the gnawing sense of frustration we feel at this ejection arises in part from being left in the dark about Elaine’s whereabouts, but it is my contention that the greater part of it arises from the fact that Jones forces us to accomplish that Herculean feat of comprehending nothingness. Bering quotes philosopher Thomas W. Clark on the impossibility of grasping nothingness (emphases Bering’s):
“Death is…eternal nothingness, the permanent extinction of being. And here, in a nutshell, is the error contained in that view: It is to reify nothingness – make it a positive condition or quality (for example, of ‘blackness’) – and then to place the individual in it after death, so that we somehow fall into nothingness, to remain there eternally.” (Bering 2008:36)
On this view, the writer Jones accomplishes precisely what – to paraphrase Kermode – the philosopher Clark says we are unable to do. By cutting us off brutally in the middle of the story’s life, Jones precludes the idea of nothingness. The story simply stops, setting an example of something we are cognitively incapable of comprehending. There is no death, no eternal nothingness. We are given, to invoke an over-used piece of Eliot, neither a whimper nor a bang. Woodrow, his wife and their daughter disappear neither into the internal blackness of a fictional afterlife, nor into the sudden whiteness of the page. For all we know the characters go on doing something; anything, but we are given no indication as to what that may be, no possibility to continue to imagine their world, because Jones never escorts us to the point at which our minds are allowed to compensate for our inability to comprehend non-existence by reifying nothingness and either constructing the mental crutch of an afterlife or the blackness of an empty universe. A New Man forces us to remain frozen in the present and cling to what Jones’s writerly authority has given us.
And therein lies the unique, unsettling and awesome power of the vignette-like short story, the merits of which I want to take some time to explore in the way of a conclusion to this report. By inevitably invoking the sense that the narrative is over without being complete, Jones gives us the impulse to reconsider the entirety of the themes of which he gives us subtle implications, as if in passing. There is, for instance, much we can glean, in the way of a Freudian reading, from Woodrow’s relationship with his father, whom he appears to resent precisely because he is his favourite son. Following on, there is much room for interpretation of how this father-son-relationship impacts Woodrow’s own relationship with his daughter Elaine. Jones also provides enough intricacy in the relationship between Woodrow and his wife Rita to prompt a lengthy discussion about gender roles, for example in the way Rita appears to expect her husband to take decisive action in finding their daughter while remaining essentially static herself. In each rereading of the story we discover something new. Suddenly religious discourse becomes boldly visible, when the parents struggle to strike the balance between taking action and entrusting the matter to God through prayer. The aforementioned discourses of race and class provide yet more layers from which we may derive a dynamic sense of how prejudice is always mutual and of the damage it can do to the individual, and, by implication, to society.
It seems necessary now, to repeat and expand Benjamin’s characterisation of the short story,
“die…jenes langsame Einander-Überdecken dünner und transparenter Schichten nicht mehr erlaubt, das das treffendste Bild von der Art und Weise abgibt, in der die vollkommene Erzählung aus der Schichtung vielfacher Nacherzählungen an den Tag tritt.” (Benjamin 1977:395)
Of course A New Man is not a “vollkommene Erzählung.” It is incomplete by design and by intention. At barely twelve pages it is, casually speaking, no Anna Karenina. But it is equally untrue to say that it lacks the piling of transparently thin layers which Benjamin misses so sorely – if anything, for its sublime subtlety its layers could appear thinner and more transparent than those of a novel, with its need to weave a longer narrative thread.
It is hard to come to terms with the vignette-like short story. Its demands to the reader are almost insurmountably harsh in their direct challenging of our core cognitive abilities, and this seems an overwhelming reason for the short story’s continued unpopularity.
If, however, we decide to accept the challenge, the reward is truly handsome. It equips us with the ability to transcend Kermode’s paradigm that we need our comfortable position in the afterlife in order to derive meaning from a narrative. Without that deep sense of disappointment, without that cruel lack of closure, we are finally forced to make sense of the world from “our spot in the middle” of the story and address issues we would have laid to rest if our basic narrative desires had been satisfied. In this way, the never-ending story conveys the same, simultaneously terrifying and enriching message as the philosophical realisation that our lives will end suddenly and without an epilogue, namely that it is the present which matters; the middle of our personal story, which is worth considering in every minute detail, and which carries all the meaning we need to make sense of our world.
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