Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The End as the Beginning in "The Sense of an Ending"

          Frank Kermode's The Sense of an Ending brings about a lot of curious and interesting points that are especially applicable to works that we are currently studying as well as works that we will be studying later on and works that we won't be studying at all (that I will try to mention in the proper context). Kermode begins with a proper note:

"I begin by discussing fictions of the End --about ways in which, under varying existential pressures, we have imagined the ends of the world. This, I take it, will provide clues to the ways in which fictions, whose ends are consonant with origins, and in concord, however unexpected, with their precedents, satisfy our needs" (5).

Now its with no wonder, especially when one begins reading further, why Kermode begins to focus heavily on what he deems "the End." Every known culture that has ever existed has some sort of "creation" story or myth or understanding. But just as importantly, he notes, is that every one of those stories eventually culminates into what that culture sees as "the End," through what he notes as the Apocalypse or otherwise. This is no different to fiction, as he will later (eventually) come to note; all fiction has some sort of beginning, even if the beginning places us right into the middle of the story (in media res, as he notes), which includes works such as Virgil's Aeneid (he notes heavily in his work). Others that do something similar including Milton's Paradise Lost as well as many films. Now although films aren't novels, they are indeed literary works and often follow the same guidelines and development, and they are no different in regards to in media res. For example, in the film Star Wars, viewers are thrust into the intergalactic war between the Empire and the Rebellion with no previous information given to them; "necessary" information about prior events is given at a later point in the film or, in some regards, not until future films are released (the prequels) to "explain" the events that lead up to film's "beginning."

           Stanley Kubrick was one director to heavily employ this technique often, such as the film Full Metal Jacket in which the viewer is thrust into the ongoing Vietnam War through the eyes of the soldiers that will be shipped off to fight. Excluding all outside knowledge and treating the work as standalone, the viewer has no immediate understanding of the Vietnam War or the experiences of the bootcamp but are expected to accept the story "as is." Such is the same for novels such as Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. The reader is thrust into a world where teenagers drink and take hallucinogens in an effort to terrorize the world and people around them. Is the reader given a reason why? Not really; instead, the reader is just forced to accept that this is the world "as is" and go from there. This isn't even mentioning the language barrier that the novel presents, either; Burgess forces his fictional dialect nadsat onto the reader by the second line of the novel. Does the reader know what a "droog" is before reading the novel for the first time? No. Are they expected to know it as the novel progresses? They sure are. Does Burgess give any explanation for the word choices or the etymology used? Of course not, because that would be too easy.

          This goes in hand with later when Kermode notes, "But all I want to say at present is that any novel, however 'realistic,' involves some degree of alienation from reality" (50). This is very true in regards to any novel that makes an attempt to be realistic (let alone any novel that veers away from reality, such as the case in many science fiction novels), no matter the subject. Even though a novel attempts to be as realistic as possible, there will always be some element or aspect of the novel that feels "alien," feels otherwise out of place or unexplainable. This week's novel Woman on the Edge of Time is one example of this out-of-place realism as well as a great example of in media res. Right away, the reader is thrust into this world where Connie's niece Dolly, a prostitute, has just been beaten by her boyfriend and runs to Connie's place for protection. The reader doesn't know why Dolly has been beaten or is a prostitute or previous events (such as Connie's hitting her own daughter), but the events occur as if the reader should know the lead-up. All of these events so far could possibly have happened up to this point as well; Dolly could very well be a prostitute, Connie could live in poverty and have previously been treated for mental illness, and she could have had her daughter taken away. But slowly, of course, the novel creeps into that "alien" reality that Kermode discusses. Slowly the reader begins to learn about Luciente and the future utopia that is to come about, but it's possibly (or even assumedly) all in Connie's head. It is realistic that her mental illness can be causing her distress and hallucinations (especially compounded with electroshock therapy and heavy medications), but it is far less realistic that she is somehow transporting herself to the future (other than just in her own mind). It is far more likely, and less alien, that it is being used as a coping mechanism for her mental illness to try to understand her situation, especially when she repeatedly makes reference to certain characters of the future resembling those that she is close to (such as her own daughter and husband).

Lastly, Kermode notes, "I think one can speak of specifically modern concord-fictions, and say that what they have in common is the practice of treating the past (and the future) as a special case of the present" (59). Now this seems to fall in line to the opposite spectrum of in media res while also focusing on its importance in functionality. Rather than the "past and the future," one may think of the beginning and ending of a story as a means to understand, interpret, or otherwise explain the present or understand them as a "function" of the present. That is to say that the present determines the past and the future, with the past being able to be "rewritten" so to speak and the future to follow according to what is created or changed in the present (and subsequently the past). But this must be questioned if it is to be considered a matter of fact. What happens when the focus of the story is not on the present or "middle" but instead on the past or future, beginning or end respectively? For example the novel How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents begins the novel with the "end" of the sisters' story and ends the novel with the "beginning." While the middle of the novel is important, it is instead the opposite of Kermode noted; rather than the beginning and end (past and future) working as a function of the present (middle), the middle becomes an interpretation and explanation of the beginning and end. Christopher Nolan's Momento does the exact same, albeit visually and somewhat creatively. The story is told from the perspective of a man with short term memory loss attempting to find his wife's killer. However the story is told from both beginning to end and end to beginning simultaneously. We see the story from two alternate perspectives that occur "at the same time" but also reverse from one another. The middle of the film's plot is rehashed and repeated backward and forward in an attempt to explain the story's ending and beginning at the same time, but does not focus on itself as the "present" or otherwise as the primary focus of the story. Instead, the middle forces a fixed perspective on what came before it and what comes after it in both varying perspectives, never on itself.

1 comment:

  1. I liked how you brought up Kubrick and A Clockwork Orange to develop the idea that literary works often thrust the reader or viewer into the present moment with disregard to the past. I find this trait especially prevalent in sci-fi and fantasy works. This past summer I read Neuromancer by William Gibson, you pretty much have to read that book twice to figure out everything that is going on. Series like The Lord of the Rings, and A Song of Ice and Fire, have incredibly rich backstories that only ever gets alluded to within the books themselves. I am in the process now of reading through the entire history of Westeros and Essos from A Song of Ice and Fire, just so that I can get more context to the events in the books.