Thursday, September 20, 2007

In the Beginning was the End (parte prima)

The other day I, reasonably accidentally, read a critical bit of information about the end of a story while idly browsing through a book I was about to read. I do 'browsing' of that sort, at random positions, in the way of 'sampling', as it were. I can usually tell if I shall like a book by doing a few of those. In this instance I browsed too far to the end and knew stuff I wasn't supposed to.

Did I still read the book? Of course. And it was good. It really didn't matter that I knew the ending. It was still enjoyable.

Would it have been more enjoyable if I hadn't known this crucial bit of revelation?

I'd bet that most of you would say 'yes', and this response is reasonable. I mean, the 'reveal' about 3/4 way through Lucky Number Slevin (a.k.a. The Wrong Man) was a surprise that I didn't see coming; and the emotional and intellectual experience of that revelation—I don't want to call it a 'twist' because that isn't what it was; and anyway, the term 'twist' is overused and overabused, and there is no virtue per se in a 'twist', except for twistophiliacs, of course—certainly contributed to an 'experience' which subsequent viewings didn't have. Said viewings, however, had the experience of the anticipatory value of the 'reveal' coming; which is a different experience, but is it therefore any less interesting?

I know that those, who constantly moan about movie-trailers often giving away too much of the story and/or its turns and twists, would say 'definitely'. So, what are they saying: that they actually go to see the movie to find out 'what happens in the end'? Do they not go to see any of the other stuff? Do they pay out their dollars to be left in suspense about an 'outcome' of some contrived tale? Do they, I ask, have nothing better to spend their dollars or, more importantly, their time on, than this? How sad their lives must be, if they feel compelled to do this; or, say, they feel equally compelled to deride a flick merely because of its denouement 'predictability'.

Consider this: as an author I am of the kind who wouldn't start writing a story without having a fairly clear vision, sometimes in great detail, of the final scene—or at least the final scene that matters for the story; which, by the way, if it does matter, should be the final scene! If it doesn't, then why is it there to begin with? Right?

In other words, as an author or storyteller I'm of the kind that is much more interested in the journey than the goal. For the goal can usually be described in fairly pithy terms as can the issue of whether said goal is 'achieved' or not. Even if it's kind-of achieved, though maybe with an ambiguity in terms of desirability or effect of the achievement or what-have-you, a summary is usually simple. Try it sometime. Even the most amazing story will end up sounding quite...well, 'bland' maybe, when you're taking that kind of approach.

But start talking about the 'how' and then things get 'interesting'. For then we have 'story'; not just 'start' and 'finish', 'beginning' and 'end'.

If you don't believe me that knowledge of the 'ending' of a story is far less significant than what happens before the end and how things get there, consider the simple fact—pervasive throughout the world and all cultures, and really degraded to secondary importance only in our own neophiliac culture—that people listen to/read/watch stories again and again, and that indeed the quality of a story is usually measured in how perennial its qualities are. Not the ending, but the journey there.

Indeed, the endings of most of the stories told to us are known to most of us. The same goes for, say, pieces of music, long and short, classical or 'pop'. If it were something special, knowing the ending, and if that something special were taken away by knowing it, then why should it be that, as many of you will surely agree, stories grow on us, and that indeed the whole purpose why they are being told is to show how to get to an end that we already know very well. Stories are not about the achievements of goals per se, but about how it can be done.

The teller of tales, being in the role of a guide along a path, is even more in need of not only knowing the endpoint—albeit possibly just a temporary one; which they all are, except for death, of course!—but of understanding its existential position, if you will, relative to the starting point, or wherever one happens to be at any given moment.

And so, the end—the knowledge of the end—is indeed in the beginning. Maybe it even precedes it, for if we ask "in order to get there, what do we do if we happen to be here?" then it must indeed be so. And 'being here' is invariably a matter of what is, and that could be anywhere. But the 'there' we're heading for, or are trying to, is within the scope of intentionality, decision making, choices. And that is, after all, what 'living' is all about.

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