Narrative Without End

The Hero’s Journey says, more or less, that if you go on this quest and take these risks, it will cost you something, you will learn something, and you will get to come home stronger and more mature. In other words, you will win. Beowulf, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings – all of these fit the template.

It is not, contrary to what most screenwriting books propose, some innate truth about humanity. It as an ideology, a morality tale: if you do _______ and you are ________, the outcome will be __________. As such it is prescriptive and instructional, teaching people how to be in the world.

That particular structure hasn’t changed, but perhaps we have changed, our world has changed, our perspective has changed. Maybe we just don’t buy it the way we used to – even if we can’t quite grasp or articulate what is causing the dissonance.

For as long as audiences were willing to emotionally invest in that particular ideology and morality, those movies spoke to us on a deep level, and we wanted to see them again and again. Today those victories ring hollow, which is perhaps why instead of gaining a sense of closure at the end of today’s blockbusters, it’s more like a chapter break. “Then things are calm, UNTIL…”

Maybe we are not willing to believe in narrative closure anymore – we are ready for the next season or the next movie in the series as soon as possible. Maybe we can’t imagine what ‘happily ever after’ would look like. My favorite part of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, which many people hate, is the ending – Frodo returns home, but finds life there empty and unsatisfying, so he chooses to go with the elves across the sea. We never see what’s across the sea – is it heaven? Is it blissful or boring? For all we know he could be equally unsatisfied there. To me this is the most modern and interesting part of the whole trilogy – its resistance of closure, of a happy ending.

Endings are sad and hard, but necessary – things that go on forever just lose their meaning anyway. They’re still making new episodes of The Simpsons – does anybody care?

Today we seem to be downright terrified of endings, we resist them mightily – even as the actors themselves, and the directors and producers, say: “we’re tired of these characters, ready for them to be done.”

What is the ideology and the moral of a story that won’t end? Does the ending itself, in some abstract sense, become the antagonist, the force to be resisted at all costs?

The ending is the point at which it becomes possible to reflect back on what has happened, causes and effects, it is where the judgement of the narrative universe comes to rest, when the music stops and someone doesn’t have a chair.

Certainly, even in classical narrative, things don’t always turn out well for the protagonist – great tragedy is possible, punishment by the gods. Ideology and morality is clear in these stories as well – they are cautionary tales. “Don’t do what this guy did or you’ll regret it.” And at the same time they elevate, in the telling – they make the characters immortal as martyrs or epic fuckups; Oedipus, Hamlet, anything by Lars Von Trier.

If narrative always contains ideology, then any coherent narrative serves as propaganda for some worldview or another. The Hero’s Journey is a form of cheerleading: “Go out there! Take those risks! You will be rewarded in the end!” While the tragedy is a warning, “Avoid this at all costs! Or you’ll suffer terribly!”

But what is the ideology of a story that doesn’t end? It seems like even stories that are about characters in purgatory have beginnings and endings, “and then he had to do that same thing again and again forever.” But what if the story itself is trapped in a sort of narrative purgatory, unable or unwilling to find an ending?

I don’t have an answer to that question. I’ll think about it.

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