Living the Questions

Hallway at The Cloisters in northern Manhattan. By Fitzpatrick.

Hallway at The Cloisters in northern Manhattan. By Fitzpatrick.

Why are endings so inconclusive?

I have immersed myself in the New York Public Library for the last couple of weeks, even going so far as to commit to two books to take home and read in spare minutes and stolen hours. It’s such a thing, choosing books. There are so many not-so-good books out there and only so many minutes to spend reading each day that long-term relationships with books I bring home must be carefully considered. But, even still, when I reach the end of these carefully considered books often I’m confronted with a bit of a let down. I seem to find myself saying “It was all going so well until the end!” But why? Why do so many promising books – with enticing beginnings and solid middles – leave me, at the end, with little more than fluff? It’s as if a gruff old man in a dusty grey coat has wandered into the room. He wears a dapper plaid hat and spectacles as he clears his throat, arranges the cuffs of his sleeves, and shifts his spectacles up the bridge of his nose. Then, he opens his mouth to tell heartbreaking stories from countless years of a life well-lived. But. Nothing comes out, save a wisp of air from an aging mouth. That’s it. That’s the end of the story. Is that enough? Is that, in fact, what it’s all about?

My recent commitments:

Big Breasts and Wide Hips by Chinese writer Mo Yan, translated into English by Howard Goldblatt. A 535 page book that covers the entirety of 20th century Chinese history through the eyes of one boy and his unquenchable thirst for breast milk. Written by the 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner for Literature, perhaps a more commendable feat than the book itself.

Awakening to the Great Sleep War by Austrian writer Gert Jonke, translated into English by Jean M. Snook. A comparably short book that somehow covers even more ground than Yan’s in a wildly inquisitive philosophical wordplay that follows the main character, Burgmüller, through a bizarre and disconnected world.

Having finished these well-written, lengthy pieces of art, I have to ask:

Why are endings so inconclusive? We’ve finished the scene, perhaps even the play, and in the echos of these final moments there still lurks a distinct sense of potential energy. “Open ended” might be a better way of describing endings. Segments are capped off to allow air space for the next adventure to breathe, grow, and find form in this chaotic world.

Art mimics life which, in turn, mimics art in a tireless cycle of self-absorbed and self-contained studies.

I can think of very few pieces of art that succeed in (or dare even attempt to seek) conclusive endings. We interact with art to give shape to questions, to step into the curve of the question mark and embrace its unpredictability. Perhaps we gravitate to art that most successfully articulates our questions, registering experiences with questions we might not even know we had.

Art that attempts to find answers is brave but, perhaps, a bit naive. Art that exists uncomfortably in the unknown speaks of a truer experience. There are very few definable endings in life. One thing more or less bleeds into the next. Relationships, jobs, school… Everything carries echos of the former even as one barrels headlong into the next. Even in death we aren’t quite sure of the “ending.”

At the end of Yan’s fictitious (yet more real than the Chinese government would choose to admit) history of modern China, the boy finds a half-brother. There is no lead up. There is little narrative significance. But it happens, amidst the softly falling white blossoms of a Chinese summer. At the end of Jonke’s circular ponderings, we get this:

“Soon, he thinks, we will have completely dissolved in it, when my skin is the skin of the sky at the point where dawn and dusk take place simultaneously, when I feel the sky above me more and more as my own skin somehow pulled lightly over my head, like a fur coat pulled over my ears.” (224)

So. There’s that. An inconclusive old man opening his mouth to nothing more than wisps of an ending.

I have to say (and I did enjoy both books throughout) that there are some absolutely beautiful moments in Jonke’s narrative, like, for example:

“On the one hand Burgmüller spoke as slowly as possible, with pauses between each word, between each syllable, if possible intervals of several seconds… while on the other hand, their utterances took the form of a not-really describable nor closely definable trembling of the light in the airspace immediately around their figures… those veins of light that flashed through the thin, perhaps whispering, nearly invisible blurring of the air that very quietly surrounded their figures, that buzzing of their heads which expressed itself in a manner that was obviously just barely perceptible…” (11-12).

Violin maker in downtown Manhattan. By Fitzpatrick.

Violin maker in downtown Manhattan. By Fitzpatrick.

However, if you notice, this fantastically painted word image appears at the book’s beginning. Thus, perhaps, it’s just the endings that leave us in the lurch. What we should subscribe to are all the beautiful moments, the questions, and the exquisite experiences, the “nearly invisible blurring of the air” around us here – simply in the middle.

I go on to talk about the moment in which an artist decides he/she is done with a piece of art. When and how does the sculptor decide he is done with his sculpture? What is the last moment of chiseling, of shaping, of adding texture? How does that slip into the next, the moment in which he steps back and takes off his apron? That transition must be beautiful.

Then I go on to relate a story of a choreographer I worked with who was more interested in the transitions between the steps he gave than the steps themselves. He often said that watching a dancer navigate the infinite possibilities available for getting between shapes was more captivating and more informative than any movement he could create.

Then I ask: in a world like that one – the world of performing art – what constitutes “done”? Live performance cannot contain “done” in quite the same way a sculpture can. It is ever-evolving and constantly informing itself, even mid-performance.

And then, I’m sure, I go on further.

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