12 January 2007

Strange Pilgrims and Story Theories

As I wrote about a while back, I've recently become concerned with the (apparently inverse) connection between personal happiness and artistic value. Not only does this apply to the author, but it also seems to come through in the nature of fiction. Books with happy, or at least fulfilling, endings tend to be looked down on by the artistic establishment, especially in recent years. Think of the frustrated endings of most Modern (the period, I mean: 1914-1960-ish) pieces, for instance, "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock". Don't get me wrong, it's one of my favorite poems, and yet there's no denying the complete lack of resolution. Something seems to tell us that this is inherently more beautiful than "and they all lived happily ever after."

And frankly, I don't like it. It creates a separation between what is popular and what is artistically good. In my personal time, I prefer to read modern drivel rather than the classics, mostly because I want a satisfying, empathetic ending. But I can't mention any of these books when I want to talk about "serious literature." Same thing with music: most people just want something they can empathize with; the ambiguous nature of most "high art" music leaves people feeling artistic, but not necessarily personally touched. Is there no way to unite the popular and the classics into one art again?

I say yes, and I have two sources from which this idea is derived: first, CS Lewis's The Pilgrim's Regress, and second, a relatively new movie called Stranger than Fiction. (I'll try not to spoil the movie here, since you all should go see it.) From these two, I've constructed my new theory of story based on longing and resolution. Basically, there are three types of story. The first is the aforementioned "happily ever after" story: it begins by developing a sense of longing and by the end of the book it is fulfilled. Girl meets boy, girl falls in love with boy, boy and girl get together. The end. In Pilgrim's Regress, this shows up as Jack's attempt to reach the Island through lust: you feel a longing, so you take action on it, but then it's over. Once the need is fulfilled, you are nowhere different than where you started. This is the bulk of pulp fiction, inconsequential pieces resulting in no higher meaning.

The second type of story is the current artistic standard. Since we can't reach greater heights through the fulfillment of longing, they say, obviously it is the longing itself, and not the fulfillment, that is artistic. So they avoid resolution, prolonging the desire until it is acute, then cutting it off without fulfillment. That way, the modern artist says, it lives on untouched forever. Returning to Pilgrim's Regress, Jack falls in "love" with Media, but she warns him they cannot consumate their love or else the spell will be broken. Finally, she must kill herself in order to maintain the pure beauty of their love without any damage by the "brown girls" of lust. Likewise, in Stranger than Fiction, the Professor points out that the book can only be a masterpiece if Harold Crick dies. If he lives, it's just another transformation story. If he dies, it's a tragically beautiful commentary on life. If the "Lady of Shalott" were to get together with Lancelot at the end of the poem, it would lose all artistic value. There is no way to have the cake and eat it too. And so modern art says we must starve to death in order to truly appreciate our food.

But there is a third way, a way that both fulfills and allows our eternal longing, or rather progression, to continue. I won't ruin the end of Stranger than Fiction, but in it, we see the third way out, which looks remarkably like Christ even in this decidedly secular film. CS Lewis, of course, makes it explicit in Pilgrim's Regress. Only in and through God can we simultaneously have both complete fulfillment and continually longing to be better. In terms of storytelling, this means the kind of longing and fulfillment where the fulfillment is only the beginning of a new journey, yet the same journey.

Often, we can make the jump from first to third level storytelling in love stories, which is perhaps why they are so popular: the newly forged couple continues their journey through life, but now together rather than apart. Their progression together never becomes stale, though we have the satisfaction now, and in the future. And perhaps this is also why many artistic types fail to recognize this form of storytelling. The distinction between the "happily ever after" and the "happily forever after" is difficult to make, and many stories that strive for it fall flat. But when we reach it, it's so much more dazzling that anything that could be written on merely prolonged longing, because it is the only real story--of us, Christ, and eternal progression.

(And seriously, take your favorite English major to see Stranger than Fiction, before it leaves the dollar theaters. Barring that, take me! I'm up for seeing it 2, 6, 10 more times. It makes the impractical literary theory I study a matter of life or death. :D Give me a call if you're going!)


Cathryn said...

This is curious. I am going to have to think about it.

The only conclusive idea I can form at the moment is that I think I notice a tendency for the scientifically-minded (I certainly don't exclude myself) to want to neatly categorize and hierarchically quantify literature. I get extremely uncomfortable when presented with a new book or writer until I can place werf ;) within a few sweeping classifications--period, style, etc. Is it a weakness? Is it even possible to make such classifications consistent, let alone feasible to do so? It seems like the more neatly I can fit said work/author within some sort of a diagram, the happier I end up. If I had to write down my "grand theory of literature," I don't think it would be an essay--it would be a tree chart.

Huh. Perhaps I shall have to blog on this. (Once I finish my Chemistry homework.) :P

Oh, and I hope to see more on this...the "Happily Ever After," "Happily Never After," and "Happily Forever After" theory by Liz Muir. (Hey, I knew her before she was famous!) ;)

Courtney said...

Stranger than Fiction was fabulous. My husband had to get used to the ending, actually before he would admit he liked it. The more we have talked about it, the more we like it and enjoy such an ending. In fact, we are seeing it again tonight. I so enjoy the atypical. Good endings don't have to be cheesy, they just have to be done well.