Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Borrowed Fire: The end of The Brothers Karamazov vs. the last episode of Lost

Two momentous events occurred this week. The much loved and hated series Lost came to an end, and I finished reading The Brothers Karamazov. As a certified comparative literature specialist, I will now compare these two endings for the benefit of fiction writers everywhere.

First, I will say that Trev and I gave up on Lost early this season. We had finally had enough of the characters' endless tramping through the greenery to visit some portentous person or architectural feature, only to be set upon by yet another gun-toting gang of hippie mystics. However, we did watch the final episode, surmising correctly that whatever we had missed was not going to matter. The fact that we did choose to watch it after having given up on the story itself is interesting. Maybe we still had that supposedly irresistible human need for closure. I think we were also wondering just what species of bullshit the writers were going to pull, since they had sunk themselves so deep into the narrative swamp that nothing but bullshit could rescue them.

Now then. Lost and BK are similar in that both are long and convoluted and interweave religious / metaphysical themes into mystery plots. What is the best way to end stories with so many loose ends? Well, the writers of Lost simply snuffed out all the loose ends in a blast of white light. Once it's revealed that the island is some sort of quasi-Christian--but ecumenical!--Purgatory, we are forced to file all the tramping and digging and shooting and bombing and introducing of hundreds of additional characters every week under the category of "tribulations"--or whatever you want to call the ordeals in Purgatory. The Others, and the Other Others, and the No-Not-Those-But-Those-Others are--I guess--the sort of second-tier demons that carry out the Lord's work of helping humans purge their sins, while never getting any credit for it. It's not like the story didn't prepare us all along for some kind of metaphysical ending; it's just that the metaphysical was used to cancel out the physical story, rather than incorporating it. Your petty concerns, such as what was that hydrogen bomb all about, or what actually happened to Walt (who, like Michael, does not seem to have made it to Heaven), don't matter. In the same way, this world, according to some particularly rotten theologies, does not matter. Maybe the rationale is the same in both cases: this world doesn't make any sense, so, uh, let's just forget all about it! Walk toward the light!

Part of the problem is that Lost's metaphysics were never terribly interesting to begin with. The questions boiled down to basically this:

Jack: Everything can be explained by science.
John: No it can't.

So perhaps that set the writers up (probably to their relief) for an either-or type ending. Mysticism beat out science, as usual for broadcast TV, and mysticism by definition can't be explained. White light, music, menorah, Buddha, stained glass, done! Thank God!

In contrast (notice the comparative transition, an oldie but a goodie), Dostoevsky is steeped in a very specific Christian tradition, which he employs to ask very specific questions about human nature, ethics, and the existence and nature of God. Equally important, the different positions are not embodied by separate characters, but present to greater or lesser degrees in every main character. Yes, Ivan is "the intellectual," but I'd argue he's the most spiritual of the bunch, because he really wrestles with the questions of faith, to the point of giving himself brain fever. So while there is no shortage of metaphysical debate in BK--in fact, that's what this book is, a dramatized debate--the different positions tend to overlap, often even entailing rather than negating each other.

So how does Dostoevsky end BK? I mentioned last time how impressed I was (if a tiny bit impatient) with Dmitri's trial. This strategy lets Dostoevsky tie up the threads of the story, but at the same time--and this is really important for a successful novel, I believe--pull some of them loose again. The debate between the prosecution and the defense--you're misusing psychology! No, you are! You're writing a romance! No, you are!--is an argument about the coherence and plausibility of the novel itself. Like I said, Dostoevsky has a ton of confidence in his novel, otherwise he wouldn't dare do this. But we should all have such confidence, and / or fake it if we don't. Too bad the Lost writers didn't seem to have that confidence in themselves or us. I know trials are a cliche of movies and television by now, so maybe an ending with a trial would not have worked. Still, what about putting Jack on trial with John as the prosecutor? Jack is the one who's always trying to save people, and beating himself up when he fails--so the trial would be about his own tormented psyche, and the limits of his loyalty to science. Just for instance.

Anyway (that is an advanced transition, by the way, not recommended for beginning comparatists), since Dostoevsky really wants us all to believe in a just God, and in an afterlife where we'll see all the people we love again (a la Lost), wouldn't it make sense to have God beam the brothers up at the very end? Wouldn't that answer all our questions once and for all? Actually, Dostoevsky stays close to the ground, and does not provide an unambiguously happy ending. Dmitri is condemned to hard labor in Siberia, despite the fact that we know he's innocent. He and his brothers plan his escape, but we don't see that escape happen. And then young Ilusha dies and is buried. His parents are crazed with grief. His schoolmates, including the cocky Kolya, are devastated. At the very end, Alyosha tells them that they must transform Ilusha's death into an inspiration for their own lives:

"Let us be, first and above all, kind, then honest and then let us never forget each other! I say that again. I give you my word for my part that I'll never forget one of you. Every face looking at me now I shall remember even for thirty years. Just now Kolya said to Kartashov that we did not care to know whether he exists or not. But I cannot forget that Kartashov exists and that he is not blushing now as he did when he discovered the founders of Troy, but is looking at me with his jolly, kind, dear little eyes. Boys, my dear boys, let us all be generous and brave like Ilusha, clever, brave and generous like Kolya (though he will be ever so much cleverer when he is grown up), and let us all be as modest, as clever and sweet as Kartashov. But why am I talking about those two? You are all dear to me, boys, from this day forth, I have a place in my heart for you all, and I beg you to keep a place in your hearts for me! Well, and who has united us in this kind, good feeling which we shall remember and intend to remember all our lives? Who, if not Ilusha, the good boy, the dear boy, precious to us for ever! Let us never forget him. May his memory live for ever in our hearts from this time forth!”

“Yes, yes, for ever, for ever!” the boys cried in their ringing voices, with softened faces.

“Let us remember his face and his clothes and his poor little boots, his coffin and his unhappy, sinful father, and how boldly he stood up for him alone against the whole school.”

“We will remember, we will remember,” cried the boys. “He was brave, he was good!”

“Ah, how I loved him!” exclaimed Kolya.

“Ah, children, ah, dear friends, don't be afraid of life! How good life is when one does something good and just!”

“Yes, yes,” the boys repeated enthusiastically.

“Karamazov, we love you!” a voice, probably Kartashov's, cried impulsively.

“We love you, we love you!” they all caught it up. There were tears in the eyes of many of them.

“Hurrah for Karamazov!” Kolya shouted ecstatically.

“And may the dead boy's memory live for ever!” Alyosha added again with feeling.

“For ever!” the boys chimed in again.

“Karamazov,” cried Kolya, “can it be true what's taught us in religion, that we shall all rise again from the dead and shall live and see each other again, all, Ilusha too?”

“Certainly we shall all rise again, certainly we shall see each other and shall tell each other with joy and gladness all that has happened!” Alyosha answered, half laughing, half enthusiastic.

“Ah, how splendid it will be!” broke from Kolya.

“Well, now we will finish talking and go to his funeral dinner. Don't be put out at our eating pancakes—it's a very old custom and there's something nice in that!” laughed Alyosha. “Well, let us go! And now we go hand in hand.”

“And always so, all our lives hand in hand! Hurrah for Karamazov!” Kolya cried once more rapturously, and once more the boys took up his exclamation: “Hurrah for Karamazov!”

OK, so it's a little maudlin. But despite the fact that Alyosha is a devout Christian, and despite his promise to the boys that they will meet in heaven, this ending is most concerned with this world. Alyosha asks the boys to examine how they feel at this moment and remember it as a source of ethical behavior throughout the rest of their lives. Then, off they go to eat pancakes. The pancakes, Alyosha points out, are important.

So, what's the lesson for writers in these two endings? Well, if you're going to do metaphysics, which I highly recommend you try, remember the "physics" is just as important as the "meta." It's fine to leave some plot lines untied, especially if you address that untied state somehow at the end (a trial where the arguments are persuasive on both sides is just one way to do that sort of thing). But it is not fine to simply dismiss the reader's interest in those plot lines by claiming they should not have cared about them--that was "just" worldly stuff that doesn't matter in the end. Stories, even fabulist ones, are made of worldly concerns. Lost just told us that we were watching all those years for no good reason.

UPDATE: I should point out that my thinking on Lost was influenced by this piece in the NYT by Mike Hale. As Hale mentions, in the last episode, Desmond actually says "None of this matters," which may be a way for the writers to get us used to that possibility.

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