Thursday, 13 January 2011

Endings and Beginnings


Let us take, as a very simple example, the ticking of a clock. We ask what it says: and we agree that it says tick-tock. By this fiction we humanise it. […] Of course, it is we who provide the fictional difference between the two sounds; tick is our sound for a physical beginning, tock our word for an end. […] Within this organisation that which was conceived of as simply successive becomes charged with past and future.

Since the aeon ago that I last wrote an entry here, many things of significance for me and for this blog have taken place.

Back in August, on the day of my last post, the literary critic Frank Kermode passed away. In his seminal book The Sense of an Ending, whose first sentence gave this blog its name, Kermode speaks of the essentially contingent nature of time as seen in its true form: chronos – successive, passing time, unordered and unmeaning. This kind of time he contrasts with kairos: time as experienced in narratives, “filled with significance, charged with a meaning derived from its relationship to the end”. “Normally we associate ‘reality’ with chronos,” he goes on, and “in every plot there is an escape from chronicity, and so, in some measure, a deviation from this norm of ‘reality’”. Because, says Kermode, we “need to show a marked respect for things as they are”, it is common for us to distrust the apparent neatness of kairos – an impulse he suggests lies behind many modern authors’ flights from conventional plotting.

Despite such skepticism, however, there will always remain a fundamental need to temper the arbitrary chronos of reality, meaning that the human mind is unavoidably destined to “make considerable imaginative investments in coherent patterns which, by the provision of an end, make possible a satisfying consonance with the origins and with the middle”. Thus craving “organisation that humanises time by giving it form”, argues Kermode, “we make up adventures, invent and ascribe the significance of temporal concords to those ‘privileged moments’ to which we alone award prestige”.

A week ago today I submitted my PhD thesis on the subject of the Hollywood 'happy ending'. I have been thinking about the subject of endings on and off since at least 2004, when I began writing my undergraduate dissertation (a version of which can be read here), and I now find that this task is finally over; for now. I applied the last full-stop to my conclusion on Christmas Eve, an hour-glass Advent having provided me with an artificial, but bracingly blunt, countdown.

There is nothing objectively significant about the fact that I completed this project in the year which saw the death of a man who had exerted so much influence upon my thinking. I never met Kermode and, while his writing has been important to me, my familiarity with his body of work barely extends beyond The Sense of an Ending itself. Nevertheless, I was saddened by the passing of a mind that had expressed many ideas which, almost forty years later, would become so key to the workings of mine. Furthermore, I could not help but be struck by what is, in point of fact, no more than the most unimportant of coincidences. “What human need can be more profound,” asks Kermode, “than to humanise the common death?”

So: a finished thesis; a finished year; a finished life – all, to greatly differing degrees, offering “fictive concords with origins and ends, such as give meaning to lives and to poems”.

A central plank of my understanding of happy endings is that they are simultaneously beginnings, containing specific promises of continuation – provisions for the future. The span since my last post has also been rife with personal beginnings, origins. I have moved from one town to another. I have seen my first article appear in print, in The Hitchcock Annual. I also had my first piece published in a book – an edited collection called Happy Endings and Films that grew from a conference on this subject held at the University of Caen Basse-Normandie in 2009 (read it here). Equally, the completion of my thesis marks the start of the next stage of my career – a beginning which, given the current crisis in higher education (caused in part by another "privileged moment", the replacement of one government by another), points towards a very uncertain future indeed.

To invoke one of the most common ways in which we use temporal concords to “make up adventures”, the New Year’s Resolution: one of my plans for meeting this future is to return to this blog. I intend to use it to share some writings which did not ultimately make it into the thesis; I plan to make more public the work I have had published elsewhere; I aspire to be less precious about new pieces aired here, allowing myself to vent half-thought concepts, moments of transitional thinking, which will hopefully in turn lead to more frequent posting.

In short, I plan to return, with a renewed vigour provided by one particularly striking ending, to what Kermode called “the lesser feat”.


  1. First of all, James, I'm so pleased you're blogging again! I've been missing The Lesser Feat. I've certainly found blogging useful for transitional thinking.

    And congratulations on completing your thesis! Impressive, man. I'm going to need at least another six months... I've every faith in you and I hope you'll get it published.

    I hope we'll be able to get together sometime this year and have some adventures of our own.

  2. Thanks so much, on both counts! I hope things aren't too stressful with yours. I'd still love to read your stuff on The Best Years of Our Lives, if you're happy for me to.

    Would certainly love meet up at some point. I'm no longer in London, but not far away, so let me know if you're coming down maybe. Plus, I guess I'll be up in Warwick for my Viva before too long (don't know when as yet)... Yikes. By the way - do you have a phone these days?

  3. Thanks James. I feel happier with my thesis than I have done for a while. And yes, I'll definitely send you my Best Years stuff, slipped my mind before.

    Do let me know when you're up for your Viva, I'll include my phone number in with the Best Years email!

  4. Excellent - looking forward to it!

  5. Congratulations on handing in your thesis! I look forward to reading more of The Lesser Feat in 2011. See you very soon x

  6. Thanks Louise; greatly looking forward to seeing you guys and the new place this weekend. x