You know the quote I'm talking about. Václav Havel:
Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.
I think about this quote a great deal as of late, if only because it is one of the few bits of driftwood I can cling to in this tempest-tossed time. Most of the time I think about it in the obvious way — here we have one of the few bits of perspective available to us in a moment when history feels like a bottomless well — but I also think about it as an aesthetic for how to construct a story.
Roger Ebert once wrote that he didn't care whether or not a movie had a happy ending or a sad one. "If a movie ends with a kiss, we're supposed to be happy. But then if a piano falls on the kissing couple, or a taxi mows them down, we're supposed to be sad. What difference does it make? The best movies aren't about what happens to the characters. They're about the example that they set."
By this standard, a story is a machine for gaining perspective on something that happens to someone, and how that gaining of perspective allows us to care about them. It is not about things turning out well for them, but about the certainty that we will understand what has happened regardless of how it turns out.
When we call a work "transcendent", I think that, more than anything else, is what we are nodding at: the idea that a story can tell us something about ourselves that a mere recitation of the facts can't. Not because we hate the facts, but because we love the fiction that much more, and the facts become more real to us through the fiction.
Most writers of ambition try to create at least one work in their career that functions in this way as an attempt to make sense of the whole of their world — a book that sums up experience, as it were. I am not convinced this is a unilateral good. For one, the ambition is misguided: it's not the totality of experience in a book that makes it valuable, but the precision of the insight it gives into whatever experience it focuses on. A book that does only a few things, but does them so completely and correctly that there seems no way to follow it (Sōseki's Kokoro), seems a better model to follow than a book that tries to do everything — or at least, everything that seems like everything to its author (Joyce's Ulysses, and from there on down to the likes of Don DeLillo's Underworld).
When I think about everything in my world right now, about how hopeless it seems to try to even make sense of it let alone translate that sensibility into some kind of work, I have to remind myself this is not a heroic impulse but a knavish one. Well-meaning, but despondent, like the man who goes to the shore and starts piling up rocks as a bulwark against rising ocean levels.
Human beings find comfort in meaning, even meaning that makes no sense on any terms other than its own. Out of this has come almost everything we could call culture: our mythmaking, our fantasy, our politics, our relationships with others, our understanding of our world. (We speak without irony of the "narratives" of science.) We like the idea of an all-encompassing sense of meaning, one thing that explains everything else, thus freeing us of the tedium of having to face every moment for what it actually is.
What matters is not making sense of everything, but making sense of one particular thing. The really great works seem to do this effortlessly: they embody one moment in time, one dilemma, one insight in a way that stands for so many others. I am not convinced there is a formula for this, or that there should be one, only that it's something we should welcome when it happens in whatever form.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind