by Sidney Burris
I’ve been obsessing recently about eschatology, the kind of word you shouldn’t use in a first sentence. It’s too stuffy. But I’m obsessing about it because I’ve reached that stage in my life when I spend entire days trying to understand a “belief in last things,” which is how some dictionaries try to un-stuff the word. I’m worried because a good day to me now is all about endings, wherever I find them, and I can find them nearly everywhere. And then a day has passed me by, eschatologically speaking. My obsession has worked its way into every corner of my life; my radar for finality pings continually now.
For example: I get out of the shower, a drop of water falls from my hair and lands on the tip of the shadow thrown across the bathroom floor by the maple tree outside the window, and since the shadow’s retreating as the sun rises, I figure that’ll never happen again: that drop of water on that shadow’s tip as it slides across this white-tiled floor. All around me, things are happening for the last time. And it’s a chain reaction. Books can help. I might read Arthur Conan Doyle and see that in Sherlock Holmes’s world, things end neatly, naturally, loose ends get tied up, but then I read one of the heavyweights, like William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, which ends with Dilsey proclaiming, “They endured,” and I realize that sometimes things also end with over-sized apocalyptic pronouncements, because while it sounds vaguely epic to speak of cosmic endurance, I know full well nothing really endures.
I won’t. You won’t. My father didn’t. My mother won’t. We come, and then we go.
But stories and novels are one thing; statistics are another.
So I did some snooping recently at the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ website, which gives you an accurate statistical record of life’s comings and goings, and I found a trail there of botched endings, fugitive conclusions, missed opportunities. The fact is that in 2016, for example, most “violent victimizations” didn’t even get reported (fewer than 42%). On the other hand, 60% of the 480,940 nonfatal firearm victimizations that occurred that same year were reported. And guess what? With all of this victimizing going on—both reported and unreported—only one in ten of these victims received victim-services after their violent ordeal was over. The good guys and the bad guys, and the rest of us too, we all live out our lives in a fire zone of compromised principles, mediated ideals, and available services. Closure’s something that happens in fiction. I mean, whose life is a string of neatly solved narratives anyway?
You’ve got to go to literature to find one. And when my own life has been desperately in need of some kind of closure, that’s where I go. Often, as I said, to the Holmes stories, where the superior, brooding intellect of the detective pounces on the crime scene, swaggers into action, catches the deviant, and then collapses in a malaise of cocaine bliss after his campaign’s done—Holmes’s life is driven by the alternating forces of intellect and despondency, lines that radiate from 221B Baker Street, and his life characterizes much of what was best and worst about the imperial center of late Victorian London. And his citizens are grateful for the one-man security force: everything will be alright, the center will hold, Holmes is here, he brings real closure to the community, and he bestows the clarity of conclusion that’s scarce in our own lives, particularly in those communities in crisis where only one in ten victims of violence received any type of help or counseling. Any kind of conclusion to their conflicts.
Two stories show up in our culture, then, two ways of ordering time and the events that unfold within time. Each of them aims at a different end, but both of them hold true to our experience. One the one hand, we depend on long-term, system-thinking, and we trust in the outcomes that an extended participation in such a system produces. We trust—to take one example—our legal system because we believe in its orderly movement over time toward a consensus of our peers. We also call this consensus a verdict, a formal, publicly declared conclusion to all of the contingencies that defined the trial and its proceedings. We trusted the process, and we have the option to accept its result. On the other hand, we also know that these endings and verdicts, these final chapters, are often scripted to accommodate the contingencies, special interests, and even oppressive agendas of those who would privilege their short-term well-being over the expense of other peoples’ rights and liberties. Better to secure one group’s short-term profits and security than work to establish the long-term health of the whole community.
It’s really a kind of double time, two versions of how things often proceed toward their conclusion. Grand Scheme vs. ad hoc. It reminds me of the first time I read Othello in that massive Riverside edition, the one that makes you feel well read just to carry it around. Frank Kermode wrote the introduction to the play, and in it he talks about the famous notion of double time in Othello. The play unfolded in a day and a half, a fairly busy day and a half—this is known as the Short Time—but enough time for Othello to believe that Desdemona “the act of shame / A thousand times committed” with Cassio. And this, predictably, is called the Long Time. Did Cassio and Desdemona sleep together a thousand times in 36 hours? That’s over twenty-five times an hour for a day and a half. Impossible for the two time schemes to co-exist, but there they are.
It didn’t bother Shakespeare, and it doesn’t bother us. “The richness of the tragedy,” Kermodes writes, “derives from uncancelled suggestions, from latent subplots operating in terms of imagery as well as character, even from hints of large philosophical and theological contexts which are not fully developed.” Uncancelled suggestions? Latent subplots? Contexts not fully developed? That’s my life! What I want is closure; what I get are suggestions, subplots, undeveloped contexts.
All of us have a sense of the Long Time in our own lives; it’s what allows us to imagine ourselves old and wise, bright and fathomable. It’s the time scheme that leads us to a desirable ending. But then there’s the Short Time, and we know how that works too, how we have enough passion in us for a thousand acts of shame, but can’t ever quite manage to cash in on it because we have streaks of goodness within us, and we fear the morning-after, Long-Time consequences. But somewhere deep within our passionate hearts we know that plain old human desire over and over again outwits and disrupts the grandest, noblest schemes that we imagine for ourselves. Ever tried to diet? Sin’s a pleasure, after all—think doughnuts—because sin’s disruptive of the law.
But two kinds of closure in one play, in one life: the grand plan that extends into the future and the daily map that we draw up for ourselves, the one that has to be revised hourly because we can’t fit ourselves and our passions to the demanding contours of the grand plan.
I’m fascinated now by these closures, I want to control them, and yet still they happen all around me without lifting a finger. When my father’s suicide attempt failed, he said, “I’ll try it again too.” So I a signed the legal papers and put him in a nursing home because I figured he’d have a harder time making good on his threat. But he died the first night he was there. Cause unknown. So I was implicated in his own ending, and I still resent it. But as a result of my starring role in his final chapter, I’m sensitive now to conclusions of all sorts.
I was naturally interested, then, in Kermode’s little book, The Sense of an Ending. In it, he argues that just because an Apocalypse—the biggest ending of all—is “disconfirmed” by not arriving when it was predicted to arrive doesn’t mean it’s been “discredited.” After the early Church Fathers saw that Christ didn’t make it back on time, these delayed arrivals meant only that you had to recalculate the ETA further into the future, apologizing to your congregation for having missed one of the essential clues. Under this scheme, the lousy hermeneutics were just another sign of our fallen condition and another reason the Apocalypse ought to arrive and renovate everything in sight (and out of sight too, like our ability to decode texts and predict the future).
My father, I’ve come to believe, did his own refiguring, saw his opportunity, and took his life the first night he was in the nursing home. He told me the last time I saw him that he’d never pass a night there, and he didn’t. So I’m anxious about how things wind down. I’m concerned about how our short-term actions—signing papers—intersect with long-term schemes—enabling a father’s suicide.
I thought for a long time that worrying about endings was a middle-age problem, the kind of thing that goes with hair loss. But then I said, “What about that afternoon years ago when you were a boy, and you were suddenly terrified in Mr. Griffith’s Soda Shop? What about that?”
It was late afternoon, and the winter darkness was closing in early. That day, I’d had a succession of brief black-out spells, the black-drops, my friends would later call them, and I’d gone up to our local drug store to buy a few comic books, hoping that the latest Flash had arrived. At that age—maybe twelve?—I’d said nothing about these small spells, afraid of what they might entail: doctors, pain, needles, embarrassment. But I’d discovered that the balm of reading—books, comics, cereal boxes, anything—settled me down, and so I self-medicated with books: isolated, alone, going down with my words to the healing ground of imaginative solitude.
Once engaged with the book, the tremors faded, my fear of them simply curled up in the corner of my concentrated attention and went to sleep, and I began to recover my life. On this afternoon, as I’d later discover, I’d come into the store just after the woman at the front had announced they’d be closing soon, so I didn’t get the warning.
Overhead the bare bulbs that hung from the pressed-tin ceiling sputtered out, front to back. A man with a massive ring of keys was locking the doors, and through them I could see the lights of cars, arcing by. I felt weight, the kind of loneliness that settles in when you look too long at the stars and want to quit even though the sky is velvety and gorgeous. A cold loneliness settles in that you can’t do anything about. It happened that afternoon in the Soda Shop: a brief blackout, and then an equally quick recovery.
I grabbed the new Flash, and ran down a row of Ace bandages and Q-Tips, up to the counter in the front where the man with the keys was staring out at the traffic, distracted, until he finally saw me.
“Boy, what are you doing here? Didn’t you hear the woman?”
I don’t recall what I said, but I threw some money on the counter, the door opened, I stepped out, and the air was icy on my lungs. The light of the passing cars curled by in a seamless ribbon; they seemed fast and fleet and determined to be somewhere else. I felt suddenly lighter, way lighter, than I had felt standing by those bandages, by those weird ointments and salves—another kind of medicine for another king of healing I didn’t need. I was breathing easy; I was free.
And now, even today, I don’t want to be in a store when it’s closing down.
I always figured it was a private anxiety, a local application of the huge fear many of us have of dying. Maybe. But I know now it was also intensified by the black-drops, an internal, neurological sputter that mirrored suddenly and dramatically the store’s closing down—a fearful symmetry between a boy’s flickering brain and a store that was going dark, a grim kind of sympathetic response. I opened the comic book, and under the street lamp, I saw the Flash, resplendent in red, who could vibrate the molecules of his body so fast that he’d pass through solid walls, and with a solidifying pleasure I watched him disappear out of one frame of the comic and appear in the next frame in another room entirely. A fine fugitive spirit I remembered for the rest of my life whenever that life called for escape, invisibility, safety.
Twenty years later, I had one of the central reading experiences of my life, and it was a direct descendant of that afternoon in Charlie Griffith’s Soda Shop. I was in graduate school, reading the Penguin edition of James Joyce’s Dubliners, which had that jaunty photograph of the Irishman on the front: dark coat, white shirt, striped tie, signature specs, a fedora tilted at a slightly rakish angle. “Araby” is probably the marquee story of the collection, and what got me about it was the ending where the little boy arrives at the bazaar just before closing time, intent on buying a present for Mangan’s sister. He has a crush on her. So he looks at a few vases and tea sets, notes the English accents of the women, which makes him feel Irish and inferior, of course, and decides not to buy anything. He’s intimidated by those accents, and he’s about to learn that desire, even his boyish desire for Mangan’s sister, often dwindles down like a great epoch: with frustrated hopes and a general sense of malaise.
And the bazaar’s closing down too. A soul shuts down in a store that shuts down: double the drama, double the pain. For me, there’s real horror in that, the way the story’s setting and the boy’s life collapse into one another. Because it was around the time that my father killed himself that I began to have the big seizures, the muscular descendants of the black drops I’d had as a boy, at some point I felt that my father’s ending was part and parcel of my own seizures, my own neurological suicides, which I would, of course, survive. But not without a lot of reclamation work, of getting back what I’d lost—memory, identity, vitality.
Two streams, then, my father’s suicide and my seizures, feeding into one another; two narratives building their own conclusions, and making a torrent in the process: swift, forceful, uncontrollable.
I fear those kinds of conjunctions in our lives.
Kermode helped me again. When the lights went out in the back of the drug store, I felt what Kermode called an “eschatological anxiety,” and as he pointed out, there’s nothing unique about it—all people, to one degree or another, have been anxious about their ending. In the nuclear age, the evidence looks pretty good for world cataclysm, but it was equally frightening too when you thought you were going to sail off the edge of the earth into a dragon’s mouth. For me, it’s not about anything as spectacular as dragons hanging over the horizon anyway; it’s about the closing times of darkened department stores, and when the little boy’s eyes started burning in the bazaar, I recognized the frustration he was feeling. So let’s say I’ve got an end-of-the-world disorder: the end of a ball game, the final chords of a song, anything can kick it off.
As my neurochemistry regularly sputtered and faltered, and as I regained my stability through reading, I became intimately familiar with the resuscitative powers of my books even as I learned a thing or two about the sudden disruptions, the violent breaks in the temporal stream that a seizure causes. Questions accrued. How could something as warm and friendly as the Soda Shop suddenly shut down on you, without warning? How could a single consciousness shut down and return, leaving me without memory or identity? How could a father hand a suicide-watch over to his son?
As the questions accrued, so did a few tentative, if obvious, answers. We die alone, and loneliness, I suppose, is the price we pay for self-awareness. But we also read alone, and through the willed loneliness of reading, I’ve fought off the burden of my father’s death, and by implication, my own death. I could call this “solace,” but I don’t want to. Solace is temporary; I want a Holmesian solution: clear, permanent, done.
That afternoon long ago when I finally stepped out of the darkened store and into the cold air, I escaped briefly the feeling that the closing down of the Soda Shop was somehow linked to the closing down of my consciousness. As my brain winked backed into life, and I escaped with my comic book, I began to forge connections, deep instinctive connections, between reading and staying alive. Years later, “Araby” showed me, though, how my inner world, so thoroughly constructed of reading’s artifice, often collided with the world around me, gaining strength as it did so, or alternatively dissipating in the collision.
Do I have an authentic fear of stores closing down because this fear leads me to a close and intimate inspection of my death? Is this, then, a useful fear? I hope so. When I finally got out of the store, the distance between me and the frigid night momentarily collapsed: I was happy to be out of the store and in the world, I was one with it and cavorting with the Flash, I could go home, wash up for supper, the kinds of things that stitch a day together, bring it in close with its vibrant textures of a rustling parka or a wool sweater—the kinds of things that give our days substance, stability, and an unexamined coherence. The kinds of things that hold dying, or the thought of dying, at bay.
It’s as if these endings allow me also to spy on my own death—I’m looking through a keyhole at something I’m not supposed to see. I feel this detachment in Joyce’s story; there’s a touch of voyeurism in “Araby” as the boy waits in his front parlor for Mangan’s sister to come out of her house and head off to school: “Every morning I lay on the floor in the front parlour watching her door. The blind was pulled down to within an inch of the sash so that I could not be seen.” When I consider myself, contemplating my death from a distance as the drug store closed down, or a leaf falls to the ground, I feel similarly voyeuristic. Why can’t I turn and embrace my dying, hold it closely, and understand it intuitively without fretting about eschatology? Maybe I can do that. Maybe my dying can create for me another kind of knowing.
What’s clear to me now, though, as I reread the story recently, is that voyeurism amounts to an erotic loneliness, an acceptance of the distances between us without the payoff of arousal that an embrace might bring. A self-inflicted exile: we lose the dream of consummation but keep the habit of gazing. And so with eternity, death’s antidote—we lose confidence that we’ll enjoy it, yet we continue to look for it, to develop the gaze that might one day discover it.
I’m one of those people who suspects that our lives have portals scattered throughout them, odd events that shake us up for no apparent reason, like a store closing down, and that they bear thinking about. I take being in a store at closing time to be one of my portals, and what I see through this portal is that the universe, which appears more and more to be a massive, self-sustaining and expanding household of sorts, has built into it those gaps of knowledge about our dying that situate each of us, like it or not, in rooms of this household, flashing semaphores, beaming dots and dashes down long hallways as if to ask, “Are you hiding out in your room too? As I am? Have you figured out this business about how our lives close down? How each of us dies?”
At times, the message gets out so clearly, so well, and is so happily received by others that these distances are diminished, and in our confessed ignorance we come to learn a thing or two about building real community. A community based on knowing what we don’t know, on organizing our compassion around our shared mysteries.
Narratives, particularly the stories we tell ourselves, span these distances, forge these communities, and it’s why I’m so concerned to finish the story between me and my father. I find bits and pieces of it in many of the things I read, and so without knowing it, I have been reading with freighted agendas for many years. The ending of “Araby” is like a hyper-textual link to me: I read it, and up pops my father; I’m linked suddenly both to his conclusion and to the helplessness I felt as I unwittingly helped him end his own life and write the conclusion to his own story. In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Toni Morrison began by stating that “narrative has never been merely entertainment for me. It is, I believe, one of the principal ways in which we absorb knowledge.” Absorb it, manufacture it, and guard it jealously too. The final story that my father and I make together, the one that I hold deep within myself, has yet to be fully written, and as I find pieces of it in the books that I read, I recognize them almost intuitively as I might recognize a long lost cousin simply by the family resemblance. And then I see them for what they are: accurate formulations of several feelings that I haven’t had the courage to assess and articulate for myself. And all of them concern endings.
As the film version of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) concludes, Holmes asks Watson for “the needle.” It’s one of the few revelations of the man’s inner life that we encounter in the stories and novels, and finally it’s mysterious because it’s unexplained. Holmes is a cog of empire, a rationalist in service of the Crown. I first read the Holmes canon in graduate school, and although I never thought much about it at the time, I know now that I was attracted to Doyle’s sense of an ending.
Unlike espionage fiction, which revolves around the possession of knowledge in an amoral way—splitting the atom is neither right nor wrong; it’s only a matter of who has the knowledge to do it, who misuses that knowledge, and who doesn’t—Holmes’s stories are played out in a community that has suffered a moral outrage in the form of a crime. We know that Holmes’s investigation will return to the community the moral certainty, the unambiguous sense of right and wrong, that it had once enjoyed. Crime in espionage fiction is a matter of treason and failed national allegiance. It has nothing to do with absolute truth. Crime in Holmes’s world has to do with an imperial notion of right and wrong, the dominance of principle, English principle, over the diverse and changing cultures the Empire oversaw.
So as Holmes begins to explain to us how the disparate clues that he’s considered—the ones that have baffled both us and Watson—have led him unavoidably to the criminal we’d never suspected, we’re allowed to view social aberrance in its proper context. Paradoxically, misbehavior leads us under Holmes’s guidance to the truth. Endings in Holmes’s world are opportunities for an explanation and justification of a way of thinking. They’re victories for a popular English empiricism; the stories are deeply eschatological because their endings are based on final revelations arising from logical deduction. Those are the kinds of endings, the sorts of closings, that I coveted after my father died and I was reading my way through graduate school—I wanted my endings neat and tidy.
But what about that needle? Holmes developed the cocaine habit, we learn, when he wasn’t working on a case. The whirring machinery of his intellect needed constant lubrication, and when he had no cases to keep the cogs turning, he found his solace in the balmy vacancy of the drug. But the needle represents a dark, anarchic mania in the luminous order of Holmes’s ordered conclusions. As Morrison says of the griot—the old storyteller, the daughter of slaves—she was among her people “both the law and its transgression.” So with Holmes’s talent for conclusion and his insistence on the transgressive needle—the law of logical reasoning bundles with it the transgression and lawlessness of cocaine.
At some level, the great detective knows that conclusions, his strong suit and which occur in Long Time, are really temporary and provisional, a momentary stasis in the volatile arena of daily human experience, which unfolds in Short Time. I have rigorously inspected my father’s life, as well as my own, for clues to his decision to kill himself, and so far, I have only bits and pieces. And I suspect I will never have more than these. Perhaps my father, a fanatically controlled man, a creature of invariable habit, erupted one night with his own needle as a final show of defiance against his own stifling self-control—he was a diabetic who took twice-daily injections, and there was a suggestion after he died from the on-duty nurse that he’d “gotten too much insulin.”
Endings, then. Closing time. Short Time, Long Time. It comes down to two ways of looking at the world, and I don’t think they’re excusive of one another: attend to the swollen bud on the azalea in the front yard, its first curl of color faintly visible through the tightly wrapped green petal, how quickly it comes and goes, or feel the larger force that drives the flower, year after year, decade after decade. Either or both describe our dilemma.
We are inalienably part of what seems to be a vast, impersonal universe, and yet the mystery that awaits each of us, our dying, is personal, focused, now. The narratives that Morrison spoke of, the ones that bear the freight of meaning, conclude, stop for a moment, start up again, and finally have no ending. My life takes its contours from the lives of those who’ve influenced me. I live now in a middle-class neighborhood, I was raised in a middle-class neighborhood, white male, twice married with two children, and health insurance from my employer, a state university. I subscribe to Rolling Stone. These are my quadrants, and I’ve never really left them.
I’m not talking genes here as much as I’m talking narrative. That’s my story. Much of it was written without my permission, and some of it I am attempting daily to adjust, rewrite, and rebroadcast. But stories have conclusions. And they also refuse to end. They bear us along.
We are all making stories deep within us that we’re telling no one, and our griots, our inner historians, live there. But I like Morrison’s notion of the griot as both the law and the law’s transgression. Dead now, my father and his narrative, much of which I would alter, revise, and reject, I have listened to for years and absorbed without question, but now I see in the plot line, in the arbitrary decisions that molded and made his life, the opportunity for my own arbitrary decisions, my own transgressions. My father, among many others I’ve loved, is both my law and its transgression. So these inner stories don’t end, they don’t die, although if I log enough time listening to them, I might transgress them, and give them new life in transgression. I might write another chapter, a stronger one, and break another law.
About the Author:
Sidney Burris teaches at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville where he is also the Director of The TEXT Program (Tibetans in Exile Today), an oral-history project dedicated to recording the stories of Tibetans living in exile in India. Professor Burris teaches classes in post-colonial literature, non-violence, and the history of human rights. His poems and essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Poetry, Agni, Five Points,The Kenyon Review,The Virginia Quarterly Review, and other journals and magazines. A poem, “Strong’s Winter,” was selected by Adrienne Rich for Best American Poetry in 1996. Three of my essays have been listed as a “Notable Essay” Best American Essays.