Fairy tale: “And they lived happily ever after.”
The Return of the King (Tolkien): “And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Eleanor upon his lap. He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.”
With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln (Oates): “From Chicago the train ran south across the prairies, taking Lincoln and Willie home now, home at last to Springfield.”
The Heart of the Sea: “And then I saw, not in imagination but in reality, the waiting faces on the shore.”
Stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. At least, most of them do. I suppose some avant-garde author could try to make a philosophical point by writing a story that has no beginning or end, just sentences. He could try; I don’t say succeed.
Some philosophers have suggested that endings only come in stories. Reality, it might be suggested, just keeps going. The universe appears to be, and for all we know it really is, one of an infinite number of possible universes that might have followed from the big bang; and in that universe events deterministically succeed each other (except when they succeed each other indeterministically, i.e. by random chance, as allowed by quantum dynamics). Such philosophers might argue that the imposition of beginnings and endings is merely a human way of looking at things. By some stroke of chance, we have evolved to find meaning in things (and imagine the meaning is real), and so we invent stories. In reality, the big bang is the only beginning and the eventual heat death of the universe is the only ending.
At some point children graduate from fairy tale endings. They want to know what happens after the princess slays the dragon and rescues her one true love. Does she get old and wrinkled? Does the prince start drinking too much? Do they produce crabby children?
American history did not stop with Lincoln’s assassination and burial. His successor, President Johnson, was impeached, but not convicted. Then President Grant presided over a depressingly corrupt administration. And then … on and on.
Sam comes home to Hobbiton at the end of The Return of the King. But the final scene is followed by hundreds of pages of appendices. The reader soon learns that Tolkien regarded the adventures of the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings as a single episode in a gigantic history of middle-earth. As the creator of that world, Tolkien was more interested in its languages, peoples, and myths than in the War of the Ring.
My story, The Heart of the Sea, ends with Denver Milton’s reunion with his wife and son. What kind of ending is that? Obviously, it’s not “the end.” What becomes of little Tervik, anyway?
So you see, the skeptical philosophers say, beginnings and endings are arbitrary. Endings serve the purposes of storytellers, nothing more. The only meanings stories have are the ones we make up.
Notice that this denial of story-meaning takes the shape of a story, a grand meta-narrative. It is a new story, the story of the universe as told by contemporary cosmologists. It bears the imprimatur of science, so the skeptical philosophers present it as barefaced truth. Other philosophers, who call themselves deconstructionists, delightfully point to the skeptics’ inconsistency. Why is their story exempt from skepticism? Jean Francois Lyotard famously wrote: “I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.” He probably would include the cosmological story of “big bang leading to heat death” along with all the others.
I agree with the deconstructionists that those I have called the story-meaning skeptics are inconsistent. If you want to be skeptical, be skeptical all the way down. But I agree that all our little stories achieve their meanings within the grand story. Biographies and histories of nations fit within the human story writ large. And the human story is part of the natural history of the planet and the physical universe.
Natural history is part of a grander story still. And that story centers on a single life, lived in Judea and Galilee two millennia ago.
Our stories—biographies, histories or novels—give meanings to events by offering explanations. Without meaning, without narrative, the events of the world are just “one damn thing after another.” Our propensity toward story, toward meaning, is not just an accident of human evolution. It is part of are essential nature as creative creatures. (Here I am thinking with Dorothy Sayers, in The Mind of the Maker, who points out that the creation story—story again!—says that God made us in his image. We are made to be makers.)
Someone might object that I have merely asserted that our storytelling proclivities are not accidental. Shouldn’t I give a argument? But I already have, in the paragraphs above.