Thursday, September 22, 2016

There's more to life than happy endings (and magic pixie dust)

There comes a point in every semester when a student wants to know why everything we read is so depressing, but usually it doesn't arrive quite this early.

I heard it most last spring in the postcolonial class: That movie we watched was such a downer. That story about the violence following Partition was so disturbing. Why do these poems have to be so serious?

And now I'm hearing the same complaints in my first-year seminar: Why are you making me read about disturbing history and injustice? Why can't something happy happen in these stories? Why so serious?

I never know what to say to these complaints. First, I challenge anyone to find a syllabus on which absolutely every reading can be characterized as depressing, even if we could agree on what that means, exactly. Life is difficult and injustice rampant so it shouldn't be surprising that our literature reflects those difficulties and shines a light on injustice, but even the readings students label depressing offer moments of transcendence or hope.

But really they're looking for happy endings. I think about the last time I saw a film in a movie theater; I first had to sit through twenty minutes of previews of films in which some unthinkable evil threatens to destroy everything we hold dear, but then along comes the latest superhero or superpower or magic spell to vanquish the evildoers, restore hope, and maybe even bring together the star-crossed lovers. In the end order is restored and everything gets neatly tied up, except for the occasional loose end left dangling until the sequel.

I don't know about your life, but my life doesn't work that way. I have no superheroes to call on, no magic to deploy; many of the strands of my life's plot resist clear resolution. Happiness pops up here and there but can't be beckoned at will, while deep meaning and comfort creep in during times of suffering and grief.

That's the kind of reality our current readings reflect, readings I find deeply moving and transcendently beautiful. If you're expecting some deus ex machina to swoop in and sprinkle magic pixie dust around to create a sparkly happy ending, then these readings are bound to disappoint--but depressing? I'm not feeling it. How can anyone be blue while surrounded by such beauty?


Bardiac said...

Maybe it's an age thing? I remember so much stuff I read when I was a kid had happy endings; someone always came along to make things all better.

The super hyped, world-threatening movies, they still have that "happy ending" and everyone knows how they'll end.

But when you're an adult, you realize it's all tragedy (though not all great tragedy), and that after the happy ending of the romantic comedy, there's inevitable sadness waiting down the road, if the story/movie went that far. And you adjust, and at some point, maybe you come to love Lear (or whatever other sad ending art) because you can handle deep grief in art?

Laura said...

Just quote Doctor Who at them: "What's so good about sad? It's happy for deep people."

Bev said...

Oh I like that! "Happy for deep people." Maybe it takes a little seasoning before we can get that.