Looking forward to looking backward
Peter Brooks' theory of "anticipation of retrospection" says the force that drives a reader through a narrative work—the thing that keeps us turning pages—is that the end of the narrative work already exists—the future is fixed—so we (readers) look forward to looking backward. While reading page 20 of a novel, we know that when we get to page 368 page 368 will throw meaningful light back onto page 20, so we continue. While reading line 2 of a poem, we know line 16 will further illuminate line 2. Or as Brooks puts it: “... everything is transformed by the structuring presence of the end to come.”
Q: If this rings true, does this outlook rub off on readers to the extent that they're more inclined than average to apply it to areas of life outside of reading? To the cultural/political moment, for example? Or even to the way a reader might think about moving through her own lifetime?
Yes, I think many of us are always looking forward to seeing the present moment become the past—on my part this tendency comes from a (probably naive) hope that things will one day improve for those whose very existence is currently a political issue. For me, this tendency manifests as an attempt to create a stable narrative for myself out of an unstable life. I do this through writing poetry, through tweeting, through journaling—I try and take every opportunity I can to structure my conception of self in the neatest way possible. I self-mythologize because I find it important to be able to look back and unearth significance from moments both small and large that seem to symbolize some kind of growth or change. When I experience an emotional breakthrough or personal accomplishment I immediately file it away knowing I can use it later to make sense of where I am—this way, even as I remain a marginalized subject in the larger political context, I can pretend to have control over my sense of personhood and my place as a “character” in my own life. Perceiving things as having structure and meaning due to some unforeseen future allows me to dissociate, if only briefly, from the reality of being a transgender person in this world.
I suppose it’s difficult for most human beings—especially those who were raised in Western cultures that emphasize a linear experience of time—to NOT see their lives as linear narratives shaped by beginnings and ends. Indeed, some of America’s greatest thinkers have evoked the idea of a linear narrative to communicate their world views. I’m thinking specifically of Martin Luther King, Jr., who saw the moral fabric of the universe as forming a kind of linear narrative. For him, it didn’t necessarily have a fixed ending, but it certainly arced in one direction—toward social justice.
I hesitate to argue that readers in particular are more prone to this kind of thinking. If anything, readers are exposed to a greater variety of narrative forms that challenge the very existence of endpoints and beginnings—and by extension—their relation to each other. Perhaps this kind of exposure might even lead readers to a greater awareness of the artificiality of narrative structure, to the understanding that narratives appear coherent only because certain events, ideas, and/or voices are ignored while others are accentuated. I credit my own understanding of this artificiality to reading often and widely.
I do believe, however, that past and present events are constantly reshaped as new information becomes available. As Ben Lerner’s character “Ben Lerner” experienced throughout the novel 10:04, the world “rearranges itself” whenever a new understanding of How Things Are renders old understandings obsolete. But these moments aren’t experienced uniformly, and I certainly don’t think they point to a “fixed” future. On the contrary, they suggest infinite possibilities for what is and what can be.
Not to get dark, but just as a book must inevitably end, all of us are going to die. It’s the one sure thing about our human experience. Does this mean readers—embodying Peter Brooks’s theory of “anticipated retrospection”—are more likely to approach life with a heightened awareness of their own mortality? It’s hard to say. After all, the cliché about reading a good book is that we wish it wouldn’t end because we’ve grown to love the characters and we don’t want to lose contact with them. We aren’t reading because we know the book will conclude, but because we want to be seduced by an authorial imagination. The “structuring presence” to which Brooks refers, I think, is the gift of following a human experience that isn’t random and meaningless. By virtue of there being an authorial mind guiding the hand of fate, the human lives in any book are gifted with a sense of purpose (at least for us as readers). In other words, unless the book is written by a robot, a Creator was involved. We can take subconscious comfort in the way the literary universe of a book maintains an underlying order.
This isn’t necessarily the case in real life. There is no way to know for sure if our lives have a “structuring presence,” if our lives even have meaning—if God is a novelist, or if there is a God at all. That said, my investment in reading books has nothing to do with the fact that they end, just as my interest in living my life has little to do with the fact that I’ll die. I’m living it to fall in love with the people I meet along the way.
I had a colleague at Florida State—he called himself The Boy Professor—who summed up the appeal of literature as: “All that ends, ends well.” Reductionist, yes, but dead on. In my memoir Losing Tim I put it this way:
The end of the story, I told my students, is the most important part. We can’t help it. It happens willy- nilly—the last sentence echoes backward through all the rest. You cast back over the scenes to understand how the parts fit together, how character and chance and history converged…
This sidesteps the question of whether we read from the beginning in anticipation of the end. Yes. And I think we also live that way, at any moment projecting some triumphant or dire or peaceful endpoint, at which our lives will have found their final meaning. What else is ambition but a desired end? What else is despair but a grim projection?
Of course we may be wrong, may yet end up thwarted or content, just as a story derailed from the author’s first intention can be trash or serendipity. The appeal of genre fiction is that we know both meat and manor of the ending. The appeal of literary fiction is that we don’t. Hence, I think, our lofty desire for the open-ended story, true to life because it does not click closed.
One reviewer said in praise of my novel Opening Nights that each chapter was like a playlet of its own. That seemed fitting; I was pleased. But writing the next one, Cutting Stone, which had a larger canvas, when I felt the same thing happening I had to admonish myself at each chapter-end: Crack it open! Leave it hanging!
My experience is that there is a moment when you realize that more of your life is behind you than ahead, and you start telling yourself the story of your life with the set-up in the past, the meaning evolving in the same way that a story evolves as you write, knowing approximately where you’re headed but still open to detour, reevaluation, discovery.
At 22, living in the Village, working at the New Yorker, I became aware of something I called “pre-nostalgia,” the awareness of a time in the future that I would look back with a sentimental eye on that period, which was in fact rather stressed. I was right. I do look back wistfully on that time, stress included.
I want to write a memoir that avoids the purely sequential nature of autobiography, so I have identified major issues of my life: Hair, Water, Sex, Stars, Race. Alas, a life does not arrange this way. The blatant fact of chronology leads me into repetition, convolution, omission. I have to rethink it. I’m not far from page 368 of my life. Do I have time…?
When I was in college, a professor assigned us Frank Kermode’s 1967 The Sense of an Ending, and that book has haunted me to this day. I was, and still am, far too stupid to fully understand everything concerning fiction theory, but I’ve been wrestling with the basic premise for thirty years: we read to try to understand the idea of mortality. So much has come before us and so much (hopefully) will come after; our lives form only a very short period in the history of the world. Writers are supposed to help us make sense of the end of our lives or the world, as well as the idea that our individual lives somehow affect the future.
George Saunders visited the high school where I teach a few years ago and told my students that it’s an absurd premise that we spend our lives loving and then we die. I’ve heard Thom Jones and Richard Russo both say that the goal of literature is to “entertain and instruct.” I think books seek to illuminate or shed light upon; instruction sounds a bit too much like propaganda for my taste. Readers, like me anyway, read books to try to make sense of a life that is centered around the idea that we are all going to die. We open a book and hope that this writer or this narrative will solve that conundrum for us. Maybe make us feel better about it all. The better books offer us a question to ponder or an idea to chew on but nothing will ever fully solve that mortality equation. That doesn’t mean we lose hope or give up literature. We grab another book and start reading, praying this one will provide more answers than the last.
Charles Comey, in his essay "Against Honeymoons" writes of this very sensation: "The strange thing about a honeymoon is that even while it's happening, it's already lived as a story. We sit inside it saying, "We will have been here.""
Like Brooks writes in his theory, we look forward to retrospection, reflection, or reminiscing, and sometimes this anticipation preoccupies our mind in the very moment we should be experiencing the hike up the mountain, the view of the sun melting everything around it. Instead, we grab our smartphones and start taking photos—of the sky, of our faces with the sky, of our bodies in front of said sky—so we will remember it later, so others will know we were here.
It's not flattering when put like that, but it's true, the way we constantly curate our lives, and the way we accept the curation, the edited version of everyone else's lives, turning our heads to ignore the ridiculousness of adding filter over filter, of adding grain and light leaks in imitation of older and faultier cameras/photos. And during all of this picking and choosing of how to make ourselves look like we aren't trying super hard to be cool, easy, free, we are missing the quiet shifting of clouds, the insects trilling, and everything else we should be looking at.
While I agree that sometimes I read in "anticipation of retrospection," I'll also note that sometimes I read and don't want to finish a book. I almost don't want the malaise that comes with mourning, the sad nostalgia of having to say goodbye, to look forward to something else, something new. Comey continues: "Each moment slips through his fingers; everything is already over."
Life has an “and then, and then” quality...
Mary Tabor: Your question on the nature of narrative and why we read completed stories or watch films or go to art museums to view completed works—for that matter—strikes me as one of your most significant questions for this reason: Life has an “and then, and then” quality to its quotidian nature. Narrative, including the non-linear and sometimes fragmented styles of some artists, often as they mature, places an order on the un-orderly. Art, the making of something out of nothing into a whole, affirms even if the whole is a seeming negation, if you will allow that paradox—as perhaps in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Camus’ The Stranger or much of the work of William Gass, to provide just three examples. They do so because they engage. I ask, Why even talk, let alone write poems or stories, if nothing is nothing is nothing?