The Happy Chapter

Posted: April 4, 2011 in Culture, Idealism, Idle Nonsense, Narrative, Writing

This is the second of two posts (the first is here) where I delayed blogging about an idea long enough that someone else wrote it first — and probably better than I could. I have no pretensions about being either a journalist or academic, nor do I spend my days writing for a living. Accordingly, what criticism I offer is of the armchair variety.

This time, two writers offered their take on the so-called happy chapter that concludes most works of social criticism: David Greenburg in The New York Times wrote “Why Last Chapters Disappoint” and Morris Berman at his blog Dark Ages America (see blogroll) wrote “No Exit” (the second citing the first, as it happens). Greenburg notes that every work of serious criticism seems to conclude with the happy chapter and he uses Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion (1922) as his first example:

Lippmann’s experience will be familiar to almost anyone who has written a book aspiring to analyze a social or political problem. Practically every example of that genre, no matter how shrewd or rich its survey of the question at hand, finishes with an obligatory prescription that is utopian, banal, unhelpful or out of tune with the rest of the book. When it comes to social criticism, no one, it seems, has an exit strategy.

Greenburg goes on to identify notables Allan Bloom, Al Gore, Upton Sinclair, Eric Schlosser, Daniel Boorstin, and Robert Putnam, all of whom fall prey to the impulse to offer solutions to the problems they identify. It’s so obvious a response to lodging complaints it’s virtually a formal requirement. The alternative is to bitch and moan and then admit “but whatcha gonna do?” Berman adds journalist Chris Hedges to the list but is relatively graceful about why “pulling a rabbit out of the hat at the eleventh hour” is inevitable.

Maybe it’s worthwhile to wax philosophic for a bit, to observe that life is frequently about loss and leads eventually to death. How men and women face intractable difficulty and deal with death stalking them all their lives are frequent themes in philosophy and fiction. Whereas one sometimes triumphs over the former, one always loses to the latter.

One type of man with which we’re morbidly fascinated these days, the superhero and/or the superspy, barely registers pain (physical or psychic, though it’s becoming fashionable to explore inner conflict) and typically emerges at the end of their stories remarkably free of any haunting memories of the mayhem inflicted to finally vanquish the baddie(s) and protect/win the girl. (Strangely, those few female heroes are often hardened even worse than men and usually don’t immediately activate their libidos in celebration of victory. Instead, they reject everyone and begin brooding in preparation for the sequels.) After a fashion, it’s another form of the happy chapter, this time as an epilogue.

Closer to reality, however, some of us feel loss keenly as the culture and world around us stumble toward oblivion, and a few of us possess the integrity to recognize and state honestly that there’s nothing much to be done, really, but watch and witness. We’re along for the ride, as it were, as the institutions of our own making drive history without anyone actually being in the driver’s seat.

Update: I just finished rereading Allan Bloom’s book, and there’s no happy chapter or paragraphs at the end. Why he is included in Greenburg’s list of authors who shift their critical gaze unaccountably is unclear.

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