Let Us Now Praise...


By James Parker
July 4, 2010

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In this glorious and effervescent season of the World Cup, when the pampered champions of many nations are prancing in triumph or screaming in despair, endings are much with us. Ejections, implosions, injustices, comeuppances; the emptied faces of the US players after their defeat by Ghana, the ceremonial muting of the vuvuzelas as Cameroon went down to the Netherlands. Victory is continual, victory is divine: ”The joy of winning the World Cup,” said Sir Geoff Hurst, a member of the legendary England team of 1966, ”lasts forever.” Defeat, on the other hand, is abrupt and damning, throwing you back among the faulty things of the world. The whistle blows, the blade drops: You’ve lost. No appeal, no recourse. You’re going home. It’s the end.

The Celtics, losing to the Lakers in the seventh game — that lead being chipped away, chipped away — the end was stealing across the scene like a virus, disabling possibility. The bitter end. The end of the line. This is the end, beautiful friend. There are happy endings, of course. But do they really count? The lovers kiss as the credits roll, the music swells, but you and I know that they’re just beginning a different movie, one with a lower budget, directed by a bloody-minded independent filmmaker, in which their neuroses prove incompatible, their paired fantasies divide, and they throw light bulbs and wineglasses at each other until some blacker conclusion is reached. Success, one learns, the brass ring finally grabbed, is no ending at all. Land that dream gig and the pressure is on. Conquer the world and you’re obliged to rule it, or at least sit on top of it. But blow it, wreck it, bust it, and there’s your real taste of finality.

Americans adore beginnings. They can cope with a middle. But the end? Too much like defeat, too much like nothing at all. So let me draw attention to the particular virtue of endings: their truthfulness.

In our bones, do we not know that the man who has just fallen from the sky, his two legs sticking out of the compost heap like a victory sign, has a firmer grasp of the situation that his brother up there on the high-flying cloud? Beginnings are full of vanity and delusion. ”Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute;/ What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it/ Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” So said Goethe, the wise old German. Although actually he didn’t, this suspiciously fridge-magnet-esque sentiment appearing in a very loose 1835 translation of ”Faust.” But who cares? Begin, begin! Overheated with hope, running a hope fever, you fling yourself into the new project. You embark, and the winds of the universe are at your back. This time you can’t miss: Who dares wins, all things bright and beautiful, etc. One ending later you are free from such hallucinations. Reality has spoken, and delivered its verdict. And if you didn’t catch it the first time, don’t worry: It will be repeated as necessary.

Beginnings are marked with raised glasses and heroic feelings. The dregs, the Kit Kat wrapper, the cigarette butt, the abandoned shoe: Here are your totems in the land of endings. ”Que sera, sera,” ”C’est la vie” — too dreamy, too Continental. ”That’s that,” we say in English, with unbeatable terminality. And then what? Ah, then the secret glory of endings is discovered. Because with the datum of an ending, your knowledge is increased. An ending provokes an inquest. You take a look at yourself: You have to. Are you helpless, an idiot bystander, or did you somehow engineer this ending? Did you desire it? And if so, what else do you desire? ”That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” So said Nietzsche, the crazy German. And while I disagree with him — hemorrhoids, for example, do not make us stronger — I take his point. The ending, survived, can be beautiful.

In the physics of an ending, everything accelerates towards it. Events pile up; tension bites; you rush, scrappily, through the last pages of the novel. Skilled artists, like the organizers of tonight’s fireworks on the Esplanade, know how to prolong the experience with a sequence of false endings. A barrage of light, and then the smoke drifts. That’s it, right? No: There are fresh fuses to be lit, further batteries of noise in store, redoublings of flamboyance, and wilder cross-pollinations of color to be witnessed. Cosmically, the spectacular is without limit; locally, though, you’ve got to stop somewhere, and so the moment comes when the last explosion of the evening is heard. And the sky seems to ring or chime with a brief astonishment, and the glare fades in your retinas, and you’re not happy, and you’re not sad, but sort of tranquilly awe-struck, reassured of the superfluity of light and life, although what does that mean for you?, and you go home, and you go to bed. The End.

James Parker is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. This is his final “Let us now praise’’ column for Ideas.