Saturday, February 02, 2008

The End Is the Beginning

I finished reading Thomas Merton's breathtaking New Seeds of Contemplation today. I ran out the ink in more than one pen underlining ideas and taking notes as I went through the book, but today I turned to the last page and read the last line:
We are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.

And so now I know the origins of the title of nature's most nearly perfect book: Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose by Brian Mahan. I knew that he had Merton in mind as he wrote his book, and I knew that the concept of forgetting ourselves on purpose was explicitly borrowed from Merton; what I didn't know was that the title and beginning idea of Mahan's book was the last, summary thought of one of Merton's finest works.

It strikes me that there's a great responsibility attached to the last word, at least in part because what we declare to be the last word is never really actually that. Someone inevitably picks up where we left off or--worse, we who offer last words are tempted to think--says something like "Glad that's over" and gets on with their own life, their own thoughts.

I'm sure I've written about this before, but it was such a striking conversation for me that I regularly repeat it. I was talking with a friend of mine about the dynamics that settle in when we are regularly gathered together with a small group of people. My friend observed that my impulse is to go for the "last laugh"--the joke that busts everybody up so that all conversation is overtaken by laughter. He, by contrast, intuitively goes for the "last word"--the idea that causes everyone to stroke their imaginary beard and settle into quiet contemplation.

The last word and the last laugh work against each other, since people who are settling into quiet contemplation are not generally prepared for riotous laughter, and people can get so caught up in hilarity that the last word goes unheard or unsaid. Regardless of which predominates, however, eventually our time together ends and we become re-occupied by new thoughts and new jokes. Life goes on, no matter how desperately we try to punctuate it.

That's the way it's meant to be, I think. No idea of human origin is so commanding that it says all that need be said. No joke is so uproarious that people will never find anything else funny ever again. There's a last word, but inevitably, there's a word after that.

The last word of my book Deliver Us from Me-Ville, as I think of it, will be "So be it." Then again, technically that's the last line of the "Afterword," which itself suggests that the real last word came earlier: "Give yourself to the Lord, and sleep well." But then again, again, the "Afterword" is followed by a whole host of other comments--a list of ideas for further reading, a list of acknowledgments of people who helped me develop the book, reference notes for the quoted material in the chapters, and even a quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
May God in his mercy lead us through these times, but above all, may he lead us to himself.

That's an awful lot of last words; it almost makes me laugh.

The hope of really any author, particularly authors of nonfiction and especially those writing about spirituality, is that the end of their book will be the beginning of someone else's new journey. That journey, it's implicitly understood, does have an ending that stretches beyond each of us along the way. God, suggests Bonhoeffer, is leading us through these times, but one day we'll reach our destination when God leads us to himself.

As he approaches the Shire at the end of his adventure in The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins observes, "Roads go ever on." It's a nice thing to remember as we come to the end of a particular journey: the ultimate journey is ongoing. Samwise Gamgee, however, offers a nice counterpoint to the notion when he takes the last word in The Lord of the Rings: "Well, I'm back." To which J. R. R. Tolkien offers the literary equivalent of an "amen":
The end.

2 comments:

Margaret Feinberg said...

Thought provoking. I am so enamored with the first sentence and words of a book that I rarely think about the last. Thank you for this.

L.L. Barkat said...

You've been a little tagged on Seedlings. (I don't know, can someone be a little tagged?)

I like that thought about endings being the beginning of someone else's journey. Indeed, our own endings can be the beginning of our own new journeys.

So that I sometimes wonder if all my books will really be one big story, each picking up as if it were a new chapter, from what was the end of the previous book (chapter). Not everyone writes that way I know. But it may end up being the way I do.