Let’s begin with a story. In 2010, in a now-locked Livejournal episode, someone took to task one of the most unrealistic “TV” series ever: World War II.
Robert Farley thankfully excerpted a significant portion of that original post:
But then there are some shows that go completely beyond the pale of enjoyability, until they become nothing more than overwritten collections of tropes impossible to watch without groaning.
I think the worst offender here is the History Channel and all their programs on the so-called “World War II”.
Let’s start with the bad guys. Battalions of stormtroopers dressed in all black, check. Secret police, check. Determination to brutally kill everyone who doesn’t look like them, check. Leader with a tiny villain mustache and a tendency to go into apopleptic rage when he doesn’t get his way, check. All this from a country that was ordinary, believable, and dare I say it sometimes even sympathetic in previous seasons.
I wouldn’t even mind the lack of originality if they weren’t so heavy-handed about it. Apparently we’re supposed to believe that in the middle of the war the Germans attacked their allies the Russians, starting an unwinnable conflict on two fronts, just to show how sneaky and untrustworthy they could be? And that they diverted all their resources to use in making ever bigger and scarier death camps, even in the middle of a huge war? Real people just aren’t that evil. And that’s not even counting the part where as soon as the plot requires it, they instantly forget about all the racism nonsense and become best buddies with the definitely non-Aryan Japanese.
Not that the good guys are much better. Their leader, Churchill, appeared in a grand total of one episode before, where he was a bumbling general who suffered an embarrassing defeat to the Ottomans of all people in the Battle of Gallipoli. Now, all of a sudden, he’s not only Prime Minister, he’s not only a brilliant military commander, he’s not only the greatest orator of the twentieth century who can convince the British to keep going against all odds, he’s also a natural wit who is able to pull out hilarious one-liners practically on demand. I know he’s supposed to be the hero, but it’s not realistic unless you keep the guy at least vaguely human.
Now, Churchill was more than vaguely human–he was pretty awful, too–but the point still stands. History, as we all know, is relentlessly messier and fuller of more incredulity-inducing happenstance than we would ever permit from our stories. As G. K. Chesterton wrote in The Club of Queer Trades, “Truth must necessarily be stranger than fiction; for fiction is the creation of the human mind and therefore congenial to it.”
And yet, even as we long for satisfying closure, we tacitly recognize the messiness of real life. On some level, we all know that when we die, we’re going to leave behind a pair of sneakers, say, that we bought not because we needed them, but because they were on sale and we knew our current ones would wear out eventually. And half a dozen unfinished or unanswered emails. And that craft project we meant to have in the mail for a friend, but which will posthumously remain just a bag of knitting needles and potential, the actual design lost to whomever ultimately finds it in our closet. And the detritus from our last home-improvement project, which we’d kept promising we’d take an hour to deliver directly to the dump. And the contents of our fridge and bedside drawers.
Nevertheless, there’s something compelling about the promise of completion.
And no–I’m not just alluding to the promise from religious texts, of a time when “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:4). It would be all too easy to blame this behaviour on religion, and in so doing to conflate a symptom with an underlying condition.
Meanwhile, we’re immersed in cultural narrative–across the religious/nonreligious spectrum–that looks to resolutions as if they’re the most natural and the most necessary part of any story. Finding love. Getting the long-sought-after job. Having a child. Stopping tyranny in its tracks. Setting right a social wrong. Receiving or delivering an apology for old trespass, and forgiving or being forgiven for it in turn. How can we not treat these as necessary prizes, when they’re presented so routinely as the readily accessible consequences of concerted individual striving?
After the Pat Ending
Granted, some of our cultural stories test the resilience of such endings–but even these stand out precisely because of their rarity. The Graduate (1967) is perhaps among the best known for this narrative reversal, with a disrupted marriage turning into a silent bus ride between two escapees–triumphant in the moment, plainly sobering thereafter at the reality of what they’ve done–to whatever the heck is supposed to happen next.
And yet, the real tests to this flawed notion of “arrival” tend to show up in our narrative impositions on living history. It’s at these points especially that we are made to confront the poverty of our storytelling, in the wake of actual human happenstance.
“Never Again,” for instance, goes back as an anti-genocide mantra at least as far as Meir Kahane’s 1972 Never Again: A Program for Survival, but it certainly hasn’t provided any genuine resolution to that most heinous of human behaviours. When that book was published, there was ongoing genocide in Guatemala. Since its publication, plenty more have added their names to the ranks. Burundi. Cambodia. East Timor. Bangladesh. Iraq (Kurds). Somalia. Rwanda. Bosnia-Herzegovina. The DRC. Darfur. Iraq/Syria (Yazidi). Rohingya. (And more, far more, in fabric-of-the-society ways we’re struggling on an international level to name. Palestinians. Indigenous North Americans. Indigenous South Americans. The Uighur in China.)
But what were we expecting, really? As much as many anti-discrimination advocates wring their hands wondering why we still have to relitigate basic rights and dignities… how on earth could they expect the fight ever to be at an end? What, are we supposed to believe that children will start being born innately evolved in a Lamarckian sense, having absorbed all changes come before and being singularly enlightened? We’re a mammalian species, so our young are always going to go through a period concurrent with their growing independence where the desire for clear categorical divisions (e.g. safe-to-eat vs. “I know I ate this yesterday but now, mother, I simply must insist that I have never eaten this before and I already know I hate it”) can yield horrifically tribalist in-group/out-group patterning. There is no “end” to racism or sexism, so much as a need for constant vigilance against the resurgence of prejudicial behaviours reinforced by systemic pressures and institutional absolutes.
…But that’s a hard truth to bear, isn’t it?
And it’s a tiring truth, too–because it means that, if we truly want to keep our species from falling prey to its worst impulses, we have to stop priming ourselves on stories of complete triumph over our obstacles. We aren’t going to win wars… but we’re even less likely to win individual battles, the specific battles of our time and place in the cosmos, if we invite disillusionment about that difficult truth. If we allow ourselves to believe that we might ever truly arrive at a place of completion, and rest.
Embracing the Mess
To this end, there’s another non-ending that I quite appreciated seeing in cinema: the close to A Beautiful Mind (2001), where after a fictitious speech at a Nobel Prize Ceremony, mathematician John Nash pauses a moment in the lobby with his wife, and looks to three human beings fabricated by his schizophrenic mind. They never went away, even after he recognized them for what they were, in order that he might achieve so much in his life. Rather, he simply learned to live with them, to recognize that a triumph over his mental illness was not the same as its eradication.
Obviously, I have personal reason to be heartened by such a narrative throughline–I who will possibly always endure the sharp rises and precarious depressive lows of bipolar-II, as much as I try to mitigate the impact of those cycles in my life. But research on hormonal response tends to agree with the benefit of such a reframing of struggle–because we humans (and rats–thank you valiant and doomed lab subjects!) get more of a satisfied rush from aspiring than we ever do from achieving our sought-after goals. It would literally be more in keeping with our physical reality to dwell upon the journey, not the destination.
So yes, maybe religious stories (especially the Western Big Three), do play a role in this misdirection–intrinsically, in their eschatological fixation on destination. But there’s enough in the secular realm that could do with a similar reckoning, that we should probably look to put our own house in order first and foremost.
What Mess Allows For
I mentioned last week that I’m spending more time in across the city, laying the groundwork for more formal writing on a lower-strata barrio high in the hilltops, and as such not going to be publishing here less frequently. Well, even today’s essay got delayed in completion–ironically enough, considering its theme–by related tasks.
And yet, when I arrived today to pick up some interviews, I found the head of the men’s collective sifting through a pile of construction-material metals (screws, bolts, nails, rings) that had almost entirely gone to rust, so that he could repair an old shelving unit in a new facility he and the boys have been building by hand, in a narrow slip of a brick enclosure brightened only by splashes of vivid paint on uneven concrete walls.
Down the way in this precarious run of domiciles, the collective’s old outpost, helmed by a dissenting minority of young men, nears completion of its friendly, pro-tourist signage, and is half-finished a new stand to better greet anyone the metrocable might bring up on tour. Meanwhile, the collective’s elder has been stretched thin by the more complex tasks of community building. Like meetings with officials, and university researchers, to try to assess the effects of tourism on the barrio, and plan more educational pathways through it. Like repairing an old shelving unit, that some of the boys broke during their raucous drinking in safe, collective quarters this weekend, with whatever spare metal’s on hand.
Many of the elder’s plans had been delayed by these issues and the more pragmatic matter of his ill health. He didn’t have some of the papers I’d returned for. The contacts I’d been promised, he hadn’t had a chance to reach out to this past week.
But he did need something better than a pile of rust to rebuild his shelving unit. And the nearest hardware tienda was closed. And he was too sick and too tired to go a-wandering.
So, I’d gone across the city, in the end, to walk some screws up a steep incline for an elder, and to learn a touch more from him, in the process, about the nuanced social politics behind a community of modest mean’s attempts at immense internal change.
There’s no grand sense of completion at the end of such a day. I’m still a long way from finishing the articles I want to write, and ostensibly reaping any rewards (figurative, as much as monetary) from the mere fact of their publication.
But how strangely undertold is the story, in communities and familial groups the world over, of being active in the mess of human failing–and of that activity, that presence, being somehow enough.
What might we achieve–relentlessly flawed people that we are–if we stopped feeding each other unrealistic stories of completion, and instead told this other story more?