The end of story is consolation.
Tolkien called it eucatastrophe, a good cataclysm if you will, the sudden happy turn of fortune—the sharp cut in the tapestry of story (‘On Fairy-stories’, 1947). Actually, he called it consolation first, then coined the Greek phrase with a scholar’s love of nuance. All the best, truest stories have it, he said, this glimpse of joy over the wall of the world.
When I wrote ‘solace’ on Wednesday, I’d just had the staggering experience of reading both Camus and Chesterton in quick succession. It’s hard to think of two thinkers who so thoroughly oppositely treat much the same material, who arrive by such varied and circuitous ways to conclusions which, though in wild opposition to each other, may be the same idea on different legs. Or who create such entirely different emotions with their prose.
I suppose such a contrast could be found if we read, say, Dostoyevsky, and then skipped over to a good bout of P. G. Woodhouse. But there the matter is different. There the questions and the intent are not even in the same solar system. For Camus and Chesterton, there are unsettling similarities.
An academic study could be made of all these matters, and perhaps will one day. Whether nonsense and absurdity are the same thing is a serious and profound question—one best approached, perhaps, by not taking it seriously at all.
(To test this theorem, the researchers will employ Zidrowaroski’s Empirical Pie-flinging Method. Two dozen pies of equal diameter and weight, will be flung at chance passersby from a window. One dozen will have cranberry, sweetened with cane-sugar. One dozen will be strawberry, sweetened with beet-sugar. By measuring the relative velocity of each fling, and assessing the psychological state of the subjects at three five minute intervals after the moment of impact…)
‘solace’ was a nonacademic response to my reading. The sun-drenched Algerian beaches became backlighting for words. The Chestertonian insistence on jumping into the sea to catch the sunset became belief in the power of words. The words in question were—whether in a story or in a song or in a letter doesn’t matter—words of consolation.
Consoling words are utterly empty, really. In true grief, true bereavement, nothing said is ever really enough. Why words matter, why words cheer us, brings out a strange correlation between grief and love. What matters, in love and in grief, isn’t the words, but the one saying them. What matters is that the words are being said.
We have formulas—in English, and I assume in every language—to indicate we feel a certain way. ‘I’m so sorry’ or ‘Will you marry me?’ are not, in and of themselves, the highest achievement of the human mind. But endlessly and repetitively, said by the right person and in they right way, they are among the highest achievements of the human emotions.
We still want to understand. We are questing beasts, we humans—relentless in our chase of knowing just because it’s there to chase. What is this thing called grief? What is this thing called mortality, loss? Why is it that at this point and in these ways, words utterly fail us, inky smudges on white chalk sand, strangely devoid of meaning?
This questing, wondering sense draws us to create. We write stories, songs, create paintings, dances. The arts somehow express this. ‘This is what it feels like—this story says what just words cannot.’
We find that as we have been creating, or enjoying what has been created, we have been drawn into it and through it. Story—art—brings us to a place where we see, as it were, our resonance with something outside ourselves. Grief like ours has grieved before—yet wider and deeper—unending enough that now it is solace.
The jolt away, the end of the story, brings consolation. The good surprise. Because in story there is resurrection. Spring follows winter, day follows night. There has been loss, but now there is waking. There has been struggle, but now there is peace. There have been six days but now there is rest.