I often remark to friends, in the course of conversation, that Americans always look for a happy ending. These conversations typically turn about some cultural reference, usually a movie or story, and somewhere in there is an expression (by one of us present) of a preference for a narrative to have a certain outcome, in other words, to have a happy ending.
On first reflection, this impulse seems to reflect a cultural shallowness. Prosperity and material abundance has made the United States a nation of fat, lazy people, the argument goes. Americans want the thrill and drama of the carnival ride, but only step aboard with the not-so-subtle promise of a safe ending, free of any real danger. If true, this would permit the individual to blissfully learn zero from the experience, not have their emotional systems put to any real test. Like the perfect narcotic “soma” from Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World, the person imbibes these experiences to kill time and occupy mental space that could otherwise be used to grapple with serious and “real” issues.
Proceeding along this thought, but in a less judgmental and accusatory way, leads one to call this a form of escapism. At least saying so would be as un-judgmental as one could be when using the term “escapist”. We pejoratively say that a woman who reads a romance novel is trying to escape the disappointment of the failed relationships with people who either rejected her or let her down. We mock the man who immerses himself into the world of sports, watching other people do what his body once could when he was much younger. It’s the pejorative scoffing of Anton Chigurh, the psychopathic serial-killer/hit-man from the nihilistic novel & film No Country For Old Men, a self-appointed Angel of Death with a mop-top haircut, scoffing at his victims to quit begging for mercy and, “admit your situation; there would be more dignity in it.” Frequently, an otherwise reasonable and empathetic person says incredibly cruel and insensitive things, and when pressed for a reason, reveals an inner fear of not wanting to encourage certain attitudes and behaviors.
And in all likelihood, they really are self-destructive attitudes and behaviors. But to look on a person in their pitiful situation and to say such things, to say it in that manner, amounts to kicking a man when he’s down. If such a person really was balancing on the edge of the abyss, in danger of sliding past the point of no return into an irredeemable squalor and a wasted lifetime of regret and foolishness, if all that were true, then it borders on narcissism to think that a sharp rebuke from an otherwise trusted friend can snap them out of it. Look to the example of the U.S. Marine Corps boot camp: the hard edge helps mold recruits into soldiers, but also causes a huge proportion to give up entirely (to say nothing of the problem of what happens to a soldier much later). The hard edge approach, paradoxically, works best with those who already, internally, have the drive to endure and continue, and just need a bit of soft guidance about how to proceed. For the truly dismal case, the hard edge will simply drive them further down the dark path.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. I was talking about Americans compulsive need for a happy, redeeming ending to their stories. The lovers unite, evil is defeated, peace reigns, these hallmarks are sometimes puzzling to non-American audiences. Sure, a happy story is nice once in a while, but the bulk of world literature has only a vague metaphysical payoff. Really happy endings are in the minority. Novelist J.R.R. Tolkien frequently was dismissed by literary critics for writing fantasy books, some of them deliberately for children. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were not real literature, the claim went. Tolkien was out of step with realist art and culture that “dealt with” the ugly truths of the human condition (whatever that meant). In a book of essays of literature, fiction, and nature of criticism, Tolkien defended his not only the style but his escapist purpose:
I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. Just so a Party-spokesman might have labelled departure from the misery of the Führer’s or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery. In the same way these critics, to make confusion worse, and so to bring into contempt their opponents, stick their label of scorn not only on to Desertion, but on to real Escape, and what are often its companions, Disgust, Anger, Condemnation, and Revolt. Not only do they confound the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter; but they would seem to prefer the acquiescence of the “quisling” to the resistance of the patriot. To such thinking you have only to say “the land you loved is doomed” to excuse any treachery, indeed to glorify it.
This passage has passed into the public memory by way of science fiction writer Ursula LeGuin in her own essay Language of the Night:
The oldest argument against SF [science fiction] is both the shallowest and the profoundest: the assertion that SF, like all fantasy, is escapist. This statement is shallow when made by the shallow. When an insurance broker tells you that SF doesn’t deal with the Real World, when a chemistry freshman informs you that Science has disproved Myth, when a censor suppresses a book because it doesn’t fit the canons of Socialist Realism, and so forth, that’s not criticism; it’s bigotry. If it’s worth answering, the best answer is given by Tolkien, author, critic, and scholar. Yes, he said, fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape? The moneylenders, the knownothings, the authoritarians have us all in prison; if we value the freedom of the mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can.
In other words, escape is not a bad thing if what you are trying to escape is itself bad.
But why does the United States of America produce so much pop culture with happy endings? My guess (since this is my essay and I get to say whatever I want here), is that the United States does have exceptional things about its culture and history. Americans desire a redemptive resolution because everything about it and its people is a huge risk. Take your pick: the European adventurers, the merchants & traders hoping to get rich, the religious fanatics half-starving to death on a barren beach, the dispossessed natives, the tenant farmers descended from slaves, the penniless immigrants fleeing war and corruption; every last person here is trying to make a go of it in some small way. Such people know their situation. They may identify someone or something to blame, right or wrong. But it links me to 400 years of history when I sit in a quiet moment and ask myself if it will ever amount to anything. Will my passing be noted? What has been my contribution so far, and will it ever be more? Will any of my bold risks amount to anything? Is my life in vain? Thomas Paine, at a low point in the American Revolution, wrote that, “These are the times which try men’s souls.” And so it is everyday for millions in this nation today.
The hope which drives each and every one of us, the strength that comes from within (as Eric Liddle is said to have once put it), is composed of a thousand little reasons and a few big abstract ones. It varies from person to person, but it equals out to the basic and human act of getting up each day. We get up because we have hope: hope that what we do matters and will have meaning; hope that we can pull something together to endure a bit longer; hope that the sun will rise and some tiny joys in life will still be there; hope that there is more beyond.
So enjoy your happy ending, America.