Can a story with a happy ending be great art? So many “literary types” tell me that to be truly wonderful, art can’t point us toward unbridled joy. I think they have a lingering hangover from the existential philosophy that arose in the West in the 1920’s and 1930’s. It goes like this: No ultimate meanings or destinies that we can know with certainty. So everyone’s responsible to determine their own meaning, define their own destiny. But because there’s an impenetrable barrier between human understanding and whatever might be ultimately true, and because we can’t even know with certainty whether our friends and lovers are real or some cosmic illusion, we can’t know the consequences of our choices except for our own experience of them. And we certainly can’t form much of a consensus on what consequences are really desirable, because a common reference point for much of what is “good” is impossible.
If your mind has been trained to believe that cosmic uncertainty best describes the human condition, you – like Sartre – may end up believing that what is truest for you – and therefore what your art will never stray far from – is a feeling of nausea. His words, not mine.
But, what if this strand of philosophy does not best describe the human condition? My friend Tim inspired me to write this post. He wrote:
“We live in one of the first eras of history in which it is widely believed that a happy ending is the mark of inferior art… Many are certain that, ultimately, life is meaningless and that happy endings are misleading at best… Happy endings are … not for thinking adults … Grown-up” art, whether it’s Seinfeld or Waiting for Godot, deliberately lacks narrative coherence and, of course, any happy ending.”
Yet, Tim goes on to observe, Spielberg’s fairy-tale ending movies are by far his biggest commercial successes.
I think that’s because we humans are designed with a happy ending in mind. Hollywood didn’t give Spielberg an Oscar until “Schindler’s List,” which certainly has no fairy-tale ending. Was it great art? Absolutely. But why didn’t Spielberg’s earlier happy endings (think of “The Color Purple” and the Indiana Jones movies for example) don’t meet with quite the official accolades of his darker, less joyful stuff?
Tim reminded me of J.R.R. Tokien’s take on happy endings: Stories, Tolkien says, resonate with us to the extent that they point us to some underlying reality. The ultimate reality Tolkien thought his stories were founded upon is the defeat of evil, and we humans relate to that most directly as our ‘escape from death.’
All this reminds me of how I felt watching Harrison Ford, Karen Allen and Kate Capshaw, as they cheated death and the bad guys time and time again in all those cliffhanger scenes that Spielberg helped to give us. The good guys win. I think that’s what we’re made for. Why can’t that be considered great art?
So my encouragement: If you have a flat-out happy ending in mind, give it to us! That’s the strong stuff. There’s no need to water things down here in Dave’s Pub.