Cambridge University Press 2002 icon

Cambridge University Press 2002




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Closure, one more time



Closure becomes important in this discussion because, at the level of questions it is the end of narrative conflict. If closure of the conflict or agon coincides with closure at the level of questions, it gives the impression of resolving larger issues that are carried by the agon. Historically, there have been times when closure of this sort has been strongly advocated, at least in reference to questions of moral conduct. Early in the eighteenth century, Daniel Defoe wrote in the preface to one of his novels that "Every wicked Reader will here be encouraged to a Change, and it will appear that the best and only good End of a wicked misspent Life is Repentance; that in this, there is Comfort, Peace, and often times Hope, and that the Penitent shall be returned like the Prodigal, and his latter End be better than his Beginning."6 For Defoe, in other words, or more accurately for his authorial persona in this text, issues of wickedness and its consequences are closed by the end of his novel. In the nineteenth century, Anthony Trollope affirmed much the same thing about the works of his entire oeuvre when he wrote that he aimed to "teach lessons" in his novels: "I have ever thought of myself as a preacher of sermons, and my pulpit as one which I could make both salutary and agreeable to my audience."7 And in 1929, the French novelist and playwright Francois Mauriac wrote that the writer "has got to reach those who are still capable of being influenced and dominated. He wants to leave his mark on this living wax and imprint all that is best in him on those who are going to survive him. ... he wants to make them replicas of himself; he wants his own image and likeness to be resurrected in them when he himself is in the grave."8 Each of these statements reflects a desire for clarity in the domain of morality that can coincide with narrative closure.

For others, especially over the last century, a comment like that of Mauriac would be chilling. They see authorially imposed closure as a threat to the kind of thinking that narrative can assist. D. H. Lawrence wrote that "if you try to nail anything down, in the novel, either it kills the novel, or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail." Teaching clear moral lessons, in this conception, is exactly what a novel cannot do. It cannot because "morality in the novel is the trembling instability of the balance. When the novelist puts his thumb in the scale, to pull down the balance to his own predilection, that is immorality."9 Forty years earlier, the short story writer Anton Chekhov made the same point in a letter to a friend, but in a different way:

You are right in demanding that an artist should take a conscious attitude to his work, but you confuse two conceptions: the solution of a question and the correct setting of a question. The latter alone is obligatory for the artist. In "Anna Karenin" and in "Onyeguin" not a single problem is solved, but they satisfy completely because all the problems are set correctly. It is for the judge to put the questions correctly; and the jurymen must decide, each one according to his taste.10

For both of these authors, narrative fits the words I. A. Richards used to describe a book: "a machine to think with." But for both, this is thinking that finds no necessary closure in the work itself. Quite the contrary, it depends on the absence of closure at the level of questions.

These two ways of approaching the negotiation of conflict in narrative — with and without closure at the level of questions - are strikingly demon­strated in rival scenarios for the conclusion of the same film, ^ The Jazz Singer. The first feature-length film to use sound throughout, The Jazz Singer was a great hit when it came out in 1927. The conflict on which its narrative is structured is that between a son and his immigrant father. The larger ques­tion riding on this conflict is whether there can be a workable synthesis of new ways and old, or whether one of these must triumph over the other as the new generation succeeds the old. The son, Jakie Rabinowitz, played by Al Jolson, finds himself drawn to the music of Broadway and popular culture in opposition to his father's desire that his son follow in his footsteps as the sixth successive cantor in his family's male line of descent. The film opens on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement when devout Jews seek to atone for the sins they have committed during the year. Cantor Rabinowitz is anticipating the singing of Kol Nidre, the traditional beginning of Yom Kippur. This is music that he has carefully taught his teenage son in the expectation that tonight Jakie will sing in his place for the first time. But the wayward Jakie at that moment is singing "raggy time songs" in a beer hall. Discovered and then punished by his father with a beating, Jakie leaves home.

Throughout the film, the agon involving father and son is musically expressed by alternating renditions of the mournful yet hauntingly beautiful Kol Nidre and Al Jolson's lively renditions of "Blue Skies," "Toot, Toot, Tootsie," and other 1920s hits. The film's climax comes when Jakie, now Jack Robin, gets his big break, a starring role in a Broadway play. It brings him back to his roots in New York. But shortly after his arrival, he learns that his father is dying. To give excruciating accentuation to the conflict, the opening night of the Broadway play, April Follies, is scheduled to occur on the eve of Yom Kippur, the night when Kol Nidre must be sung. His father being ill, there is no one to sing Kol Nidre except Jakie. Will he sing it? Everything appears to be at stake in this decision. As the producer warns him, if Jack Robin fails to appear at the opening of the Broadway show in which he is to star, his reputation will be ruined. His girlfriend, Mary, also starring in the show and also present cries out: "you can't throw away this one great chance, Jack — the house sold out — and it will ruin me too!" Yet Cantor Rabinowitz, revived momentarily by the appearance of his son, is convinced that his prayers have been answered. The members of the synagogue have already assembled; only Jakie can usher in Yom Kippur with the singing of Kol Nidre. And if he doesn't "it will be the first time in five generations a Rabinowitz has not sung on the Day of Atonement." How will the narrative negotiate this agonizing conflict between the claims of two different cultures? How will it close?

In both the original script and the film, Jakie finds that, even as he is preparing to go on stage on opening night, he cannot abandon the old ways. But the original script ends with the cancellation of the opening night of April Follies, and Jakie, his prayer shawl draped over his shoulders, singing Kol Nidre in the synagogue. As he sings, his father, who recognizes his son's voice coming in through the open window, finally dies in peace. Then, in an extraordinary scene, the spirit of the father appears behind the son, and as Jakie continues singing, oblivious to his father's ghostly presence, his father places his hands on his son's shoulders in a gesture of blessing and then disappears. For all its melodrama, the scene is deeply moving. Jolson's rendering of Kol Nidre is quite beautiful and it culminates a series of fragmentary renderings of the music that we have heard throughout the film and that have prepared for this final version. The image of the father, giving his son the "laying on of hands" in a gesture of forgiveness, harmonizes with the import of Kol Nidre. In short, there is a powerful sense of closure in this final scene. The implication for the larger issue, riding on the agon, is that the old spiritual ways are irresistible, and rightly so. In them you find depth and continuity. And however joyous and alive the music of popular culture may be, and however painful its abandonment, maturity and our deeper natures require this final rite of passage.

But the film that viewers saw in 1927 did not end with Al Jolson singing Kol Nidre. "The season passes — and time heals — the show goes on," we are told, after the scene of Jakie singing Kol Nidre in the synagogue fades out. The old script is then supplemented with a new conclusion featuring Jack Robin in blackface singing "My Mammy" at the Winter Garden Theater. Both his mother and his father's friend, Moisha Yudelson, a pillar of East Side Jewish society, are seated in the front row, smiling their appreciation-The film ends with the end of the song. As the light fades out, Jakie, who is black on black, slowly disappears until all that is visible in the last second of the film is his white collar. With this addition to the film, the process of narrative negotiation is revived and appears to swing back in the other direction. But how far does it go? Does popular culture triumph and are the two beaming representatives of the old ways seated in the front row a sign of the necessary acceptance of full assimilation to American ways? After all, Jakie's mother, who "had a deeper and better understanding of life" than her husband, had already warned Cantor Rabinowitz that Kol Nidre may be in Jakie's head "but it is not in his heart. He is of America." Or is the pre­dominant note tragic or pathetic, with blackface as a sign of the inevitable annihilation of Jakie's identity? This reading would appear to be accentuated by the way he is made to disappear into blackness at the end. Or, trying again, are we meant to infer some kind of synthesis at the end, marked by the presence of both generations and keyed to the idea that the old sacred songs and the songs of the Jazz Age come out of the same impulse? It is noted on several occasions that whatever Jakie sings, he sings with "a tear in his voice." And Jakie himself in one scene quotes his father back to him on the subject of song: "You taught me to sing - and you told me that music was the voice of God - and it is just as honorable to sing in the theater as in the synagogue."

There are still other possibilities. But my own sense of the ending of this film is that closure does not occur without serious underreading. There are too many competing signifiers in the film's final scene to permit one of the possible readings mentioned above to prevail. In other words, the passionate thought that is aroused by this narrative is still in progress after it concludes. It is a restless film, a case of Lawrence's "trembling instability of the bal­ance." And it may be that it reflects a larger impossibility of resolution — that there is no satisfactory answer to the question the film asks. It may also be, of course, that I am finding a lack of negotiated resolution symptomatically where Warner Brothers had in fact intended resolution. Be that as it may, I hope the distinction of endings here makes clear how the sense of closure or its absence can impact the kind of thinking we do when we experience narrative negotiation.

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