How It Begins, and How It Ends

Friday, October 18, 2013

[Ed. Note: Last year around this time, I wrote a post that referenced an essay by Umberto Eco, published in the collection How to Travel With a Salmon and Other Essays. Below is something I wrote just afterwards, but then didn’t post because after writing it, decided that it wasn’t relevant to anything, and, in the end, I wasn’t sure what the point was. But I’m doing a little computer housekeeping and I just read it again. And I decided not to worry about whether it is relevant, or whether it has a point. It poses an interesting question. I like it. That is enough.]

The essay in Umberto Eco’s How to Travel with a Salmon that follows “How to Eat Ice Cream” is also great. It’s called “How It Begins, and How It Ends,” and, like “How to Eat Ice Cream,” seemed to speak directly to some of the themes I’ve been thinking about and writing about lately — specifically the idea of what brings happiness.

The essay is about how when he was a scholarship student at university, he and his friends learned that they could bribe the usher for admission to films and plays, but the dorms were locked at midnight, so they had to leave before the end of the show in order to get home in time.

“And so it was,” Eco writes, “that, over a four-year period, I saw the theatrical masterpieces of every time and place, except for their last ten minutes.”

He talks about all of the things he doesn’t know — “if Othello punched up Iago before setting off on a second honeymoon, if the imaginary invalid’s health improved, if everyone threw rice after Romeo and Juliet, and who was Bunbury” — and thought he was the only one who suffered from this problem. But then he happened to have a conversation with an old friend who, as it turned out, “suffered from the same anguish in reverse.”

As a student, his friend had worked at a theater run by students and had taken tickets at the door, but because many people arrived late, it was always the start of the second act by the time he was able to slip into a seat and begin watching the production.

Well to make a long story short, Paolo and I exchanged confidences. And we discovered that a splendid old age lies before us. Seated on the front steps of a country house or on a bench in the park, for years we will tell each other stories: he, endings; I, beginnings, amid cries of amazement at every discovery of prelude or catharsis.

He runs through some of the things they will learn, about Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear.

Missing the beginning or end of a story would always seem like something to be avoided — of course you would want to know the whole story. But Eco ends the essay with an intriguing question:

Will we be happier afterwards? Or will we have lost the freshness of those who are privileged to experience art as real life, where we enter after the trumps have been played, and we leave without knowing who’s going to win or lose the game?

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