The End: Theories and Practice of Narrative Endings

November 11-12, 2016

Fritz Breithaupt

The Cornell German Studies Graduate Student Conference, The End: Theories and Practice of Narrative Endings, opened on the afternoon of Friday, November 11, with a panel devoted to “Approaching Narrative Endings.”

In the first talk, “The End of Life in Christa Wolf’s Final Novel Stadt der Engel,” John Slattery (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign) investigated the thoughts of Christa Wolf’s narrator in her novel Stadt der Engel as they pertain to her inability to let go of the past. Slattery asked specifically whether the narrator was able to turn away from the past in order to look towards the future, positing first that the narrator cannot let go of the past before arguing further that Wolf’s narrator refuses both to look backwards obsessively and  to look towards the future with unbridled optimism.  Slattery concluded by arguing that the narrator instead must “transcend transcendence” to confront her own mortality.

In the next talk, “Shoreless River – Endless Text: Hans Henny Jahnns Fluss Ohne Ufer and the Existential Dimension of Narrative Ending,” Andre Fisher (Stanford University) analyzed the personal and poetological dimensions of Jahnn’s Fluss Ohne Ufer as they relate to the author’s existential relation to death, examining how this dilemma is revealed within the fabric of the text and the novel’s ending.  Fisher began by delving into the publishing history of the novel, pointing to the fact that in 1936 Peter Suhrkamp had rejected the proto-version of the novel, namely the novella Das Holzschiff, for publication, primarily on the grounds that the ending seemed insufficient to resolve the novella’s plot.  Jahnn’s intention, Fisher continued, was to add a final chapter that would tie the narrative strands together for a satisfying ending. The plan to conclude the novella failed, however, and in fact the text expanded into the gargantuan trilogy Fluss ohne Ufer.  Fisher read this inability to end the story as inscribed into the text, which documents a writing process that concluded only with the author’s death in 1961.  Fisher read this extended writing process as the central theme of the novel, arguing that the protagonist’s struggle with death and Jahnn’s trouble with finishing his novel are constitutively related. Fisher thus concluded that the existential and narrative ends interfere with each other, leading to endless writing as a mode of survival.

In the final talk of the panel, “‘Will you –’ On Finished Heroes and Unfinished Novels in Poetic Realism,” Marius Reisener (Humboldt Universität zu Berlin) focused on the relationship between the novel and gender within the framework of poetic realism.  After briefly sketching the Hegelian genesis of the poetics of the 19th-century German novel, Marius turned his attention to Theodor Fontane’s novel Cécil, showing how the character of Cécil is objectified by the scientific (wissenschaftlich) male gaze via techniques of observation. Reisener argued that these techniques clarify how a masculine urge for knowledge can oppress women, how one of women’s options for autonomy appears to be  death, and how this masculinist gaze can also be fatal for the male protagonist. Reisener concluded that in both the protagonist’s and her lover’s death, we find not only gender roles, but also a thoroughly masculinist episteme. (Stephen Klemm)

On Friday evening Fritz Breithaupt (Indiana University, Bloomington) delivered the much anticipated keynote address of the conference. Concluding the first day of the conference after an opening seminar and the introductory panel, Prof. Breithaupt delivered a lecture titled “The Ends of Empathy: How and Why Stories End,” which both concretized the themes and questions broached by previous panelists, and articulated new problems and directions yet to be pursued by the conference. A dynamic and erudite speaker, Breithaupt set a tone which energized discussion for days to come. Focused on the development, conceptualization, socio-cultural function, and manifestations of empathy, Breithaupt’s current research also informed his lecture’s aim to show how narrative endings function within empathy systems, and to explain why the ends of endings thus lie in large part in the regulation of empathetic engagement in narratives. Breithaupt additionally explained which narrative models become prevalent as a result of the relationship between endings and empathy.

The keynote’s central thesis emerged as an answer to the question: how are texts shaped by our mode of engaging them, and how does this shaping illustrate the structure of empathy? According to Breithaupt, to empathize is to co-experience reality with another, to participate in the complex emotions, decision-making, and value schema of another. While often of great moral and social importance, empathy also presents a danger: it jeopardizes the autonomy of a subject and blurs the lines of the self. Thus while a narrative always draws a reader in through empathetic engagement, it must also, in order to prevent the reader from losing herself in another, in some way “promise” to restore autonomy and enact a limitation upon empathy. This limitation is achieved and structured through narrative endings, Breithaupt argued, according to several possible models. For example, in some narratives, the reader is released from an obligation to emphathize by identifying with a hero, who in turn emphathizes with suffering figures in the reader’s stead, as it were, and because of his or her “heroic” empathy performs necessary interventions to resolve crises and provide hope. Another prevalent model is the replacement of empathy with another kind of emotional involvement, such as falling in love or taking one side in a moral or philosophical opposition. Breithuapt’s identification of various empathy-limitation strategies of narrative endings draws not only from literature, philosophy, and psychology, but also from cutting-edge research in cognitive- and neuroscience. His lecture thus combined cognitive studies with humanist perspectives on literary analysis.

After examining strategies of empathy limitation, Breithaupt considered the role empathy plays in the structures of fairy tales, the oldest and most repeated narratives in many world cultures. Fairy tales often begin with dramatic moments of dire vulnerability and great misfortune, prompting maximal empathetic engagement, but they then lead into moments of trial, testing, and reward or failure coupled with a “moral”. Empathy is thus a deep-seated narrative element that connects with a variety of ending structures, all of which nonetheless culminate in a narrative affirmation of subjectivity. (Juan-Jacques Aupiais)

The conference continued on Saturday, November 12, with a panel that dealt with the relation between endings and teleology. Here John Jolly (Duke University) and Irina Kogan (Yale University) presented papers on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Prinzessin Brambilla and Martin Heidegger’s reading of Friedrich Hölderlin, respectively. Jolly analyzed the end of coherent personhood in subjective Idealism by tracing the concept of the imagination with respect to teleology through Kantian and Fichtean systems as manifested in particular in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Prinzessin Brambilla. His argument showed that Kant and Fichte’s break with prior models of teleology resulted in a radical bifurcation of the human person: a “chronic dualism” suspending the subject in the imaginary between pure will and pure reason.  Jolly’s conclusion demonstrated that Hoffmann’s Romantic conviction that the humorous caprice of fancy is both the source of the self and its end exemplified modernity’s loss of a coherent understanding of human existence.

Kogan’s paper explored the way in which the ending of Heidegger’s famous essay “Hölderlin und das Wesen der Dichtung” does not so much complete what appears to be programmatically announced in its title, but rather unsettles the essay’s guiding impulse of privileging Hölderlin as “der Dichter des Dichters.” In particular Kogan demonstrated that this apparent act of essentialization – of striving toward the telos of transcending – puts an end to the very act of reading itself. Ultimately she analyzed the way in which one of the essay’s most imperceptible words – the pronoun wir – is exposed in its irreducible multiplicity of functions, forcing its readers to examine their own structural relations to the text. (Sander Oosterom)

The conference continued with a panel on “Turning Points.” In “Kafka, Terminable and Interminable,” Dominik Zechner (New York University), eloquently described how Franz Kafka, in a rare moment of apparent mastery and writerly self-confidence, discusses his treatment of death and closure in a diary entry from December 13, 1914. Reviewing the instances when he decided to depict the death of one of his characters, Kafka writes:

An allen diesen guten und stark überzeugenden Stellen handelt es sich immer darum, daß jemand stirbt, daß es ihm sehr schwer wird, daß darin für ihn ein Unrecht und wenigstens eine Härte liegt und daß das für den Leser, wenigstens meiner Meinung nach, rührend wird. Für mich aber […] sind solche Schilderungen im geheimen ein Spiel, ich freue mich ja in dem Sterbenden zu sterben, nütze daher mit Berechnung die auf den Tod gesammelte Aufmerksamkeit des Lesers aus, bin bei viel klarerem Verstande als er, von dem ich annehme, daß er auf dem Sterbebett klagen wird, und meine Klage ist daher möglichst vollkommen, bricht auch nicht etwa plötzlich ab wie wirkliche Klage, sondern verläuft schön und rein.

Zechner argued that these sentences reflect a highly atypical stance for Kafka: “They presume an odd kind of superiority over the reader, a way of playing the audience and taking advantage, in a scheming fashion (“mit Berechnung”), of the readerly focus that’s aimed at death.” Zechner also cited the literary critic Charles Bernheimer, who lucidly observes that Kafka, “who usually experiences himself as weak, indecisive, and anxiety-ridden,” here displays “mastery indeed of that most extreme of human eventualities, his own death.”

Zechner himself then illuminated Kafka’s astonishing assertions in this context—and argued that, “on the level of craft, Kafka’s presumed mastery of death is massively at odds with the possibility of narrative closure.” Zechner contended that “the kind of death toward which Kafka’s writing is aimed appears to be one which, as seen in the quoted passage, doesn’t make for a sudden breakage (“bricht […] nicht plötzlich ab”), but instigates an almost perfect lamentation that proceeds beautifully and purely—interminably.” Zechner showed how this diary entry foreshadows an essential struggle with narrative ending and its entanglement with death as played out in Kafka’s later work (for example, in the fragmented series about the so-called “Hunter Gracchus”), and Zechner argued further that “Kafka’s prose, as it matures, moves toward absolute interminability—the impossibility of death and thus of narrative closure.”

In “The Ends of German Jewry,” Matthew Johnson (The University of Chicago) analyzed divergent German-Jewish senses of ending by focusing on two anthologies: Schicksal in deutschen Gedichten, ed. Kaznelson (1959), and Auf gespaltenem Pfad. Zum neunzigsten Geburtstag von Margarete Susman, ed. Manfred Schlösser (1964). He showed how these works “exemplify an anthological impulse in the face of the destruction of German Jewry and, to varying degrees, the perception of cultural obsolescence.” He further demonstrated how through “anthological work published in the postwar period, Kaznelson and Schlösser contend with the legacy (Vermächtnis) of German Jewry from a belated and reflexive position, a legacy that remains controversial and unsettled today.” Johnson used these anthologies as case studies to explore the melancholic work of postwar writers who tasked themselves with defining their own legacy as German Jews. He argued that the concomitant attempt to assess their own legacy problematizes the very possibility of an ‘end’ by raising the question of what remains. Johnson discussed how Gershom Scholem’s infamous and influential denial of German-Jewish dialogue was initially published in Schlösser’s anthology, a Festschrift for Margarete Susman, but Scholem was not alone in looking back at the “German-Jewish phenomenon” (Derrida). Johnson made the critical intervention that contemporary scholarship – especially in English, but also in German – has largely neglected the voices of Kaznelson (the Director of the Jüdischer Verlag) and Schlösser. Johnson brought them back into the critical discussion and showed that they – alongside Hannah Arendt, Leo Baeck, Martin Buber, Scholem, Susman, and others – were important editors and writers, who participated in a discourse about how best to inherit the ‘end(s)’ of German-Jewish culture and tradition. (Annekatrin Sommer)

The conference then continued with a panel titled: “It’s not over yet!” This panel began with Marie-Louise Goldmann (New York University) presenting “The Title Forbids: Tracking Hamlet’s Soliloquy in Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be.” Goldmann argued that in refusing to pose the question “to be or not to be?” in full, Lubitsch’s film refuses an end. Further, in rejecting the binary thinking of “to be or not to be,” the film seeks to refuse authority. Through close readings of the film’s various engagements with Hamlet’s soliloquy, Goldmann argued that in contrast to Shakespearean theater, which the film casts as engaging with traditional forms of acting, Lubitsch’s film reflects instead on new, postmodern ways of understanding the classics. Goldmann also argued that the repetition of Hamlet’s existential question – posed by the film’s ending itself – signals that there is no end or narrative resolution in the film. Goldmann argued that the film displays various transitions as endings: the end of life under the Nazi regime, the end of theater, and the end of thinking through the question of “to be or not to be.”

Danny Gronmaier (Freie Universität Berlin) then presented “Full Stops: The Serialized Twist Endings of Grey’s Anatomy,” in which he analyzed the role of the series’ cliff hangers. He argued that instead of relying on conventional strategies of openness and omission, or techniques of plot ellipses and dramatic stoppages typical in soap operas, Grey’s Anatomy uniquely deploys techniques of narrative inversion and condensation. Through such narrative techniques, the show introduces a super-fluidity of information, while presenting the audience with what appears as fait accompli. Through close readings of the composition of the show’s endings, Gronmaier brought these narratological observations into dialogue with two central aspects of television shows: serialization and viewer involvement. He posed the following questions: how do the endings of the show create emotional impact essential for audience retention? And how does the function of endings change when they recur over time? Gronmaier explored these questions with an eye to both narrative structure and content, particularly highlighting the themes of the ending and beginning of life and amorous relationships, which play a critical role in Grey’s Anatomy.

In “To Be Continued: Martin Kippenberger’s The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s ‘Amerika’Petra Sertic (University of Colorado, Boulder) investigated the meanings and motivations behind Kippenberger’s invitation to participate in his installation art. She furthermore discussed the artist’s application of a systematic method of appropriation, reversal, and seriality in creating this particular installation. Sertic posited that, although Kafka perhaps never intended for his text Amerika to have a happy end, Kippenberger imagines one. Sertic argued that the installation artist was inspired to create a vision of a happy end by the final chapter of Kafka’s text “The Oklahoma City Theater,” in which those responding to a call for employment by the theater are interviewed to determine their best fit within the company, with the promise that all will be accepted. Out of this scene Kippenberger creates an interactive art installation that invites visitors to take a seat in one of his chairs for a series of interviews as visitors try to discover their own place in life.  (Jacy Tackett)

The interdisciplinary conference concluded with a panel on interconnections between narrative and apocalypse in the form of endings. Moderated by Erik Born, this panel examined different paradigms and models of apocalypse in narrative. Participants’ papers converged upon a common interest in the role of post-apocalyptic narrative. The narrative form is often associated with the prospect of a conclusion, but in the case of these presentations, the narratives discussed seem to extend beyond their ends. This has implications for concepts of history, culture, and the human being in the postmodern era, as the panelists demonstrated in a range of ways.

Mariaenrica Giannuzzi (Cornell University) presented “(Philosophical) Ways Out of Anthropic Melancholia,” which examined the concept of the Anthropocene from the perspective of political subjectivity. Giannuzzi argued that every environmental crisis of the Anthropocene determines a different political subject responsible for the crisis phenomena. As she elaborated, however, this model of time relies upon an ideology in which the human is the subject of a universal history connected to the unity of the Earth. Giannuzzi went on to critique this universalism in that it avoids the inequalities of production and consumption. Instead, she proposed a feminist, non-anthropic geography similar to that proposed by the feminist geographers known as J.K. Gibson-Graham.

Kai Löser (University of Bielefeld) presented “The Poetics and Politics of Endings,” in which he analyzed theoretical attempts to account for the Anthropocene in terms of the physical, social, and cultural transformation of humankind on a geologic scale. Such accounts seek a systematic place for humanity as an actor entangled with technology, society, and pathways of energy within the planet itself. Following these entanglements, these theories attempt to separate radically contingent events from absolute necessities within the evolution of both human life and the entire universe. Across this spectrum, Kai Löser distinguished between neo-teleological narratives of necessity, drawing a coherent logic of evolutionary development, and those of contingency, which present threatening apocalyptic scenarios in which narratives must help prevent apocalyptic discontinuity.

Ji Hyun Lee (Cornell University) presented the concluding paper, which was titled “Apocalypse and the Postmodern.” Against the background of Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending, Lee examined the relationship between the apocalypse and postmodernism in the genre of post-apocalyptic literature and cinema. On the one hand, apocalypse as genre seems to conflict with the postmodern in its acceptance of grand narratives. The postmodern also embraces elements of contingency and multiplicity, which do not easily cohere with apocalyptic storytelling. However, Lee argued for the existence of a uniquely apocalyptic myth in the fiction of postmodern writers by portraying postmodern apocalyptic narratives as disrupting any absolutism of linear endings. Instead, she argued, postmodernism presents a blurring of the boundary between the apocalypse (ending) and aworld beyond (beginning), as well as between good and evil. (David Dunham)