We ended class today by talking about the ending of The Seventh Seal and whether it was satisfying. Some people thought that the film “over-ended,” i.e. it should have ended with the image of the girl’s face (ironically, this discussion occurred after our class time had ended, as if we were playing out the very phenomenon we were discussing!). I personally prefer the ending as it is because I think the image of the dance of death is so central to to the film’s message, but I do sympathize with the sense that sometimes a work of art can end past its right moment. I remember thinking this as a kid when I first read the Lord of the Rings (What’s all this business with Saruman in the Shire? They already destroyed the ring!). In antiquity, a school of readership thought that the Odyssey really ended at 23.296: Odysseus and Penelope reunited, “They then gladly went to the place of their bed of old.” Happily ever after. Never mind all that stuff that happens in book 24.
The problem of over-ending is one side on the issue of closure. The other side is a lack of (proper) ending. Two other ancient epics come to my mind. Vergil’s Aeneid ends in book 12 with its hero Aeneas brutally killing his enemy who is begging for his life. This ending has troubled readers, some of whom point to the epic’s unfinished state; in the Renaissance, Maffeo Vegio wrote a thirteenth book to give the poem a better sense of closure. A more persuasive argument is that the poem ends exactly as Vergil intended in order to problematize the Roman imperial project. Similarly, Lucan’s Pharsalia ends abruptly with no resolution for its narrative. The general explanation is that Lucan died before finishing the poem. As it is, however, the ending fits so perfectly with Lucan’s discordant poetics– civil war is endless, the world makes no sense– that some have argued the ending is exactly how he wanted it to be.
In our broader discussion of poetic thinking, we have generally rejected the idea of a telos. Unlike logical thinking, poetic thinking does not require a goal. What does this mean for poetic closure?