Walker Percy once speculated about a world in which the problem of death had been resolved, the eventual result of which was that everyone killed himself out of misery. For most people the quantity of life seems secondary to its quality. Mere survival may be adequate for beasts, but it is not so for rational animals. Life alone is not satisfying for human beings; there is something more that is wanted, something beyond life itself that makes life worth living.
One of the themes of great literature is that a life truly worth living is one that has meaning and purpose―a goal much higher than growth, nutrition, and reproduction. Literature itself is narrative in structure—it has a particular setting in which the story takes place, it has characters that act out the drama, it has a plot with a conflict, a climax, and a resolution, which together produce the meaning of the story.
The things that make a story meaningful and satisfying are the very things that make life meaningful and satisfying. Just as there is no good story that would not make a good life, there is no good life that would not make a good story. The best kind of life will have a great setting, great characters, and a great plot. It will have a compelling conflict and a convincing resolution. A great story is one worthy to be lived, and a great life is one worthy to be written down and read.
The ancient Greeks thought that no one could say he was happy until the end of his life, partly because what constituted a happy life was one that had meaning and purpose, and that could only be determined at its end—perhaps even after its end—because the meaning and purpose of a life (as with a story) could only be determined by seeing it as a whole—with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Any experienced reader knows that he cannot know a book as a whole until he has read to the last word. Indeed, outside a narrative context, it is easy to see our lives as meaningless. This is the situation in which the soldiers in All Quiet on the Western Front find themselves. In what some have called the greatest novel to come out of World War I, the soldiers are fighting in the trenches, and the daily routine of random violent events—futile charges, mortar attacks that bring a chance of being blown to pieces at any moment, stray bullets shot by someone across No Man’s Land—all make the reality around them seem random and absurd.
They cannot see the overall picture as the generals in the war room can see it. From the generals’ perspective it all makes sense—the war has an opening, a middle game, and an endgame. Their every act is dictated by the overall purpose of the war. But the soldiers in Erich Maria Remarque’s great work are not able to see this. They see only the individual events that make up the war. They are necessarily blind to the overall purpose. They just follow orders.
In fact, one of the reasons the First World War was such a significant event was that so many young men witnessed what seemed to them a meaningless slaughter. The ennui that followed the War and the nihilism that grew among the intellectual class were the result. The rise of the existentialist movement after the War took the seeming absurdity of what had happened and made a whole philosophy out of it. Writers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus wrote numerous works articulating the absurdity of existence and the meaninglessness of life.
Because of this there ensued a sense of lost innocence and a skepticism about basic cultural institutions. The War helped bring about the end of the old order—the aristocratic system that had dominated Europe for centuries and the older religious order that was already teetering as a result of the defection of the intellectual classes in Europe to atheism and agnosticism in the late nineteenth century.
The crisis of confidence that followed in the basic moral, social, and political assumptions brought all of this into disrepute. But there was confusion in what should replace it. The meaning and purpose of human culture that had supported human societies was eliminated and there was uncertainty about what life was for, and therefore about what the exact nature of societies and political institutions should be.
Our world had lost its story. We all live today in the wake of this crisis.
But there was one soldier who charted a different path. He had fought in the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles of the War. When sent into reserve, he was diagnosed with “trench fever,” a malady transmitted by body lice which caused weakness, headaches, and fever. He was hospitalized and sent back to England, where over a number of years the experience of the War helped him construct one of the great epic works in English: The Lord of the Rings.
In one scene of Tolkien’s masterful work, Sam and Frodo have entered Mordor. Sam turns to Frodo and says:
I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales. We’re
in one, of course; but I mean: put into words, you know,
told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with
red and black letters, years and years afterwards. And
people will say: “Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring!”
Why does Sam ask the question at this particular moment—a moment in which the two hobbits find themselves in a place where there seems little hope that the quest they set out on will succeed?
Sam understands implicitly that in order to make sense of their situation, they need to know why they are there, why they are doing what they are doing. If they see their trials as part of a larger story, one that someone someday will tell by a fireside, then it will all somehow make sense, even though they can’t see it in the moment. It will have meaning and purpose, and, as miserable as they are, that meaning will give them the power to go on. At this point in their journey, they are hungry, not just for the little food they have, but for something to feed their souls.
In his excellent book Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong, William Kilpatrick says this:
The same impulse that makes us want our books to have
a plot makes us want our lives to have a plot. We need
to feel that we are getting somewhere, making progress.
There is something in us that is not satisfied with a merely
psychological explanation of our lives. It doesn’t do justice to
our conviction that we are on some kind of journey or quest,
that there must be some deeper meaning to our lives ….
What confers meaning on our actions is a narrative context. We need to see ourselves in some kind of story in order to make sense of our lives. It is this vision of a meaningful life in a meaningful world that must undergird our view of ourselves and of the society we live in. But it is hard to see our own lives as a meaningful story and the lives we live among others in community as having any kind of purpose or theme when many of us don’t read stories anymore.
If we want to see the significance of our own lives we need to gain the kind of practiced insight that comes from a wide reading of great stories. We may find that some of these stories, like Remarque’s, posit that there is no meaning. But we should focus mostly on those stories, like The Lord of the Rings, that clearly affirm the centrality of narrative—that there is meaning, there is purpose, if we would only seek it. By immersing ourselves in stories, we can see the story we ourselves are in.