You Owe Me an Explanation

“Intellectual man had become an explaining creature. Fathers to children, wives to husbands, lecturers to listeners, colleagues to colleagues, man to his own soul, explained. The roots of this, the causes of the other, the source of events, the history, the structure, the reasons why. For the most part, in one ear and out the other. The soul wanted what it wanted. It had its own natural knowledge. It sat unhappily on superstructures of explanation, poor bird, not knowing which way to fly.” —Saul Bellow, Mr. Sammler’s Planet

When we get our heart broken, we want an explanation. We want the person who no longer loves us to demonstrate sound logic for making us feel like our head is being dashed against rocks. But of course even the most rigorous accounting of Why It Can’t Work could never convince us; if we were convinced the relationship should have ended, we would have ended it ourselves, and then probably still felt shitty anyway. When we say we want an explanation, what we really want is a reversal.

The same dynamic is at play when we read fiction, and is responsible for a great deal of the woe that is in workshops. Sometimes a character makes a decision that bothers us, so we say that the character’s decision needs to be explained. Then the writer revises the story, complete with an elaborate explanation, and voila: the decision no longer bothers us. Now it just bores us.

When a character’s decision needs an explanation, there is almost always a very simple explanation for the explanation: the decision is one that the character just would not make, and that the writer has forced. Gluing together an explanation for why a character does something he or she would never do will only make the matter much, much worse, because the explanation will be in bad faith, and there is no drearier experience than receiving a bad-faith explanation—except, possibly, for making one up, which is why explanations are so conducive to writer’s block.

So the honest move for a writer to make when an explanation is in order is almost always to make the character do something that actually makes immediate, intuitive sense. Almost always. Here’s the problem: the best moments in literature are often those that can’t be explained. This is the crux of Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “The Storyteller.” Benjamin discusses a story from Herodotus, in which a conquered kingis stoic as his daughter is led before him as a servant, stays stoic as his son is led before him on his way to be executed, but then breaks down in tears when he sees his servant led before him, still a servant. The story retains its power because of the many, many different ways to interpret it.  Benjamin cites Montaigne’s explanation—“Since he was already overfull of grief, it took only the smallest increase for it to burst through its dams”—and then suggests a couple alternatives of his own: “The king is not moved by the fate of those of royal blood, for it is his own fate”; the king regards the servant as an actor, not as a person, “and we are moved by much on the stage that does not move us in real life.” Reading these explanations, I squirm in my seat to chime in with my own—we value property more than we value family, and the king sees his servant as property—but this profusion of explanations is precisely the point. The moment is powerful because we can never stop inventing explanations for it.

These two kinds of moments—the moment that begs explanation and the moment that no explanation can fix—can seem very similar, since they both lack one clear, immediately comprehensible explanation. But in fact these moments could not be more dissimilar, since a great moment will accommodate many explanations, and a failed moment will accommodate none. One explanation is MUCH better than none, but many explanations are much better than one. This is why Saul Bellow, one of my favorite writers, can write books that consist almost entirely of explanations and still be a great storyteller. Bellow’s explanations do not serve the event, but rather are the event; each explanation opens up gaps that demand more explanation, so that the question of why Bellow’s characters need all these explanations becomes as powerful as the question of why the king cries when he sees his servant.

But now I’m doing too much explaining.


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