The end is always near. How do we challenge finality in our daily lives and in our art?
Here is a depressing thought exercise for you to try. First, think of something you used to do as a kid that gave you great joy. Something you did for years, something you’d turn to again and again—for respite, for warmth, for fun. The thing you couldn’t wait to get home from school to do; the thing you couldn’t wait to get out of bed to do. Return, as best as you can, to your child’s self, your child’s mind. Close your eyes; call the image before you. Let it come back to life.
Now, try to picture—clearly, concretely, as specifically as you possibly can—the very last time you ever did that thing.
What is depressing about this experiment is that, if you’re like me, you can’t. My beloved activity was playing with my action figures, my most sacred possessions for many years. I can picture my toys very clearly; I see them before me, nestled together in their clear plastic containers. I go step by step through the play scenarios I would make up, sometimes with my brother, or my dad, or both; the different rooms I escaped to, the different houses I lived in. I’m getting older, my collection is growing. I can see it: I’m playing with them. And then, all of a sudden, I’m not.
Obviously, there was a last time I played with my action figures; there was—there has to be—a final occasion on which I pulled them out, lovingly drew them into some intense, dangerous plot, finished up, and put them away. There is a last time I put my toys away; that’s just an empirical fact. But I can’t remember that time. Or—for that matter, and perhaps more disturbingly—why it was the last time. Did I suddenly renounce action figures? Was there some strange vow, some crushing embarrassment, profound at the time but now completely lost to history?
On reflection, the way we stop doing the things we love is rarely so sudden, so jarring, although memory tends to dramatize such endings. Gradually, we lose interest in what we do—so we start doing it less and less often. What was once every day becomes once every other day; then every two days; once a week; done forever. The pendulum doesn’t just freeze at its lowest point; only gradually does its swing slow, only slowly does it come to rest. My interest in my action figures didn’t vanish; it lessened over time. This might not make the nostalgia any less pungent, the sting of times past any less severe. But at least it demystifies: It wasn’t all at once. This is a soft ending.
If there are soft endings, there are also hard endings—and, as the name indicates, hard endings are much more difficult. If the childhood activity that came to mind for you was a sport, and you had to stop playing because you got hurt: That was a hard ending. If your joyous memory was playing with a friend, and the friend moved away, never to return: That was a hard ending. Hard endings are consonant with tragedy; they partake of the tragic.
Breakups are hard endings—usually. A decisive moment, a temporal fissure on one side of which you stand with another, on the other side of which you stand alone. Hard endings are definite. This is why breakups are sad. We can’t fully process the end point until we are well beyond it. Hard endings are at odds with time, because they are a single point in time—not even a point in time, but a division of time. BC and AD. Prewar, Postwar. Postpartum. Postmortem. Of course, sometimes we get back together. Then breaking up becomes a soft ending. One couple I know broke up and rekindled six times before the split finally took. The softest ending of a relationship I’ve ever seen. Also the most toxic. Sometimes hard endings are for the best.
When Mick Jagger sings, “This could be the last time,” he may be on the precipice of a hard ending. What is profound in this song is that he’s aware of the end, or the possibility of the end, before it happens. I love the “could” in that line—it’s not a “will”—and the “I don’t know” that follows. Rarely do we get a chance to do this kind of imagining. As in childhood, things often end before we know they’re over. But in the song, we never actually get to the end—until the song itself ends. It only “could be” the end, over, and over, and over again.
Art has a lot to say about endings. Art has endings of various kinds. Books have hard endings. Joyce famously saw this feature as just one formal constraint among others, and sought to overcome it, writing Finnegans Wake in a loop—the end leads directly to the beginning again. Movies also have hard endings, although clever artists have found ways to make loops out of those, too, whether within the cinematic world itself, or by rigging the film reels just so.
But the medium with the most to say about endings, as the Stones knew, is music. Many songs have hard endings or, as they call them in the music business, “cold endings.” A triumphant (or devastating) final chord, and then silence. The end is emphasized: This was playing, and now it’s over.
But it was actually once the industry standard to end a song with a “fade-out.” Fade-outs became popular in commercial music beginning in the ’20s, with the advent of electrical recording, which let engineers easily adjust amplification. From the ’60s to the ’90s, half or more of the Top 10 radio hits in any given year ended in fade-outs. (Not for nothing, the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time,” released in 1965, is among them.) But today the fade-out itself has faded out; between 2009 and 2013, only three fade-outs cracked the Top 10. “Like a classic example of itself,” writes William Weir in a history of the fade-out, “the decline has been long, gradual, and barely noticed.”
This is unfortunate, according to some scholars of music, who have contemplated the fade-out-versus-cold-ending distinction in great depth. They argue that each style presents a distinct vision of the world. Weir quotes the musicologist David Huron, who says that, “with a fade-out, music manages to delay closure indefinitely. The ‘stop’ gesture is replaced by a gesture toward the ‘infinite.’”
But in human hands, a gesture toward the infinite will always resolve itself into a reassertion of the finite. Perhaps the most interesting fade-out in this respect is that created by the avant-garde composer William Basinski in his four-album series, The Disintegration Loops.
Basinski was trying to rescue recordings he had made on magnetic tape by transferring them to digital; however, they were already in such poor shape that what he wound up recording was their audible deterioration over time. With each loop, the tape would disintegrate further—hence the title. In total, there are about five hours of tape comprising nine spectral melodies, each, in order, repeating and repeating and breaking down nearly imperceptibly as it plays. The mesmerizing, rhythmic procession of the sounds is punctured only by the pops and cracks of the tape’s passing over the tape head—the unmistakable sound of the infinite becoming finite. The effect is overwhelming. This is probably the most literal rendition of a soft ending that has been attempted through art.
There is further backstory to the creation of the Loops that makes the themes of mortality and finality all the more visceral. According to the now-famous story, Basinski completed his project on the morning of September 11, 2001. He and some friends listened to the tapes for the very first time on the roof of his Brooklyn apartment while they watched, from across the river, the towers smolder and collapse. The soft endings of his creation accompanied the hard endings of those structures and lives. Needless to say, a significant part of the trauma of 9/11 was that it was, indeed, two hard endings, encompassing thousands of others.
Death, of course, is a hard ending—the hardest. Sometimes the process is gradual. The softer the better: We’re always grateful for time to prepare, for ourselves or for others. But the moment itself could not be more decisive. There’s not much more to say about this.
Speaking of death, though, the end of the earth will be a soft ending, believe it or not. According to Scientific American, “The sun is slowly expanding and brightening, and over the next few billion years it will eventually desiccate Earth, leaving it hot, brown and uninhabitable.” Life will certainly have gone extinct long before that final desiccation point—perhaps in the hard or soft ending of global ecological catastrophe, depending on how that whole thing goes—but Earth itself will soldier on for billions of years after that. Though calculations vary, the prevailing hypothesis is that as the sun expands, Earth will remain essentially in place—meaning that the edge of the sun will bump into and engulf it, vaporizing it in the process. Though that word “vaporize” suggests an instantaneous effect, the vaporization of Earth will actually take about a million years. A hard ending, perhaps, on the cosmic scale. But about as soft as our brief minds can imagine.
I should add that the last time I played with my action figures was not the last time I played with action figures, period. I’ve played with them many times since; with the kids I babysat in high school, with my much younger brother. I’m sure to play with them again, maybe one day with kids of my own.
We have kids, after all. We discover new joys. We make new friends; we fall in love again. These are all loops, of sorts: the way we challenge finality, challenge endings, in life as in art, is with loops. Disintegration loops, perhaps, slowly circling toward our great, soft ending. But loops nonetheless.
Joseph Henry Staten writes about art, politics, and music. His essays have appeared in the Awl, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Noisey, and elsewhere. He's on Twitter @joseph_staten.