I’ve noticed a tendency in the short stories I’ve been reading to end in a state that I’ve been calling ‘aporia’. This style of ending seems to be quite common; it happens in Joyce’s The Dead, in Adams’s The Last Lovely Place, perhaps in Allende’s And of Clay We Are Created and now in Sherwood Anderson’s Death in the Woods.

So what is this aporia? Why is it proving so popular? Am I using the term correctly?

Wikipedia, the alpha and omega of all fast food knowledge, serves this up:

In philosophy, an aporia is a philosophical puzzle or a seemingly insoluble impasse in an inquiry, often arising as a result of equally plausible yet inconsistent premises. It can also denote the state of being perplexed, or at a loss, at such a puzzle or impasse.

Socrates describes the purgative effect of reducing someone to aporia: it shows someone who merely thought he knew something that he does not in fact know it and instills in him a desire to investigate it.

In literature, I take it to mean that the author/narrator leads a character through a series of events and epiphanies that tears down the facade that they’ve created, and leaves them shorn of false beliefs and illusions. The character doesn’t understand where to go next; the epiphany doesn’t lead to enlightenment, but rather a relinquishing of delusion and an acceptance of ignorance.

Dr. Zamora and Gabriel Conroy are both left in such a state: at the end of their stories, each man has been forced to face their assumptions about life and themselves, and found their beliefs wanting. Their realities crumble about them, and each is left to face a strange world that forces them to admit their ignorance.

Zamora:

The sun has sunk into the ocean, and Benito’s heart has sunk with it, drowned. He shudders, despising himself. How could he possibly have imagined, how not have guessed?

In Allende’s story, Rolf is left in a state of aporia too. He’s faced deep, terrible memories, has accepted his ancient, subsumed fears and humiliations, and now dwells in a meditative land where he seeks to accept his new self. The narrator watches him, and knows him to be lost, but is confident that he will return:

You are back with me, but you are not the same man… Your cameras lie forgotten in a closet; you do not write or sing; you sit long hours before the window, staring at the mountains. Beside you, I wait for you to complete the voyage into yourself, for the old wounds to heal. I know that when you return from your nightmares, we shall again walk hand in hand, as before.

Despite the narrator’s confidence, the story ends in a state of suspension, with Rolf seeking to deal with the new vision of the world he has been forced to face, and no guarantee that he will.

And now, in Sherwood’s Death in the Woods, we read of an old woman who’s miserable life of servitude comes to an end in a surreal and touching manner in a blizzard in the woods. The narrator can’t quite explain why her death touches him so, and ends the story with these lines:

I shall not try to emphasize the point. I am only explaining why I was dissatisfied then and have been ever since. I speak of that only that you may understand why I have been impelled to try to tell the simple story over again.

Something about the woman’s death, her life of subservience and sacrifice, the mystery of the dogs circling before her in the snow, the restoration of her youth and beauty in the snow – all of it touched a chord in the young narrator, and though he puts forth an explanation, though he speaks of his fascination with her role throughout her life as a furnisher of feed to animals throughout her life, he is still dissatisfied:

The whole thing, the story of the old woman’s death, was to me as I grew older like music heard from far off. The notes had to be picked up slowly one at a time. Something had to be understood.

In each tale, to generalize grossly, the protagonist is afforded a glimpse of reality, something that overwhelms and shatters their previously held beliefs. Either they come to understand a truth about themselves, or the world. In each case, they are left bereft or mystified, numbed or shocked, unable to positively rebound from the experience, but left rather to dwell and ponder, to reflect or despair.

Aporia: can also denote the state of being perplexed, or at a loss, at such a puzzle or impasse.

The trick in each of these tales is that the reader knows more than the protagonist. We are afforded a greater understanding than the character, and as such we can gaze past their pensive, hunched forms at the future, and the truths they will have to grapple with. And while we may not be able to grasp these truths ourselves and define them clearly, we see from where the character has come, what mistakes they have made, and in understanding that we are able to appreciate – or even be beguiled, enthralled, thrilled – by where they will have to go next, or at their inability to do so.

Note: Woody Allen did not have Kugelmass end in a state of aporia; rather, he was too busy being chased by an irregular Spanish verb through a barren wasteland to worry over much about anything. Aguero’s Ebarito the killer barber also avoids this fate: he awakens manacled and badly injured in hospital, unable to act or even speak, a symbolic victim of his own violence. And Achebe’s Jonathon Iwegbu? He avoids aporia, which, given the traumas and tragedies he has faced, might manifest itself rather in an inability to live in such a fickle, cruel world. Rather than aporia, Jonathon ascribes the inscrutable nature of life to God, and resolutely forges onwards, determined not to think further beyond that ascription.