A Deadly Desert or an Apple Tree

A Deadly Desert or an Apple Tree

Earlier this year I gave Sophie a copy of The Neverending Story for her birthday. She promptly devoured it and Bella did likewise. Now I’m reading it to the younger three– and Sophie is listening in and enjoying hearing it read by me. (Bella sometimes listens in but often goes off to read her own books.)

I can’t remember why I was looking up information about the book and the author, Michael Ende, maybe I wondering when the book was published or something, but in the Wikipedia article about the novel I stumbled across a little gem of a response Ende sent to a reader who wanted him to unpack for her the meaning of the novel:

Art and Poetry don’t explain the world, they depict it. They do not need anything that exceeds them. They themselves are goals. A good poem does not exist to improve the world – it in itself is a piece of an improved world, which is why it does not need a message. This endless searching for a message (moral, religious, practical, social, etc.) is a deplorable invention of literary professors and essayists, who otherwise would not know what to write and babble about. The works of Shakespeare, the Odyssey, One Thousand and One Nights, and Don Quixote – the biggest works of literature don’t have a message. They don’t prove or disprove anything. They are something like a mountain, a lake, a deadly desert or an apple tree.

I shared this on Facebook and Simcha Fisher wrote a beautiful response to it, explicating beautifully two different responses to a work of art, that of Odysseus’ dog, Argos, and that of his wife, the patient Penelope. Now the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope is one of my favorite moments in all of literature. But I love how Simcha applies it to the act of literary appreciation. I think she’s spot on:

It’s a normal thing to want a message. It is fully human to desire answers, to long for the thing that tells you all you need to know, so you can sit with the truth and be satisfied. But we can only hear the things we long to hear if we’re willing to endure a long time of testing. This is what a good story, a good work of art does: It doesn’t quickly and painlessly deliver what we want to hear. Instead, it tests us, and it invites us to test it.

A pox on anyone who tries to extract a message from The Odyssey. It’s not that The Odyssey doesn’t mean anything. Quite the opposite. It’s just that a work of art isn’t like a fortune cookie which can be cracked open, its message to be plucked out and read aloud over dessert. Instead, a work of art is like a deep, active pond into which you can cast your line and draw up any number of things, depending on the season, the time of day, your skill as a fisherman, and your willingness to wait.


The dog, as a mere dog, had a simple need: He craved his master, and his master comes home, and that is all. Penelope, though, isn’t satisfied with the little bits of proof and evidence that Odysseus is home. She isn’t satisfied with the delivery of a message. Even though she wants with all her heart to know that this man is indeed her husband, she has the courage to probe and test what is presented to her, knowing that if he answers wrong, she may lose everything.

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Meanwhile, though, I keep thinking about this particular piece of Ende’s letter, his condemnation of literary professors: “This endless searching for a message (moral, religious, practical, social, etc.) is a deplorable invention of literary professors and essayists, who otherwise would not know what to write and babble about.” One good friend of mine, a fellow English major in college, zinged me with it: “Posted by the writer of many a critical essay on English lit…” It is true. As a literary professor and essayist I both heartily embrace what Ende says about the search for a “message”… and yet still feel like there’s a still a place for literary essayists and critics. If they know their place and forgo the “messages”.

Because it’s only poor teachers and literary critics who understand the task of reading to be one of identifying “hidden messages” in works of literature. The good ones understand with Ende that works of literature and art don’t have messages, they are like mountains, lakes, seashores, deserts, apple trees. And those images that Ende leaves us with are precisely the key to unlocking what it is that a good literary critic or teacher of literature does.

I like hiking in the mountains and forests. I like beach combing and contemplating beautiful sunsets and watching animals and contemplating the beauty of an apple tree. But I also enjoy reading nature writing. Nature writing, when done well, doesn’t substitute for enjoying nature, it supplements it. I am a better person for having traveled North with the Spring with Edwin Way Teale or wandered along the seashore with Rachel Carson or for having explored Cape Cod with Robert Finch.

And that’s what I aim for in my literary essays. I see my literary expertise as being like a naturalist who understands the way ecosystems work, how animals behave, why certain plants grow in certain places. And just as the nature writer can help you to enjoy both places you’ve been or places you will never go, or a nature guide can accompany you on a hike in the woods or a stroll on the beach, helping you to go deeper by pointing out features you might not notice on your own, by explaining something about biology or geology you weren’t aware of, so I think a well written literary essay can help a reader to go deeper into a novel or poem or play and to see it more clearly, to understand how it works, how the parts fit together. (As can a critic help you to see new things about a painting or sculpture or a movie.)

Good literary writing is akin to poetry itself: just as a poem can help you to see a snowman or a red wheelbarrow more clearly, a good literary essay can help to uncover the inner workings of a poem. But only if the essayist has the same kind of reverence toward the work they are writing about as the nature writer has toward their subject. They aren’t revealing a “hidden message” but investigating the vascular system or identifying the various components of an ecosystem, or explicating the various geological layers in a rock face. See, look, here, how these things fit together so beautifully. Did you know that this rock is called gneiss … that the Carolina chickadee migrates vertically, not horizontally… that this hen of the woods fungus is edible?

Ende is right, a novel doesn’t have a message… Also, a novelist is the last person to ask to guide you through his novel. He had a world to show you and the novel is his showing… if you want a tour guide to accompany you on your journey through the novel, seek elsewhere.

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