I remember visiting a Renaissance Faire with friends once, where one of the performers was a Master of Insults. His insults, he said, were the most brutal and searing we’d ever hear, and for a fee, he would verbally abuse any one of us on a sliding scale of severity depending on how much we paid: $10 for something mildly scathing, $30 for a real friendship-ender, and so on. Or, if no one felt brave enough to take the offer, then the show would simply end, no insults, no spectacle.
It sounded like fun, so I volunteered for the Master to insult me. My friends and I pooled together some money, enough to get something decently noxious, and gave it to the man. He took it, and for the next two to three minutes, the man waxed lyrical about my parasitic relationship with my friends at the table (who had paid this man to put me down because I just couldn’t take the hint), how my own feces was glad to be rid of me whenever I made a bowel movement, and so on. It was good clean fun, a nice way to start the day at the Ren Faire, and we got some good laughs out of it. But when the show ended and we all stood up to leave, something about the experience just felt… kind of empty, and boring, like we hadn’t gotten our money’s worth. He’d given us exactly what he said he would, didn’t he? Why did we feel let down?
When I think back on that day, I notice a difference between what the Master of Insults promised us and what I love about some of my favorite films, stories, and music. I hesitate to turn that difference into a rule about what musicians, actors, writers, and other artists should and should not seek to accomplish with their work. But I think it’s a distinction that bears noticing, since just like this show at the Ren Faire, every performance, movie, and novel opens with some sort of promise: prepare to be amazed; I’m gonna nail this, just you watch; this is going to be a scholarly, smart-sounding piece; I’m gonna make my teacher proud.
Often we promise many of these things at once, and we won’t always state them outright to the audience the way the Master of Insults did, using tools like our body language, vocabulary, and repertoire choices to communicate them instead. But something in particular about the Master of Insults’s promise, as well as all the other examples I gave above, stands out to me—mainly that upon closer inspection, they don’t seem that different from one another. “I’m going to achieve/accomplish/resolve x,” they say. The vow that I will give you a solution to a problem or a question. There is security going into a story knowing that we’ll get answers by the end, or listening to the first movement of a concerto knowing that we’ll hear a recapitulation of the main theme. But is this what really enchants us and keeps us coming back for more? Put another way, is it the job of a musician, a writer, an actor, or any other artist to solve mysteries, or to pose them to the audience?
A lot of this might come down to personal preference. I don’t think, for instance, that closed-loop promises must necessarily make for bad art. There are plenty of stories dear to my heart that I would have hated if they’d never explained how a character survived a colossal explosion, or revealed who the real murderer was in a satisfying way. But there are also stories where that kind of ambiguity has actually enriched the experience for me, sometimes even haunting me for weeks after I first heard/read/saw it. It’s one of the reasons I tend to love good horror movies so much. The Lighthouse and The Witch, two films by Robert Eggers, have small, contained plots that you could summarize in a sentence or two (two men are stranded on an island tending to a lighthouse and slowly start to lose their minds; a family living in the wilderness grows ever more paranoid after something abducts their baby into the woods). And that’s kind of all you need to know for your imagination to start going wild: who (or what) took the baby? is one of the men lying to the other? who will survive in the end?
Perhaps the storytellers will answer all of our questions, but we don’t know that. What makes these stories so enchanting (and frightening) to me is that there is no guarantee. Especially in The Witch, where all the characters are extremely devout in their religious faith, the wilderness surrounding them actively promises “nothing,” no response to their prayers, no divine force that will sweep in and reestablish order. They are on their own, and the audience is right there with them, struggling to make sense in a world that is by definition senseless.
I don’t think, however, that uncertainty must only inspire fear. The comedy duo Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz, for example, do long-form improv shows that thrive specifically on having no idea what they’ll be saying or doing that night or where it will lead. They take prompts from the audience and then, rather than planning out a plot, just begin exploring the material right away, throwing caution to the wind and making up scenes on the spot for an hour straight. “Not knowing ahead of time” is their only really promise: “We’re going to take some funny ideas from you guys, play with them for a bit, and see where we end up! Join us, won’t you?” Any “plot resolutions” that happen along the way (brilliant as some of their spur-of-the-moment storytelling acrobatics may be) are more fruits of the process than goals for which they are aiming.
The way I see it, these artists are promising audiences much more than a product; they’re offering an opportunity, in the form of open-ended questions. Flannery O’Connor described the job of fiction as “[embodying] mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind.” And yes, the uncertainty of opportunities and mysteries can be very uncomfortable, embarrassing even, but it’s also what can make them so magical. If we’re talking about fiction, what are the elaborate worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien, Brandon Sanderson, and other epic fantasy authors but vast and mysterious sandboxes inviting the reader in to explore and play? Even if the stories they house do wrap up tidily, we were never promised a specific result, were we? All we were promised was the pure potential and adventure of a strange and exciting new world in which to get lost.
But I think there’s something else at the heart of mystery, opportunity, and unanswered questions that makes their inherent uncertainty so thrilling, and so terrifying. On one hand, the artist can hold up and point to objects in their work (an impressive insult; a feat of strength; a beautiful song). It’s like holding up a photograph with clear definition, shapes, and colors; I know exactly what I’m looking at, and that’s comfortable. My perceptions find solid ground in that photograph.
On the other hand, when the artist poses a mystery and doesn’t readily point to any solution in particular, it’s like holding up a mirror, pointing our imaginations back toward the source of our own creativity: what do you think? what would you do? who are you? A mirror is non-referential, unbiased and always changing in what it reflects, and suddenly this duality between art/artist and audience gets fuzzy. It’s as if there are only co-creators—co-explorers—starting with an unsettling question, a funny idea, or a strange new world and jamming on what they see reflected back at them. Everybody is just pointing out the cool things they see, sharing an odyssey through pure possibility and saying, “Whoa, check that out!” or “Huh, that’s interesting. Let’s take a closer look!” Sure, it might feel more secure to know what’s going to happen in the end, but what are we ever really knowing? When we choose to fall into the mirror instead, knowing not-knowing, we might start to know ourselves. And maybe that’s what makes it worth doing again and again and again.