The Limits of The Neverending Story

October 5, 2009

thenevI originally wrote this article about The Neverending Story for All The Rage then adapted it for a conference before thinking better of it and condemning it to the great documents folder in the sky. So yes, it’s a bit weird and theoretical and silly. But Atreyu features in Enemy of Chaos, and if you’re reading this blog you’re probably interested in fantasy and whatnot… I thought I’d share it here. Hope you like.

The Limits of The Neverending Story

1) Material decay
2) The Nothing
3) The effects of Naming

I’d like to try to prove to you in five minutes and three steps that the 1984 film The Neverending Story is, ironically, obsessed with limits. Its direction isn’t just horizontal causality, it is vertical reflexivity, and the end of the film is explicitly arbitrary, and not governed by the natural end-point of the story, so of course the title refers to both the story being told by the film-makers and the story in the book Bastian reads (and creates). The film’s limited nature is heavily referenced in the plot, in contrast to and in the face of the timelessness of unwritten stories. This central dichotomy is itself symbolised by the dual heroes of Bastian and Atreyu. The goal of both boys is to protect the book’s fantasy world Fantasia from the devastating advances of a force perhaps sarcastically called simply “The Nothing”.

1. MATERIAL DECAY. The film begins with Bastian diving into a bookshop to seek refuge from kids who for some reason want to throw him in the garbage. The bookshop reminds us that reality is limited by time – all material will decay. We find mortal finitude everywhere in this little shop – an old man unable to defend himself against young children and paper stacked everywhere that looks like it might catch fire any second. This early scene is mirrored at the end of the film, when the Dream Dragon chases the bullies into a big wheelie bin; they’re forced to come face-to-face with their limits by the limitless Fantasia – represented by the dragon. The bullies, like the filmstock, and its viewers, must encounter decay, or time’s passage. Fantasia remains secure in its “forever and ever” timelessness.

2. THE NOTHING. The story-within-the-story begins with the ‘nothing’ (actually a sort of boiling purple storm) coming for an assembled group of indigenous ‘animals’, flattening the landscape and sweeping away the mortal creatures. I think there’s a good case for the ‘nothing’ as the aporia at the centre of deconstruction. Derrida’s world is all about the ruin in the core of something that it needs to define it, but which also reveals its condition as incompletely defined. It’s as damaging as it is essential, but without the ‘nothing’ there would be no quest for Bastian and no satisfactory integration of the Derridan double-heroes.

The only creature immune to the destruction of ‘nothing’ is the ‘rock-eater’, himself made of rock, and thus relatively time-proof. The rock-eater is the last outpost of stuff …and in a world where so much signifies something about the film’s limits, he represents only exactly what he is. The rock-eater has a kind of representational transparency then. He’s immune to the ‘nothing’. He’s the objet trouve. He is Duchamp’s urinal.

The aporia appears repeatedly elsewhere, but particularly memorably when Atreyu encounters the Sphinx – twin robots with lazer-beam eyes whose path he must try to cross, and does so, successfully, only by cheating.

3. THE EFFECTS OF NAMING When he finally gets an audience with The Oracle, Atreyu learns that “The Empress needs a new name”. And only the human can do it. So, what’s going on here? It turns out Atreyu and Bastian’s quest is not about saving the Empress from a nebulous nothing – it’s about saving her from the nothingness of namelessness.

A name for the Empress gives Fantasia a way of ending the era of broadly symbolic fantasy and enabling it to intersect with the temporality of the human world. So Bastian breaks through into Fantasia and names her ‘Moonchild’, which we’ll gloss over, but the important thing is that a Derridan ‘proper name’ like this is a kind of compromise. The deconstructed name is a kind of memorial – eternal but standing for all the things it CAN’T describe. Names remind, but also remind that reminders are the only thing that can last forever.

Bastian names the Empress to secure her a form of eternal life in the real world but in doing so links the two worlds, reality and Fantasia, inextricably forever and ever. And this is the film, The Neverending Story’s final protest at having no ‘proper name’ itself. Eternity is a punishment as well as a reward, and there can be some solace in limits. In his last interview Derrida said “How do you finally respond to your life and your name?” The Neverending Story, I think, asks the same question.


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