03 May 2012

The Senses of "The Sense of an Ending"[s]

"I remember, in no particular order:
—a shiny inner wrist;
—steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;
—gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;
—a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams;
—another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;
—bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door.
This last isn't something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn't always the same as what you have witnessed." Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending — first section.
"You get towards the end of life—no, not life itself, but of something else: the end of any likelihood of change in that life. You are allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question: what else have I done wrong? I thought of a bunch of kids in Trafalgar Square. I thought of a young woman dancing, for once in her life. I thought of what I couldn't know or understand now, of all that couldn't ever be known or understood. I thought of Adrian's definition of history. I thought of his son cramming his face into a shelf of quilted toilet tissue in order to avoid me. I thought of a woman frying eggs in a carefree, slapdash way, untroubled when one of them broke in the pan; then the same woman, later, making a secret, horizontal gesture beneath a sunlit wisteria. And I thought of a cresting wave of water, lit by a moon, rushing past and vanishing upstream, pursued by a band of yelping students whose torchbeams crisscrossed in the dark.
"There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest." Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending — final section.
<====================  =  ======================>
"It is not expected of critics as it is of poets that they should help us to make sense of our lives; they are bound only to attempt the lesser feat of making sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives. This series of talks is devoted to such an attempt, and I am well aware that neither good books nor good counsel have purged it of ignorance and dull vision; but I take comfort from the conviction that the topic is infallibly interesting, and especially at a moment in history when it may be harder than ever to accept the precedents of sense-making—to believe that any earlier way of satisfying one's need to know the shape of life in relation to the perspectives of time will suffice.
"You remember the golden bird in Yeats's poem—it sang of what was past and passing and to come, and so interested a drowsy emperor. In order to do that, the bird had to be 'out of nature'; to speak humanly of becoming and knowing is the task of pure being, and this is humanly represented in the poem by an artificial bird. 'The artifice of eternity' is a striking periphrasis for 'form,' for the shapes which console the dying generations. In this respect it makes little difference—though it makes some—whether you believe the age of the world to be six thousand years or five million years, whether you think time will have a stop of that the world is eternal; there is still a need to speak humanly of a life's importance in relation to it—a need in the moment of existence to belong, to be related to a beginning and to an end.

"The physician Alkmeon observed, with Aristotle's approval, that men die because they cannot join the beginning and the end. What they, the dying men, can do is to imagine a significance for themselves in these unremembered but imaginable events. One of the ways in which they do this is to make objects in which everything is that exists in concord with everything else, and nothing else is, implying that this arrangement mirrors the dispositions of a creator, actual or possible:
...as the Primitive Forms of all
(If we compare great things with small)
Which without Discord or Confusion lie,
In that strange Mirror of the Deitie.
Such models of the world make tolerable one's moment between beginning and end, or at any rate keep us drowsy emperors awake. There are other prophets beside the golden bird, and we are capable of deciding that they are false or obsolete. I shall be talking not only about the persistence of fictions but about their truth, and also about their decay. There is the question, also, of our growing suspicious of fictions in general. But it seems that we still need them. Our poverty—to borrow that rich concept from Wallace Stevens—is great enough, in a world which is not our own, to necessitate a continuous preoccupation with the changing fiction." Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending — first paragraphs.
 "We have our vital interest in the structure of time, in the concords books arrange between beginning, middle, and end; and as the Chicago critics, with a quite different emphasis, would agree, we lose something by pretending that we have not. Our geometries, in James's word, are required to measure change, since it is on change, between remote or imaginary origins and ends, that our interests are fixed. In our perpetual crisis we have, at the proper seasons, under the pressure perhaps of our own end, dizzying perspectives upon the past and the future, in a freedom which is the freedom of a discordant reality. Such a vision of chaos or absurdity may be more than we can easily bear. Philip Larkin, though he speaks quietly, speaks of something terrible:
Truly, though our element is time,
We are not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
   They link us to our losses ...
Merely to give order to these perspectives is to provide consolation, as De Quincy's opium did; and simple fictions are the opium of the people. But fictions too easy we call 'escapist'; we want them not only to console but to make discoveries of the hard truth here and now, in the middest. We do not feel they are doing this if we cannot see the shadow of the gable, or hear the discoveries of dissonance, the word set against the word. The books which seal off the long perspectives, which sever us from our losses, which represent the world of potency as a world of act, these are the books which, when the drug wears off, go on to the dump with the other empty bottles. Those that continue to interest us move through time to an end, an end we must sense even if we cannot know it; they live in change, until, which is never, as and is are one.
"Naturally every such fiction will in some measure repeat others, but always with a difference, because of the changes in our reality. Stevens talks about the moment out of poverty as 'an hour / Filled with expressible bliss, in which I have / No need.' But the hour passes; the need, our interest in our loss, returns; and out of another experience of chaos grows another form—a form in time—that satisfies both by being a repetition and by being new. So two things seem to be true: first, that the poet is right to speak of his giant as 'ever changing, living in change'; and secondly, that he is right to say that 'the man-hero is not the exceptional monster, / But he that of repetition is most master.' Moreover, he is right about another thing, which for us who are medium men, living in a reality which is always February, is the most important of all. If he were wrong here we should have to close up our books of poetry and read somebody on Necessity:
                        Medium man
In February hears the imagination's hymns
   And sees its images, its motions
And multitudes of motions
And feels the imagination's mercies...."
Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending — final paragraphs.


Randal Graves said...

Most days, it seems that unrest is all there is. I'm still trying to get past penning escapism.

Jim H. said...

Take heart. Hey, being perpetually pissed off or simply pissed (as our British cousins might have it) or even uncomfortably numb, as I've said over and over at this joint, are totes legit. Ask Bro BDR.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I still want my motherfuckin' change, dammit.

Portugal said...

his is a heart-pounding, page-turning book that demands close attention. It is also a beautifully constructed and written work. The sentences and ideas are crisp and poignant. On a literary and philosophical level, the book is fascinating, a story brimming and oozing with ideas. Everything in this novel challenges our sense of how well we think we understand ourselves. Just like Camus' "The Stranger", this book knocks you out with surprises you don't see coming.

Meera said...

We live life with the assumption that age and time erode our memories of the past - that pain mitigates, and joy too looses it's ecstasy. If it sounds like a gross generalization, at least this is what I, as a 26 year old, had so long believed. In this poignant and tragic account of a 60 year old looking back at his life - indeed, all the way back to his school days - Julian Barnes (or rather Tony Webster) argues otherwise.

Reconciled to a lonely life, Tony Webster is past the stage of responsibility; way past. As he waits for the inevitable end to his days - no, it's not an illness, but presumably a state of mind - a letter from a lawyer stirs memories of a long forgotten past; memories even he had thought his mind to be incapable of conjuring. As the events unfold, he is forced to reevaluate his old relationships, reconsider the consequences of his actions, and indeed, re-imagine his past.

The title is apt to the point of being 'philosophically self-evident', for this is a book about a past that is never stagnant, a remorse that is incurable, and a grief that is inconsolable.