Obama13: Virtue Ethics and the Redemption of White America. 17.02.13; Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending

Please find a copy attached as well. I will finish the discussion of memory in relationship to history tomorrow and how it throws light on Obama when I complete my discussion of Barnes’ novel.

Obama13: Virtue Ethics and the Redemption of White America

Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending


Howard Adelman

Part I Memory (Part II will be a separate blog sent on Monday.)

The Sense of an Ending is a superb novel that tells a story of how memory works but, even more, why a whole collection of memories never turned into history, and, therefore, when memories can and do turn into history as has been the case with Barack Obama. Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending came out in 2011 and with almost no real contest won the Man Booker prize by being, as one of the judges, Gaby Wood, opined "The most obvious book on the list". The book revisits and acquires insights by re-examining the main character, Anthony (Tony) Webster’s own faulty memories and sense of loss. Like The Invisible Man, a novel set against a society ridden with the schism of a deep racial divide but at base a novel about character and virtue, The Sense of an Ending is a novel about the exploration of virtue ethics but this time in a totally middle class bourgeois milieu with slights and attitudes to reflect internal middle class divisions in British society. Telling the reader, if you have not read the book, that Adrian killed himself, is not spoiling the novel since this is revealed early and is not the crux of the suspense.

The story begins with "I remember…" But no sooner does the novel begin than it reminds us of the end. For most of the recalled images are of moving water – steam rising when a hot frying pan is put into a wet sink – an adumbration of an actual scene when Tony Webster, the narrator, goes to meet his girlfriend, Veronica’s, family and Veronica’s mother, after serving Tony an extra fried egg as a gesture of her approval of him, casually "half-threw the hot frying pant into the wet sink" and water fizzed and steam rose on impact delighting the mother with the small havoc she had created. Even at the time when we read it in the first part of the novel, we have no idea of how ominous that depiction will be and how its deeper meaning is only revealed on re-flection.

Is the image of sperm circling a plughole a picture of Tony’s state, at least in his long adolescence and early university years as a young wanker and then an older retiree? Surely the other image of water, the image of a river in which the direction of flow is disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface, is a reflection of most of Tony’s life in which there is all kind of movement, but no flow, much excitation on the surface but too little going on underneath in the deep brain and in the heart.

Then there is the image of a river rushing upstream lit by six chasing torch beams. Tony did some things other than study and see Veronica when he was at Bristol University. He witnessed a singular outstanding event, even mysterious and other-worldly – a Severn Bore when the water flowed backwards up the river and "it looked and felt quietly wrong, as if some small lever of the universe had been pressed, and here, just for a few minutes, nature was reversed, and time went with it." Though Tony was amazed at seeing the phenomenon, he never connected it with himself as he moved around and around in a stagnant backwater. Who would expect him to actually experience the phenomenon in a very personal way in his retirement and the whole construction of his memory and hence of his life would have to be radically inverted!

We have the sense of the ending before the narrative has started – "bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door". The water is dead; it is still. The water is no longer evaporating upward or eddying downward into a plughole, no longer perversely flowing upstream or confusing us about the direction of its flow by a stiff wind. The water is still. There is no way of even seeing it because the door to the bathroom is locked. As Barnes writes, "The last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you witnessed." How ironic that depiction would turn out to be. Is that because Tony was not critically self-conscious, not prescient and did not know or investigate the clues that Adrian, if he could not swim in history, would enter that stagnant bathtub before it was covered in algae and began to stink, would enter that bathtub and cut his wrists. Why had he not warned Adrian of what he knew – or at least thought he knew — but had not yet articulated even to himself, that Veronica "was one woman in the entire world a man could fall in love with and still think life worth refusing"? How did what appeared first as simply an exceptional expression of wrath and rage turn into a prophetic claim and then, in another twist, turn back on itself and reveal that Tony never got it and never would.

Why did Adrian, a youth with so much promise, go into the bathtub? Each time we think we have an answer it will just as certainly be undermined. Adam left the Garden with Eve. They entered history. Adam did not refuse his orders to go. After he sinned, Tony chose to remain behind and eat of the fruit of the Tree of Life, of perpetual stagnation. Adrian decided not to after he ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil but to die rather than leave the Garden. Barack Obama followed the path set by Adam rather than either Tony`s or Adrian`s path, though he has a great deal in common with Adrian.

How can you begin a novel with a reminder of the end? How can you begin a novel with a memory of something you did not or could not possibly have remembered? Not only is memory different than history, but memory itself seems to lack any fixed sense of identity. If Heraclitus said that you could not enter the same river twice, suggesting, in opposition to Parmenides’ search for the essence or the eternal or the unchanging, that all is change, Barnes begins his novel by undercutting even that proposition. We cannot even understand change as flowing in an ever moving stream. Is change evaporation upward or a whirlpool into a black sink hole? Is change a river paradoxically flowing backwards or in any and all directions depending on each gust of wind? Directionless! Aimless! Much more confusing than simply stepping into a flowing stream – especially when the water is perfectly still, especially when the stillness could never have been witnessed, especially when the image may not even be something remembered.

The problem is not just time’s malleability but that its movements are so affected by our emotions – speeding up and slowing down and not simply going every which way. And time can go missing "until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return." But what if it does return? What if it comes back and turns the world we thought we knew upside down? The novel begins with this sense of dead time, with time missing, with time gone, with a time when we no longer will be able to remember.

We are introduced to a gaggle of four schoolboys, the original three who wore their watches with the faces on the inside of their wrists so that they could pretend that time is not passing and that they cannot live in the world of Peter Pan forever. Adrian Finn stood out if only because he refused the opportunity of being bored, of trying to escape time’s suffocating embrace. The first one we meet is the last to join the Gang of Four – Adrian Finn, a tall, shy boy. Is Barack Obama the stranger who "initially kept his eyes down and his mind to himself"? Certainly he attracted attention – not only of his fellow pupils, but the attention of the masters of the school who wanted to figure out his intelligence and sense of discipline. Was he scholarship material? Was he of use to the reputation of the school? The intellectual superior youth wise beyond his age was not treated by his teachers as an end in himself.

One of those masters was their history teacher, affable Old Joe Hunt "whose system of control depended on maintaining sufficient but not excessive boredom." Was that how all systems were maintained – by managing boredom? Is boredom the core human condition so that all activity is a flight from its downwardly spiralling swirl into blackness? Or is it, as Peter Tooley depicts in Boredom: A Lively History, a very dynamic if directionless activity to adapt to our environment? Is boredom interesting, something to be managed, controlled, dissected and differentiated? It is certainly not a feeling, not an emotion, not like fear or rage, not like love or humiliation. It could be something of which we know nothing because we are too busy escaping it even to assign Adam the job of naming it. Or boredom could be profound, informing us of the intellectual substructure or the foundational meta-narrative of our lives if only we would attend to it? In either case, it had to be managed. Or does it? Is Tony Webster’s life proof that managing boredom, if clearing up your messes and not leaving messes consists of managing boredom, is the worst route to take on life’s journey?

Anthony (Tony) Webster is introduced as his reverie was interrupted by Old Joe Hunt asking about the character of Henry VIII’s regime. Why the zeitgeist of Henry VIII? Perhaps because of our disgust with him, the man who disposed of wives on a whim and the mighty Catholic Church because he wanted to dispose of a wife! If boredom has to be managed, what better way to do it than ask about a fixed characterization, a stereotype, especially a stereotype that immediately arouses the tantalizing emotion of disgust which is itself a milquetoast kissing cousin to boredom, akin to boredom as annoyance is to anger? Perhaps an attention to tasteless whitebread instead of an olive and spice baked baguette might provide some insight into the still water of that bathtub when nothing happens. What if we look at Henry VIII through the eyes of Shakespeare, one of Obama’s favourite authors? What if we look for stability and constancy through the lens of a period of serial philandering summed up in the life of a polygamous royal butcher, a period when wives were considered as both matters of inconvenience and the key to the continuity of power and control?

If Tony is the middle class witness to Arian Finn’s short life, does another friend, the cynical Colin, play the roll of jester to Henry VIII, the Will Somers who survived all that chaos and went on to keep jocularity alive in a time of violent conflict, civil war, chaos and suffering through the unstable regimes of Edward VI and Mary I until Elizabeth I was crowned and a long and relatively peaceful reign ensued? If Adrian intrigues the masters by his intellect, was Colin useful as a comical distraction lest we become fixated on the horrors of the age? What better way to manage boredom than offering a joke or two. Certainly far better focusing on a cautious know-nothing comical survival than being mesmerized by the intellectually clever machinations and inventiveness of true ignorance!

Enough of reverie! Enough of idle speculation! Enough of escape from the vicious grasp of boredom! Let’s get to the real thing. Tony Webster, the voice of the novel, the non-present viewer of the dead water in the bathtub, introduces us to the intellectual depth of Adrian Finn before we meet Colin and Alex, the other two boys in the clique. Phil Dixon, like Tony Judt from Kings College in Cambridge, was their English teacher who, with his interest in T. S. Eliot and birth, death and copulation, enters the unfolding novel. Why was T.S. Eliot, the monarchist anti-Semite, one of Obama’s favourite writers? Surely Obama did not look forward to counting out his life in coffee spoons and wearing his trousers rolled? Surely Barnes also did not since he started a novel with three out of four boys who wore their watches rolled and inverted on their wrists.

Phil Dixon, the English teacher, asks Adrian Finn what a poem was about. What is Barnes’ novel about? Adrian Finn answers without a pause, "Eros and Thanatos". Like Adrian Finn, Obama was a gangly very intelligent kid but from a home where the mother not the father had abandoned the family. With the solid support of his mother, Obama never had to confront eros with thanatos a la Freud and contemplate (and commit) suicide as Adrian did, but everyday he had to walk a tightrope to resume his commitment to life and history. The issue was not personal choice a la Camus and choosing your own destiny, but coming to grips with your own past repeatedly and living to fulfill the destiny chosen for him as any hero of old. "The clarity of his life" reflected in his commitments and service. As for John Kennedy and for Plato, courage is a vital virtue that must be cultivated and developed through the self-examined life.

Did Adrian Finn have the "courage of his convictions", the intellectual agility to wrestle with sex and death? Or was that the source of failure rather than the illusion that he exercised absolute freedom by alone determining whether he would live or die. For that’s where all the conflict and chaos, the escape from boredom starts, with the conflict between desire and life, with the conflict between two trees planted in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Goodness and Evil and the Tree of Life. Adrian Finn could ask the question: Why did Adam and Eve not eat of the Tree of Life first? Then they would not have had to become self-conscious of the death penalty they faced.

But all Tony Webster could say to Phil Dixon his English teacher was that the poem was about a barn owl. He could not even add that the Owl of Minerva only spreads its wings with the falling of the dusk, that we can only understand our histories through a rear view mirror. Adrian Finn, who refused to wear his watch rolled, went into history as if he could read history forward rather than backward. He began where time began, with sex and death, not with looking over his shoulder and examining the past so that he became like the Milkman in The Song of Solomon frozen into inactivity and boredom. Adrian’s new found three friends were occasionally serious when they were not taking a piss. Adrian was essentially serious though he took the odd break to have a piss.

As Adrian Finn became friends with Tony, Alex and Colin he always remained the outlier, Charles de batz-Castlemore D’Artagnan to the Three Musketeers, by joining in the fencing club and sports, preferring gymnastics and the high jump while Tony and Alex made fun of conformity and Colin adopted a satirist’s disdain. While his three friends remained tone-deaf to the rhythms and the music of the time, Adrian brought a clarinet to school so he could train to be a Pied Piper. Adrian kept his own counsel while his three best friends cultivated their cleansing scepticism. Tony denounced the political system, Colin denounced the family and Alex questioned any reference to reality as a benchmark at all. But Adrian believed in all three, in family, in the political system and in reality. As does Barack Obama!

Adrian may or may not have been on the way to becoming a liberal social democrat but he was always a social conservative who believed in family, who believed in politics and the efficaciousness of the democratic process with all its faults, and much more profoundly believed that there was a reality and that society was not just a projection of his own beliefs. For Adrian Finn was a social conservative who did not accept relativism. He was not like the individualists of both right and left who so dominated political discourse, who believed that the central issue of life is material existence. Adrian wanted to believe in and do what family, what society, what reality required rather than that which was determined by something or someone else. Though the Tree of Life might be his or everyone’s major preoccupation, the key to understanding and to living in history, as Henry VIII knew, was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and eating thereof.

Barack Obama pledged in his State of the Union Address to strengthen the Middle Class in spite of his own recognition that a great portion of that middle class, and certainly of those who supported him, who belonged to the not-so-genteel social Darwinism of the bourgeoisie who, in contradiction to their own overt beliefs, offered great sacrifices to ensure their children would be better than they were. They were futurists. They needed to be won over on a promise of hope even though their beliefs told them that life had no meaning and you couldn’t even tell which way the river was flowing let alone step into it twice.

Barack Obama, Adrian Finn and I were all raised in single parent households, Adrian and I at a time and in a social milieu when single family households were unseemly, when it was a matter of humiliation, when my mother never told her fellow workers at Simpsons that she was separated and then divorced. But Adrian, like Obama, "said he loved his mother and respected his father". Unlike his three friends, Adrian did not accept that youth was a time when you were kept in a holding pen while you shut your eyes to the reality that when released from your youthful prison you would only enter a larger one. Adrian was born free, mature beyond his age. He believed, believed in the family, believed in politics and the democratic process and believed that principles should guide action, but he also believed what Camus said that the greatest decision and freedom of all is choosing to live or die. What counted was not the outcome but that you made the choice.

When the boys debated whether the individual was responsible for what happened in history or whether the laws and forces were the determinant or even whether, as Colin quipped in morbid disbelief, it was caprice, Adrian opined that the real question was why we asked the question about responsibility? "Isn’t the whole business of ascribing responsibility a kind of cop-out? We want to blame an individual so that everyone else is exculpated. Or we blame a historical process as a way of exonerating individuals. Or it’s all anarchic chaos, with the same consequence." We ask the question about responsibility to escape responsibility. The issue then is not history itself but the mind of the historiographer who writes it.

Then the boys learned that Robson who was their age in Sixth Science had committed suicide. He purportedly had a girlfriend and got her pregnant. How did the boys react to Robson having a girlfriend, making out with her and even conceiving a child? They never evinced any sentiment of empathy for his family, for the abandoned girl and especially for their fellow student. Instead, they were jealous for they had not even suffered the pangs of humiliation by a girl scorning a tentative feint that had even the appearance of a move on a member of the opposite sex. They had learned all about romance and sex, all about the suffering and sacrifice, the pain and the humiliation. But they had yet to experience it for themselves.

When Tony did have the experience, it was everything he anticipated it would be for his first serious relationship was with Veronica. From her he received contempt and from her father and brother, condescension, and he would feel deep humiliation until the only way he could cope was to walk away himself. But Tony walked away only when he and Veronica actually crossed the line of unfulfilled passion, of unrequited love. Tony recognized that he did not want to be the one who would just do. But, in the end, as we shall see, he never did get it.

Tomorrow: Obama14: Virtue Ethics and the Redemption of White America

[Tags Obama, Barnes, The Sense of
an Ending, social conservatism, memory]

Obama13.Virtue Ethics.Redemptiom.America18.02.13.3.doc

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