Obama14: Virtue Ethics and the Redemption of White America Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending

The copy is attached as well.

Obama14: Virtue Ethics and the Redemption of White America

Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending


Howard Adelman

Part II History and Redemption

Last night, Nancy, I and our friend, Lynn, went to see David Russell’s comic romance, Silver Linings Playbook. Pat Solatano played by Bradley Cooper had just finished a term of eighth months in a mental institution for beating the bejeezus out of a history teacher (who better?) employed at the school where his wife taught after he found the two together in a shower. He lost his own job as a teacher, lost his wife and his own home and returned to live with his parents. His mother, played by Jacki Weaver, delivers her dry humour with impeccable timing. His father, played by Robert DeNiro, as our friend Lynn quipped, has recently carved a brilliant career playing criminal nutcases living on the precipitous edge of normalcy.

One of the very hilarious scenes is the occasion when DeNiro parleys his bet on the outcome of a football game and ties it to the outcome of a dance competition that his son has entered with Tiffany (played by Jennifer Lawrence) as the most clear-edge portrait of a woman I have ever seen on screen, clear-edged to the point of madness. The movie is effectively about parleying bets until they tumble over and under one another like a sex scene to the accompaniment of a washing machine and the accumulations that Adrian in Julian Barnes’ novel, The Sense of an Ending, speculates to be the essential calculus for understanding human relationships. Like the best of romantic comedies, it is a story of unrequited love and arrested development, of sex postponed but culminating in marriage in the highest tradition paid to the secular religion of our age, romantic love.

The movie, Silver Linings Playbook, is a reflection of a dominant contemporary myth dressed up in a jester’s costume. In contrast, The Sense of an Ending has a great deal to teach us about reality. While Adrian behaved as if life was a parley, Tony had behaved as if it was just a matter of addition and subtraction and had maintained his sanity and equilibrium thereby. Unfortunately, Adrian lost his bet and ended with nothing. Why did the best and the brightest in this case lose?

Since the four boys had not yet been granted status as adults and allowed to become full participants in the religion of our time, romantic love, they could only engage in idle speculation about why Robson committed suicide. The consensus seemed to be that it was just an intellectual balancing act and a scientific commitment to the principle of population stability. Since he was bringing one new life into the world, Robson would have to leave it. After all, Guitar in Song of Solomon played according to the same principle by killing the same number of Whites as Blacks killed by Whites who escaped being held responsible for their actions. Even if the motives and the outcomes were different, the principle of balance was the same.

Except there is a suggestion, a hint (a feint?), that Adrian demurred. Was it an adumbration of the end? Perhaps Adrian’s final act was an exercise in absolute freedom and determining control over life and death consistent with Camus’ view of the ultimate in freedom. That is what we are led for much of the novel by Tony’s ruminations to believe. The real question in life for the boys was whether they would make a real choice in their lives instead of remaining on the sidelines as bystanders and become the protagonists portrayed in fiction who loved and lost, who suffered and were ecstatic, who were betrayed and even killed, who saw power and justice and engaged in revolution and wars. Real literature, in the end was about "character developed over time," virtues and vices and not the follies and foibles of romantic comedy.

If so, then wallowing in fleeting memory was not where it’s at, as the four boys seem to see. They would have to wrestle with history. But what if history was just the historiography as relayed by the victors as Tony believed, or an onion sandwich as Colin cynically joked with the same old oscillations between war and peace, tyranny and rebellion, always stuffed with the same delicious delicacies that left you with a foul breath? Adrian, however, offered another option: "History is the certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation." As Frank Kermode wrote – of which more later – a crisis is not about what is out there but about how we have framed the narrative to wrap our minds about what is out there — "crisis is a way of thinking about one’s moment, and not inherent in the moment itself."

This was the lesson that Barack Obama had learned in grappling with his own memoirs and trying to get a grasp on how power is acquired and exercised. History is the crossing point between individual virtues and collective actions. History was not trying to subsume events and actions under laws of probability or certainty as Carl Hempel had argued. Nor was it the empathetic re-enactment of the decisions individuals made in accordance with the ethical and other norms they upheld so that we could understand the reasons why they decided to do what they did as Bill Dray had argued. History was a conundrum that had to be puzzled through like a detective story or like a piece of fiction that was about history as a detective story by ploughing through vaporous messages from the past and constructing a quasi-coherent narrative to frame it.

The vapours rarely explored concerning historical figures of action are the fictions they read and not just the fictions they write or the serious books they read. Julian Barnes makes my case. To himself, Tony Webster, the narrator, ends up as a bystander, an individual of no consequence except as a reporter and interpreter of Adrian. And his girlfriend of college days ends up with Adrian, in part, because the books Veronica owned were both ones she read and, more importantly, ones that "seemed to be an organic continuation of her mind," whereas the books that Tony had on his shelf, if he honestly read them, were "functionally separate straining to define character." If you are or are to become a person of history, then the books you own, read and love are extensions and revelations of your character. On the other hand, it is not clear to me whether you have to choose to be clear-edged while in practice being anything but, or choose mystery and manipulation over clarity as many politicians and manipulative men and women are wont to do.

In Barnes’ novel, the first iteration of strong feelings, instead of ambiguous expressions of longing and self-doubt, comes from Adrian after Tony had inquired about Jack, Veronica’s brother, who is ahead of Adrian at Cambridge but also studying moral sciences. After several initial non-committal comments about Jack, that he has heard and read about him, Adrian becomes vehement and barks, "I hate the way the English have of not being serious about being serious." Obama, even through he wears his semi-permanent pearly smile with aplomb, is always serious about being serious. In contrast, Tony had stagnated and his girlfriend Veronica began to introduce more space between herself and Tony.

That was because Tony had chosen survival rather than life. The irony is that the Tee of Life in the Garden of Evil is about choosing survival and not entering into life and history. What most people do not recognize is that the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden is not the option of immortality. That was never an option for either Adam or Eve. They were humans. If they ate of the Tree of Knowledge they became self-conscious of death, self-conscious of the tension between eros and thanatos. But then what was the Tree of life? It was Tony’s choice – choosing the safe path, the peaceable path the path of self-preservation rather than risk. His marriage to the clear-edged Margaret, his second wife – and their split – would follow the path of least resistance as his life became more and more empty and more and more non-committal. Obama chose the path less travelled by. Adrian in the end chose not to walk the path, but at least he evidently chose. In contrast, Tony "began to feel a more general remorse – a feeling somewhere between self-pity and self-hatred – about my whole life. All of it. I had lost the love of my wife. I had abandoned the ambitions I had entertained. I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded – and how pitiful that was."

But what about Adrian? In the end Tony’s mother appeared to have it right. Adrian was just too clever. He thought things out and had the disciplined character of a man of courage to act on what he believed. He acted on those conclusions and left common sense behind, unlike Tony who had a surfeit of common sense. To his enormous chagrin, in the end his common sense made no sense at all.

Adrian appeared to have suffered the hubris of rationalism. Rationalism is the soul mate of romanticism and the two are wedded together in married agony in our contemporary secular faith. The former go out into the world under the illusion that man is a possessive individualist driven by greed with the tools of a utilitarian calculating brain. The latter stay at home or go to the movies and watch chick flicks and dream of a prince charming, even if that prince charming has just been released from a mental hospital even though he still has not gained mastery of his anger and rage, even if the black horse of rage yoked to the white horse is really in charge of setting the direction. And what happens if a man of principle possessed of pure practical reason and the powers of deduction and not the instrumental powers of calculating reason, is about to enter the world at large and meets a member of the opposite sex who is a possessive individualist, who is an instrumental calculator? It appears that he does not have a chance. He is doomed, especially since he, as well as Tony, had even been blind to the identity of the super manipulator.

Tony would, with his friends, turn what they believed to be definite in memory into anecdote. The rest they relegated to uncertainty and, with overlapping and backtracking that uncertainty in turn was relegated to the storehouse of shreds and patches of false memories put away in storage boxes we seal and do not revisit even though we continue to pay the storage charges. Decades would go by before chance intervened once again and the story could resume with time running backwards as frozen anecdotes were cast aside in favour of critical inquiry. Until that time, Tony had survived, had eaten of the Tree of Life, and history was still being written by survivors rather than victors.

As time moves on there is less rather than more certainty and less rather than more corroboration of what your life has been. Further, though history that happens underneath our nose ought to be the clearest, it is the most deliquescent dissolving and melting into the anecdotes that freeze the past into current memory dollops.

But what if that which is deliquescent entails not only evaporation, as when the hot frying pan is plunged into the cold water in the sink, but liquefaction takes place and absorption from the air brings a dehydrated life back to a vital presence? A mere little document can do it – return memories frozen in anecdote back into the lively process of historical discovery and revelation. For the turning point in the novel comes when, four decades later, Tony himself re-reads the mean-spirited letter of vituperation he had sent both Adrian and Veronica after Adrian and Veronica had gotten together. For aside from the clear edged but not peaceable piece of correspondence, we get a glimpse of what Tony could have been and had not become, the counterfactuals of history so revealing of what perceived in juxtaposition could have been. If only Tony could have married the clear and distinct ideas of Descartes with the sentiment and empathy of David Hume and Adam Smith. It is for the absence of the latter not the clarity of the former that Tony begins to feel remorse and regret.

What might have happened if Barrack Obama had a Tony as a best friend when he was young? Not very likely! Tony wasn’t a Boswell. In any case, Adrian checked out and decided not to become a Johnson. 70% through the novel, Tony asks a key question: "What if by some means remorse can be made to flow backwards, can be transmuted into simple guilt, then apologised for, and then forgiven? What if you can prove you weren’t the bad guy she took you for, and she is willing to accept your proof?" Tony remained deluded. He just never got it.

But what about Adrian, why did he opt out, not just mentally, but altogether? He had so much promise when he went up to Cambridge. Was it the outcome of what follows from a pure principle of practical reasoning? Was it really the grand refusal of "an existential gift"? Or did he act for more mundane reasons? As the novel progresses towards the end and new affective states reopen blocked-off neural pathways, we are taken by surprise at what we learn and are forced to rewrite our memories though not our histories.

Cambridge enters the novel through another route. Frank Kermode was a professor of English at Cambridge before he left for Columbia University and then Harvard. The title of the novel is borrowed from his volume of English criticism published in a turning point in history for many Jews, the Six Day War in 1967 – The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction – when Kermode was teaching at University College at the University of London. I was introduced to Frank Kermode as a literary critic through my first wife, Margaret, but I also remember the scandal the same year his volume of criticism came out when he resigned as editor of Encounter when it was revealed that the CIA had been funding the journal.

I last looked at an essay of his a few years ago when I was talking to my youngest son about apocalyptic themes in movies. The subject came up again – not Kermode but his thesis in his book – that fictions are the instruments we use to make sense of the world by constructing what I have called meta-narratives, ways to grasp and make sense of reality by giving it shape and form. The issue arose in the context of the environmental crisis when my two youngest sons were home for Christmas, my youngest with his focus on film and horror, apocalyptic themes and continuity of life through sacrifice of the other. Daniel, his slightly older brother, is a passionate environmentalist and the possible collapse – I believe he thinks likely since we are not doing enough to reverse the process – of the environment hangs over his life like a heavy cloud.

It is not that he is morose or does not get on with his life. He has not been immobilized at all and speaks against pipelines. But the sense of an immanent end to the world permeates his consciousness and colours his activities – he made what was to me a very impressive presentation to the hearing on the contentious pipeline in the west. He feels like Sisyphus rolling a heavy boulder up a hill, made much more perilous and far more difficult because it is actively being pushed down by the decadent cynics who mock the whole process and by the American imperial adventurism which displaces the main crisis facing the world onto adventurous campaigns against Islamist terrorism and a determination to begin a new era with the conquest of Iraq to rid it of the fictional weapons of mass destruction it was claimed the country had.

I owe those categories of framing the issue to Kermode. I owe the sense that the consciousness of the young generation has been shaped by the environmental crisis to Daniel just as the consciousness in my youth had been shaped by the nuclear arms race. There is a mood to an age that cannot be separated from the conditions in which we live and fiction is a means to make sense of it. The mood is far heavier than when the nuclear arms race hung over my generation and when the Cuban missile crisis occurred.

But this is not, I believe, why Barnes borrowed the title. There is no sense of environmentalism. The characters are members of the baby boom generation. They do not even seem to be very conscious of the nuclear arms race or the other crises stirring up Britain at the time. In that sense they seem to be living outside history.

I take that possibly to be Barnes’ point. The title is somewhat ironic. For though the ending is needed to reconstruct the story, the whole story is set by the beginning – hence my frequent references to the options available when you are in the Garden of Eden. The characters are not located between world history and their own personal lives for the story about the dialectic between history and memory is told as if world history did not exist and the thesis is about historiography rather than history itself. The main character imposes his fictions on his experience, not to make sense of the world, but to reinforce his own common sense which tells him not to engage the world. If we live in an age of kairotic time where each moment is charged with enormous significance, you would never know it from reading this novel by Barnes.

But the reference to Kermode has another point – linking Kermode’s idea of the apocalypse back to Barack Obama. As Mark Lilla (2012) wrote in his review essay of "The Great Disconnect: ‘I Am the Change’," by Charles Kesler in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, 27 September, "The conservative mind, a repository of fresh ideas just two decades ago, is now little more than a click-click slide projector holding a tray of apocalyptic images of modern life that keeps spinning around, raising the viewer’s fever with every rotation." As Lilla wrote elsewhere in the essay, "the conservative apocalypse has always been a movable one." But the conservative mind has always been informed by an apocalyptic mindset.

Unlike most critics from the left, and bracketing Kesler’s criticism, I think that Charles Kesler’s 2012 analysis of the political thought of Obama in his volume, I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism is on the right track. I have tried to document Obama’s commitment and understanding of liberalism. Further, unlike Lilla, I agree with Kesler’s assertion that Obama is intent on becoming a great transformational president and not just being president. And in another essay I will go further and argue that Obama not only has very large ambitions for the American polity, he has large ambitions concerning the two rival parties for power within that polity.

But there is a prior point. Kesler, like most conservatives, insist that Obama’s conservatism is a ruse, a public relations trick, something not to be taken seriously. Because Kesler is himself a conservative in the Leo Strauss tradition, he has not attended to Obama’s conservatism because he not only believes that liberalism has inherent contradictions, but because he mistakenly sees liberalism and social conservatism as unalterably opposed. I have added the thesis that Obama’s position has been informed by virtue ethics and a version of social conservatism. He is not just a liberal or a social democrat.

Obama may loves fiction that sets up worldviews to which he is opposed – and there are many – and we have discussed four of them, but I doubt if he appreciates fictions that purport to represent reality or construct history in terms of a grand idea as Kesler has created. That’s our job.

Kesler starts his grand narrative with George E. Hegel and put forth the old idea discarded by most contemporary Hegel scholars that Hegel viewed history as one grand sweep of human nature moving towards the absolute of perfect freedom and that the modern instrument for forwarding the idea was the state and its bureaucracy. Though Hegel certainly depicted the state – and civil society – as keys to understanding modernity, Hegel was not writing teleological history. Otherwise, why would the Owl of Minerva flap its wings at dusk? History looks backwards. Marx may have inverted Hegel in many ways to make it serve a materialist forward revolutionary thrust, but this was not Hegel’s agenda. Ironically, Kesler reads Hegel through Marxist eyes.

Secondly, the absolute is not just at the end. It is at the beginning and at every key point along the way. For the irony is that at any point we look backwards we presume we have an absolute standpoint when where we are standing will only prove to be a way station. Third, you have to understand how humans enter into a state of critical self-consciousness, a condition of living in history, but probably also of writing history. In Hegel, that begins not with a fight over power and recognition, a fight between ways of life as Cain and Abel were engaged, or between economic conservatives and liberals in our contemporary period over who deserves recognition as a defender of the highest values, as a defender of freedom, and but with the internal struggle of life and desire, with the struggle between the two trees in the Garden of Eden, between eros or desire and survival – the Tree of Life – the deadly stultifying and stagnant governing thrust of Tony’s life rooted ironically as it is in thanatos. Barnes understands this. Kesler does not. Understanding the beginning is far more crucial that even the trajectories we construct.

Kesler’s beginning starts with the American religion, its faith in the constitution. And for Kesler that constitution enshrines the ideas of John Locke not those of Hegel. According to John Locke, humans were naturally possessive individualists. However, in the state of nature, they could not exercise their passion to work on the world with their labour and convert it into artifacts that they could possess and thereby extend themselves and their identity though holding property. But that inherent will to possess combined with their inherent ingenuity allowed them to create money. Money allowed humans to accumulate. Storing bananas up was useless for they would only rot. Money abstracted from natural decay. But that led to scarcity. That led to war. That led to the social contract and men agreeing to set up government just for their collective security and to set the rules of the game for competitive possessive individualism. Hence the idea of limited government.

Except for the last deduction, it is one story of the beginning. It is one story of the role of government, not, as I suggested, a necessary logical consequence of the beginning story even for John Locke or the other members of the Scottish enlightenment. Nor does it determine the trajectory of everything going downhill to betray the constitution one the academics like Woodrow Wilson and the state builders like FDR and then Johnson had their way. It is a story that also has created an historical fraud by excising Republican presidents from this history or painting the ones that are included as traitors. In the building of the debt, the elaboration of regulations and the additions to the welfare state, Republican presidents are either blanked out like pictures in the Kremlin’s story book or painted with the same brush but with a lighter hue of red.

As was seen in Barack Obams’s inaugural and in his State of the Union Address, his set of policies are indeed ambitious, but they are based on a different foundational story and grand narrative that includes virtues ethics as well as a program of social democracy and that moves forward by articulating an original myth of caring and sharing.

I will bring the various elements together but I first want to move into foreign policy and discuss first Obama’s attitude to rights in terms of the movie, Zero Dark Thirty and then his attitude to the use of drones.

Tomorrow: Obama 15. Zero Dark Thirty – – Deciding to Kill bin Laden 19.02.13



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