Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Sense of an Ending

Looking for a way out

"Later on in life, you expect a bit of a rest, don't you? You think you deserve it. I did, anyway. But then you begin to understand that the reward of merit is not life's business.

Also, when you are young, you think you can predict the likely pains and bleaknesses that age might bring. You imagine yourself being lonely, divorced, widowed; children growing away from you, friends dying. You imagine the loss of status, the loss of desire - of desirability. You may go further and consider your own approaching death, which, despite what company you may muster, can only be faced alone. But all of this is looking ahead. What you fail to do is look ahead, and then imagine yourself looking back from that future point. Learning the new emotions that time brings. Discovering, for example, that as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been. Even if you have assiduously kept records - in words, sound, pictures - you may find that you have attended to the wrong kind of record-keeping. What was the line Adrian used to quote? 'History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.'

I still read a lot of history, and of course I've followed all the official history that's happened in my own lifetime - the fall of Communism, Mrs Thatcher, 9/11, global warming - with the normal mixture of fear, anxiety an cautious optimism. But I've never felt the same about it - I've never quite trusted it - as I do events in Greece and Rome, or the British Empire, or the Russian Revolution. Perhaps I just feel safer with the history that's been more or less agreed upon. Or perhaps it's that same paradox again: the history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest and yet it's the most deliquescent. We live in time, it bonds us and defines us, and time is supposed to measure history, isn't it? But if we can't grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history - even our own small, personal, largely undocumented piece of it?"

- in The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Musee d'Orsay

Still, my memory's persistence...

the persistence of memory by salvador dali



G C said...

Enjoyed reading your post. Fantastic photos too.

Peter Olson said...

Reading - and listening - to your latest posts, it seems that you must be in some kind of melancholy mood at present. :-)

Yes, history can be described, read and understood in many ways. ... and about the present, we are overloaded with information, but finally ... do we really get the right description of things? In 50 years the present events will probably be described very differently ... or be neglected.

About our own "history", maybe we shouldn't care too much. I think that what will happen to most of us is just that we will be forgotten. In the meantime, maybe we should just try to do "our best", try to enjoy life..., which already is not always obvious!

Claudia said...

I can certainly understand your point of view and I always, always appreciate your optimistic advice, dear Peter.

The book I quote is an excellent book, short-listed for last year's Booker Prize. I chose these paragraphs because right now I really do feel that the concepts of time, memory and history are so subjective and pertinent to me. It isn't really my history I care about, it's that of the people I love and seem to know too little about.

Thanks for always coming back, Peter. I'm a very moody blogger.

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.