April 28, 2012

The sense of an Ending

"You just don't get it"

Julian Barnes's Sense of an Ending is filled with quotations- glimpses. It starts with quoted memories- ends with staccato sentences- and an explanation of events that we have already been told is unsatisfactory. The book expresses in one hundred painful pages the life of a man- Tony- who had two real loves,  Veronica a student he met at University and Margerate who he met later and married and had a child with. This review will be thick with spoilers- it can hardly avoid it. The sense of an ending is about what ending means and what looking back is- the main character says at one point that as young people we always anticipate the desperation and sadness of growing old, but not that of looking back on youth- well this is a novel about looking back. Looking back through the haze at old relationships and old sadnesses and old disappointments- at our failures and our distress. And at the fact that even now, after all has been done, the memory fades and ultimately we 'just don't get it' even when its long gone.


I don't make much of a pretence to understand this book- in 100 pages it includes more ideas than most manage in three or four hundred. The nature of the book though talks about something that I'm fascinated by- the nature of history and the nature of memory. Those two things are related- from the first historian Herodotus who said that his history was written to make the deeds of famous Greeks and barbarians safe for the world. Herodotus expressed it first- but that aspiration remains a source of why we do history. We write biographies and think about individuals- not merely because we believe that individuals cause social change- but because in some sense history undoes death. The question that everyone who thinks seriously about the past thinks about ultimately is whether we are coating the past with lies. To what extent can we really remember- I think this of people I have lost in my own life, through death and folly, they slowly slip down into sorrow. The smile I fell in love with, the glint of intelligence in the eye, the smiling eyes- all gone into everlasting fog.

Death and folly are two words that marry together and spend their time in this novel entertwined in each other's arms. Thanatos and Eros, according to Tony's friend Adrian, are tossed in battle, one against the other until the end of time and, as one quote from the novel, from Elliot, puts it are all that there really is to life. Memory though provides an inadequate guide to these things. Tony remembers what he chooses to remember. We all do this. Barnes captures the way that we have to tell narratives in order to ensure that we can survive events. That girl that Tony loved, he has to forget so that he can forget the fact that they broke up. Who has not been there- rhetorically convincing themselves that the error that they made was insignificant. The choice of memory, the framing of narratives is something that all historians and politicians know by instinct, we forget that we apply this to our real lives. Our lives are not realities- they are constructed- the road not taken rears ahead in our thought and is associated with either pain or pleasure, depending on our self dramatisation.

History is therefore meaningless unrest- the tale of a fool, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Again Barnes reminds us that this is not true. Our narratives, Tony's narratives are false but that does not mean that there is not a narrative- it just means it is inaccessible to us. There is a narrative in this novel: something horrific happened. But you won't know at the end what that something is. It is veiled in darkness. Similarly a suicide at the beggining of the book invites questions about why it happened- and those questions remain unanswered. Thinking again by the end of the book, Tony realises that the past can be interrogated in different ways. The suicide of a boy who made his girlfriend pregnant is significant to Tony as an adolescent because he wants to know about the boy and why he did it, by the end of the novel he is interested in the girl and how she coped. The questions are all legitimate- there are answers but without the dead boy, the parents who are long dead, even the girl herself- those answers have gone. A history master argues with Adrian about the meaning of these events- Adrian says that it is the reports of the individuals that decide what happened, the master the actions- neither and both are right. To some extent, the only way to know what has happened is to know what happened next- if Tony is guilty then that is right.

Guilt and responsibility depend on history, in Roman law it was intention that made a crime, a crime. I can only be responsible or guilty for things that have happened, not things as they might be after an act I commit in the future. As an implication, as we grow older we become more and more guilty. Moral personality is deeply involved in the novel. Who is to blame depends on the questions that we ask. If the past is uncertain, then so is moral responsibility. We live in a world without a view from nowhere, and that is all there is to say. This novel leaves me exhausted and pondering, personally, my own folly and my own death. Suicide said Camus is the most fundemental philosophical question- despite Camus's argument, I think Barnes goes further- we don't know what happens and why- what we can only know is that the philosophical subject is history, and the philosophical moment is historical.

April 27, 2012

Uncle Sam

Alan Sked's inaugural lecture at the LSE focussed on national icons: Professor Sked talked about the iconographic figures of the past- Frederick the Great, Napoleon, Lincoln etc- and spoke about the way in which those individuals had developed a mythic histories. Sked is obviously right on this broad point- and we can see how far that's true when we look at more obscure figures who have become national icons. Take Sam Wilson for example. A US merchant in the 1812 war who sold food to the US army, Sam Wilson became through a series of accidents (chronicled here) the image of America. He became Uncle Sam. The point about this is that Sam Wilson was a pretty ordinary person- he had none of the glamour of a Lincoln or a Frederick, wasn't ambiguous or anything special at all.

Why was he remembered? Ultimately that isn't a question that can be answered- there isn't a particular reason save for a catchy name and a clever set of poster makers why Sam Wilson should have been remembered. What's interesting about him though is that it demonstrates the need that the young republic had for some kind of myth. The US was founded in 1776: Uncle Sam lived through both its founding and the other great traumatic event of its early history, its war with its former colonial master Britain between 1812 and 1814. Before 1776, the US had been 13 individual colonies- diverse religiously, economically and racially from each other. The divides that split America right up until the modern era were geographic, focussed on states. To keep this country together, it needed mythic figures- Washington, Revere, Jefferson- who could become a focus for allegiance. In a sense, Sam's generation gave rise to so many of these icons because Sam's generation was the generation that made the United States. The essential icon in that sense was and is Lincoln: the President who stopped seccession.

That draws me though to a final point- and it reflects back on Professor Sked's lecture and a lot of the way that we view history today. Uncle Sam was a useful image for the United States because it reaffirmed national unity, it helped keep national peace. Historians may look at the man behind the image and say that he wasn't the same as the image that was eventually projected of him: indeed they may look behind some images like the image of John Bull and say he never existed. That's missing the point. The point of the image isn't that someone like that existed- its that someone like that was imagined to exist. National icons have a function and the function is the interesting bit about them as icons. We might want to study some of them independently- Lincoln to understand how a federal system can split into warring factions for example- but that's not studying their status as icons. As icons what's interesting is what they do and how they are used within political debates and discussions: how they become the substance of people's imaginations. This is where history can become innately political because if an icon is the meaning of a myth, destroying the icon is in some sense destroying the myth. But some myths are useful to us in politics...

A.J. Ayer on Logical Positivism

I've just discovered on youtube a fascinating set of programs presented by Bryan Magee. He interviewed in the seventies, leading philosophers about their ideas- so you have Iris Murdoch talking about literature and philosophy, Freddie Ayer on Russel and Frege, Hilary Putnam on the philosophy of science, John Searle on Wittgenstein etc etc. I've finished this particular broadcast: the others I'm currently working through- but this discussion between Ayer and Magee is fascinating.



There are three further parts to the interview.

Why is this so fascinating? The philosophical content is very interesting of course. I think there is something more though to it than this: Ayer was responsible for logical positivism coming to Oxford in the thirties- with language, logic and truth he began a conversation about it that lasted for the rest of the century. The conversation therefore records not just a thinker talking about a set of thoughts, but a thinker talking about his own impact, in his youth. During the fourth part, Magee asks Ayer to reflect on what he thinks of the weaknesses of logical positivism: Ayer's responses are very interesting because they show a wry detatchment from the Ayer of the 30s, a withdrawel from some positions, the adaptation of other positions. Its a perspective that is worth having and one I suspect that requires a certain type of maturity, confidence and longevity to attain to.

April 25, 2012

Oxford Philosophy: When Argy Bargy and Talky talky ruled the world



This dialogue and there are five further sections between Isaiah Berlin and Stuart Hampshire is an exploration of what Oxford philosophy meant in the middle years of the twentieth century when J.L. Austin dominated it. Its an important document philosophically of course- and I'll let you actually listen to what Berlin and Hampshire say- far more lucidly than I could ever- to discover that. However its also important as a cultural document: as whatsoever we think of Oxford philosophy and the contributions of Berlin, Hampshire, Ayer, Austin and others to it, we have to see it as a cultural moment as well as a philosophical moment. This was philosophy as reared probably for the last ever time on its own within a great university. Hampshire comments that there was no contact with the outside world- noone in Oxford during the 1930s cared about the outside world's opinion of their thinking, the outside world being both America and Cambridge at this point. Berlin tells of an Oxford dominated by schools of argy bargy (the analytical Pritchard) and talky talky (Collingwood and the Hegelians).

What's so interesting about this moment is that it was so insular. One might suggest for example that even in Oxford this was an insular group- they never had anything to do with the Inklings just down the road from Berlin's rooms in All Souls let alone with Cambridge or Princeton and Harvard. That culture whether in the Inklings or here with the analytical philosophers is obviously very powerful. They could focus on a set of texts that noone else understood- whether that is C.I. Lewis on perception or A.J. Ayer on Language, truth and logic. They were able to forge interesting questions in a very intense and concentrated fashion and in both the cases of the Inklings and the Oxford tradition, those questions produced great works- of literature and of philosophy. Concentration and insularity are undervalued today but are crucial for these very reasons: there was a point to having a life concentrated like that of a medieval monastery. What it produced was a common culture, a common reference point out of which the participants could emerge- and of course bitter rivalries- one thinks of Lewis and Tolkein, Ayer and Austin.

At the centre of the Analytical philosophers is Berlin. I remember reading in Berlin's writings a self depracatory statement that he believed his importance in life was his ability to knit together others. Berlin had a great mind and there is a reason that people still read what he had to say in later life- but its an important observation of his other skill, as a facilitator. Important I think as well because the group created a context for its members to operate within- thinking to Berlin's own Personal Impressions, one gets the sense of a thinker who knows who his audience are and knows how to appeal to them. This both gives him the confidence to move forward with his intellectual project- by the 40s definitely not within analytical philosophy- and also the security of having that project critiqued and accepted. It exposed the work to some blindnesses- Quentin Skinner later picked up on several of Berlin's methodological blindnesses- but it also enabled the work to happen. We underrate this often: recently thinking about Berlin I put him into a category of emigree intellectual, and obviously he along with Karl Popper and others was such an emigree (of a slightly earlier generation than Popper), but one's eventual intellectual group which one considers one's home is still vital to one's development. I don't think we can take the emigree out of Berlin, but neither can we dispense with the room in All Souls for our understanding of any of those that met there.

In truth, it was not just what the division between argy bargy and talky talky meant when it was taught which gave Berlin and Austin and Ayer their background, it was the fact that they all knew within a narrow Oxford context, what those two titles meant.