Tag Archives: Julian Barnes

The meaning of everything

I have just finished The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes. It’s a contrived book, surely, but it does manage to get across the intended meditation: aging and memory and epistemology and the many flaws of the human brain. I feel that I am at an age that lies roughly halfway between young and old, and on some days I feel able to strongly anticipate some of what being old must feel like; whereas, interestingly, I find it harder to get back into a five year old’s shoes, even though I was once five years old. Ambition—youth’s temptress—is leaving me, but what goes in its place? We here in the West are still not really ready for this question, so millions of us at any given moment suffer in the void.

I read an extensive article the other day about Thoreau. I did not know (or, more likely, forgot) that he was such a puritan—and successful in literature mainly because of Emerson. Maybe the writer of the article overstates the case, but these stories of now-famous people who are read (or viewed, or whatever) extensively by our unpromising youth irritate me. I’ve changed since my university years and even since my thirties in this regard: I no longer revere the canon. Not only that, I see how dangerous the canon is. Certainly there are Great Works of Literature that are truly great and should be read. However, when you get past your thirties, you see that writing and stories you once found mesmerizing now seem trite and banal. This might be because of the Information Age. Or because of what must be the Age of Advertising. Or just because of age. (The other evening I could not manage to watch one more thing on a screen or on a page. The tank was full. Everything sounded exactly like everything else, and this goes for music, too, but in that case at least you don’t have to use your eyes and do the work of comprehending language.)

It is validating and fascinating to delve into the lives of other people by reading journals or novels; it is a powerful thing to do this and come away with the strong feeling that nothing of significance ever changes. The problems of Sylvia Plath are the problems of many people and many writers. There is a wonderful line somewhere in the Barnes book about how the trick of life is its continual success in making you believe that it means something.

 

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