Hemingway’s early writing for the Toronto Star now online

An excellent resource has appeared online – a collection of Hemingway’s early writing from his time as a journalist for the Toronto Star. Hemingway admitted to owing a great deal to his days as a reporter and critics have claimed it had a huge impact on his aesthetic.

You can see many of the elements of Hemingway’s famous and innovative style in some of these reports. Take this one, ‘The Wild West is Now in Chicago‘, in which his proto-objective, deadpan style captures the intensity of the gamblers’ den, alongside his interest in dramatic situations:

Gambling is flourishing again after a temporary retirement. Of course in every city there will always be certain types of gambling that can go on in spite of all the police can do. Those are the games that require no apparatus, but can be conducted anywhere. When the police raid a crap game, for instance, all that the gamblers must do is have the doors hold long enough for them to sweep the money into the buckskin bag that lies flat open on the billiard table, throw the dice out of the window, and the evidence is missing.

This is a great resource for anyone interested in the development of Hemingway’s writing.

Reading Ernest Hemingway: local repetition

There has been an interesting discussion on Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time on the Guardian’s Reading Group. I contributed to that discussion, but I realised that I wanted to expand on some of the points made there (some of what follows has already been posted on the Reading Group discussion).

In short, I wanted to demonstrate how Hemingway’s (in)famous style enables us to come to conclusions about what kind of writer he was, his legacy, how we’re able to say he was interested in ‘machismo’, say, or war, or truth. There are two salient elements that even the casual reader knows about Hemingway: that he had a ‘larger than life’ personality and that he developed and innovative, much-imitated writing style. In my view, it’s the latter that reveals the most about his ideas, interests and themes.

Only a close reading reveals more, enables us to think clearly about what the stories mean, and how they fit within our ideas of the kind of writer he was. So, in the following two blog posts, I’ve chosen to focus on a clearly recognisable and direct element of his aesthetic, that of his use of repetition. The first focusses on what I call local repetition, the second on general repetition. First to local repetition.

Ernest Hemingway, outside the bullring forever, Pamplona

Using repetition to create meaning and effect

Hemingway won’t often tell you what to think or what his stories mean directly. Rather, his writing is more likely to suggest meanings and effects that are created through complex configurations of words, images and ideas. One way of creating connections is through repetition, the repeated use of a word or phrase. He used this throughout his career and in much of his writing, including his short fiction.  When you repeat a word you encourage the reader to compare one instance to another. Any changes in context – where that word appears, what it comes before or after – affect its meaning and effect. Often, such meaning and effect take place over several instances of a repeated word or phrase.  One can think of the process as continual accumulation of layers of meaning, as a rock grows through layer upon layer over time. Sometimes, repeating a word implies that this word is significant and so it’s done for emphasis. But that’s not the only reason and repetition is often used to suggest richer, more sophisticated meaning and effect.

‘Local’ repetition

Broadly speaking, there are different types of repetition. This extract is from the opening of the short story ‘Big Two Hearted River’ and uses ‘local’ repetition, repeated words and phrases that appear within the same sentence or passage:

The train went on up the track out of sight, around one of the hills of burnt timber. Nick sat down on the bundle of canvas and bedding the baggage man had pitched out of the door of the baggage car.

There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country. The thirteen salons that had lined the one street of Seney had not left a trace. The foundations of the Mansion House stuck up above the ground.

The stone was chipped and split by the fire. It was all that was left of the town of Seney. Even the surface had been burned off the ground.

(The Collected Short Stories, 143)

The use of the word ‘burnt’ and its variations repeated throughout the passage create associations between ideas that are not made by an overtly didactic, directly revealing language.

The first use of the word appears while the train is ‘out of sight’ from the perspective of the town and introduces the suggestion of its destruction, although as yet it is confined to the burnt timber. As Nick leaves the train, the reader temporarily assumes his perspective: there is ‘no town, nothing’ because it has been ‘burned-over’, an evocative image about which this passage will turn. There follows more specific examples, the salons and the Mansion house, culminating in its stone that was ‘chipped and split by fire’.

Finally, the perspective becomes once again more distant, as the narrator describes the surface that was ‘burned off’ the ground. The repeated word ‘burnt’ and its alternatives create a pattern of association between non-figurative observations in the text so that the reader is invited to create relationships between seemingly disparate elements.

One of those elements is the link between past and present. Part of the effect of this passage is achieved by comparing how Seney was before it was destroyed by fire and how it is now. Such shifts in time are echoed by shifts in perspective: Seney is at first ‘out of sight’, then it is shown implicitly through Nick’s perspective, through to a specific focus upon the different components of the former town, towards what appears a general summary.

What assures continuity between these accumulating meanings are the associations created by the word ‘burnt’. Importantly, the notion that Seney is ‘burnt over’ introduces an explicit connection with the implicit source of Nick’s distress, the war. Repetition is a form of ‘composition’, a skill Hemingway developed from his work as journalist and through the influence of Pound and Stein, by placing ideas in proximity as to invite a comparison between them.

As we can see, Hemingway doesn’t tell us what to think explicitly: we need to trace the connections ourselves between ideas to make sense of his writing. So far, we’ve done that by looking at how local repetition works in a single passage. Tracing the different meanings of the word ‘burnt’ and its variations reveals both a greater depth to the passage quoted above and the extent to which Hemingway would go to write fiction that revealed more than it resolved.

In the next part, we’re going to look at what I call ‘general’ repetition, where words and phrases are repeated throughout a story, in what are sometimes called motifs.

Camus’ L’etranger and Kayne’s ‘Power’: loving the hate, hating the love

Listening to Kanye West’s opening section of his song ‘Power‘, I immediately thought of its similarity with the final words of Camus’ novella, L’etranger (The Outsider). First, from L’etranger:

For the final consummation and for me to feel less lonely, my last wish was that there should be a crowd of spectators at my execution and that they should greet me with cries of hatred.

No, the opening verse from ‘Power’:

I’m living in the 21st century doin’ something mean to it
Doing it better than anybody you ever seen do it
Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it
I guess every superhero need his theme music

What do these two very different takes have to teach us about hate and about the haters? I’ve written on this subject before but here there seemed a much more complex relationship between L’etranger‘s main protagonist, Mersault and the Kanye-narrator ‘character’ in ‘Power’. Hate, rather than simply a by-product of difference or success, seemed intimately entwined with how to live one’s life, a reflection of a sophisticated relationship with oneself and one’s society.

Mersault explains why he encourages the hate: ‘for the final consummation and for me to feel less lonely.’ The final consummation, the latter meaning complete or finalised, points to the end of his life: he will soon be executed. This echoes his belief that death will be final, without hope of an afterlife. Here it is worth noting its echo of Hamlet’s ‘to die, to sleep / No more […] ‘Tis a consummation / Devoutly to be wished.’: both hope for that finality, that complete and utterly irreversible ending.

Consummation also suggests that the hatred of the crowd will provide some kind of closure, a rise in tempo in the rhythm of the final moments of his life. It summarises a new phase in his understanding of his morality and that of the world in which he lives: that is, he has experienced an epiphany that shows him how one might live, how one might die.

This epiphany is linked to his loneliness and therefore his place in the world, the place for his beliefs and behaviours. When one thinks of Mersault’s loneliness – or more broadly, his relationship with the world – there is a growing irony to the idea at the centre of his desire to be hated.

On the surface, he says shortly before the end of the novel that he experiences a ‘fraternity’ with the universe, since they share a ‘benign indifference’ towards human affairs. Yet such fraternity does not appear to stave off the human, urgent sense of loneliness he feels in his cell, awaiting execution. The baying crowd will permeate that loneliness because they will provide him with ‘attention’, an intense focus on him as an undivided object of their focus, and more – with hatred, that most intense and immediate of emotions. It is, in this sense, a palpable and very human desire.

Yet, the notion of ‘object’, which I use advisedly, should alert us to the problems inherent in the crowd’s reaction, as should the complex irony and duality at the heart of Mersault, especially in the later scenes.

Because Mersault has become an object of derision for the crowd, he understands that they do not fully grasp his particular humanity, his agency. For them, he is merely a vessel into which to pour their malign engagement. The crowd, unlike either Mersault or the ‘benign indifference’ of the universe with which he feels so closely bonded, is intensely aroused and judgemental. They have found a type of meaning in directing their anger towards a person, an idea – even if it is a false one. He, and the universe in which he has finally found a brotherhood, has been fatally misunderstood.

Throughout the novel Mersault has behaved in a way that is at odds with societal norms. This culminates in the powerful subtext, that he is tried and found guilty not for the crime of murder, nor for his lack of regret (although they are central factors) – but that he didn’t love his mother. Morevoer, he does not judge wordily affairs: we’ve already learnt, shortly before the final passage of the novella, that he recognises his mother’s need for a new beginning despite her age and the impossibility of a long-term marriage to her partner. At the end of the novel he understands that his seemingly strange behaviour, even to himself, has found an allay in the fundamental law of the universe.

Mersault will stand ‘alone’ only in the sense that he remains steadfastly outside of human affairs, but at one with the universe. In this respect, their hatred means that he has been right about his fraternity with the benign indifference of the universe: it is, paradoxically, their hatred that makes him feel at home. In short, he has become a friend of his enemies’ enemy, a member of a club that wouldn’t have the crowd as a member.

Kanye West’s ‘Power’ also lingers on hate and the haters that make it possible. On the surface, encouraging such haters (or ‘haterz’, the ‘z’ a strident visual reminder, a blade cutting a zig-zag through cloth, an ending) is bravado: it says ‘I don’t care what you think – I’m better than you and everyone’.(Missy Elliott’s 2003 ‘Gossip Folks’ assumed this sole function memorably.) Here, Kanye tells us that the ‘Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it / I guess every superhero need his theme music’. It’s a forceful reaction to the contemporary idea, spread through blog comments, message boards, Twitter and so on, that HGH, or Haterz Gonna Hate. If you’re successful (or increasingly even if you’re not but you just happen to be online) you are a target.

In this sense, like Mersault, Kanye’s endorsement of the haters only serves to show him that what he is doing is right: artistically valuable, morally upright and commercially successful (I use Kanye for shorthand to refer to the ‘narrator’ in ‘Power’, who, given the subject of fame, music and power in the song, is a fair approximation of the song writer himself). In a world of bland uniformity, eliciting a reaction, especially one as powerful as hate, is success. If Kanye feels hated, he feel successful: he is encouraging a reaction in his audience. Like Mersault, on a superficial level, hate at least means you’ve made a difference, an intense one, too: when the haters disappear, so do the lovers.

Of course, it depends on who is hating you, as we’ve seen for Mersault. For Kanye, that sometimes means parts of the establishment. He includes Saturday Night Live in ‘Power’, who have ridiculed his ill-advised interruption at the MTV Video Awards. If those who you don’t respect or value hate you, then you are doing something right. In this case, it’s less profound than Mersault’s epiphany but not less specific: SNL are name-checked and dismissed in brief and vulgar word play. But, as we’ve seen, hate can give way to love in this complex world: when Kanye performed live on SNL, he removed the offending lyrics from ‘Power’.

Two repeated phrases reinforce the complexity of Kanye’s sophisticated relationship with himself and those who love and hate him. The first is the refrain, borrowed from King Crimson’s titular song, ’21st Century Schizoid Man’. Like Mersault, who is torn between societal norms and his, albeit largely unexplored, indifference towards the world of human affairs, Kanye is ‘schizoid’, a divided self. The song explores this division as one between the private and the public self, between his natural creativity and the pressures of fame, between his younger more authentic persona and the new one, ostensibly undermined by celebrity. Taken with ‘All of the Lights’, which follows ‘Power’ on the album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and forms with it something of a musical diptych, Kanye laments the extent to which fame has changed him and in doing so has driven his family away.

Such divisions create the potential for hate. But it is only when Kanye appears to hate himself, as he does periodically throughout the song, that he can rejoice and endorse the ‘screams’ of the haters. In such instances, when he hates himself, they are right to hate him. The music of their hate chimes a note of ambivalence: when they hate him, they are jealous; when they hate him, they are right – he deserves it.

The second key phrase is: ‘No one man should have all this power’. The obvious identity of the man is Kanye. Again, it is a dual symbol: it reinforces the notion of him being an immensely powerful figure whilst at the same time undermining its legitimacy. For Kanye, that power comes from a complex relationship between those who hate him – including, at some point, himself; and how he might use the notion of those who hate him as a way to understand that he is taking the correct path. If Kanye, in ‘Power’, doesn’t share a direct and entire comparison with Mersault, they do possess a similar duality that means that they both love to hate and hate to love.

The Cézanne trail at Aix-en-Provence: a photo diary

I was lucky enough to spend some time in Aix-en-Provence this weekend, to enjoy the city and to explore the life and work of Paul Cézanne. I have loved the work of Cézanne for some time now, so to visit the major locations in his life was a real pleasure. We took the Cézanne Trail, visited his atelier (studio), journeyed over to Mont Sainte-Victoire and – although not directly related to Cézanne but which I’m including for completeness – we visited the village of Gordes, one of the most picturesque in all of France. This is a brief guide, with photos.

The Cézanne Trail
The ‘Cézanne Trail’ runs throughout the city, an imaginary path that links the thirty or so significant places in his life – where he was born, the café where he met with friends, the cemetery where he is buried, and so on. It is almost impossible to lose the trail, since it is marked with beautifully detailed golden discs around one metre apart, like that shown above. (Despite this, we still managed to lose it – but that is a different story.)

Cézanne, outside the office de tourisme.

The trail begins (at what is, incidentally, perhaps the most impressive tourist office I have seen in any French city), with a familiar image of Cézanne in bronze: an older man, in working clothes, with a backpack full of artists’ materials (later, we would see that very backpack and other materials in the atelier, or workshop, where he painted later in his life: more on that below).

Exploring in Aix-en-Provence.

The wonder of a trail like this is that you get to see a great deal of what is a very beautiful city whilst having a purpose – a trail that doesn’t (often) repeat itself. Some of the places on the trail are less interesting than others, either because they are less directly linked to Cézanne’s life, or because they have been renovated and their original interestingness lost. The trail conveniently stops half way at Les Deux Garçons, a café where Cézanne used to meet friends and where you can watch the world go by.

The light is incredible in Provence.

One of the most impressive locations is the cemetery where the famille Cézanne are buried, Le Cimetière Saint-Pierre. Impressive, but alas for us not illuminating: the map at the entrance which should contain a numbered guide to the plots was incomplete. What’s more, the office was closed and the cemetery too large to explore in the hope to find it. In short, we couldn’t find the grave but wandered through the smartly tendered grounds in any case. (Even an internet search could not reveal the precise location – all I know is that it is in allée 6 according to this blog post. Too late for me but perhaps not for you.)

Le Cimetière Saint-Pierre. Cézanne and family are buried here - somewhere.

Atelier Cézanne: the workshop
Although not strictly a part of the Cézanne trail, the atelier or workshop, is a short walk up a hill, in a pleasant garden scattered with tables and chairs (and ideal for shade when it’s hot). Although there is only one room and a sizeable garden, it is most definitely worth visiting in my view.

Atelier Cézanne, interior. Copyright Atelier Cézanne

To stand where Cézanne stood; to take in the unique arrangement of sunshine and light through the enormous window of his studio; to be surrounded by the everyday objects of his life – some of which were painted in his most celebrated still life work – is really quite special and one that stays with me as unforgettably moving.

Mont Sainte-Victoire
It’s impossible not to visit what might be considered Cézanne’s muse, the Mont Sainte-Victoire, which he painted several times. Impossible because it is so central to his life and painting that any visit is incomplete without it; impossible too because it is so near to Aix itself.

Mont Sainte-Victoire can be seen from Aix - if you get high enough

You can see the mountain from Aix, in fact and from this perspective it has its distinctive triangular shape: one side steep,  another running slowly in a straight line – the outline in total described as an enormous wave.

Mont Sainte-Victoire, Cézanne's 'muse'

Gordes, in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region
Described in my tourist guide as one of the most photographed places in all of France – quite a feat in a country already packed with beauty – is the hillside village of Gordes. It is built into rock and looms impressively above the road and the plains below.

The hillside village of Gordes in Provence, from below

Close by is the Sénanque Abbey. When visited at the right time, when the lavender fields that surround the ancient abbey are in full bloom, it must be quite amazing. We visited just out of season but it was nevertheless impressive. The road nearby climbs steeply to take us north, back to the Alps, back to home.

The village of Gordes, carved into the rock

What remains almost unbelievable about the trip to Provence is the immense change in landscape from the green mountainous area of where I live in the Alps, to the red earth and mistrals of Provence. Cézanne country is unforgettable.

Senanque Abbey, Gordes. The fields are full of lavender.

Details: if you want to take the Cézanne trail, you can pick up free map at the Office de Tourisme, in the heart of Aix-en-Provence, or download it here. The office provide information on the other places I’ve detailed above, too.

Naomi Wolf on Madonna: we apologize

Naomi Wolf writes on why Madonna receives such vehement criticism for her work. Having admitted that Madonna’s film W.E. was ‘far from perfect’, Wolf goes on to suggest the reasons why the singer and director attracts such hostility:

The reliable media theme of “Hating Madonna”, whenever she steps out of her pretty-girl-pop-music bandwidth, is so consistent that it deserves scrutiny in its own right.

Why can the press just not wait to hate Madonna at these moments?

Because she must be punished, for the same reason that every woman who steps out of line must be punished. Madonna is infuriating to the mainstream commentariat when she dares to extend her range because she is acting in the same way a serious, important male artist acts. (And seizing the director’s chair, that icon of phallic assertiveness, is provocative as hell.) She is taking for granted that she is allowed to stretch. This is intolerable, because Madonna has not done the sorts of things that allow women of immense talent to get “permission” or “to be liked”.

What is so maddening? She does what every serious male artists does. That is: she doesn’t apologize for her talent or for her influence. What comes across quite profoundly when one interviews her is that she is preoccupied with her work and her gifts – just as serious male artists are, who often seem self-absorbed. She has the egoless honesty of the serious artist that reads like ego, especially in women.

Madonna is that forbidden thing, the Nietzschean creative woman.

I’m not sure this is true of everyone and I know it’s not true of me. I think we need to look at something like Everything Bad is Good for You to recognise how far audiences have grown in sophistication. As such, audiences are easily able to separate when necessary the superstar status, the riches, the incredibly successful pop career when assessing a new film. I’ve seen some of Madonna’s films and they are not very good; similarly, I didn’t like her former husband Guy Richie’s films (to mark a convenient point of comparison) either.

It’s difficult to prove a precise ‘external’ influence when assessing a work’s reception. Even when we look at a director’s or writer’s ‘psychology’ we need to be careful when over-ascribing its effect on the work. Similarly, it’s difficult to link the pervasive inequality faced by women to encompass an attitude by an entire industry, or wider still, the entire audience. It may be true; but the kind of bald assertion we find here (necessarily, given its a newspaper piece) serves to undermine those who think they deal even-handedly with the things they see, read and listen to – which is everyone.

One way of tackling Wolf’s assertion is that there are examples of powerful women who are adored (as Madonna was for so much of her career and still is) and think of how men who have been equally successful have been reviled. This kind of necessary and sufficient conditional analysis (as it’s known in philosophy) soon reveals examples that appear to counter Wolf’s cursory reading.

I think we need to trust the audience, ourselves, more and at the same time be suspicious, as Wolf is, of the critical biases and attitudes that critics betray. Little is pure or innocent, few of us are immune from prejudices. Certainly there’s some sparkling commentary on this article of Wolf’s and so I’ll leave you with one from GregUS, who captures that odd sense of feeling one should apologise for something someone else may or may not have done:

I can’t remember ever hating Madonna, so I can’t apologize for hating her, and I’m very sorry for that. I apologize wholeheartedly for being a man who isn’t apologizing. I firmly resolve to do something for which I should apologize, since a good pro-feminist new man should always apologize for something.

I will plow my car through a mailbox, in front of a patrol car, when I know a female officer is on duty. I will apologize profusely to her and to you.

Now do you like me? I apologize if you don’t.

Three types of allusion in Julian Barnes’ novel, ‘The Sense of an Ending’: Part 1 – ‘simple’ allusion

Over the course of the next three blog posts, I discuss the role of allusion – the reference to one text from within another – in Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Prize winning novel, The Sense of an Ending.

The Sense of an Ending is a novel that depends upon documents, or texts – its own and others – to create meaning and effect. Its ‘own’ documents are letters, diaries and emails that appear within the text to help create the plot, chart the unfolding of a life, and bring together two disparate characters through whom we come to understand more about how another lived and died. The ‘other’ documents are those texts to which it refers, its allusions – other literary works, including criticism – to create a resonance beyond its pages. The analysis contains spoilers.

My three areas of focus show different levels of sophistication in the use of allusion in the novel. In order, I discuss:

  • the simple allusion, as a brief reference to another author, which is not discussed in detail in the novel
  • the complex allusion, where I focus on novel’s interaction with the work of poet Philip Larkin, and particular the motifs of loss, accumulation, and age
  • the resonant allusion, where no detailed specific reference is made to another text but which occurs when the ideas of another text illuminate, reflect or chime with such resonance that we are compelled to read them alongside one another. In this case, that text is one that shares its name, Frank Kermode’s seminal critical work, The Sense of an Ending.

The novel is not highly allusive in the way that T S Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ is; but it does use a few, carefully positioned texts that we can interpret as important and which tell us something about the novel. It is those allusions that are my interest here.

Some allusions are more easily discovered than others and when found, there is a range of complexity in terms of their meaning and effect. But here it’s worth remembering that it would be equally natural to miss or ignore such an allusion, too: the novel is self-standing, self-contained: and what I might find allusive because of my reading and experience might not be the same as what you think is important.

I start here with a ‘simple’ example of literary allusion, one where the name of an author appears in the text and we are invited to interpret what it means. 

Part One: Simple allusion – judging a reader by the book they’re reading

The appearance of a book title or author’s name in a novel functions in an obvious sense to reveal something about their reader: as we judge people by the clothes they wear, the food they eat and the cars they drive, the book one reads seems to provide an equally penetrating insight, perhaps even more so. When Antony meets Veronica in the café, he asks:

What are you reading?

She turned the cover of her paperback towards me. Something by Stefan Zweig.

How we interpret the significance of this inclusion, in short, what we take the ‘cultural value’ of Zweig to be in this specific context, depends on how much we know about Zweig. So, who is Stefan Zweig and what does including a non-specific title mean? This is what Wikipedia says about him:

Stefan Zweig (November 28, 1881 – February 23, 1942) was an Austrian novelist, playwright, journalist and biographer. At the height of his literary career, in the 1920s and 1930s, he was one of the most famous writers in the world.

I think from this phrase we might think ‘he was one of the most famous writers in the world’ is most telling. I wonder how many people would have heard of Zweig, let alone read him. There is more on his reputation here:

Zweig was a very prominent writer in the 1920s and 1930s, and befriended Arthur Schnitzler and Sigmund Freud. He was extremely popular in the USA, South America and Europe, and remains so in continental Europe; however, he was largely ignored by the British public, and his fame in America has since dwindled. Since the 1990s there has been an effort on the part of several publishers (notably Pushkin Press and New York Review of Books) to get Zweig back into print in English. Zweig is best known for his novellas […], novels […] and biographies

As I’ve said, if we know nothing, then the allusion will mean little to us. If we know that he was once a well-known writer but that his reputation had suffered over the years we might reflect on how this relates to Veronica, who is reading him, and reinforce the book’s themes in general, such as the effects of time passing and the waning of reputation.

However, looking more closely, we find that he wrote a novel called Letter from an Unknown Woman. Wikipedia says of it: “it tells the story of an author who, while reading a letter written by a woman he does not remember, gets glimpses into her life story.”

Clearly, this has some resonance for The Sense of an Ending: Veronica, up until now, is more or less unknown to Antony, and how much he knows about her is a point upon which the plot hinges. Veronica may be reading a book that knowingly (for Barnes and his readers) echo her and Antony’s relationship. We can’t be sure, because all we know is that it is ‘something’ by Zweig, as far as Antony reveals. Such a paucity of information may reveal either an indifference, ignorance or rejection of Zweig by Antony – we cannot be sure. But it does introduce the idea that the value of the author’s name is seen through Antony’s perspective: therefore we need to make an imaginative leap if we are to interpret it through his eyes. Overall, the allusion is inconclusive in this respect, since we are uncertain as to what it means for Antony. It is equally significant that Veronica does not tell Antony what the novel is called or who it’s by, or offer comment or evaluation – he is left, like us, to interpret it without further information. Overall, it is a stark, brief and limited allusion which refuses to reveal a great deal whilst tantalising suggesting some interesting connections outside of the novel.

Despite the potential complexity of how we interpret what referring to Zweig means, I call it a simple example of literary allusion because Barnes does not discuss the reference in detail, nor does it illuminate the novel with any sophistication. It does not add a layer of complexity in terms of how it is expressed; rather, it is a single point of reference to another work amongst many others, implicit or explicit.

That is not to say it doesn’t have resonance for the reader, depending on how much they know about Zweig, his life and work. Rather, when we compare it to the other kinds of literary allusion in The Sense of an Ending, we can see that it lacks the depth and complexity by comparison. In a sense, reading Zweig is rather like an adjective, albeit a loaded one: it has a similar density to writing that Veronica was wearing (say) a ‘shabby’ coat, or curled her lip when she spoke (neither of which are true but are used for illustration).

It is to such another, more sophisticated example of allusion that I turn in the next part. Here, I will be looking at focussing on how the novel alludes to the work of the poet Philip Larkin, and especially the notion that accumulation – of a lover, a job, a car and a house – need not mean a positive addition to one’s life.

Two arguments on the limits of reason

Trying to live and think as a rational human being is my goal. But perhaps the project is doomed. I’ve been reading David McRaney’s book You Are Not So Smart, which playfully (but no less convincingly) undermines the cherished belief that we are rational human beings.

For example, he writes about priming – “When a stimulus in the past affects the way you behave and think or the way you perceive another stimulus later on” – which leads us to an idea about how our thoughts maintain mental equilibrium without necessarily being grounded in reason, called the adaptive unconscious; and eventually, with a little research from Wikipedia, we find ourselves at the introspective illusion:

The introspection illusion is a cognitive illusion in which people wrongly think they have direct insight into the origins of their mental states, while treating others’ introspections as unreliable. In certain situations, this illusion leads people to make confident but false explanations of their own behavior (called “Causal theories”) or inaccurate predictions of their future mental states.

In short, we cannot be sure of where some of our mental states – and the beliefs, ideas, thoughts and feelings that accompany them – originate. The following experiment illustrates the potential for people to lack insight into their preferences and the ability, in the absence of a rational explanation, to ‘confabulate’, or invent, the reasons for doing so:

Subjects saw two photographs of people and were asked which they found more attractive. They were given a closer look at their “chosen” photograph and asked to verbally explain their choice. However, using sleight of hand the experimenter had slipped them the other photograph rather than the one they had chosen. A majority of subjects failed to notice that the picture they were looking at did not match the one they had chosen just seconds before. Many subjects confabulated explanations of their preference. For example, a man might say “I preferred this one because I prefer blondes” when he had in fact pointed to the dark-haired woman, but had been handed a blonde. These must have been  confabulated because they explain a choice that was never made.

The large proportion of subjects who were taken in by the deception contrasts with the 84% who, in post-test interviews, said that hypothetically they would have detected a switch if it had been made in front of them. The researchers coined the term “choice blindness” for this failure to detect a mismatch.

In this case, any perceived (by the subject) rational explanation for making their choices was undermined by the sleight of hand. Despite this, most subjects didn’t notice; and of those, they offered what was to them a rational justification for their choice. One explanation for our difficulties with understanding our preferences, for example, is the sometimes unknown significance that objects possess for us. As McRaney suggests:

Just about every physical object you encounter triggers a blitz of associations throughout your mind. You aren’t a computer connected to two cameras. Reality isn’t a vacuum where you objectively survey your surroundings. You construct reality from minute to minute with memories and emotions orbiting your sensations and cognition; together they form a collage of consciousness that exists only in your skull. Some objects have personal meaning, like the blow-pop ring your best friend gave you in middle school or the handcrafted mittens your sister made you. Other items have cultural or universal meanings, like the moon or a knife or a handful of posies. They affect you whether or not you are aware of their power, sometimes so far in the depths of your brain you never notice.

When we interrogate the extent to which we are rational beings, the perceived dichotomy between religious belief and reason needs to be renegotiated. Julian Baggini, in his ‘Heathen’s Progress’ blog, argues that those who believe themselves to be rationalist need to recognise the ways in which their reason might be compromised:

Humanism [secular rationalism] is faced with the bind that its existence depends on maintaining a tension between finding what is good and worth celebrating in the human and having the intellectual integrity to see our species warts and all, which means being open to the possibility that we are not as great as we’d like to think we are.

‘Not as great as we like to think we are’ chimes with the notion of the illusion of introspection and our ability to make rational decisions, as we’ve seen in the ‘choice blindness’ example above. He goes on:

No self-respecting humanist can fail to have “doubt over humanity”, and although that need not occlude all the light, it is a dark cloud we have to live under.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The doubt over humanity that is an inevitable corollary of secular humanism cannot be neatly contained and eventually it spills over into doubt abut the capabilities of human reason. Indeed, the more you know about how the human mind works, the less reason we have to trust our rational capacities. For instance, Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism claims that secular reason leads to evolution, but evolution removes any reason we might have to trust secular reason. There is no reason to believe that a brain that evolved to help us survive in the pleistocene is a reliable tracker of truth. Darwin himself had this concern, writing that “the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy”.

Baggini summarises:

What all this suggests is that in practice there is no neat distinction between the logical and the psychological. Those who attempt to use pure reason cannot expect to succeed, while those who willingly allow psychological factors to affect their reasoning may be being more self-aware about their rational capacities than those who do not.

Despite this, we need not throw out the rational baby in the bath water of reason. Even if we are not completely rational beings and do not possess the kinds of intellects and cognitive apparatus to make us what we might sometimes aspire to be – rational human beings – we must continue using reason, whilst noting its limitations:

Kierkegaard saw the limits of reason as themselves a reason to make irrational leaps of faith. In a more modest form, his insight could help explain the rational non-rationality of much religious belief. […] We choose faith so as not to be lost, because the alternative, reason, cannot enable us to find ourselves.

As an atheist, I’m not convinced by this. People who have a point are often nonetheless wrong, and often it’s precisely because of that point that they go wrong. Reason has its limits but we need to go right up against them, and for my money faith sees these limits and gives up on reason too soon.

Nonetheless, the mere fact that a serious argument can be made against the coherence of relying on human reason alone not only gives us atheists a way of understanding religion more sympathetically, it also suggests that the limits and role of reason has been a relatively neglected area of debate between believers and non-believers.

In rational discourse, it is not enough to simply immerse yourself in the ideas and arguments of others, but to understand – where possible – the extent to which your ideas are influenced by unconscious processes. You must know thyself as well as know thy enemy.