English novelist Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize-winning novel from 2011 The Sense of an Ending is the story of Tony Webster, a very average middle-class protagonist in his sixties. The narrative concerns Webster’s memories of his friend Adrian’s suicide some forty years prior. As the book opens, we find him musing:
We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I’ve never felt I understood it very well. And I’m not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability. (p3)
The unfolding details of the story support this reflection. Webster is shown a letter that he had written Adrian and is shocked at his own viciousness, coming as it did from his jealousy that Adrian had taken up with his ex-girlfriend, Veronica. In the letter, he advised Adrian to speak to Veronica’s mother Sarah. What Webster doesn’t realise is that his letter drove Adrian into Sarah’s arms, and that Sarah had become pregnant.
This was the secret that had prompted Adrian’s suicide, and for which he, Webster, bears a degree of responsibility. Although, since the successive revelations in the novel have rendered him uncertain of his own grasp of the past he himself experienced, the reader wonders if the truth has indeed been fully disclosed to him. Webster concludes the novel with this wistful paragraph:
There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest. (p150)
I have to say I found this a damp squib of an ending! The great revelation of the narrative is mildly disquieting, but not shocking. Perhaps this is Barnes’ point: his narrative is not particularly satisfying or conclusive, and we have learnt not to trust his narrator much, since he now can’t even trust his own powers of memory. The ‘sense of ending’ is held before us as a kind of promise of fulfilment—but then withdrawn in anticlimax. There is not a sense of ending so much as a sense of unrest—‘great unrest’.
And what is that point? That time, plodding on from moment to moment, is the inescapable environment of human existence, but that it is also unfathomable from within it. Barnes surely echoes the writer of Ecclesiastes, who observes
…He [God] has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. (Eccl 3:11)
Time invites us to think of beginnings and endings. We have the habit of thinking in narrative terms about human existence, because what else can we do?
Stories find their meaning in endings, but only one ending in human experience has any finality: individual death. Every other ‘ending’ is at best a temporary pause, before events move on, and cast their shadow backwards over the meaning of the past. What is left for us? Suicide? Would that be a form of rest for Webster? Time’s invitation to think of ourselves as storied beings seems to be exposed as a confidence trick. Unless…
Unless, we tell stories not because we are trying to corral meaning from meaninglessness, but because the sense that the events of our lives are part of a meaningful and purposeful whole is not an illusion after all but a deep reality, beyond our minds to grasp but there just the same. Not knowing the full story need not mean despairing that there is any story at all. Humility in the face of what is unknown may actually be a cause for joy. In Romans 11:33-36, the apostle Paul writes this poem:
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
‘Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counsellor?’
‘Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay them?’
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory for ever!
Can Paul tell us the inner meaning and secret of all things? Not at all. He cannot fathom God’s ways—they cannot ultimately be explained by human beings. And yet, does that lead him to skepticism and radical doubt? On the contrary, because of the decisive intrusion of the Son of God into time, Paul has delight and confidence that the appearance of meaning is not an illusion. There is, finally, not great unrest, but a great, eternal rest.
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