Hi everyone, was looking through some documents from last year, where I undertook a Literature class and wanted to share a piece. This is a creative critique of Julian Barnes’ Parenthesis in A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters followed by a written commentary. Feel free to leave any feedback and I hope you enjoy!
‘I trusted you to enshrine the wonders of the world to these students for a reason, and you’ve betrayed that trust. You’ve betrayed me.’
These are the words from my boss that refuse to leave my throbbing head as I push a heavy door with a rusty padlock open. The padlock isn’t really locked, but Beatrice the bar owner would rather brood over her ex-boyfriend who dumped her six months ago than serve customers. I’m one of those few customers she doesn’t mind. The bar is dimly lit and has one other occupant sitting in its corner. It’s too dark for me to be able to make out his face but he emits the scent of concrete and dons baggy clothes that were probably from an older brother. Beatrice hands me a whiskey. As I sit down on a stool I conclude that he must be working on the construction site across the road- the one that’s supposed to be a school. I scold myself mentally for automatically making this conclusion- it’s what I preach, or rather, preached my students not to do. That was before I got fired.
It’s so easy to make judgements about a person when you look at them. The first impression we garner of others lets us form a slot in our brain so that we can place them- if everything is not categorized, we humans do not know what to make of it; compartmentalization and assumption gives us peace because we are able to reach into our little schemata and pull out the information we have whenever we need it. When the situation presents itself and we don’t know something, we compartmentalize it anyway and keep on repeating it to ourselves until our mind convinces our brain that is it fact, even when it isn’t- especially when it isn’t. But why are we humans like this? Why not accept truth for what it is? It is because we fear the unknown. The unknown is why we are scared of talking to new people, it is why we stick to what we know and refuse to hear, say, a woodworm’s perspective on the story of Noah- we’d rather believe in the beauty that God created than the prejudice and discriminatory selection that could have just as easily taken place on the Ark. We pretend that we are happy doing whatever it is we are doing, when, in actual fact, we are merely safe. Being safe from and fearing the unknown is a very polite definition of ignorance. If safety wore a cloak so no-one could see its face and carried a dagger so no-one could feel its pain, it would be called ignorance. The repetition of lie after lie has created a false world- a censored setting where being realistic is treated as being pessimistic. This fake world is probably the reason I’m in this bar now, watching Beatrice softly sob behind the counter as she reads a text from a ‘Brett’, and perhaps it is why I am reminiscing upon the untold meaninglessness of life whilst watching the English cricket team argue with the umpire on the TV.
I am a mess. My shirt is torn from the fight I’d had with my boss today- prestigious universities don’t seem to appreciate reality; I’d been fired for speaking the truth to my students; for telling them that the world is not really a nice place and just because we put out heads down whenever shit goes on, it doesn’t mean the shit stops. I upset the pretty little image in their heads that life was always going to be okay in the end and burst their little bubble of an imagined utopia.
Beatrice gave me another whiskey and I played with it for five minutes before deciding that I would drink it. Truth be told, I was always going to drink it, I was just testing my temptation. The idea of truth is especially intriguing because there’s really no such thing as truth. If truth was true, it would be presented by an unbiased and omnipresent being- perhaps, you would think, a God. Any other person speaking the ‘truth’ isn’t really doing so, because, in speaking, they have their own subconscious biases that limits the accuracy of what they are saying, which thereby renders it untrue. It cannot be possible for a single person to be able to administer a truth- even if 99.99% of something is true, that still means 100% of it is untrue. Take, for example, a classic philosophical question; when a tree falls in the middle of an empty forest with no-one in earshot, does the tree make a sound? On the one hand, one group tends to believe that yes, the tree did make a sound when it fell; for, how could it possibly not? But that very fact that there was no-one there to hear that sound means that even if the tree did make a sound, we cannot possibly say that it did because we weren’t there. The fact that we don’t actually know and didn’t hear the sound ourselves means that it was just as possible that the tree didn’t make a sound as it did make a sound. Even if there is one person who is within earshot of the tree falling and tells us that it makes a sound, how can we possibly know that it did? One person has just reaffirmed our original belief that trees make sounds when they fall, and the assumption that this is true is irrational, but because it reinforces what we know, we choose to believe it anyway. And because, down here on Earth, there is no God or any other form of superbeing that can administer objective truth, nothing can ever really be true. When I’ve been using the word ‘truth’ so far, it only refers to the best truth that I know, not the whole truth. So what is the point in striving for truth? It is an unfeasible goal; a candle in the wind- there is no point striving for the unobtainable if it is, indeed, unobtainable. We will go mad trying to do so, and when we are millimetres away from obtaining it, perhaps we will realize that we don’t actually want it because it will challenge every single thing we know and that’s too difficult for our little human brains to cope with. Instead of engaging ourselves in the pursuit of the impossible, we should rather strive for small, miniature goals that we can accomplish, and in so doing, experience some pleasure. We should grow up, get married, find a job for forty years, retire, eat our favorite meal for our last one and die in peace. Yes, we will ignore the truth- but we’ve ignored truth since the start of time; ignorance is better than hopeless yearning for it.
Well, surely it is. Maybe I’m slowly giving up on it.
I drink my whiskey, content in my solitude. As I brood over my firing, my problems and my life, I feel a piercing headache add to the list of my misfortunes. Its pain is more than just annoying- it’s a small, miniscule crevice in the darkest part of my mind that just keeps on throbbing and it won’t let go. It is the part that they will find in my autopsy and it will jump onto the doctor who’s doing it and it will slowly suck its way into their life just the way it did on mine. My brain refuses to stop spewing thoughts from the past and the future; the good old days with friends and family and fun is all I long for and I had carried myself through the years with the faint hope at the back of my mind that one day I would regain them- that I still can regain them.
But can I?
Or have I just convinced myself that I can?
Beatrice hands me another whiskey. The man in the corner of the bar clears his throat. A truck honks its horn in the distance. I look forward to being able to drink my sorrows away.
I think about love. I think about the love I’ve felt, the love I’ve received and the love I wish I could feel. I was now fifty-three, and I’d had four non-meaningful relationships. Each of them was filled with something, perhaps it was love, perhaps it was merely pleasure. I don’t actually know what love is; my students tell me that they ‘fall in love’- as if there’s some quantifiable way of expressing love. But how could we possibly know when we are in love? What if I’m lying in bed with a partner who tells me she’s in love with me and I’m in love with her- I feel in love with her; but she may sleep with someone else next week. That’s not love, is it? That’s just sexual pleasure. But I thought it was love when it was happening. See what I mean? We don’t know anything about truth- one day it’s one thing, the next day it’s the opposite. ‘She will love you like a fly will never love you’- Massive Attack’s ‘Paradise Circus’ shows us the extent to which the love we feel is valid. Our love is like a fly’s love- or perhaps, like a mosquito’s love. They crave our constant attention whilst not actually loving us. This is like love in a relationship- it is only ever for pleasure, to appease the mind and the body for just a few moments- so it can occupy us while we let shit go on around us- mosquito’s love.
Another whiskey meanders its way down my throat. It relaxes me. It numbs my brain and makes me feel okay. Whilst I make a living out of critiquing humankind, I am human myself and fall into the same traps as everyone else- I’m just not as blind when I do.
We shouldn’t chase love because no matter where we run, we will encounter mosquito’s love along the way- and we love mosquito’s love; you could say, we mosquito love mosquito’s love- and it drives us away from the thin walls of sanity. It contorts truth and bends reality and will make us go insane. We should enjoy mosquito’s love- it feels good- but we should know that this isn’t really what we are searching for; this isn’t the way our lives should be lived.
But how should they be lived?
If there is no such thing as objective truth and love is pointless, then what is the point of being here?
Well, don’t ask me, I’m just a nihilist professor of philosophy who’s just been fired.
And I’m so fucking drunk.
What do I know?
The Parenthesis piece that has been written is a creative critique of Barnes’ half-chapter with the same name, and primarily examines two concepts that recur throughout the novel; the nature of truth and love.
In this piece, the motifs of biblical stories, including an allusion to chapter one of the novel is included- and in order to illuminate Barnes’ continued use of historical examples to illustrate his points, this piece draws upon a song (Massive Attack’s Paradise Circus) in order to ensure credibility to the work.
The language of this piece attempts to replicate that of Barnes’, drawing upon his use of a character who’s mental state is altered- Barnes’ is in love, this piece’s is drunk. In addition, the use of declarative assertions is also made, with multiple sentences starting with ‘we must…’ in both pieces in order to emphasize a particular idea. The use of questions is also prevalent, such as ‘The history of the world?’ (Barnes) and ‘But can I?’ (this piece), and these are included to challenge the content of the piece and to engage the reader in their own thoughts.
To deliver his views on truth and love, Barnes sets a concrete scene by having the reader picture himself sleeping next to a partner- an equivalent of this is included in this piece by the character, who has just been fired from their job as a professor of philosophy as a university for preaching a nihilistic rhetoric has been developed; and they find themselves in a barren bar.
Over the course of the night, the character broods over their firing, simultaneously offering their views on whether or not objective truth is attainable and the meaning of love. In direct response to Barnes’ view of fabulation of history, a point of agreement between the two pieces is that in the modern world, fabulation dominates storytelling; seen when Barnes says ‘we value one liar’s version as much as another’s’, and in my piece, where I say ‘it cannot be possible for a single person to be able to administer a truth’. The primary point of contradiction arises in the response to the subjectivity in which we behold the world- where Barnes argues that ‘we must believe that 43 percent objective truth is better than 41 percent objective truth’, and that we must strive to attain the best possible version of events, this piece says that ‘even if 99.99% of something is true, that still means 100% of it is untrue’, and that striving to obtain what cannot be reached is pointless. To demonstrate this point, a typical philosophical metaphor is applied through the ‘tree analogy’, which is a more abstract idea when compared to Barnes’ typical methodology of measuring some material quantitatively, such as the ox’s heart. This piece also argues that the root of fabulation is fear of the unknown, and if we strive to obtain objectivity, we will reject it because it fails to conform to the vision of life that we picture in our heads. Instead, we must pursue short-term goals that increase our level of instantaneous pleasure, and that hypothetical concepts such as truth and love are merely pretty images we like to paint inside our heads- our striving for them is futile because ultimately, they do not exist- we only imagine that they do because we want them to. The same reasoning applies to love, whilst Barnes acknowledges that ‘it [love] will go wrong…but we must strive for it’, this piece critiques that love cannot possibly be defined by those who think they experience it.
Ultimately, this piece is best able to illuminate the original text through the nature of its storytelling on two abstract concepts whilst simultaneously giving the reader a visual sense of the scene and what to picture. Whilst it is ultimately agreed upon that fabulation and love must be examined for their legitimacy, Barnes argued that they must still be strived for, whereas this piece rejects the notion of optimism but also fails to provide an adequate solution to life’s meaning, which is a nihilistic perspective.