Home » Metaphysics » Antinomies of Temporal and Corporeal Affect: Interrogating Jamesonian Realism in Julian Barnes’s ‘The Sense of an Ending’

Antinomies of Temporal and Corporeal Affect: Interrogating Jamesonian Realism in Julian Barnes’s ‘The Sense of an Ending’

Arka Chattopadhyay
University of West Sydney

‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation’ (Barnes, 2011, p.17). Adrian, one of the characters in Julian Barnes’s 2011 novel The Sense of an Ending (ibid.) attributes this indictment of historical veracity to a fictitious French historian, Patrick Lagrange. The false-citation marks the double-aporia in this already aporetic vision of history as a locus where truth can only remain in a state of suspension. What interests me here is a question of time, not space. As we shall see, the novel reiterates the modernist trope of unreliable memory in attempting to reconstitute the past in the light of the present. It begins with a catalogue of six random images thrown up by free-associative memory and immediately develops what the first-person narrator, Tony, calls ‘time’s malleability’ (p.3). The affective images of memory jettison chronological time by turning it into something as malleable as the affects themselves. Tony elaborates, ‘Some emotions speed it [time] up, others slow it down; occasionally it seems to go missing— until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return’ (ibid.). The novel takes its title from Frank Kermode’s eponymous book of literary criticism published in 1966. Barnes responds to Kermode’s central questions of time and literary realism: Barnes, much like Kermode, unsettles the temporal linearity of the Aristotelian beginning, middle and end by suggesting what the latter calls a ‘world without end or beginning’ (Kermode, 2000, p.67).

The time which abandons chronos is a time replete with what is lost forever. Instead of being able to recollect the past, the subjective history formed by the jigsaw pieces of memory can only arrive at a lacking point where time itself gets dissolved. There is no time in this eternity, and memory can only yield the emotions of the present in the present. As Tony states, ‘I must stress that this is my reading now of what happened then. Or rather, my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time’ (p.41). The past is dissolved as soon as it is invoked in this telling, and we are left with the present of this ‘now’ which can only fall back upon itself. There is a hesitation here regarding the time of reading: is Tony reading in the present of this ‘now’ alongside the reader or has he already done his reading in the past? Can his present alter or reconfigure the past or does the past remain dead and buried? These questions regarding narrative temporality are of great interest to Fredric Jameson’s 2013 book The Antinomies of Realism, which in my view is not simply a literary defence of the nineteenth-century realistic novel but a philosophical revitalization of literary and novelistic realism mediating through the dialectical conditions of modernity and postmodernity. I will read the complex and aporetic temporality of the Barnes novel in the light of Jameson’s thoughts on a new historical time of the present in the aforementioned book. Though I will problematize the neatness of Jameson’s identifications at various points before going beyond them to propose a Lacanian supplement, I consider this analysis to be in Jameson’s spirit in holding up the figure of antinomy as the auto-deconstructive hinge for his notion of realism.

Jameson’s Temporal Antinomy: Destiny and Agency

Let me begin with Jameson’s definition of antinomy from the essay ‘The Antinomies of Postmodernity,’ where he distinguishes between antinomy and contradiction. For him, antinomy is a stronger tool of disjunction than contradiction because ‘it states two propositions that are radically, indeed absolutely, incompatible, take it or leave it.’ Contradiction, for him, is only ‘a matter of partialities and aspects— only some of it is incompatible with the accompanying proposition’ (1998, p.51). In the ‘Introduction’ to The Antinomies of Realism, Jameson pays homage to Jacques Derrida for showing that aporia is not a stopping point but a way of proceeding. Jameson observes that ‘aporetic thinking is precisely the dialectic itself’ and considers his approach to realism as a dialectical and hence an aporetic ‘experiment.’ (2013, pp.6-7) What is the fundamental antinomy of realism for Jameson? He sets up this question in his first two theoretical chapters in terms of various dialectical structures but perhaps the most fundamental dialectic has to do with temporality and history, and boils down to the interlocking of récit and roman or what he calls the narrative impulse and the affective time of the body. The time of récit, Jameson argues, is a fossilized time of ‘preterite’ where everything has already happened and the event is locked away in an irrevocable past while the time of roman offers a present which can potentially intervene into the ruses of the past and alter both its implication and intrication (p.18).

In Jameson’s engaged political stance, the novelistic genre cannot be reduced to the story function; it is an intervention into the dead time of finished events which reopens the past in terms of a present, and this present stands for freedom. Drawing on Sartre, he prescribes the novelistic ‘recreation of this open present, in which not even the past is set in stone, insofar as our acts in the present rewrite and modify it’ (p.18). This present is marked by an eternity which reduces everything to the body as if all that one can access in this present is the body. Jameson considers this ‘reduction to the present’ and a resultant ‘reduction to the body’ as a postmodern tendency wherein ‘the body is all that remains in any tendential reduction of experience to present as such’ (p.28). Jameson characterizes this perpetual present of the body as the subject’s temporal condition where ‘the isolated body begins to know more global waves of generalized sensations, and it is these which, for want of a better word, I will here call affect’ (p.28). In Jameson’s theorization, this affect of corporeal present resists language and while emotions are subject to naming, the body’s affects remain a matter of unnameable singularities and intensities (p.29). I will come back to this affective corporeal present both in Jameson’s critical corpus and Barnes’s novel, where we will be able to locate an instance of this enigmatic corporeal affect which collapses chronological time and, with it, the antinomy, anchoring realism.

According to Jameson, the inalterable past of the story belongs to a providential structure of tripartite chronological time which the realistic novel counterposes with an existential present of agency. This antinomy between the inertia of the past and what Jameson calls the ‘perpetual present’ in all its potential for making real change possible is at the heart of his dialectical and historical formulation of realism. Jameson conceives this antinomy as an irresolvable tension:

Now it can be articulated not as récit versus roman, nor even telling versus showing; but rather destiny versus the eternal present. And what is crucial is not to load one of these dies and take sides for the one or the other as all our theorists seemed to do, but rather to grasp the proposition that realism lies at their intersection. Realism is a consequence of the tension between these two terms; to resolve the opposition either way would destroy it […] (p.26).

I will return to this ‘eternal present’ weaving itself like the reader’s time which is always anchored in the present and unpack its associations with body and affect across Jameson’s corpus; but before that allow me to state that for Jameson, even though to resolve this opposition between chronological time and the body’s affective present is to destroy realism itself, the realistic novel does exactly that by prioritizing any one over the other, which leads Jameson to conclude that realism can only proceed by dismantling itself. As he concludes in ‘Realism and the Dissolution of Genre,’ the final generic adversary of the realistic novel is none but the realistic novel itself (p.162). In the chapter on Tolstoy, this is how Jameson points out realism’s self-dismantling by way of a Derridean auto-deconstruction:

[…] a tension between plot and scene, between the chronological continuum and the eternal present, realized in quite distinct ratios in the various great realists, nonetheless marks out the space in which realism emerges and subsists, until one of the two antithetical forces finally outweighs the other assures its disintegration (p.83).

This passage about the assured self-disintegration of realism, which ends up privileging either chronological time over the affective and corporeal present or vice versa, talks back to Jameson’s summation in the ‘Introduction,’ where he seeks to grasp:

[…] realism as a historical and evolutionary process in which the negative and the positive are inextricably combined, and whose emergence and development at one and the same time constitute its own inevitable undoing, its own decay and dissolution (p.6).

In Jameson’s view, realism can only exist in the gap of this antinomy between the two temporalities of the present-past-future and the eternal present, and yet it closes the gap by overlapping one with the other. This collapses realism, but such is for him the only way it can continue to operate. In Jameson’s dialectic, what remains problematic is thus a synthesis that would resolve the irreducibility of the antinomy. He critiques the ‘free indirect discourse’ combining first and third person points of view precisely because it synthesizes the two temporalities which can only maintain realism as a tension between them:

And it should be clear from our earlier discussion that such a synthesis of the past (récit) and the present (scene) would seem to offer an ideal solution to the realist problem per excellence— except for the fact that realism was constitutively founded on an ineradicable tension between these two temporal realities, a tension that begins to dissolve into the facile practice of narrative mind-reading when free indirect discourse becomes the dominant sentence structure of the novel (p.177).

For Jameson, both a synthesis of the two dialectical terms and a prioritization of the one over the other dissolve the antinomy of realism and all realistic novels dissolve realism by taking either of these two paths. Julian Barnes’s novel offers a liminal test case for Jameson’s argument because it is not a politically engaged realist novel and yet it concerns itself with the historicity of time and how a disruptive moment, suspended in an eternity of its own, can dislodge chronological time and realism. Before turning to The Sense of an Ending, let us look at the remarkable revolution of this notion of ‘eternal present’ in Jameson’s oeuvre.

The Evolution of the ‘Eternal Present’: Affect, Body and Capitalism

When Jameson evokes the body’s eternal present in the second chapter of The Antinomies, he cites Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘schizophrenic present.’ Jameson had previously discussed this schizophrenic present in his 2003 essay ‘The End of Temporality,’ collected in the second volume of Ideologies of Theory. In Antinomies (2013), Jameson directs us to this previous discussion by quoting phrases like ‘reduction to the present,’ ‘reduction to the body’ and ‘the end of temporality’ (p.28). In ‘The End of Temporality,’ Jameson had diagnosed the schizophrenic perpetual present as a symptom of the postmodern social order, but he was sceptical about its ability to offer any real alternative. He had related the perpetual present with freedom but also expressed doubt whether this was just a ‘projection’ or a real ‘critique’ of the late-capitalist order of postmodernity (2008, pp.649-650). I think Jameson’s problem is built around the complex relations between time, eternity and the present. Can the eternal present produce a true ‘end of temporality’? In other words, can this present, empowered by the eternal, move out of time itself?

[…] whenever one attempts to escape a situatedness in the past and the future or in other words to escape our being-in-time as such, the temporal present offers a rather flimsy support and a doubtful or fragile autonomy. It thus inevitably comes to be thickened and solidified, complemented, by a rather more metaphysical backing or content, which is none other than the idea of eternity itself (p.651).

Here Jameson is sceptical of the metaphysical solidification of the present when it is reinforced by the eternal. He is suspicious about the extent to which this eternity can support the existential present. There is a tension between the temporality of the present and the extra-temporal nature of eternity which gives an oxymoronic charge to ‘eternal present.’ This is where Jameson brings in the identification between the reduction to the present and a homologous the reduction to the body in order to counter the metaphysics of eternity with the materialism of corporeal present:

It is only fair to add that this position also comes in as it were a materialist version […]. For the reduction to the present, from this perspective, is also a reduction to something else, something rather more material than eternity as such. Indeed, it seems clear enough that when you have nothing left but your temporal present, it follows that you also have nothing left but your own body. The reduction to the present can thus also be formulated in terms of a reduction to the body as a present of time. (p.651).

Jameson has difficulty affirming this materialism of the individual body in the present as a locus of emancipation due to his position following Foucault, Lacan and Deleuze that the body itself is framed by the imaginary ideological functions of capitalism (p.652). The question for us here is this: Can there be a body in the Real (in the Lacanian sense) that escapes the specular construction of the imaginary body? [1]. As we shall see, in the Barnes novel, the disruptive moment of suspended eternity is marked by a body which escapes the ‘docile body’ of capitalist ideological construction by paying homage to the opacity of the body in the Real [2]. To return to Jameson, he is forced to bracket off this corporeal present of eternity as a historical tendency of late-capitalism which can only be a tendency and never be actualized:

The historical tendency of late capitalism—what we have called the reduction to the present and the reduction to the body—is in any case unrealizable; human beings cannot revert to the immediacy of the animal kingdom (assuming indeed the animals themselves enjoy such phenomenological immediacy) (p.656).

Jameson compares the unrealizable nature of the reduction to the corporeal present to the unrepresentability of psychoanalytic drives (p.655), which brings us back to the question of the Lacanian Real body. The bodily drives of psychoanalysis, I would argue, are not far from Jameson’s conceptualization of the unnameable bodily affects in The Antinomies of Realism. Jameson insists on the resistance of these affects to the process of language which, activates the category of the Lacanian Real as that which resists the Symbolic order of language (2013, p.32). The ultimately unrepresentable drives circulate around the mythical whirlpool of the Real in which one can posit a body in a state of dissipation (Lacan, 2006, p.724) [3]. We will have chance to seize a moment of this Real body in The Sense of an Ending.

Jameson with Deleuze: The Divisive Present of Eternity

This detour through ‘The End of Temporality’ allows us to see a mutation in Jameson’s use of the body’s perpetual present. In the aforementioned essay he is critical of the process of temporal reduction but, in The Antinomies, not only does it become one of the two crucial terms in the realistic antinomy but it is also seen as a locus of agency as opposed to the story’s dead past. ‘Perpetual present’ in Jameson’s Valences of the Dialectic (2009) seems to be square-bracketed with ‘the market universe’ (p.178) and the tone there is almost dismissive:

Capitalism itself lives in a perpetual present; the human past seems to be a senseless accumulation of unsuccessful human efforts and intentions; yet the future of technology inspires blind and unshakeable faith (p.224).

It is remarkable how Jameson’s irritation with the postmodern tendency of reducing time to the affective corporeal present changes into a positive engagement as it becomes the interventionist time of freedom in The Antinomies. We can now see how he attempts to re-signify realism by drawing on a fundamental postmodern tendency as its constitutive antinomy. I would qualify this Jamesonian ‘now’ in The Antinomies with a positive historical charge by drawing on his own reflections in Valences of the Dialectic where he turns to Heidegger and talks about ‘the possibility of my “now” to expand and include past and future’ (p.517). He follows it up with a formulation of ‘historicity as the possibility of including past and future in my time-sense’ (ibid.). With recourse to Deleuze, whom Jameson evokes at regular intervals, I would radicalize these inclusions of past and future by bringing in the present as the locus from which the two inclusions happen. I would argue that here, in this present, eternity is undercut by a simultaneous double-movement into the past and the future and Deleuze’s theory of Aion as opposed to the Chronos of time in The Logic of Sense shows the way. In ‘Twenty-Third Series of the Aion,’ Deleuze discusses the antithesis between Chronos and Aion as two dialectical notions of time. In Chronos, only the present exists in time and both past and future are seen as dimensions relative to the present whereas in Aion the present becomes a slice between the past and the future:

In accordance with Aion, only the past and the future inhere or subsist in time. Instead of a present which absorbs the past and future, a future and past divide the present at every instant and subdivide it ad infinitum into past and future, in both directions at once (Deleuze, 2004, p.188).

Following Deleuze’s point that only the past and future exist in the time of Aion, we can say that the present is not only divided into the past and the future but also de-temporalized into eternity. Jameson doesn’t evoke Deleuzean Aion but I think it is necessary to qualify his eternal present with this divided present which suspends the chronology of Chronos. It produces a divisive moment in eternity from which both the past and the future expand in two directions at the same time. There is a similar divisive moment which jeopardizes chronological time and offers a rare glimpse into the Real of the body in The Sense of an Ending which I will now turn to.

Reading The Sense of an Ending: The Secret Disclosed and Undisclosed

Julian Barnes’s 2011 Booker Prize-winning novel The Sense of an Ending has been received as a story with a secret and Tony’s acts of remembrance arrive at a moment when the secret is finally disclosed. Tony Webster narrates his story from school days through the winding paths of memory and eventually returns to the present which has a shocking revelation in store for him. Adrian Finn, his charismatic school friend who always enamoured Tony and company with his brilliance, not only went on to romance Veronica, Tony’s ex-girlfriend in college but also committed suicide soon after. It was Tony who had introduced Veronica to Adrian and when Adrian wrote a letter informing him about his relationship with Veronica, Tony wrote back and that was the end of their friendship. His irritation to know that his ex-girlfriend was going out with his best friend was abruptly turned into a state of shock when he came to know on his return from the States that Adrian had killed himself by cutting his wrists in the shower. Tony’s memory is anchored on this enigmatic suicide which re-dramatizes their school friend Robson’s suicide—another disturbing and yet fascinating event for him and his friends, including Adrian. The mystery of Robson’s suicide had made the boys explore the complexities of non-linear history in the history classes with the teacher Old Joe Hunt. This was the occasion of Adrian’s Patrick Lagrange citation with which we began. But unlike Robson, Adrian was someone with the promise of a great life and his philosophical insights made his suicide even more inscrutable. Veronica’s role in his death was also shrouded in a deep mist of time.

There is an event in the present which reopens this past. After forty years, the end of a career, a failed marriage with Margaret and a daughter Susie, Tony receives a lawyer’s letter which declares that Mrs Sarah Ford, Veronica’s mother has left him a memento and some money. Tony had met Sarah briefly when he was with Veronica and had been invited to her country-house in Kent during a college vacation. The narrator describes this visit in detail in the first part before switching to the present when Tony is informed about Sarah’s will. Veronica is unwilling to let go of the memento which is nothing other than Adrian’s notebook. What does this notebook have to say about his suicide? It is couched in a promise of disclosure. This strange inheritance in the present unlocks the apparently dead past and animates it with life as we enter into time’s malleability.

Adrian’s notebook gives an opportunity for Tony and Veronica to meet after troubled and occasionally offensive e-mail exchanges. This reopens a subtle relational dynamic between Tony and his ex-wife Margaret whose second husband has left her for a younger woman and Tony is in more than friendly terms with her. Margaret’s advisory role in Tony’s life is complicated by the reopening of his liaison with Veronica. It turns out to be a rather odd encounter but it does change Veronica’s mind and she decides to share a fragment from Adrian’s diary. I will come back to the contents of this notebook which hardly resolves the knot of his suicide but only tightens it further. The somewhat disconcerting meetings between Tony and Veronica reach a climax when she meets a group of disabled people under community care with Tony in the back seat of her car. Tony does not initially understand why Veronica wants him to see them and goes through a series of attempts to meet them again. This meeting finally brings him face to face with the truth. The youngest of the disabled group, a boy, also named Adrian, is the son of his dead friend but this is only one half of the revelation. The shocking other half arrives when Tony comes to know from one of Adrian junior’s friends that Veronica is not his mother but his sister. This means Adrian had an affair with his girlfriend’s mother Sarah Ford which led to the boy’s birth and perhaps Adrian’s death.

When the truth finally dawns upon him, Tony considers himself responsible because, on revisiting his letter to Adrian, he finds it much more spiteful than before. It is only in the light of the truth in the present that he sees the connection, embedded in the past. It was he who had actually led Adrian to Sarah by advising him to consult her on Veronica’s strange ‘withdrawal of love’ (p.44). In the letter, he had cautioned Adrian that Veronica had some ‘damage’ which could be an issue with her upbringing. He had also mentioned how Sarah herself had warned Tony during his stay that he should not allow Veronica to dictate terms. Tony gets into a guilt trip as he realizes that it was his reference to Sarah as someone Adrian should consult on Veronica’s ‘damages’ that had triggered their affair. And the chain of consequences would eventually lead to Adrian’s suicide. The sentence ‘There was great unrest, sir’ (p.5), which Tony’s friend Marshall had used, not knowing what to say to Old Joe Hunt’s question about Henry VIII’s reign in the history class now returns to him in the present. The novel closes with Tony’s recasting of the same sentence in the present: ‘There is great unrest’ (p.150). The novel not only moves back from the past into the present but also makes a present of the past when the sentence from the past is re-signified by the present.

Barnes’s narrator is consistently preoccupied with the historical dimension of time and aware of the slippages in it. This is a private history of individuals, enmeshed in a social network of relations. And it is repeatedly contrasted with the public history—what Jameson in The Antinomies would call the history of ‘World-Historical Individuals’ (p.275). Tony considers himself to be a survivor unlike Adrian and what he tells is the history of his own memory which variously intersects with the lives of others around him. For him, ‘history’ changes from being ‘the lies of the victors’ to ‘the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated’ (Barnes, 2011, p.56) At the beginning of the novel’s second part, Tony describes his mistrust of both the public history of his lifetime, punctuated by grand events like the fall of Communism, 9/11 and so on and the history of his own life in all its ‘undocumented’ little mysteries (p.60). The narrative impulse in The Sense of an Ending aims at a documentation of this undocumented personal history through an unfolding of the hidden layers of mnemic images. But what interests me here is not the historical structure of a past opened by a present event leading to an intervention which radically changes the ethical significations of the past. In Jamesonian terms, the novel not only shows how the roman can liven up the dead time of the recit by altering the perception of the past and reading new problematic connections and causal chains in it; there is something more here. And this concerns an enigmatic moment which the novel’s final revelation can only half-illumine. The other half remains locked in an inexplicable foreshadowing of the future in the past and the opacity of the gesturing feminine body which belongs to the mystery woman Sarah Ford. To zero in on this moment which collapses the temporal chronology, we must concentrate on the episode of Tony’s weekend trip to Veronica’s country-house.

‘Horizontal Gesture at Waist Level’: A Feminine Secret of the Real Body

The trip to Veronica’s country-house was a disturbing experience for Tony, caught in the complexities of an odd familial assimilation. He was at once tested and taken for granted and sometimes neglected by the family members. Veronica’s father was insolent, her brother Jack, flippant while Sarah was the mystery element. Sarah and Tony had a significant conversation when others were away one morning and as Tony remembers, ‘I wasn’t experienced at talking to girlfriends’ mothers’, and he had a difficult time of it. This is when she warned him about her daughter: ‘Don’t let Veronica get away with too much’ (p.28). She was frying eggs while having this conversation and broke one egg in the process. She flipped the remnants of the broken egg into the bin, ‘half-threw the hot frying pan into the wet sink’ (p.29) and laughed happily to see the small explosion it created. This was as it were the beginning of a greater havoc she would end up causing. Her ‘carefree slapdash way’ of frying eggs was an ominous seed of things to come. Years later, beginning to write his life story, Tony’s memory immediately threw up this image of ‘steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it’ (p.3). This is the second of the six random images with which the novel begins and it points to a mnemic trace of the past which the present will significantly turn around. In spite of his inhibitions, Tony felt relieved to think that Sarah seemed to like him.

When Tony was leaving Veronica’s house he looked back from within Veronica’s father’s car and instead of waving him goodbye, Sarah made a mysterious gesture to him from inside the house:

As Mr Ford put the car into gear and spun the wheels on the gravel, I waved goodbye, and she responded, though not the way people normally do, with a raised palm, but with a sort of horizontal gesture at waist level. I rather wished I’d talked to her more (p.30).

This inexplicable ‘horizontal gesture at waist level’ replaces the vertical gesture of waving goodbye as it holds onto the secret in the past. Tony’s following comment that he should have talked to Sarah more glosses an urge to explore the mystery of Sarah Ford, encapsulated in this secret gesture. We can only make sense of this affective gesture from the standpoint of the present or the terminal point of the book where it becomes an indication of her pregnancy in the future. But how could Sarah know it back then? It was impossible for her to know that she would have an affair with Tony’s best friend Adrian and become his son’s mother. Veronica had not even met Adrian at that point. Unless we try to make sense of this opaque corporeal gesture with recourse to clairvoyance and the supernatural (the novel forecloses this by normalizing the moment), we must acknowledge it as a divisive moment in chronological time which suspends linear motion. It pauses time and becomes a ‘perpetual present’ in not only a Jamesonian sense but also in our Deleuzo-Jamesonian inflection of a divided present from which past and future move simultaneously in two different directions while the present itself moves out of temporality. Tony has to return to this bewildering moment in the present at the end by remarking what he calls a ‘secret horizontal gesture beneath a sunlit wisteria’ (p.149).

This misplaced moment, which chronologically speaking should have belonged to a later time, divides chronos and transits into Aion where it becomes the kernel of sense for both the past and the future. When Tony looks back at this gesture, it crystalizes the events to come which were not comprehensible to him at the time but only make sense in the present. Insofar as this ‘perpetual present’ is problematically located in the past of his memory, it also anchors his past. The moment functions as a lighthouse of eternal present, modulating the double-movements of future development and a reminiscent knitting of the past. It has an unmistakable relation with the homologous Jamesonian notion of a ‘reduction to the body’ as it is located in a corporeal moment without speech. The horizontal gesture produces an unnameable affect in Tony. His incomprehension makes for the ambivalence if not complete opacity of this affect which is produced by a movement of body on body, i.e. hands over waist. This gesture opens the sexuated body of a woman which remains almost entirely opaque to Tony’s male gaze. It produces in him a castrating anxiety which does not settle even after the rereading in the present.

Sarah’s is a gesture of cut which suggests the vivisection of the body from waist down. And in this fragmented body lies the spectre of the Real which makes it an anxiety-inducing encounter for Tony. Through this gesture, Sarah not only cuts open her own body but the future of her pregnancy as well. The divisive gesture gives Tony an insight into the inner life of the body. This is the Real body we do not see, the body which remains outside the specular social image of the ideologically marked body. The body opened up by Sarah’s horizontal gesture is the other side of a divided body and it sends shockwaves into the fictional autonomy of the body as an imaginary totality in Lacan’s famous figuration of the Mirror Stage. In Lacanian terms, if there is a Real of the body, it consists of not only the body in fragments but also the other side of the skin which is not necessarily an object of imaginary representation. The ‘horizontal gesture at waist level’ thus activates the affective inner fold of this Real body of cuts. It tempts Tony into imagining the other side of Sarah’s body by externalizing its interior with the topological operation of a cut. The horizontal movement also signifies a temporal oscillation. It insists on not being locatable either in the past or in the future, like the perpetual present of the pendulum which hovers between two times.

Sarah’s gesture relates to psychoanalytic drives in two distinct ways which demonstrate another dimension of something Real in her body at the given moment. As we have seen above, the partiality of drives resonate with the partial nature of the Real which can only be glimpsed in ephemeral moments as a cipher of the undecipherable. Sarah’s gesture is a physical movement which places one part of her body (hand) over another part (waist). As all physical movement stems from the circuit of drives where they work as ‘pulsions’ (Lacan’s standard French word for ‘drive’) to give the body a decisive movemental push, this gesture is functionalized by the drives. Moreover, Sarah’s gesture is a secret move which is addressed to Tony alone. It is a performance, dialogically played out against the scopic drive of the Other. Tony’s gaze creates the scopic field of the Other where the gesture is invested with the drive-function. The unreadable corpo-real cipher can be seen as the lacking Real around which the fragmented body circulates here.

However, as we have stated above, it is not just a body but a female body and its secret is presented as a riddle for male gaze. Unlike Jameson, I will highlight the sexuated dimension of this affective body in the present and see how it reflects the portrayal of sexual relations in the novel [4]. In this final move, I will transpose the most radical Lacanian thesis—the sexual relation ‘doesn’t stop not being written’ (Lacan, 1998, p.59, 94) or the sexual relation cannot be written and that it cannot be written must be written— from the sphere of logical and mathematical writing in psychoanalysis to that of literary writing. The point is to see if this Real non-relation of the sexes or sexuality as an absence of relation can be another antinomy for novelistic realism. In Lacanian terms, if the sexual relation cannot be written in logical terms on the one hand, the fact that it cannot be written is written again and again and written per excellence. This installs an antinomy which the realistic narrative has to work through but cannot simply resolve this way or that. It has to carry on portraying this lack in sexual relation and it returns us to the impossibility of the Real which grounds and conditions this logic of (non)-relation.

A New Antinomy for Realism: The Sense of an Ending and ‘There is No Sexual Relation’

In Seminar XX, Lacan argues that there is a tension between love’s desire to be One and the relation between the two sexes which for him, does not exist. For him, love makes up for the lack of this relation (1998, p.45, 47, 69) and even though it supplements the lack of sexual relation, it cannot hide the lack in any substantial way. According to Lacan, love aims at ‘the being of the subject’ approaching it through the ‘encounter’ with the Other (p.50, 145) but it fails to unify sexual duality and what we have is a two and not a One of the sexes. The moment we try to write this ‘relationship between ‘them-two’ (la relation d’eux),’ the relation itself becomes a third term (pp.6-7) because when we inscribe the relation between x and y as ‘xRy,’ the R, instead of unifying x and y into a One, creates an interval between the two (p.35). Lacan thus observes that the two of love can only be knotted together by a third figure which insists on separation. This marks one efficacy of the Borromean knot in Lacan’s later teachings because in the aforementioned knot, there is no relation as such between any two strings and it is only the third string which knots the one with the two. Lacan argues that there is no sexual relation which can make a One. For him, sexual difference remains irreducible as the ‘jouissance, qua sexual, is phallic—in other words, it is not related to the Other as such’ (p.9). What etches the interval between the two sexes is the phallic signifier and sexual jouissance cannot produce sexual relation because it’s related to the phallus and not to the Other or in other words there is no relation between the sexes which is not mediated by the phallus as the third.

Barnes’s novel makes us think that the failure of the sexual relation as well as the imperative to continue with the portrayal of this failure constitute a supplementary antinomy of realism. For Lacan, the impossibility of the Real stems from the antinomic double-negation of that which ‘doesn’t stop not being written.’ This antinomy surrounds the portrayal of love, one of the most fundamental themes of a realistic novel. A realistic novel can portray love either as a positive or a negative relation or even as a relation which does not exist or in other words, a non-relation; but whatever it does, it can only progress by dissolving the Lacanian antinomy. If the novel depicts love qua a positive sexual relation, the antinomy dissolves; on the other hand, if it portrays love qua a negative or problematic relation, it still posits a relation and exits the antinomy. If it portrays love as a sexual non-relation, it still converts ‘non-relation’ into a positive term between the two sexes and terminates the antinomy. The only way to portray this non-relation and also maintain the antinomy of impossibility is by depicting it not as a positive term but as a gap in the narrative.

If love is figured as a positive term it shows that the sexual relation exists and can be written. In Lacanian terms, it would be translated into the ‘necessity’ [5] of the sexual relation or that which ‘doesn’t stop being written.’ On the other hand, if the novelist portrays love as a failure which produces a non-relation between the sexes, it would be translated into Lacanese as the ‘contingency’ of the relation or that ‘it stops not being written.’ Here the contingent encounter which founds the opening moment of love still happens when its having previously ‘not being written’ stops as the chance encounter with the amorous Other writes itself into existence. But it only stops once and cannot repeat the contingent moment of the encounter. In other words, it cannot turn contingency into necessity (which does not stop being written). When the contingency of the amorous encounter cannot be translated into an infinitely repeatable necessity, it fails. If these are the two dominant ways in which the realistic novel portrays love, either as success or as failure, we can see in this, Lacan’s marking of a fundamental hesitation between contingency and necessity in the field of love. In Seminar XX, he reflects:

All love, subsisting only on the basis of the ‘stops not being written,’ tends to make the negation shift to the ‘doesn’t stop being written,’ doesn’t stop, won’t stop (p.145).

Lacan traces the trajectory of love in terms of a movement from contingency to necessity. As seen above, these are the two basic choices for the realistic novel, facing the antinomy of the impossible sexual relation and whichever choice it makes, it can only dismantle the antinomy and realism in the process. If love tries to shift the negation (‘not’) from the contingency of stopping (‘stops not’ in ‘stops not being written’) to the necessity of not stopping (‘doesn’t stop’ in ‘doesn’t stop being written’), the impossible sexual relation presents us with a doubling of this negation instead of a shift. There are two negations in the schema of the impossible Real of sexual relation: ‘it does not stop not being written.’ The Lacanian impossible is neither the necessity of that which doesn’t stop being written nor the contingency of that which stops not being written. The impossible combines the necessary and the contingent insofar as it has two negations and in the absence of the law of excluded middle in Lacan’s intuitionist logical framework, the two ‘not’s cannot neutralize each other. This means that the impossible sexual relation can only be written through a repeated negation of writing where the ‘not’ of non-relation is written ad infinitum but only as a negative term— the hollow of a cut or a gap via narrative omission.

The failed sexual relations in The Sense of an Ending point to the portrayal of a negation of sexual relation but the problem is that it makes a positive term of this negation. Adrian’s parents leave each other. Adrian couples with Sarah while he is in a relation with Veronica. His relation with neither the mother nor the daughter eventually works out. Sarah gets into the affair while in a marriage with someone else. Tony’s relation with Veronica does not work. His marriage with Margaret falls apart. Margaret’s second husband leaves her for a younger woman. Tony remains alone after his divorce with Margaret and Veronica doesn’t get married after Adrian’s death. It is difficult to imagine that Sarah and Adrian’s disabled son Adrian junior getting into a relation. And yet Sarah’s will as a third object brings Tony back in touch with Veronica. Even if they cannot rekindle their old romance, this means that their non-relation is portrayed as a positive term. Tony hesitates to take his ex-wife Margaret’s advice on tackling Veronica after years which goes to show that he still has a feeling for his ex-wife. Her circumspect responses when it comes to Tony’s meetings with Veronica suggest a lingering presence of some kind of after-love in her as well. Even though they are divorced, every vacation, Tony wants to take her out for a trip but continues to fail in expressing this desire. This brief catalogue suggests that Barnes’s novel portrays sexual non-relation as a nostalgic reminder of relationality. It proposes sexual non-relation not only as a positive term but also as a latent promise of returning to a relation in time future.

In Barnes’s world of ‘solitary confinement,’ to use an expression from Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending (155), there is no sexual relation which succeeds but these failed relations are seen as positive terms in themselves. They are not written through a negation of narrative gaps but as backgrounds and foregrounds which constitute the narrative body. A quintessential example of this writing is the encounter between Sarah and Tony where the time of incomprehension passes into a time of understanding in the ‘perpetual present.’ There is no real rapport between the two of them at the end, but what began as an opaque negation in the form of a secret is eventually spaced out into a slice of understanding. There is a sense in this ending insofar as it dissolves the narrative gap implicit in the ‘horizontal gesture at waist level’ which could have been an indecipherable point to mark the absence of sexual relation via negativa. If the unreadable gesture was a cut separating Sarah and Tony in the past, the unfolding of the truth in the present ends up dissolving this gap although this moment remains an exception to chronological time. It is not unfair to say that Barnes’s novel eventually explains it away by bringing in the truth of Sarah’s future pregnancy. The impregnable Real in a woman’s body is codified in retrospect by the Symbolic sense of an ending activated through reconstitutive remembrance.

As Adrian’s notebook fragment notes, ‘most relationships’ can neither be expressed as a simple plus of multiplication or a simple minus of division (p.85). He observes that these signs are ‘limited’ and they only work for ‘entirely successful’ and ‘entirely failed’ relationships respectively but ‘most relationships’ belong to a third category which is neither ‘entirely successful’  nor ‘entirely failed’  and this is where he voices the novel’s persistence in portraying relations in non-relations and non-relations as another form of relation. Barnes thus maintains the sexual relation as neither entirely successful nor entirely failed. A trace of the sexual relation haunts these halfway relationships and the novel becomes what Adrian in his notebook calls ‘notations which are logically improbable and mathematically insoluble’ (ibid.). These notations probe into the problematic relations of the sexes but fall short of writing the impossible sexual relation as that which ‘doesn’t stop not being written.’

To sum up, I have focused on Jameson’s temporal antinomy at the heart of novelistic realism and examined his notion of the body’s affective present both within his own corpus and also through a necessary Deleuzean qualification which adds a divisive function to his quasi-Deleuzean notion. With this divisive function in mind, I have traced a disjunctive moment of corporeal present in The Sense of an Ending and following the thread of feminine secret and its disclosure, gone on to explore Barnes’s depiction of the sexual relation. Working on Jameson’s implicit Lacanian suggestions around the unnameable bodily affects and the partiality of the drives in a potential Real register for the body, I have invoked Lacan’s late thesis on the impossible and uninscribable nature of the sexual relation qua love and seen how it can give us a new antinomy for realism by extending as well supplementing Jameson’s thesis. We have been able to formulate that the double-negation of the impossible sexual relation as that which ‘doesn’t stop not being written’ is yet another realistic antinomy for the novel. Whichever way it treats love qua sexual relation, it dissolves the sexual antinomy and realism with it. We have seen how The Sense of an Ending dissolves the antinomy of realism by affirming love as a non-relational relation of the sexes.


[1] See Lacan’s essay on the Mirror Stage in Écrits where he develops the notion of the Imaginary body as the subject’s egotistic misrecognition of himself or herself with the specular image in the mirror. For Jameson’s Athusserean reading of the Imaginary body as an ideological construction, see his essay ‘Imaginary and Symbolic in Lacan.’

[2] The Real as a Lacanian category that resists linguistic Symbolization would be the map for thinking through resistance to the Symbolic and Imaginary trappings of Ideology. And for Lacan, the body, among other things, has an important role to play in framing the Real. The Real of the body, as opposed to the phantasmic totality and ‘anticipated certainty’ of the Imaginary body in the ‘Mirror Stage’ would be about the body as fragment, the other side of the body that doesn’t lend itself to Imaginary capitation. The inner life of the body turned inside out subverts the very dichotomy of a corporeal inside and outside. The body in its Real register is a partial body of the famous ‘erogenous zones’ where the ‘anatomical characteristic of a margin or border’ such as lips, anal rim, the slit of eyelids and so on take centre-stage (Lacan, 2006, 692). See ‘The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire’ from Écrits for more on this drive-body of the Real. I will come back to this Real body in Barnes’s novel.

[3] The Freudian conception of drives as partial objects is extended by Lacan as he defines the ‘montage’ of drives circulating around and ‘mythifying’ the Real lack in the body. The partial nature of the drive-objects (oral, anal, scopic and invocatory for Lacan) demonstrates the cut of the Real on the body where its Imaginary totality is invaded by a Real hollow. The Real of the body punches a hole in the Imaginary representation of the body which is the site of its ideological and institutional appropriation in a Foucaultian line of thinking.

[4] Though I cannot pursue the track of feminine sexuality in the limited space and argument of this article, let me note here that the relation between the Real and the feminine isn’t incidental in the Lacanian framework. For Lacan, a feminine subject isn’t as divided as the masculine subject is by the ‘signifying cut’ of language. This means there is more Real in a woman than in a man. This is why Lacan famously defines a woman as ‘not-all (pas-tout)’ in relation to phallic sexuality (1998, 71-74). A woman embodies the singularity of a position, excluded from the phallic law. See Chapter XIV ‘Woman, Truer and More Real’ of Book X: Anxiety for more on a woman and the Real.

[5] In the final session of Seminar XX, Lacan maps the Aristotelian triad of necessity, contingency and possibility from modal logic onto three schemas of writing. The necessary becomes that which ‘doesn’t stop being written’, the contingent, that which ‘stops not being written’ and the possible, that which ‘stops being written.’ He adds a fourth term to this triad i.e. the impossible which for him is the order of the Real as that which ‘doesn’t stop not being written.’ By adding the impossible to the Aristotelian modal triad which now becomes a logical square, Lacan incorporates ‘contradiction’ or shall we say antinomy in the Jamesonian way into classical logic as an extension of Freud’s thesis that the unconscious doesn’t know contradiction. Through this incorporation of the impossible into classical logic, Lacan installs the Real as an irresolvable antinomy where the logic of ‘either p or non-p’ is replaced by an antinomic logic of ‘both p and non-p.’ 

Works Cited

 Barnes, Julian. The Sense of an Ending. London: Jonathan Cape, 2011. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles. The Logic of Sense. Trans. Mark Lester and Charles Stivale. Ed. Constantin V. Boundas. London and New York: Continuum, 2004. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. ‘Imaginary and Symbolic in Lacan: Marxism, Psychoanalysis and the Problem of the Subject.’ In Yale French Studies 55/56 Literature and Psychoanalysis: The Question of Reading Otherwise (1977).

-, The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on The Postmodern 1983-1998 London and New York: Verso, 1998. Print.

-, The Ideologies of Theory Parts I and II. London and New York: Verso, 2008. Print.

-, Valences of the Dialectic. London and New York: Verso, 2009. Print.

-, The Antinomies of Realism. London and New York: Verso, 2013. Print.

Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. (1966) Écrits. Trans. Bruce Fink, Héloise Fink and Russell Grigg. London and New York: Norton, 2006. Print.

-, Book X: Anxiety. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. A.R. Price. Cambridge: Polity, 2015. Print.

-, (1975) The Seminar Of Jacques Lacan: Book XX: On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge, 1972-73. Trans. Bruce Fink. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. New York and London: Norton, 1998. Print.


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