Sept/Oct/Nov 2008

MORTALITY PLAY

Peter Terzian


It’s best not to struggle too much while reading Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes’s chew on death, religion, family, writing, and memory, among other things. Ideas, arguments, quotations, and anecdotes pursue one another across the pages, dogleg, vanish, and resurface. Signposts and footholds are scarce, and there are no chapter breaks or headings. No matter: Barnes is the most companionable of tour guides, quipping and joshing, recounting family stories, citing nineteenth-century French writers, and asking would-you-rather questions like a parlor gamester.

A sample handful of pages begins with the Barnes family, circa the ’50s, listening to a radio show featuring book and theater critics. Some years later, the wireless is replaced by a television set that is “the size of a dwarf’s armoire, and guzzle[s] furniture polish.” On the screen is Gielgud, or a show in which a field marshal explains his wartime exploits, or a nature program, which gets Barnes to thinking about the current popularity of penguins, which are reminiscent of humans but, he notes, are unconscious of an afterlife. We’ve risen up from animal herds, he reasons, we believe in our individuality, but science shows that’s just an illusion: We’re really just “units of genetic obedience.” Even if we are more self-aware than other creatures, does that make death any less terrifying? The reader may ask, what do radio and TV have to do with all this? But wait—that field marshal turns up again 138 pages later.

At the heart of all this cheery meandering is Barnes’s reckoning with his own mortality. Having watched his parents depart this world, he realizes, now that he’s in his sixties, that his own days are numbered. A “happy atheist” as an Oxford student, Barnes now considers himself an agnostic. “I don’t believe in God,” he writes, “but I miss him”—or, more precisely, he misses the “beautiful lie” of Christianity. When confronted with religious art, for example, his response is primarily aesthetic. Imagine if one believed, as earlier generations did, that those paintings and cathedrals give form to religious truth: “It would—to put it mildly—add a bit of extra oomph, wouldn’t it?”

To miss God, counters Julian’s brother, Jonathan, a philosopher living in France, is “soppy.” Nothing to Be Frightened Of is, in part, a dialogue between the two siblings, between the philosopher and the novelist, reason and imagination. Of the afterlife, Jonathan, a firm atheist, “can’t really imagine anything that would be more welcome [than extinction].” Julian, however, thinks about death “at least once each waking day” and wonders whether there is any way to get around his fear. Christianity refashioned the Old Testament God into a kinder, gentler deity, but death “simply declines to come to the negotiating table.” Throughout the book, Barnes attempts some thought experiments in order to get a little more comfortable with the inevitable. If science says that our brains are merely meat, that we have no “self-stuff,” can we forgo mourning an “I” that doesn’t exist? Can we think, as Richard Dawkins suggests, of the countless possible existences that never came to be and consider ourselves lucky to have had life at all? Small consolation. And no depersonalized afterlife, thanks: “I can just about imagine slopping around half-unawares in some gooey molecular remix, but I can’t see that this has any advantage over complete extinction.”

The deaths of Barnes’s passive father and difficult, manipulative mother (who tells her son that, given the choice, she would rather go deaf than blind so she could continue to keep up her nails) are his main points of reference. “Part of what I’m doing—which may seem unnecessary—is trying to work out how dead they are,” he explains. We survive in the genes we pass along and in memory, Barnes reasons, but for how long? Here’s where he really scares the bejesus out of you. In a couple of generations, everyone who ever knew you will be dead, and your grave will go unvisited. This may hold true for all of the bodies in the cemetery, and, in any case, it will eventually be paved over to make room for suburban housing. A writer like Barnes, who is childless, at least leaves behind his collected prose. But just as there will be that last person who remembers you and visits your grave, there will be, at some point, the last reader of a Julian Barnes book. We can assume, as well, that we’re not the end of the evolutionary line and that the creatures who walk the earth in the future will be much different from Homo sapiens. “Life is a matter of cosmic hazard,” Barnes writes, that “unfolds in emptiness.” To reckon with this “is what growing up means.”

“It is when faced with death that we turn most bookish,” wrote Jules Renard, one of the death-obsessed French writers whom Barnes considers his “true bloodline.” Nothing to Be Frightened Of is a kind of commonplace book, scattered with quotes from Flaubert, who believed that “one must be equal to one’s destiny, that’s to say, impassive like it,” and Montaigne, who encouraged us to “have the taste of death in your mouth and its name on your tongue.” Barnes might panic about what lies ahead, but his chatty, zigzagging essay steps neatly into their tradition of equanimity and generosity. He wants to teach us, as Montaigne did, to die better. “Death is the one appalling fact which defines life,” Barnes writes. “Unless you are constantly aware of it, you cannot begin to understand what life is about.”

Peter Terzian is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY.

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