Nothing to Be Frightened Of
by Julian Barnes
Knopf, 256 pages, $24.95
Death has many masks. He comes cruel with his sweeping scythe, cutting down men and women in their prime. He comes kind and compassionate as a nurse, closing the eyes of long-suffering patients. Death comes slowly and shyly behind closed drapes, and death comes suddenly, brazen and bragging in news reports of drive-by shootings and rush-hour accidents. Like life itself, death is ever changing, evading our desire to make a truce, establish a working agreement, and broker a compromise.
In his charming, playful reflections, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes offers readers no cheap consolations. His meditations do not attempt a contemplative assault, as if we can think ourselves out of the grave. Instead, Barnes takes us down many alleys and side paths, some literary, a few philosophical, and most personal. The result is something that is really quite rare: a serious book, about the most serious of human realities, that doesn't take itself too seriously.
Barnes reports that he thinks of death—his own death—every day, and not happily. “Mortality gatecrashes my consciousness,” he writes. It's not a grand sort of feeling, not the threat of nothingness that agitated the Russian novels of the late nineteenth century. Instead, as Barnes reports, “my fear of death is low-level, reasonable, practical.” The terrible fact is that his life—and our lives—will end, and Barnes simply cannot manage to dull the conviction that this is bad news.
The French critic Charles du Blos coined a term to describe the unpleasant shock of recognition that one is doomed: le réveil mortal, the wake-up call of mortality. As Barnes observes, it's the perfect image. Most of the time, we're engaged in the tasks at hand. But sooner or later our e-mail inbox will fill with solicitations, reminders about upcoming meetings, and notes from acquaintances who haven't heard the news. When this harsh fact about our eventual extinction enters our minds, he writes, “it is like being in an unfamiliar hotel room, where the alarm clock has been left on the previous occupant's setting, and at some ungodly hour you are suddenly pitched from sleep into darkness, panic, and a vicarious awareness that this is a rented world.”
People pay the rent in different ways, none of which Barnes finds fully satisfactory. One approach treats the darkness of death as a tonic. As he reports, Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich once said, “I think that if people began thinking about death sooner, they'd make fewer foolish mistakes.” It rings true, but is it? “Do I really think,” Barnes asks, “that my death-denying (or religious) friends appreciate that bunch of flowers / work of art / glass of wine less than I do? No.”
Another approach treats the grave as a test of existential seriousness. Barnes gives us a characteristic moment of French literary hyperbole when he cites Flaubert: “People like us should have the religion of despair. One must be equal to one's destiny, that's to say, impassive like it. By dint of saying, ‘That is so! That is so!' and of gazing down into the black pit at one's feet, one remains calm.” A heroic sentiment, perhaps, but one that Flaubert failed to sustain as he aged.
The opposite of calm acceptance is passionate protest, and Barnes has Dylan Thomas ready at hand: “Do not go gentle into that good night,” and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” The problem here is that the exhortations work no magic. Rage if we will, but the light will nonetheless die. To think otherwise, Barnes asserts, is youthful self-delusion.
Montaigne does not urge us to protest against death. Instead he advises us to counterattack with daily recollections of our mortality. If we make death familiar, then we gain a measure of self-command. Of course, suicide is the logical conclusion of the assertion of the will against the power of death. Why not beat death to the punch? Thoughts of the gun to the head give no consolation to Barnes. Our ability to take an earlier train hardly counts as overcoming the fact that we have to leave the station.
We often think of fame as a bulwark against extinction. We may die, but won't our accomplishments keep us alive in the memories of others? Barnes knows this strategy well, and he gives readers a witty reflection on his own fate. He can imagine all too clearly a chilling and inevitable person: his last reader. This distasteful character is the fellow who, for some obscure reason, finishes a book by the once well regarded but no longer much remembered English novelist, Julian Barnes—and then recommends it to nobody. The thought experiment yields clear results. If we take a wide enough and long enough view, then we know that fame invariably yields to anonymity: “Unknown person dies; not many mourn. This is our certain obituary in the eyes of the rest of the world.”
What, then, are we to do about death? By Barnes' reckoning, there is nothing terribly clear or reassuring at hand these days. “Death is not an artist,” writes Jules Renard, one of Barnes' favorite sources. In this respect, death finds its match in life. “We are all amateurs in and of our lives,” he wisely observes. No great artistry there, and with this thought Barnes finds his real theme. Nothing to Be Frightened Of is more concerned with probing the ironies and silences and disappointments of being alive than with grappling with le réveil mortal. After all, even if we all will eventually die, in the meantime we must live.
And we do, but understanding why and for what purpose is not always easy for the self-aware English novelist. The fact of aging comes up again and again. His youthful literary gang mellows into a more chastened, more measured, and less sybaritic group. And, of course, Barnes gives time to that great agitator, sexual desire. The body is a fact of life, full of ambivalences, as are the ties of blood. We do not choose our parents or siblings. As Barnes' reminiscences of childhood and his accounts of his elderly parents remind us, the often painful and predictable familiarity of family presses upon us whether we like it or not. In many ways, death is more notional, more remote. Barnes tells us that he has always tried to write as if his parents were dead—and now that they are, it's even more necessary to keep up the effort.
Yet, when it comes to the difficulties of life, for Julian Barnes, the weightlessness of modern unbelief plays a crucial, sad, central role. “I don't believe in God,” Barnes writes at the outset, “but I miss Him.” It's a sentiment that his older brother, a philosopher, declares to be “soppy.”
At issue is not consolation in the face of death. Barnes does at times advert to friends who believe in heaven. But in the main he misses God because without him life seems small and unimportant. It's a paradox—but it seems to be true, at least in Barnes' eyes—that, if I believe that my life serves something greater, “then it becomes at the same time less valuable and more serious.” He is sobered by the thought of the post-Christian West. “Those parts of the world,” he observes, “where religion has drained away and there is a general acknowledgement that this short stretch of time is all we have, are not, on the whole, more serious places than those where heads are still jerked by the cathedral's bell or the minaret's muezzin.”
What, then, of the great surrogate gods of modernity—art and beauty? This shining idol naturally appeals to the literary man, and Barnes admits to having once had hopes. But it turns out that Stendhal, one of the great high priests of beauty, was an untrustworthy mythmaker. The same holds for his own youthful enthusiasm for a young French assistant who lived with his family when he was a child. Barnes once imagined the fellow's paintings to be evidence of artistic brilliance, only to discover many years later that they were copies of commercial art cards from Breton. But more decisively, Barnes passes along a telling quip from Somerset Maugham: “Beauty is a bore.”
Nothing to Be Frightened Of is not a treatise, and we would be wrong to try to squeeze a position about life, death, and religious faith out of the twists and turns of the reflective, chatty, and often affecting prose. Julian Barnes does not write in order to feed our syllogisms. Nonetheless, a sensibility comes clear. By his reckoning, in our time, “fear of death replaces fear of God.” Indeed, and as this wonderful exercise in reflective memory and intelligent engagement demonstrates with wit and grace, our present fear of death is diffuse, inconclusive, and given to very unsatisfactory and intellectually dishonest consolations.
Thus, as the reader slowly comes to realize, the quiet pathos of this lovely, early twenty-first-century exercise in memory and reflection has little to do with the death that awaits Julian Barnes (and you and me). Adrift in the postmodern West, Barnes has in his mind a never fully articulated doubt. He fears the extinction of the only life he can imagine having, but at the same time he finds himself unable to give any account of why he should care. In the dusk of modern skeptical rejections of the old theological convictions about God and the soul, it seems that our estimable memoirist finds himself on the brink of conceding, “I don't believe in Julian Barnes, but I miss him.”
His mother once said to him, “People only believe in religion because they're afraid of death.” It's not a judgment Barnes shares. As he slowly and haltingly makes clear, perhaps against his own intentions, most people believe in religion because there is an urgent desire for life in the human soul. It's a desire well known to the world of faith. An ancient homily for Holy Saturday tells of Christ's descent into the depths of death in search of Adam. He finds our first father, in whom life has become nearly extinct under the weight of sin and death. In the imagination of this early Christian homilist, Christ raises himself up
to his full divine authority, saying to Adam, “I order you, O sleeper,
to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.” This is not a voice of consolation; it is a call to life.
R.R. Reno is features editor of First Things and professor of theology at Creighton University.