Nothing to be Frightened Of

I have just finished a book about death, ‘Nothing to be Frightened Of’ by British writer Julian Barnes, a professional observer of the amateurishness of life. Debby checked it out from the library for me so that I would have something to read while my foot recovered from its operation. I identified with the author on basic life outlook; some aspects of his parenting were familiar to me as well.

The following synopsis does not do the book justice, for the book is written humorously and I have failed to capture most of that dimension here. Also, not being trained in philosophy, I may not have grasped the subtlety of some arguments. The author describes the writer’s craft as not interested in truth so much as the ground that exists between competing narratives; in his case, each narrative is some version of things he doesn’t remember. And that is how I interpret his wisdom in this book.

Barnes describes his preoccupation leading to this book as ‘pit gazing’, suggesting that an artist who keeps a wary eye on death increases his artistic energy and life perspective. Yet one can question his credentials, for he admits he has never seen a person die. He visits deathly subjects in small bites, ‘lolloping from anecdote to anecdote’, a virtual dim sum feast of homilies, vignettes, and literary references, all drawn from his own family relations, the lives of past writers, artists, and musicians with whom he has felt a connection, philosophies he has dabbled in, and conversations with people from his life. He frequently employs ‘Would you rather…’ hypotheticals as a device to engage the reader in his thought process.

Barnes resurrects, from folk lore, the life metaphor of a bird that flies from out of the night into a lighted banquet hall, then flies out again into the darkness on the other side. The small size of this hall compared to the cosmic scale of darkness that surrounds it is a good visualization of the significance of a life as a tiny flicker of light, perhaps helping us to detach from importance of self, and thus easing the transition to nothing. The author’s notes on fellow writer Jules Renard are woven throughout, apparently an inspiration for this book. Renard considered ‘nothing’ as the most exact, true, and meaning-filled of words.

The debate about the existence of free will is a recurring philosophical motif in the book. Free will means you can do what you want, but Barnes and perhaps Richard Dawkins would say our wants are predetermined. Camus characterized life as absurd, without a reasonable reason for being; thus we invent rules for ourselves. Because there is no distinction between the universe and us, we cannot stand outside of it as rules makers, and because we have no free will, it would not be us making the rules anyway.

Barnes distinguishes fear of dying and fear of death. Fear of death has been constant over humankind history, more or less in various individuals, and usually less as we age. According to Freud, we are conflicted about our death because our unconscious does not believe in our own death; it behaves as if it were immortal. Being attached to one’s own ‘immortal’ personality makes death more difficult, for the greater the self-esteemed value of ‘me’, the harder it will be to say goodbye to ‘me’. Yet it is acknowledged that this tendency lessens in old age, as the constant stream of people preceding one in death acts as a narcotic, eventually numbing one to it so we can go gentle into that good night. In the end, the only way to be equal to death is to be impassive. The author correctly lances the medical profession for the over-medicalization of dying, and the sterility of our final days in a hospital.

One of the author’s main death counselors is Montaigne, from whom he understands that to teach a man how to die is to teach him how to live. Awareness of death (le réveil mortel followed by pit gazing) is necessary for awareness of life, whereby we grow to take life seriously. Montaigne suggests different quality deaths; the death of youth differs in kind from death of old age. The young will not have reached their réveil mortel, and so will not have learned how to live. Fear of death has survival advantage early on in suppressing recklessness; those who experience this primordial fear may be less likely to experience death of youth.

Our end game has several aspects that Barnes explores: preparing for death, death itself, and what comes next. Death is capricious, however, and many never get to their end game. For the rest, the end game may begin with a meaningful discussion with one’s ‘death doctor’. There is some debate about whether to know or not to know. The ‘vote’ seems to favor knowledge (and thus gets my approval).

Barnes’ doctor was also writing about death. She viewed life as a narrative, and valued the opportunities afforded by a final illness. The author questioned the narrative aspect, recalling Lessing’s view that history is putting accidents in order. Barnes, defender of literary values, does not see a life history rising to the level of competent narrative.

Prior to their demise or loss of cognition (identity), those who choose knowledge may have opportunities to succeed at death, some time available to prepare one’s affairs. Many will use the time for unwinding their relationships. Others may try to discover as much truth about this world as is possible before leaving it. (These would be my choices.) Some will want assistance to help their life pass more easily. For those who derive their life’s meaning by racking up experience, bucket lists are hastily jotted. (I might add that people with transactional personalities will want to complete a few more deals, to exit an even bigger winner.) Some will take the opportunity to script the final ceremony/party, wishing to make the memorial as perfect as the life, and perhaps to enable imagining oneself present at one’s memorial.

Belle mort is our target, which of course could mean many things. For Barnes, it is important to die in character, such as a heroic shout ‘Art defeats Death’, or perhaps a pathetic murmur ‘I was here too’. (In the latter case, might not one be tempted to expand one’s character for once, and ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’?)

Addendum: I just read an obit that made me revisit this ‘dying in character’ discussion. The wife of a Nobel-winning mathematician/physicist wrote: “[My husband] was the most lacking in small talk of anyone I ever met.” In an e-mail to friends, she wrote: “[He] died last evening. He always liked to do things quietly and without fuss, and that’s how he left us.” I have very much more reason to go quietly than did her husband, so I hope I can manage it as well.

Being a literary type, Barnes imagines an even more perfect death for a writer, dying in the character of one’s literary character; he notes Hemingway invoked suicide to accomplish death in both characters. Montaigne is said to believe that those who lived well would be happiest to let go, and thus to make room for others to be born and do the same.

Given man’s superficiality, famous last words seem our last stab at making a good impression. Cited are Hegel: only one man understood me, (pause) and he didn’t understand me; Dickinson: I must go in, the fog is rising; Mozart: mouthing the tympani part in his unfinished Requiem; Bouhours (grammarian): I soon shall – or – I soon will die. Both are correct; Toulouse-Lautrec: You stupid old bugger! (to his father who spent his last moments with his son trying to catch flies); Steegmuller: You have beautiful hands (to a male nurse); Rabelais?: I am going to seek a Great Perhaps.

Belle mort is harder to achieve if the emotional landscape of the soon to be departed is remorse-tinged. Barnes covers several possibilities: feeling one has never been understood, having guilt arising from imagined harm to another, finding oneself dying while out of love, failing to accomplish (or experience, if that is your thing) as much as one wanted, bemoaning the degree one’s dying and death inconveniences those left behind (either before or after one’s death),… Maugham prescribes humorous resignation as the proper antidote.

Suicide is mentioned a few times, possibly the antithesis of humorous resignation. This conscious act of achieving final conquest of attachment to self is perhaps difficult for Barnes to get his thoughts around. (I do not have a clear image of what he is telling us about the subject; but that is not such a loss, since the grim reaper is usually successful at harvesting us before we find reason to go calling on him.)

The final phase, what comes after death, looms large in this book, even though the author is a non-believer. For the like-minded, one’s art (works), and one’s children (genes), are one’s enduring legacy. Plato added one’s soul. The author humorously deemed it a shaky bet, the notion of one’s offspring as one’s enduring legacy, because they are not likely to behave in the manner the parents would wish. The author (humorously?) claims to assert free will (which he doesn’t believe in) by denying his biological imperative to reproduce. Thus his legacy is his oeuvre. He muses about how his readership will gradually dwindle to the last reader. His first reaction is to thank him or her, but then becomes miffed when he realizes this will be a person who fails to recommend the book to another.

Believers will not find much comfort in this book; but they have their own books. Dawkins looms larger than god in Barnes view, and the dying off of religion in Europe is contrasted (favorably?) to its rise in the USA. Voltaire observed that if god doesn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him. And so we have. The god and religion of our ancient ancestors is equated with a great story, a beautiful lie, filled with approval for ‘us’ and punishment for ‘them’. For those with the mental agility and the need, suspension of disbelief then transforms into belief and new universal truths. (The human brain is truly a wonder.)

Barnes envisions a death maze, in which the religious, fearing death is upon them, scurry around seeking the path to everlasting life. It’s a cruel hoax, because there are many exit doors labeled ‘judgement’ and ‘rapture’ and ‘deliverance’ and ‘happy hunting ground’, but none deliver – behind each is ‘nothing’. The author adds another state of mind to the ‘about to die’ mood progression of Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, approval. The religious among us await judgement day to satisfy their need for approval.

Barnes seems to relish the smell of fear behind a Catholic journalist’s rebuke of Dawkins: ‘Intellectual monsters like Hategod Dawkie spread their despairing gospel of nihilism, pointlessness, vacuity, the emptiness of life, the lack of significance…’ Montaigne’s counsel is again sought, and we hear that religion’s surest foundation is contempt for life. (Some may be a bit more humanistic than all that.) For those betting, as Pascal suggested, on an afterlife reward, Renard counsels not betting one’s soul on the expectation of more justice in the afterlife than in this life. Flaubert seems to go easier on religion; although finding repulsive the dogma which clerics fashion from those beautiful lies, he understands the feelings behind them, simply a natural expression of humanity. The author and I agree that atheism can be made dogma as well, but one without benefit of a beautiful lie at its core.

Barnes muses about the looking back at a deceased’s life and settling affairs, the who gets what moment. When memory is what survivors have to go on, we can never be sure of hitting the mark; the author cites instances that show memory is nothing more than imagination. Any hypothetical ‘would have wanteds’ ascribed to the departed will likely be imagined. The most one can hope for is, by chance, to be misremembered correctly. Another reason for getting serious about life, where some early pit gazing could help, involves not one’s own death, but the death of a person close. Noted is one man’s obsession with his wife’s memory, coming to realize that ‘after she was dead, I loved her’. (Now there’s a sure recipe for remorse.)

To what state do we commit our remains? Barnes has some issues with graveyards. Being a pit gazer, he has visited and seen more than a few. He finds NY cemeteries bleak and largely unvisited. He concurs with Renard’s observation that it is less cruel to never visit a grave than to visit for a while and then to just stop coming. Artists graves interested the author, particularly as a last chance to toot one’s horn (perhaps a substantial C.V. if the stone is large enough, or at least a pithy epithet). Those who do not write large what they were noted for risk ending up no longer noted. Of course this would not apply to the greatest among us, those whose name alone, combined with very public tomb location, suffice for that most sought after ‘permanent’ status. The author muses about his grave visitors, and again imagines the last one who was aware of his existence, thanking this person in advance for his attention. Barnes saves some special swipes at those signing up for cryogenic preservation.

The author has a sufficiently cosmic perspective for the job at hand, recognizing the futility of worldly legacies, anticipating the last humans bidding goodbye to a dying Earth. Yet he entertains, perhaps as a comfort, that those who will witness The End writ large will be as dissimilar to us as we are to the amoeba, the time distance forward being greater than that back to the first amoeba. ( Given our newly found penchant for changing our environment and modifying our genes, this seems reasonable, although the probability of sentient beings living here then is vanishingly small. Meanwhile, who knows what future faces we can put on god?).

In the end, one may conclude there is no ghost in the machine. Our soul, our consciousness, is a story our brain tells us. Our consciousness concerns itself not with what is true about our reality, but with what is useful for us to know. A rock is merely something heavy and hard that hurts us if we kick it. When one mourns another, it is an illusion mourning an illusion.


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