- Nothing to Be Frightened Of
- Knopf, 256 pp.
Facing the Inevitable
I do not often have the experience of enjoying a book very much and closing the cover with a feeling of disappointment.
Not disappointment because I enjoyed it so much that I’m sad it’s over, which is more usual (especially, now that I think of it, with good fiction more than good nonfiction), but just because … as good as it was, it wasn’t enough. One suspects that even if disappointing a reader is not what the author might have desired, he wouldn’t be particularly surprised. Perhaps it’s inherent in the nature of the subject.
British novelist Julian Barnes, author of Flaubert’s Parrot, A History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters, and Arthur & George, has written a “death memoir”; that is, a book-long meditation on his fear of death, his past experiences with it, thoughts on its nature, and what little guidance he has been able to derive from the lives, ideas, and deaths of others.
It’s an oddly welcome and compelling enterprise. The opening words are “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him,” which leads immediately to one of the ongoing threads of the book: the contrasting attitudes and experiences of Barnes’s older brother, a retired professor of philosophy (an expert in Aristotle) who is a more rigorous and dry-minded atheist than his novelist sibling. The brother’s judgment of the remark? It’s “soppy.”
Nothing to Be Frightened Of is not a large book, but it finds opportunities to consider the nature of memory, relations with parents (especially during and after their passing), the endurance or ephemerality of individual character and personality, the potential for survival beyond death (of course), the irrationality of religious consolations (though surprisingly, Barnes admits he was never baptized, never attended Sunday School, and has never been to a normal church service in his life), the way medieval believers put animals on trial (and executed them) for crimes because God’s creation of the world and His gift of free will made everything meaningful and every creature a responsible actor, famous last words of various historic figures, and more.
Barnes finds plenty of authority for thinking about death among earlier writers and composers, to whom he refers as “my daily companions, but also my ancestors” and “my true bloodline.” “We should think more about it,” Shostakovich wrote, “and accustom ourselves to the thought of death. … I think that if people began thinking about death sooner, they’d make fewer foolish mistakes.”
Other thanatophobes and/or thoughtful atheists who promenade through this book include Somerset Maugham, Edmund Wilson, Arthur Koestler, Alphonse Daudet, Philip Larkin, and Stendhal. Barnes is especially fond of French writers. Montaigne suggested one should defeat death by always having it before you.
Jules Renard pops up the most often, partly because he thought about these topics a lot and partly because he was rigorous and wry in his pronouncements. “I don’t know if God exists, but it would be better for his reputation if He didn’t.”
“I’m happy to believe anything you suggest, but the justice of this world doesn’t exactly reassure me about the justice of the next. I fear that God will just carry on blundering: He’ll welcome the wicked into heaven, and boot the good down to hell.” (This reminds me of a more recent and prominent agnostic, Woody Allen, in Love and Death when his character says: “If it turns out that there is a God, I don’t think that he’s evil. I think that the worst you can say about him is that basically he’s an underachiever.”)
After his mother lost her mind, fell down a well, and drowned, Renard pronounced, “Death is not an artist.” No indeed, Barnes agrees: “Artists are unreliable; whereas death never lets you down, remains on call seven days a week, and is happy to work three consecutive eight-hour shifts.”
Indeed, the very title of Barnes’s book, twitchy double meaning and all, comes from Renard. A passage from the author’s own diary, more than 20 years old, reads:
People say of death, “There’s nothing to be frightened of.” They say it quickly, casually. Now let’s say it again, slowly, with re-emphasis. “There’s NOTHING to be frightened of.” Jules Renard: “The word that is most true, most exact, most filled with meaning, is the word ‘nothing.’ ”
Barnes compares his thoughts and experiences with those of his brother throughout the book, usually in a neutral, “how was it for you?” spirit (especially in their curiously divergent memories of their parents and childhood incidents), sometimes with an inevitably competitive edge (there is three years’ difference in age). For example, the novelist is oddly pleased that death-awareness started for him earlier in life: 8 or 9 as opposed to early teens for his brother.
Interestingly, though his brother claims never to have feared death, despite having nearly experienced it three times, he also refused to let a nurse test him for high blood pressure (“I don’t wish to know that”) or to view the body of their mother. Barnes on the other hand indulged a “writerly curiousity” and saw his mother at the undertaker’s—even kissed her at the hairline. He discovered that though he had expected to be more affected by his father’s earlier death, because Barnes loved him more, his mother’s passing “proved more complicated, more hazardous. His death was just his death; her death was their death.”
On the other hand, a friend of Barnes is a champion in his circle for having recognized and freaked out over his mortality at the age of four. Barnes finds it characteristic that men can feel as competitive over fear of death as anything else: “MY FEAR OF DEATH IS BIGGER THAN YOURS AND I CAN GET IT UP MORE OFTEN.”
I think I can beat Barnes and his brother, as well: my mother says I started wailing about my mortality at about the age of 4. I was fascinated by Kennedy’s funeral parade on television, and Mom thinks my cheerful born-again Christian neighbor assured me the President was in heaven with God. Mom says I told her, “Trina say there’s a heaven and life after death; I don’t think there is, but I wish there were.” Thereafter, she recalls, on a regular basis I would be reading a book, and look up in tears and say “I don’t wanna die!” Emma Bovary’s graphic demise scared the crap out of me in college.
Where in the world did he get this dread fear of death, my parents asked each other. It’s not anything to be afraid of, they told me: it’s a natural thing, like cutting off your nails or your hair when they get too long. The body gets worn out and needs to be put away. You’re much too young to be worrying about all that; it shouldn’t be an issue until long after we’re gone. “That didn’t seem to comfort you at all,” Mom remembers, “but that’s what we said to you.” Curiously, she doesn’t recall the issue ever being raised by either of my brothers.
The tales of famous writers and composers, how they lived, feared, and died, are engaging, but what makes Nothing rich and memorable are the specific details of Barnes’s journey toward the great unknown. Watching his grandfather kill chickens, having a stuffed bag chair spring a leak and discovering it was filled with bits of his parents’ torn-up letters to each other (sadly unreconstructable), deciding that he just couldn’t accept the idea of God and his deceased forebears looking on while he masturbated and therefore atheism was the way to go, discovering in his grandparents’ album a mysterious photo of a woman whose face had been violently scratched out, and so on.
In a book filled with unanswerable questions, I suppose one of my disappointments is that Barnes does not address the nature of his fears more fully. He does indicate that reason and life experience do not seem to have dissipated the fear over time (damn!), for him as well as for past thanatophobes such as Larkin and Goethe (who carried himself with great dignity on the matter throughout life but ended up terrified at the end, according to his doctor).
Mortality, Barnes writes, “often gatecrashes my consciousness when the outside world presents an obvious parallel: as evening falls, as the days shorten, or towards the end of a long day’s hiking.” My own experience, in childhood and for various periods throughout adulthood, has been that stifling awareness of the temporariness of existence and the accompanying terror always hit just before sleep, when I was lying down and relaxed. I think it’s because all other sensory input has been curtailed, and there are no welcome (and unwelcome) distractions from the knowledge of the inevitable.
The feeling was claustrophobic, as if I were already sealed in a coffin and seeing my flesh melt from my frame. I wished I could be out of this weak and temporary vessel of my body, this undependable and undurable frame—which expresses the illusion of some sort of essential “I” that is separate from the meat and bones.
Barnes thinks of death “at least once every waking day … and then there are the intermittent nocturnal attacks.” He describes one:
Only a couple of nights ago, there came again that alarmed and alarming moment, of being pitchforked back into consciousness [from sleep], awake, alone, utterly alone, beating pillow with fist and shouting “Oh no Oh no OH NO” in an endless wail, the horror of the moment—the minutes—overwhelming what might, to an objective witness, appear a shocking display of exhibitionist self-pity. An inarticulate one, too: for what sometimes shames me is the extraordinary lack of descriptive, or responsive, words that come out of my mouth. For God’s sake, you’re a writer, I say to myself. You do words. Can’t you improve on that? Can’t you face down death—well, you won’t ever face it down, but can’t you at least protest against it—more interestingly than this? We know that extreme physical pain drives out language; it’s dispiriting to learn that mental pain does the same.
I don’t wake up in terror from sleep, thank heaven, and in recent years my mortal regret has sometimes extended beyond my own mortality to the crushing realization that the entire species and all its works will sooner or later be wiped from the universe, whether by its own hands or by the expanding sun.
Somewhat fortunately, though Barnes doesn’t mention this being his experience, my periods of mortal fear come in waves: they’ll revisit me regularly every few nights for months, and then there will be a respite of months or even years. I’ve never identified a definite cause; the attacks tend to dissipate when I’m generally busy, productive, and satisfied with my life, but not always.
Of late, thoughts of mortality haven’t come at their historic time—just before sleep—but immediately upon waking. I make my way to the bathroom, taking note of the various aches and popping in my joints, and I think: someday I won’t even have these to bother me.
As with many other harsh and shameful experiences, one finds comfort in learning that other people have been through it. It’s not enough, but it helps to know that everybody will undergo the same dissolution; if nothing else, one doesn’t want to shame oneself by making a bigger fuss than other people seem to. I wish Barnes had told us how he gets past each of his scares, but then, I couldn’t really say how I do. Self-distraction—getting up and moving around, reading, listening to music—often does the trick. But it’s so temporary; one longs for a permanent solution. (Though not alcohol; although Barnes speculates on the potential for a drug that would take away fear of death; how would that affect the balance of one’s life?)
Barnes mentions a circle of literary and intellectual friends that has been meeting for thirty years—once a month at the beginning, now once a year—but death and religion did not typically come up. One member is Roman Catholic; the others who have insistently “not believed … do not like what we see ahead of us,” and quietly envy him. On the other hand, when the new pope announced the abolition of limbo, the group managed to ask their colleague whether he believed in afterlife destinations and he replied, “Yes. I hope so. I hope there is a Heaven,” but added that it was painful for him to consider the possibility that an eternity and heaven along the lines of his faith might mean separation from his four children, none of whom believe.
For me, the most novel and interesting observation in the book is the author’s assertion that thanatophobes fear either dying (the process) or death (not being around anymore), but not both, apparently. One fear tends to crowd out the other. Surprising, and yet I cannot gainsay it: I can think up all sorts of nasty departures, but I don’t fear them—can’t really feel them—in the same vivid way I have always feared no longer being here … or more properly, been extremely upset about the certainty that someday I shall no longer be part of the ongoing party and journey of discovery that is life.
Though ultimately dissatisfying (probably more due to the reader’s expectations than any fault of the author), Nothing provides plenty of wonderful ideas to play with, and, because it’s more dignified to laugh than cry, bons mots:
[Art] is something like the early Church: fertile, chaotic, and schismatic. For every bishop there is a blasphemer; for every dogma there is a heretic. In art now, as in religion then, false prophets and false gods abound.
If there were a games-playing God, He would surely get especial ludic pleasure from disappointing those philosophers who had convinced themselves and others of his nonexistence. A.J. Ayer assures Somerset Maugham that there is nothing, and nothingness, after death: whereupon they both find themselves players in God’s little end-of-the-pier entertainment called Watch the Fury of the Resurrected Atheist. That’s a neat little would-you-rather for the God-denying philosopher: would you rather there was nothing after death, and you were proved right, or that there was a wonderful surprise, and your professional reputation was destroyed?
When we are young, we think we are inventing the world as we are inventing ourselves; later, we discover how much the past holds us, and always did.
I suspect that if I get any sort of decent dying time, I shall want music rather than books. Will there be space—headspace—for the wonderful trudgery of fiction, the work involved: plot, characters, situation…? No, I think I’m going to need music, fittingly intravenous: straight to the bloodstream, straight to the heart. [But which would be more appropriate: an elegiac fall—the Mozart Requiem, say—or the Dylan Thomas-esque rage and fierce joy of Led Zeppelin?]
When I was a boy, adulthood seemed an inaccessible condition—a mixture of unattainable competences and unenviable anxieties (pensions, dentures, chiropodists); and yet it arrived, though it did not feel from within how it looked from without. Nor did it seem like an achievement. Rather, it felt like a conspiracy: I’ll pretend that you’re grown up if you pretend that I am.
[Death’s] virtues are at best artisanal: diligence, stubborn application, and a sense of contradictoriness which at times rises to the level of irony; but it doesn’t have enough subtlety, or ambiguity, and is more repetitive than a Bruckner symphony.
[after relating a story that is entirely different in his brother’s memory:] … a novelist is someone who remembers nothing yet records and manipulates different versions of what he doesn’t remember.
The good news is we do indeed sometimes become wiser as we grow older. … “certain cortical neurons” seem to become more abundant after we reach maturity, and there is even evidence that the filamentous branchings—the dendrites—of many neurons continue to grow in old people who don’t suffer from Alzheimer’s (if you do have Alzheimer’s, forget it).
All the most pressing questions are ultimately unanswerable, both because they surpass our ability to measure or perceive them, and they are so essentially personal. Do the folks who seem to believe that a deity and afterlife have everything sewn up for them beyond their last breath really have an easier go of it this side of it? Do the atheist’s and agnostic’s view of the finality of death make them better able to appreciate the smell of the flowers and the light of each new day? There’s no way to arrive at a sure method of comparison.
For me, death is the one appalling fact which defines life; unless you are constantly aware of it, you cannot begin to understand what life is about; unless you know and feel that the days of wine and roses are limited, that the wine will madeirize and the roses turn brown in their stinking water before all are thrown out forever—including the jug—there is no context to such pleasures and interests as come your way on the road to the grave.
But surely not “constantly”? To be fully in the moment, to feel the joy and sensual richness of reality (whether it’s a new lover or a wonderful novel or play), you must forget about the ultimate end for at least a moment—surrender your awareness, your intellect, even your personality, yes? “Constant” awareness of death would involve an ever holding-off, it seems to me: a stepping back, a refusal to commit to the moment because it’s important to remember at all times that it will pass. That can’t be right.
True, life cannot be lived fully in a state of constant self-diversion, a denial of the larger truth, a headlong flight from where we will eventually be (or not be), but we also have to forget, now and then, to live.
David Loftus is currently in rehearsal for a production of a Noel Coward play in which, at one point, his character says: “Death’s very laughable, such a cunning little mystery. All done with mirrors. … Come and kiss me, darling, before your body rots, and worms pop in and out of your eye sockets.”