Nothing to Be Frightened Of - Julian Barnes It takes 185 pages (in my edition) but Julian Barnes finally manages to define what “life” means to him: “a span of consciousness during which certain things happen, some predictable, others not; where certain patterns repeat themselves, where the operations of chance and what we may as well call for the moment free will interact; where children on the whole grow up to bury their parents, and become parents in their turn; where, if we are lucky, we find someone to love, and with them a way to live, or, if not, a different way to live; where we do our work, take our pleasure, worship our god (or not), and watch history advance a tiny cog or two.”

To get there one must traverse (or endure) a stream-of-conscious essay which touches on family history, literature, music, philosophy, science and any other subject that Barnes feels relates to his ruminations on death.

And what is the final verdict? Is there life after death? Should we be afraid?

To the former, Barnes is pretty sure the answer is “no.” But he’s an agnostic – the author has no truck with the relatively simplistic visions of post-mortem paradises found in most religions but he can’t quite summon the certain atheism of his elder brother. If there is life after death it’s of a nature utterly incomprehensible to us still living. To the latter question, Barnes’ answer is “yes.” At least in his own case. Again, though, his terror is moderate. While he can’t face the certainty of his extinction with the (so-far) fearless calm of his brother, he’s not obsessively terrified of it as he claims his friend G. is. But he does think about it. Every day. And he does take a perverse pleasure in tracking down what “the wise” have to say on the subject; how they met their own demises; and what evidence there is for immortality, if only the kind that an artist seeks when he paints, composes, writes, etc. (Not much, as it turns out.)

I suspect that whether or not you credit Barnes with any seriousness depends, in part, upon how sympathetic you are with his point of view. There are sections where his scattershot digressions and whimsy come across as charming and to the point. There are other sections where it’s just smarmy and condescending. Barnes is ill equipped, at least in these essays, to face the erudite believer well able to defend his position vis-à-vis God and death. Not that I missed a worthy opponent much; I will confess to being of life mind with Barnes in much of his conclusions. And he’s such a pleasure to read that, if his fiction writing is as vibrant as his nonfiction, then I should take the time to read some of it. A less-than-raving critic made an interesting point in a review that Barnes is far more empathic and insightful about the subject in his latest collection of short stories (The Lemon Tree).

If the reader tackles this book hoping for some certitude or resolution, they will be sorely disappointed. The book is, rather, Barnes’ reflections over the course of his life on what “death” means and how it’s affected him and his acquaintances. In the end, I liked the conversational style. It can be rambling and tedious but there were some intriguing observations that stimulated reflection of my own. Just a few examples from passages marked while reading:

Like myself, Barnes is a fan of Somerset Maugham, particularly his contention that the best way to face life is with “humorous resignation” (p. 84). A goal Maugham failed to meet at the end. But then, one of the fruits of Barnes’ investigation is that few ever meet their deaths with equanimity. In light of which, Barnes pushes the thought further to comment “the additional tragedy of life is that we do not perish at the right time” (p. 84). This reminded me of JRR Tolkien and the Numenoreans, who, before they fell from grace with the Valar, chose the time of their deaths and refused to cling to life. Death was a gift from Eru, and I strongly suspect Prof. Tolkien would have profoundly disagreed with Mr. Barnes.

Later, Barnes discusses how science (particularly evolution and neurobiology) has demolished ideas of free will or purpose and asks “do we get any better at dying?... If we have enjoyed our time, made provision for our dependants, and have little to feel sadness over, then looking back on life will be more bearable. But that’s a different matter from looking forwards to what is immediately ahead: total extinction. Are we going to get any better at that?” (p. 94). He doesn’t answer that question (I suspect it’s “no” for him) but it reminded me of the scene in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop when Father Latour mourns the loss of death rituals to ease the dying and their observers’ acceptance of the end. Barnes also seems to regret the disappearance of such customs from Western culture. Many of his reminiscences are of his parents’ final years when both declined physically and mentally, and died essentially alone in hospital beds. An end he foresees for himself but without pleasure.

This brings us back to the problem of doctors and/or the moribund prolonging life just to prolong it, to keep death at bay for just a bit longer. There’s still no clear-cut resolution to the dilemma in Barnes’ mind. Which doesn’t matter to Barnes so much. He’d like an answer but he’s resigned to living with uncertainty. In fact, the reader should realize that’s the whole point of the book – it’s not to give anyone answers (even Barnes); it’s to highlight the journey.

Another personally interesting observation crops up in the essay on pp. 117-9. Here, Barnes brings up the fact that his agnostic/atheist friends are indistinguishable from his “professedly religious ones in honesty, generosity, integrity and fidelity – or their opposites” (p. 117). “Religion no more makes people behave better than it makes them behave worse…” (p. 119). Why then do people act “good”? Why “bad”? Barnes, being who he is, looks to science and finds many evolutionary theorists posit selection for altruism and other traits we usually define as morally “good.” Which disturbs him because it means we’re little more than robots doing what we’re wired to do to perpetuate the species. He may find comfort in the fact that other scientists are positing the existence of a “god” gene – a selection for belief.

A final observation: Throughout this book, Barnes toys with several hypotheses about God – he doesn’t exist, he existed but doesn’t anymore, he’s a disinterested watchmaker, etc., One of these – that there is a God but Man is, at present, unworthy of the eternal life he offers – reminded me of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men. In that SF novel, Stapledon traces humanity’s development through 16 iterations of the “human” across billions of years. The tragedy of most of these humanities is that, while they’re smart enough to sense that there is a purpose to life and an existence beyond the merely physical, they’re not intelligent enough to understand it. For eon after eon, humans struggle with the “big” questions, develops ethics that they are unable to live up to, and write books like Nothing to Be Frightened Of.

I suppose Barnes’ final words on the subject slip in on page 213 when he writes: “We live, we die, we are remembered, we are forgotten.” We do our best to live life well and face death with as much calm as we can muster but chances are, there’s no reason for any of it and over the longest term imaginable will make no difference for even the universe will die eventually.

I didn’t learn anything new, my personal philosophy wasn’t shaken (strengthened, rather, I would say) but I enjoyed “talking” with Barnes. I’d recommend this to the interested. If you’re like me, you too might enjoy Barnes’ take on the matter. If you’re a believer, I don’t hope that it changes your mind but I would hope that it challenges your assumptions and makes you reflect more deeply on what and why you do believe – faith unquestioned is dogma.