Nothing to Be Frightened Of
It’s probably appropriate to tackle a “review” of Julian Barnes’ Nothing to Be Frightened Of in the same spirit in which it is written – personal and slightly rambling, if always on target (I can only hope for that last bit). My wife had read it in the midst of my friend Anthony’s long decline and suggested I would like it – like, here, being a catchall word that might mean “find it valuable” or “insightful” or that I would appreciate another’s thoughts on the matter of death. That is, after all, what Barnes is writing about.
I would be hard-pressed to categorize this book. Not nearly methodical enough for philosophy. Not personally developed enough for memoir. Too distracted for a “meditation.” If there was a bookstore shelf that had the label “Musings,” I’d shelve it there, I guess.
I expected something different than what I got. The double-entendre of the title was obvious enough: on the one hand, a flippant dismissal of fear; on the other, that the thing we should fear is Nothingness, the Void. Clever wit in hand, I strode confidently into the first pages, only to discover Barnes writing about… religion.
Okay, that makes sense when you think about it. So much religion is focused on the afterlife (or this life as a means of getting to the afterlife). In particular, Barnes (and his brother, and his parents) are devoutly agnostic, if not atheistic. The opening line of the manuscript is, in fact,
I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.
Believers have (are given) a framework for dealing with death and life-after-death, but an atheist disavows the soul and all of the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that accompanies such belief. How is one such to approach the collapse of the body and the mind?
Barnes’ musings take him and us through his personal history so that we can see why exactly he has come to the place that he is (or rather, why probably he arrived there – Barnes and his brother, a philosopher properly speaking, seem to eschew the Great Causal Arrow of Time and Consequentiality). He writes about one set of grandparents as they read their competing diary entries. He writes about his parents, long-silent father and intense, dominating mother. There is his brother, their competing memories of growing up. He shifts gears periodically to discuss French authors and philosophers and the idea of a good death – dying in character or in a blaze of verbal glory (that one’s last word be simply, “Damn!”). Of course, such wishes rarely play out in real time. His subjects die of disease or heart attack, head resting on a Paris telephone directory. They die of carbon monoxide poisoning or of debilitating disease.
The act of dying, he seems to argue as a long, continual aside, is more to be feared than actual death.
And even as the discussion of religion slowly shifts from foreground to background, the subject of memory moves in the opposite direction. Barnes and his brother are equally confident in their mental gifts (this is never stated just so – but it is palpably clear and probably deserved, if this writing is any gauge), so how, Barnes wonders, can their recall of events be so contrary? His brother explains that one can’t trust memory, that it is all manufactured anyway. Barnes-the-author accepts and believes this intellectually, but he demonstrates that Barnes-the-brother and he are both still caught in memory’s web.
There are things we know because they happened to us, and those things (now memories) helped to make us who we are. Therefore even if they are not True, they might as well be. This conclusion means that we can treat them, whether we believe that they are more or less manufactured or not, as being Certain. And Barnes demonstrates these points, rarely spelling them out, with his family, their deaths, and his French authors and philosophers and their deaths.
Dying and death.
Where I ultimately fall upon finishing Barnes’ words is that this is a book about Certainty. No matter our confidence in life, there are things we cannot know, and they all begin at death’s door. In dying, we lose control – a terrible, terrible state of affairs to be sure, alleviated only in rare instances (and not, in any case, situations that Barnes raises). In death we lose both control and certainty. Barnes undermines his own wordplay by the end of the manuscript – productively. That Nothing of which we should be frightened could be Something, but we are incapable of knowing (or discerning or, perhaps, remembering that – as he points out, no one is afraid of what came before we were born).
As interesting as I found Barnes’ ideas, however, I did not find the book wholly engaging. I expected to have to work through it. I am fascinated by the subject of death but often (for obvious reasons) find it difficult to traverse the ideas unless they are fully intellectualized. That wasn’t an issue here. I found it difficult because while his style is conversational and engaging from section to section, I didn’t find it particularly compelling. I finished the book because I wanted to finish the book almost for finishing’s sake – and I’m glad I did in the end, because his prose does build. It is not superficial and it is not simple or solipsistic.
Is it possible to be personal and yet not particularly inviting?