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End of the Road

On the journey to oblivion.

Dec 15, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 13 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Nothing To Be Frightened Of

by Julian Barnes

Knopf, 256 pp., $24.95

If death is an old joke that comes to each of us afresh, how is it no one is laughing? Because, as an old radio comedy show tagline had it, "'Tain't funny, McGee." No, death is someone else, most assuredly not the person dying, having the last laugh. But who, and why? And what, exactly, is the joke anyway?

Julian Barnes, fair to say after reading Nothing To Be Frightened Of, his ironically tinged tirade on the unreasonableness of death, doesn't get the joke, and writes at some length about his confusion and consternation over the matter. The question, for Barnes, is why do we have to die at all? He doesn't quite see the point of it. What is more, as he doesn't in the least mind telling us, he is terrified of death. This terror set in at early adolescence, and far from diminishing, seems to have increased in intensity and frequency as the disappointing event itself draws ever nearer. Death, not to put too fine a point on it, seems to him a very raw deal, and Nothing To Be Frightened Of is an extended threnody on just how raw it is.

A novelist, a member of the generation of English writers that includes Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, and Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes is the Francophile son of secondary school teachers of French. Best known for the novel Flaubert's Parrot, he would not, I think, disclaim or disdain being called a Flaubertian, for so he seems in his artistic taste, temperament, and general outlook. He is in his early sixties, childless by choice (he tells us), and recently made a widower upon the death of his wife, Pat Kavanagh, a well-known London literary agent. These biographical details are noteworthy, for Nothing To Be Frightened Of, though not intended as an autobiography, is nonetheless a highly autobiographical book.

Le réveil mortel, which Barnes translates as "the wake-up call to mortality," comes to people at different ages and stages in their lives. Death's alarm rings more insistently for some than others. Barnes claims to hear it at least once a day, often more: "as evening falls, as the days shorten, or towards the end of a long day's hiking," and other, less explainable times (he mentions its usual intrusion during the 6 Nations rugby tournament). Familiarity with the notion of death in him breeds neither contempt nor content--only fear.

Nothing To Be Frightened Of is, of course, an ironic title; Barnes finds everything to be frightened of about death: its probable pain, its likely squalor, its surprise, more likely shock, element. But above all he cannot quite get his mind around its promise of the Big O--not Oscar Robertson nor Barack Obama, but Oblivion, the state of absolute nullity that, for a faithless man or woman, is the first and finally crushing result of death. Barnes grew up in a household without religion "so," as he writes, "I had no faith to lose." He found, he tells us, religion and the guilt it brings "distracted [me] from [adolescent] masturbation." He never attended church regularly, and regards the story of Christianity as "a great novel," nothing more. No other religion, one gathers, has had the least allure for him. People who have told him that finding faith would wipe out his terror and alleviate his anxiety about death are talking to a wall, and not to the Wailing Wall, either.

As a thanatophobe and a Francophile, it is only natural that Barnes cite and quote many French writers on the subject of death. Jules Renard, the 19th-century French writer, whose name and aphorisms come up frequently in this book, in his Journal notes: "It is when faced with death that we all turn most bookish." And so it is that Montaigne, Pascal, Stendhal, Flaubert, Edmond de Goncourt, and Zola are all brought briefly onstage in Barnes's book, then whisked off; so, too, are the views and fates of Ravel, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, Sibelius; cameo roles are played by Thomas Browne, Edmund Wilson, Philip Larkin, and Bertrand Russell.

Barnes sashays between anecdotage about great artists and their (in his pages) inevitably horrific deaths and autobiographical accounts of his life with his parents and his disagreements on the subject of death with his older brother, a former philosophy don now living in France. His brother thinks fear of death irrational; Barnes thinks it the most rational thing in the world. He also includes material from Sherwin Nuland's How We Die, a study of the physiology of death so brutal it would bring Mean Joe Green to his knees in tears. Cryonics (or deep-freezing the body in the hope of finding future cures) is put under consideration and found no solution; big-picture reflections on long-term evolutionary theory, which holds out a future that figures to leave human beings no more complex than amoebas seem to us today, Barnes finds no less depressing to contemplate.

Not, as we should say nowadays, a fun book, Nothing To Be Frightened Of, despite Barnes's repeated efforts at gallows humor. Nor, because of the heavy freight of depression it carries, is it a book that can be read at just any time. I found myself not wanting to read about death at night; nor could I bear to begin my day by reading it fresh out of bed in the morning. Because of its dolorous subject, Nothing To Be Frightened Of reads as if twice its actual length. It is a book that would make a fine gift for someone one doesn't really like.

Julian Barnes is a stylish writer, whose major flaw is his relentless cleverness, which derives in good part from his knowingness, a flaw shared by the English writers of his generation. (The reigning tic of the previous generation of English writers, Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin most notable among them, was heavy reliance on a no less relentless irony, in which they all may be said eventually to have drowned.) Yet for all his knowingness, one of the things Barnes doesn't know is how to rid himself of night sweats over the idea of his own death.

The best writer on death is Montaigne, whose essay "To Philosophize Is to Learn How to Die" provides, in effect, a how-to on dying. The point of Montaigne's essay is to take the fear out of dying. Montaigne's first bit of instruction is to familiarize oneself with death. To pretend it doesn't exist, or to put it out of mind, is, according to him, perhaps the greatest mistake one can make. Better to recognize death for what it is: the first fact of life--everything that lives must die. The mortality rate, unlike the stock market, has remained steady, never once having fallen below 100 percent.

Keep in mind the fact that one has already lived as long as one has is, in itself, extraordinary, for vast numbers of people have died much younger. Consider, too, that in having death always in mind, your own pleasures while alive, far from being diminished, ought to be intensified; you could, after all, long ago have been dead and not here to be eating that splendid veal chop and drinking that glass of magnificent cabernet sauvignon. Remember that no matter what the state of your health, or what precautions you have taken, there are no guarantees that you will have the least say in how your death will come about: Aeschylus, after all, was "killed by the shell of a tortoise which slipped from the talons of an eagle in flight."

The trick, for Montaigne, is "to deprive death of its strangeness; let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death." This seems to have worked for Montaigne, who himself never believed he would be long-lived. He died at 57, fairly long-lived for the 16th century. (His brother pegged out at 23, hit above the ear by a tennis ball.) We must all, he instructs, "have our boots on, ready to go." Fear of death will leave us without rest or tranquility, turning anxiety, anguish, and fear into our nearest companions. Only when we have taught ourselves how to die can we begin to live. Montaigne avers that he himself is ready to go, though he would like death to find him at his regular chores--planting his cabbages, perhaps. But "when death does suddenly appear, it will bear no new warning for me."

Although Montaigne's is easily the best, nonreligious manual for dealing with death, Julian Barnes doesn't buy it. When Montaigne argues that we die to make room for others to come on this earth, as earlier generations made room for us, Barnes replies: "Yes, but I didn't ask them to." When asked to think how many have died before him, and even how many are likely to die on the same day as he, he replies: "True, and some of them will be as pissed off as I am about it." When queried if he wants immortality here on earth, he replies: ".  .  . how about a little mortality? Half? OK, I'll settle for a quarter." This is the jokey Julian, who plays throughout this book, except that he's not quite joking, not really.

Barnes does not like the odds offered by Pascal's Wager, which holds that it makes sense to believe in God even if He may not exist, or for that matter the formulation of the bet, and suggests, instead, that "God might prefer the honest doubter to the sycophantic chancer." Strangely for a man drawn to the dour, he fails to quote Pascal's depiction of the human condition: "Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition." A genius, Pascal, but not many laughs.

Not merely death but dying itself worries Barnes. "Happiness in life," as Montaigne had it, "may never be attributed to any man until we have seen him act out the last scene in his play, which is indubitably the hardest." Montaigne, who died from a combination of illnesses, played his own part well. "It is striking how unanimous Montaigne's friends are," his biographer Donald Frame writes, "in his cheerful courage in the face of acute pain and death. Much as he loved life, death must have been in some measure a release."

Many are the exits from life, and few of them smooth. One looks great on Friday and is discovered to have a brain tumor the following Tuesday. C'est la mort. No one knows what awaits behind the door: One of the dread diseases of the nerves (Parkinson's, Lou Gehrig's, Huntington's); various dementias, Alzheimer's currently most famous among them; cancers of every kind, quick and slow killing, physically devastating and degrading; heart attacks and strokes; and--well, one needn't go on. Death is a restaurant with an enormous menu, not much on it appetizing.

Worse news yet, justice doesn't seem to enter into this, life's final transaction. As Montaigne points out, some of the "most execrable and ill-famed men I have known, men plunged into every kind of abomination, died deaths which were well-ordered and in all respects perfectly reconciled" while good men and women have died hideously. God, it too often seems, as the novelist Frederic Raphael says, does irony better than He does justice.

Julian Barnes reports no personal skirmishes with death, no accounts of suffering serious injuries or diseases, no scarifying surgeries. Physically, near as one can tell, he has himself had a pretty good run. Instead of describing his own tribulations he turns to the deaths of his grandparents and, more emphatically, his parents, both of whom died at the reasonable age of 82, his father after a series of strokes, his mother through a combination of strokes and dementia. Both died in impersonal surroundings--his father in a hospital, his mother in a nursing home--among strangers. Of his expectation for his own death, Barnes writes:

I imagine I shall die rather as my father did, in a hospital, in the middle of the night. I expect that a nurse or doctor will say that I just "slipped away," and that someone was with me at the end, whether or not this will have been the case. I expect my departure to have been preceded by severe pain, fear, and exasperation at the imprecise or euphemistic use of language around me.

Throughout Nothing To Be Frightened Of Barnes pursues his mother in death as relentlessly as fear of death pursues him in life. He presents her as domineering, sarcastic, stinting of affection, the stifling cause behind his father's laconic manner.

"I incline to think that the strongest feeling Mother ever allowed herself was severe irritation," he writes, "while Father no doubt knew all about boredom." He reports his mother remarking, about her philosopher and novelist sons: "One of my sons writes a book I can read but can't understand, and the other writes books I can understand but can't read." (One assumes her son Julian is the latter.) He shows little mercy, and less forgiveness, for his mother, as she pits her obdurate personality against the strokes that left her right side paralyzed and her speech badly damaged. But then, nobody ever claimed Barnes was a Christian--he least of all.

At times, one cannot help wondering if Nothing To Be Frightened Of isn't Julian Barnes's contribution to the recent books by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, & Co. happily proclaiming their authors' atheism. Barnes reports that his hero Flaubert "was suspicious of militant atheism" and Barnes senses that the only confident answer to the spectre of death, apart from the dignified resignation that comes with accepting your fate, lies in religion. But religion is impossible for him, and the reason is that he makes too literal demands upon it. He wants religion to be accounted for and defended on coolly rational grounds. "Faith," he writes, "is about believing precisely what, according to all known rules, 'could not have happened.'" Barnes has himself never felt the invisible, and as a writer, a word-man, is insufficiently impressed with the unspoken.

He is almost too pleased not to be a Christian. He quotes Sir Thomas Browne: "For a pagan there might be some motives to be in love with life, but, for a Christian to be amazed at [that is, terrifed of] death, I cannot see how he can escape this dilemma--that he is too sensible of this life, or hopeless of the life to come." Barnes adds that he is Browne's unsatisfactory Christian--"too sensible of this life, or hopeless of the life to come--except that I am not a Christian." Rejecting Christianity, uninterested in other religions, he rejects the possibility of God.

Supposing that death could be eliminated and life could go on forever, Barnes sets out the manifold possibilities it would present to him in particular:

I would become Jewish (or try, or bluff). I could leave home earlier, live abroad, have children, not write books, plant hornbeams, join a utopian community, sleep with all the wrong people (or at least, some different wrong people), become a drug addict, find God, do nothing. I could discover quite new sorts of disappointment.

Yes, without death, life would be a dream, sha-boom, sha-boom. More likely, though, it would be a ponderous thumping bore, with each of us telling our same anecdotes and jokes, enacting our same self-dramatizations, millennium after millennium. "Imagine life without death," Jules Renard wrote. "Every day you would want to kill yourself." Each of us would live for himself alone; for reasons of limited space and food supply, further generations would be unthinkable. "The truth of life," as Santayana noted, can "be seen only in the shadow of death: living and dying [are] simultaneous and inseparable." No one wants to die, but the only thing worse than dying would be living forever. Eliminate death and life becomes shapeless, a dud, perpetual hell on earth--something that Julian Barnes and the rest of us would all be truly frightened of.

Joseph Epstein, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author, most recently, of Fred Astaire.