The Magazine

End of the Road

On the journey to oblivion.

Dec 15, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 13 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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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."