End of the Road
On the journey to oblivion.
Dec 15, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 13 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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.