Julian Barnes Brings Light to A Thanaphobe’s Conundrum
Alison Hawthorne Deming
I admit I’ve been obsessed with death since 2011 when my brother and mother died within six months of each. I shepherded each of them through that backcountry and, while they are gone to whatever version of nothing exists beyond biology’s terminal station, I remain here at the desk with death as a closer companion. It seems to sit on my shoulder demanding my attention. If I get through a day without thinking about death (my death, to be specific) I feel exhilarated. As soon as I notice this joy, death carps at me as if I have been unfaithful. I’m not sure that I fear death more after their departures. I just have a more familiar, more intimate, relationship with it.
So, the thanaphobe’s conundrum: is it better to fear death or not fear it? As if one could choose. I‘ll be more honest. I’ve been obsessed with death since I was seven and it first slipped into my childhood bedroom to make my heart race like a runaway horse. It could happen now. Or now. Or now. Unlikely. Maybe now. With my genetic legacy, I have good shot at getting past 100. And I plan to be in love with life all the way. So how can I be so attached to death while being so committed to life? I am a bigamist.
Enter Julian Barnes with a wry grin on his seasoned face, holding a copy of his two-hundred-and-fifty page essay on death, Nothing to be Frightened Of. Emphasis on “nothing.” While the deaths of his parents may have triggered the writing, the book is not a memoir, not an attempt to tell their stories or his story. Barnes does not trust memory. That is why he is first a novelist. Much safer to make things up than purport to know or divine what has happened. No. The book is decidedly an essay, a long ramble of a beast without a single chapter break—okay there are space breaks—in which Barnes is bent not on recreating his parents but “trying figure out how dead they are.” This is an essayist’s intent. Those who dismiss the work because it does not contain enough self-revelation miss the point. It is how death reverberates in the artist’s mind that matters here. What does death have to do with the faithless artistic sensibility?
After all, Barnes is a man who never visits the graves of his family members but frequently seeks out those of writers and artists. Artists are his ancestors. He tracks his inclinations to Montaigne in whom he sees that “modern thinking about death begins.” The family member who plays the most prevalent role in the book is his brother, who teaches ancient philosophy and proves to be an admirable conversational partner in the book, allowing for Plato and Aristotle and Cicero to pop up as elements of a chat with his bro, rather than as pedantic asides. What have the philosophers and writers had to teach about death in all the years of their sense making?
Of asides, something must be said, because Barnes is a sentence maker par excellence, juxtaposing a deliciously subordinated beauty next to a clipped fragment. And his conversational asides are among the quirky cadences that I find very seductive in this work--an essayist essaying his own method as he goes:
Platonists believed that, after death, things started looking up. Epicureans, on the other hand, believed that, after death, there was nothing. Cicero, apparently (I use “apparently” in the sense of “my brother also told me”), combined the two traditions into a cheery Antique either/ or: “After death, either we feel better or we feel nothing.”But I have gotten ahead of myself. Barnes became an atheist as a teenager and an agnostic at sixty. His inquiry has to do with what the faithless are to do with their thanophobia or lack thereof. He opens the book: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.” And there you have the man: assertive and vulnerable, heady and witty. And such good company in his essaying that I end up feeling, yes, sure, life is dire, but it is also funny, which is a good cure for self-pity. I learn that Sibelius had the routine of joining friends at table where they were required to talk about death. Rachmaninoff, who suffered dreadful death terrors, was cured apparently by a sack of pistachio nuts. Flaubert wrote of aspiration for “gazing down at the black pit at one’s feet, and remaining calm.” Daudet died at the dinner table after a spoonful of soup and chatter about his latest play—then poof. Stravinksy went to see Ravel’s body before it was placed in the coffin. What music did he hear, I wonder, in those moments, composer to composer in the great silence? And so the trivia that is far from trivial mounts up in this book, carrying its learning lightly and yet earnestly.
Humor, I’ve read, is defense mechanism, and probably one of our more mature ones. It beats denial. Perhaps both life and death are funnier without religion. In any case, as Barnes says, art and religion shadow each other, though I am in the Barnes camp in feeling that art sheds the light and sometimes the light-heartedness that make death-awareness bearable. Nothing to be Frightened Of does not resolve any of the thanaphobe’s conundrums. Is it better to be conscious of your dying or not conscious of your dying? Who cares. You don’t get to choose. But this grand essay brings the twin lights of mindfulness and playfulness to bear on the matter and that seems to me an apt gift for advent.
Alison Hawthorne Deming is the author of four books of poetry and four books of essays with Zoologies: On Animals and The Human Spirit coming out in 2014. She teaches at the University of Arizona.