Every Sunday, WW writer John Minervini brings you the latest in book reviews, author Q&A's and Portland literary gossip. Click here to join the Tome Raider mailing list.
Six-Word Summary: Happily Agnostic Brit Contemplates Own Death
Before we get going this week, why don't I play some music to set the mood? Let's see—let me just flick through my iPod for a moment—yes, that's it. That's perfect.
[Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A major (Op. 92), 2nd Movement, “Allegretto,” as performed by the Columbia University Orchestra, conducted by Jeffrey Milarsky. Click to play.]
There. Much better.
So let's talk about death. Depending on your (irr)religious convictions, it's either a waypoint or a terminus. You either go somewhere after dying or you just…stop. Even for the most pious people, it's pretty intimidating. After all, everybody ends up dead, but nobody—unless you count mystics and guests on certain daytime TV shows—can claim to know what it's like, or what comes next. I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. But repeating the question doesn't make it any more answerable, or any less pressing. After you die…well, then what? Harps? Virgins? Starless black like before you were born?
It's a startling question, and it has prompted a number of striking responses, most recently Nothing to Be Frightened Of
(Knopf, 244 pages, $24.95), a collection of nonfiction essays from British writer Julian Barnes. But Be Frightened
is unique in that—as opposed to a scientific or a philosophic treatise—it offers a distinctly novelistic approach to the problem of death.
I say “novelistic” because the writing resembles fiction. Rather than beginning with a hypothesis and conducting an experiment; rather than laying out self-evident premises and deducing outward, Barnes simply tells exemplary stories and leaves the truth of it to the reader. A good example of this technique occurs when the author imagines an encounter—of which there is only the slimmest historical record—between aging author Somerset Maugham and atheist philosopher AJ Ayer. Maugham had summoned Ayer to his home on the Riviera so that the latter would reassure him that death was indeed final: to receive, as it were, a “rare secular shriving.” In the following paragraph, Barnes imagines what their conversation might have been like:
“But since this is life, or rather the remnants of it that have become available to biographers, we have no evidence of such a private audience. Perhaps there was just a brisk, convivial reassurance over the breakfast table. this might make for a better short story (though not play): the Great Matter dismissed in a few phrases during the clatter of knives, with perhaps the counterpoint of a parallel discussion about social arrangements for the day: who wanted to go shopping in Nice, and where exactly along the Grande Corniche Maugham's Rolls-Royce should transport them for lunch. But in any event, the required exchange somehow took place, Ayer and his wife returned to London, while Maugham, after this rare secular shriving, proceeded towards his death.” (86)
So what are the benefits of a novelistic approach to the study of death? After all, mere stories can't deliver science's grim certainty or philosophy's various, endlessly debatable moral imperatives. Surely the point of a book about death isn't to distract
you from death, is it?
The advantage is that it caters to our uniquely human sense of free will—a concept that science coldly dispatches, redefining “free will” as a dispersed neuronal process, governed by the same laws applicable to planetary motion and crystal formation. From a neuroscientist's perspective, even the concept of a persistent “I” must go—in its place, susbtitute “a sequence of brain events, bound together by certain causal connections” (148).
The problem with such dispassionate scientific explanations…well, the problem is consciousness. People—you, me, everybody—experience the world from the perspective of a continuous self, an “I.” What's more, they perceive that “I” acting volitionally. Scientifically speaking, there's just not much to ego or free will, so it makes sense that scientific explanations don't speak to these universally held notions of self. Like death, they may strike us as cold and impersonal. Philosophy is better, but Barnes (rightly or wrongly) dismisses it as a bit too fussy for everyman.
Ultimately, Be Frightened
is more like music than science or philosophy. Using various leitmotifs—stories and quotations from favorite authors mixed with his own childhood memories—Barnes surrounds death, asking questions both intriguing and unanswerable. What does it mean to die well? To die in character? Catering to our much-vaunted senses of self and free will, he asks, would you rather? Would you rather choose the hour of your dying, or have it chosen for you? Would you rather die abruptly or have the process drawn out, so that you could make peace with yourself and the world? Would you rather fear death or live as though there were no impending end? (Careful: that last one is tougher than it sounds.)
Asking these questions doesn't alter the stark reality of death; Barnes, an agnostic, is not expecting much after the lights go out. But asking does engage the part of the human character that poses unanswerable questions and seeks after unattainable truth—the most human part, perhaps. Hence the book's opening line: “I don't believe in God, but I miss him.”
So what does it mean to die well? In Barnes' case, it might involve a typically British show of courage in the face of grim reality, a willingness to tell intensely private stories, make elaborate allusions and crack jokes, even knowing that one day, he—Julian Barnes, aged 62—will be dead, that one day the human race will be gone, that one day the sun will cool, and the earth will unfit for life of any kind. Noble? Maybe. Readable? Eminently.