• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

You Can’t Take It with You

E.M. Forster, who was sometimes criticized for scattering deaths too wantonly over his own plots, complained of “the studied ignorance of novelists” and advised them to “recapture their interest in death.” He considered that interest to be a necessary element in true creativity. The novelist Julian Barnes easily eludes this criticism, being, as T.S. Eliot said of the dramatist John Webster, “much possessed by death.”

Dying and the mysterious state of being dead may be difficult and necessary subjects for novelists, but the question arises whether they are less urgent for the noncreative who lack the skill to make up stories about them. The whole business may have been easier when dying was considered the occasion for a ritual party for the family, the neighbors, and the clergy, yet apparently even that celebration did not of itself remove the sting. Medieval people also sought secular advice on the problem; for many generations they consulted the Distichs of the heroic Roman Cato, still thought helpful by Polonius in Hamlet, but frankly, in our eyes, not much use:

We well know that death shall come
And our future is unknown:
stealthy as a thief he comes
and body and soul he does part
So be of trust and confidence:
Be not too much afraid of death,
For if you fear him overmuch
Joy you nevermore shall touch.

Note the unhelpful non sequitur: “Death will do terminally bad things to you, so don’t be too afraid of him,—it will spoil your fun.”* Presumably it was not thought inconsistent to quote this advice yet continue to believe that the moment of one’s death was of paramount importance, a prospect to be remembered in daily prayer, and attended, when it arrived, by the appropriate sacraments and supplications—so unlike the awkwardness of the typical modern demise, probably in hospital, very likely alone in the presence of the Four Last Things—Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell—but unqualified to deal even with the first of them.

Included among the observations of Montaigne, who is often credited with the first modern account of death, there is one that notes how ready we are to deceive ourselves as we approach what he describes as “the most remarkable action of human life” (Florio’s translation):

Few men die with a resolution that it is their last hour, [preferring to believe that] the cause is not so desperate as it is taken; and [that] if the worst happen, God hath done greater wonders.

So we can deceive ourselves with hope; and our reason for doing so is simply that “we make too much account of ourselves.”

For Montaigne to die is after all not a weighty matter; just as “to live is no such great thing, thy base grooms and brute beasts live also.” We should reflect, with Montaigne, that our lives are inevitably afflicted by “bad and intolerable accidents”; and we should also remember how boring they can be; that the sheer repetitiveness, the bland satiety of life, can create a desire of death. Francis Bacon, in a famous essay, acknowledged that the fear of death was a tribute owed to nature, but it was also a moral weakness. He particularly deplored the fuss that attended the event itself—the ostentatious trappings of death, the mourning, the obsequies generally. In his opinion it is these, rather than the fear of extinction, that make death terrible.

But Bacon and Montaigne lived in an age that had revived Stoic philosophy, and Julian Barnes is certainly no Stoic. He is a death-hater—what, having studied Greek, he calls a “thanatophobe.” Renaissance essayists can say what they like—affirm that honor and glory, revenge and love, are all more powerful than death; but he is not impressed, and still dreams of oblivion and wakes in the night howling with terror. His is the authentic shudder, more a matter for poets than for thinkers like Barnes’s cool brother, the philosopher Jonathan, who appears in this new book largely to tease his sibling and dismiss his views on death as examples not of creativity but of “soppy” and crooked thinking. Jonathan prefers to live calmly in France, wearing eighteenth-century costume, breeding lamas, and, expressing himself as perfectly happy with things as they are, mortality included. But Julian’s response remains more Shakespearean than Baconian, echoing the passage in Measure for Measure when Claudio, condemned to death, rejects the Stoic consolation offered him by the Duke:

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod…
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.

Like Claudio and a great many other people, Barnes is afraid both of dying and of being dead. It is the Nothing of his title that he is most frightened of. He insists that his fears are entirely rational and will not allow that they are to be explained as deriving from mere egotism. It seems that there are parents who like to think that in some fairly weak yet comforting sense they survive through their children. Nowadays they might by these means claim to have triumphed over genetic death—a rarefied consolation, it must be said, and of no appeal to Barnes. He is not silly, not soppy, either. His creativity is certainly related to his thanatophobia, and probably feeds it, but he does not lose his common sense. He is willing to reflect that one can look at an old photograph of a crowd with some assurance that every member of it, down to the merest babe in arms, along with all their contemporaries who happened not to be in that crowd, are equally dead; and that a time will certainly come when there will be no human beings at all left alive on earth. So to wish for exemption from the general doom that all must die is recognized as entirely irrational. In the end there will be no trace of any of us, or of any books we may have written, possibly animated by absurd secret dreams of immortality but in the light of common day and common sense mere trash like their authors.

Barnes has an extremely lively mind, and a distinctive voice, which gives a certain welcome jauntiness or gaiety to his darker musings. Even in his earliest works, even when he is absorbed, as more than once he is, by lively questions of love and jealousy, death has a more than usually large part. The world, contrary to what feels, misleadingly, and like our natural desire, includes the fact of death, and to explain this calls for extensive and virtuoso rumination on that fact and its innumerable implications. Nothing to Be Frightened Of is a set of serious and seriocomic variations on themes that are sounded even in his first novels, Metroland (1980) and Before She Met Me (1982).

In Staring at the Sun (1986), Barnes provides thanatophobia with something not far short of a theology. The fictional date of the story is around 2003, in a future dominated by computers. Gregory, who has been thinking about suicide, books a session with a powerful state-run computer which can answer any questions, adapting the answers to what it takes to be the inquirer’s level of understanding. At first Gregory sticks to trivia, asking about the dying words and terminal maladies of famous people, including twenty-two American presidents, and about famous suicides, with praise for the ancients who understood the established rules of that game. (Barnes likes to quote Albert Camus, who held that the world being as it is we must, to live in it, construct our own arbitrary rules, as if for a game.)

But Gregory’s real problem is the nature of God, who is ultimately responsible for death. He gives up on the computer and tackles this problem on his own, listing sixteen distinct aspects of it, beginning, simply enough, with “God exists…. God does not exist…: God used to exist, but has abandoned us…. God exists but his nature and motivation are beyond our comprehension.” And so on. Item 15 imagines a state in which there is no God but there is eternal life. The passage puts one in mind of scholastic disputations, rule-bound, obsessive, clever, and ineffective. Next, Gregory turns to another computer, this one possessing therapeutic powers. When he tells it he is afraid of death it requires him to describe his fear—when, how often? Since when? He replies thus:


In the late afternoon, the early evening, and when I am in bed; When I am driving up a hill; at the end of physical exercise; when I listen to certain pieces of jazz; in the middle of sex; when I look at the stars; when I think of my childhood; when I look at a happy pill in the middle of someone else’s palm; when I think of the dead; when I think of the living. How often? Every day of my life.” Since when? “Ten years, perhaps…. Before that, as an adolescent, with the same frequency and terror, but with less elaboration. Finally: it is a combination of physical fear, self-pity, anger and disappointment.”

The question now arises, is it death itself he fears, or oblivion? The answer is that he fears both. But surely, says the computer, he realizes that everyone dies? “I find that no consolation,” he replies somberly. Asked to describe his physical terror, he explains that it results not from the fear of pain but from “the fear of the inevitability of non-pain.” The machine informs him of a surgical operation that could remove his symptoms; but warns him to be sure it isn’t really death he (unconsciously) desires. Also he must understand that after the cure he would no longer be a writer. He goes home and reads a pamphlet on near-death experiences and the desirability of belief. But now new difficulties declare themselves: the lack of convincing evidence for there being a God, the problem of evil, the problem of infant mortality, and so on.

Although this passage occurs in one of Barnes’s less satisfying novels it testifies to his seriousness as a comic writer, and the new book confirms the description, being brilliantly written and also funny in a rather horrified way. The brilliance and the humor strike me as admirable adult versions of the bright adolescent joking of gifted seniors in an excellent school. Apparently loose, discontinuous, and journal-like in construction, the book is cunningly composed, in fact held together in a rather Proustian fashion, by the deft repetition of phrases and allusions. The result is a miscellany, rather on the lines of Barnes’s classic Flaubert’s Parrot, though of course lacking the narrative interest of the earlier book.

  1. *

    Paraphrase is taken from Norbert Elias’s The Civilizing Process, translated by Edmund Jephcott (Urizen, 1978), p. 197.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print