Nothing to Be Frightened Of
by Julian Barnes
“Religions were the first great inventions of the fiction writers. A convincing representation and a plausible explanation of the world for understandably confused minds. A beautiful, shapely story containing hard, exact lies.”
Inflammatory words to some, but British novelist Julian Barnes is not out to intentionally ruffle feathers. When you consider his opening sentence, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him,” it is clear that there is something far more interesting afoot.
Barnes, two-time nominee for the Man Booker Prize, is interested in death, or more specifically, in mankind’s reactions to inevitability. It is oblivion that is feared, he suggests, the nothing which awaits us all, which lends the title of his pseudo-memoir Nothing to Be Frightened Of a subtle double-meaning perfectly in keeping with an author often praised for his discriminating wit.
With characteristic meticulous prose, marked by bursts of glorious low humour, Barnes undertakes an examination of death, using his family as a lynchpin on which to hang a wide-reaching inquiry into the beliefs of the world’s great thinkers. “Most of them are dead, and quite a few of them are French,” he warns, with Jules Renard the main resource, and dozens more philosophers, novelists, and composers as backup.
Barnes takes as his starting point the death of his parents; a self-effacing atheistic father and a domineering agnostic mother. Oddly to Barnes, the death of his mother affected him the more, as “[his father’s] death was just his death; her death was their death.”
Under such parentage, Barnes “had no faith to lose, only a resistance, which felt more heroic than it was, to the mild regime of God-referring that an English education entailed.” Barnes and his brother (the philosopher Jonathan Barnes) grow up firmly atheist, understanding that religion, and Christianity in particular, had lasted so long “because it was a beautiful lie, because the characters, the plot, the various coups de théâtre, the overarching struggle between Good and Evil, made up a great novel.”
It is only in the second-half of his life that Barnes begins to firmly question this conviction, but not out of any switch in belief systems. “If I called myself an atheist at twenty, and an agnostic at fifty and sixty, it isn’t because I have acquired more knowledge in the meantime: just more awareness of ignorance.”
What fascinates Barnes is why we should be so worried about oblivion; as we never worry about our lack of existence before we were born, why do we believe what happens after we die would be any different?
Fear of death, he decides, comes from its implacability. Unlike the concept of God, which has evolved over the centuries “from Old to New, like the Testaments and the Labour Party,” death “can’t be talked down, or parlayed into anything; it simply declines to come to the negotiating table. It doesn’t have to pretend to be Vengeful or Merciful…It is impervious to insult, complaint, or condescension.”
It is the demise of personality which frightens Barnes the most, the reduction of whatever we are into intangible nothingness. “Remaining in character: this is what we hope for, this we cling to, as we look ahead to everything collapsing…I doubt that when my time comes I shall look for the theoretical comfort of an illusion farewelling an illusion…I shall want to remain in what I shall obstinately think of as my character.”
Despite Barnes prowess with words, it cannot be denied that, no matter how amiable and erudite the narrator, an obsession with death can become tiresome. While one could not ask for a better explorer to lead the way, Barnes’ constant jump-cutting from philosophical principles to religious iconography to personal confessions is exhausting at times, and a judicious trimming of Barnes’ ideas would have been most welcome.
Nevertheless, this is firmly a case of having too much of a good thing. When it comes to death, Nothing to Be Frightened Of has more personality, vitality, and depth in any one of its paragraphs than the entirety of the numerous collections of comforting platitudes and bland Chicken Soup homilies that tend to congregate whenever and wherever death rears its head.
There is comfort in the unknowable, Barnes suggests, and for those willing to embrace uncertainty – or, to misquote Emily Dickenson’s final words, the rising fog – Nothing to Be Frightened Of is something to be enamored of.
Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press, April 20, 2008