Nothing to be frightened of by Julian Barnes

If you’re a voracious reader and a cheapskate, Libby is a great application. Getting digital books from your library(s) is very satisfying. But while Libby is a perfectly good e-reader, one thing it doesn’t do well at all is help find books. This isn’t the Spotify of eBooks. So, when I ran out of Libby books recently, I resorted to the time-honored strategy of searching for books by an author I’ve enjoyed. And since Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time happened to be nearby…

I’ve read four or five of Barnes’ oeuvre and enjoyed them all. The Sense of an Ending was excellent. As was The Noise of Time. I didn’t care for The Only Story quite as much, but it had peculiar resonances for me. I somewhat randomly chose “Nothing to be Frightened Of” (available now) and settled in expecting the usual immaculately crafted Barnes’ story of love, art and loss.

But while the writing was as polished as ever, reading Nothing to be Frightened Of was maddening. It went nowhere. The protagonist (a thinly veiled version of the author, who happens to be a writer named Julian) is obsessed by death and dying. I could stand the essay like structure for a while, but about 80 (Libby) pages in, I’d had enough. I’ve read some slow developing novels, but Nothing to be Frightened Of was moving in geologic time. No arc. No narrative momentum at all.

In frustration, I opened my phone and searched the book online – curious what other readers had said about it and if there was any hope of it turning worthwhile. What I discovered, to my chagrin, was that Nothing to be Frightened Of is not a novel. Literally NOT a novel. Julian is Julian Barnes. His brother really is an Aristotelian philosopher.

In fact, Nothing is a work of public philosophy rather in the spirit of TW2BR. And God help the reader who starts in on Mind the Gap thinking it’s a novel! Perhaps unsurprisingly, knowing that I wasn’t reading a novel utterly changed my experience of the next 350 pages.

But is a 400+ page (Libby) book of public philosophy about death and dying written by a novelist clearly obsessed with and terrified of the subject a worthwhile investment?

Yes, it kind of is.

Public philosophy is not, after all, academic philosophy. And while Barnes is not and has no aspirations to be a rigorous philosopher, when it comes to thinking about life, value, and, yes, death, a good novelist is almost always worth more than a philosopher. Sure, there are a handful of great philosophers from whom one can hope to learn something about living a life. Plato. Aristotle, Augustine. Part of why I’ve always admired Bernard Williams more than peers like Rawls, Parfit and Nozick is that Williams was unique among them in having something to say about life not philosophy.

But you cannot be a good novelist without having a very great deal to say about life, how it can be lived, and how we might think about it. What’s more, unlike many novelists, Barnes’ is keenly aware that his own obsessions may not be everyone’s and that those obsessions may not be useful or valuable. In short, he has enough natural objectivity and analytic chops to write something more rigorous than a novel.

Though Barnes is, and has apparently always been, quite taken up with fear of death and dying, he realizes that not everyone shares that fear. Nor does he ascribe to that fear any particular blessing. He is, for example, loath to ascribe his very successful writing career to any great extra sensitivity this fear gives him or to a hearkening after immortality.

Fear of death, like other fears and obsessions, can certainly be grist for the artist’s mill. But it’s hardly the only grain nor even the most wholesome. Sex, love, ambition, friendship, betrayal, honor, fear of failure, natural beauty and countless other human concerns have fueled artists and great art. Nor does fear of death seem necessary or perhaps even correlated to the production of art. You can fear death and write, and you can give not two thoughts to death and write. Nor is fear of death some secret profundity that lends greatness to words. Some great novelists have been death obsessed, but all great novelists are life obsessed.

But it’s just not typical for a novelist to be so cognizant of the limits of their own obsessions.

Barnes doesn’t make the mistake of claiming that his death obsession is universal or, in and of itself, important. Instead, he takes the subject up in earnest (if not exactly in an orderly fashion), to consider whether it is irrational to be afraid of dying, whether a religious view of death is still possible and if not, what that means for art, free will and life.

While much of this isn’t philosophically rigorous, it’s richened by his novelistic touch with family, history and anecdote. Nor is the argument devoid of thoughtfulness and complexity. In particular, Barnes is utterly convincing on his first topic – a defense of the rationality of fearing death and dying. Indeed, Barnes makes a compelling case that nothing is quite so rational as the fear of death and dying.

When it comes to thinking about a good death, he has a treasure trove of gruesome, ironic and horrible stories about people whose death didn’t go quite the way they planned. And really, who can make a case in the modern world that the process of dying isn’t terrifying? There is no good death when your mind and memory are the skeletal remains of a once proud structure, with fear and paranoia rattling around inside a skull with a vacancy sign hung permanently in the eyes. There is no glory in being trapped into immobility and incoherence by a stroke. Barnes trots out examples both personal (his parents and even one sad teacher) and historical to make the point that we do not always or often get to choose our death or have within our means the ability to make it a good one. That being so, and I think it is undeniably so, it seems quite rational to fear the process of dying if rationality is about optimization what we value.

But while most people do fear such things, this fear is less than and rather different from the fear of death. Of, as the title of the book puns it, nothing. The rationalist arguments against a fear of death not dying are as ancient as philosophy. Either death is like sleep – and that’s not so bad – or there’s something after it and that might be good. Or, perhaps, the old canard that you don’t fear the time before you were born, why should you fear the time after you die?

Barnes finds these arguments deeply unconvincing and, in some ways, troubling. “But the attack on eternity is – as it has to be – an attack on life; or at least, a celebration of, and expression of relief at, its transience.”

If we value life, how can we not mourn the lack? What good does it do to say that since I won’t be experiencing anything I shouldn’t be afraid. Like everyone else, I want to experience things. And if the essence of rationality is optimization, death is a null not just a nothing.

But if the pro-death case is misguided, perhaps arguing about whether a fear is rational or not misses the point. It’s good to be able to sort out intellectually what things are good and what aren’t (it’s sad that we’d even need to think about death in this regard), but that will have surprisingly little impact on how we feel about them. We can appropriately put a negative value on something (dying will suck and death is bad too) and yet not dread it or wake up in a cold sweat from dreaming about it. Yes, fear serves an evolutionary purpose, but when it comes to contemplating abstract future events, having the emotion of fear is largely irrelevant.

What’s more, it is an odd fact of human psychology that the emotion of fear and the calculation of value are not well correlated. Everything that Barnes says about the negative value of death and dying seems right to me, yet I do not particularly fear death whereas the necessity for public speaking causes my hands to quiver.

For good or ill, them’s the breaks.

The good news, I think, is that even if you are intellectually convinced by Barnes’ arguments about why death and dying are bad things (and you should be), it probably won’t change your attitude to them at all. Indeed, Barnes’ arguments here are probably most useful for those who have the fear and are annoyed that silly people keep telling them how irrational their fear is.

But whether you have a fear of death or merely an entirely unemotional dislike for it, it’s quite unclear what there is to think (as opposed to worrying) about death.

The fact of death is massively important. There is no part of culture and decision-making that wouldn’t be changed if, for instance, we found a true cure for aging. Our attitudes to risk would fundamentally alter. The idea of marriage forever would surely pass away. The way (and whether) we had and raised children would change irrevocably. Our attitudes about transformational choices and experience would be very different. In a non-aging world, we’d have time to contemplate many types of do-over and we’d dramatically reduce the opportunity cost of most endeavors.

But right now, all of this is background. As Barnes points out (in a hilarious story about how he cured his fear of flying and why the same technique won’t work with dying), death has a 100% success-rate. And we have every reason to believe that there are no decisions afterward. We do, of course, make countless decisions about our health. But while these decisions may sometimes be motivated or supported by a fear or concern with death, that isn’t particularly interesting if your concerns are about rational decision-making or ethics.

There are, perhaps, some public policy questions that arise over issues about healthcare, end-of-life and dirty hands. But in “Nothing to be Frightened Of,” Barnes isn’t much concerned with public policy. He’s looking at things from the perspective of a person. And from that personal perspective, Barnes tends to assume rather than argue that clear thinking about death must be important even as he rejects most of the obvious paths to that conclusion.

“I can’t claim that being confronted by death…has given me any greater accommodation with it, let alone made me wiser, or more serious, or more…anything, really. I could try arguing that we cannot truly savour life without a regular awareness of extinction; it’s the squeeze of lemon, the pinch of salt that intensifies the flavor. But do I really think that my death denying (or religious) friends appreciate that bunch of flowers/work of art/glass of wine less than I do? No.”

So, Barnes dives into the possibility of religious experience and, if that possibility doesn’t exist, what our attitudes to death should be. If your bent is philosophic and you dread a descent into theology, the news here is mostly good. Barnes is not as disciplined a materialist as his philosopher sibling, but he’s thoroughly modern in his worldview and skepticism.

“Just as there seems little point in a religion which is merely a weekly social event…as opposed to one which you tells you exactly how to live, which colours and stains everything, which is serious, so I would want my afterlife, if one’s on offer, to be an improvement – preferably a substantial one—on its terrestrial predecessor. I can just about imagine slopping around half-unawares in some gooey molecular remix, but I can’t see that this has any advantage over complete extinction. Why have hopes, even timid ones, for such a state? Ah, my boy, but it’s not about what you’d prefer, it’s about what turns out to be true…

The fury of the resurrected atheist: that would be something worth seeing.”

Plainly, Barnes would not resent resurrection, but isn’t holding his breath for it. Like most of us, Barnes finds it very difficult to imagine any variety of religious thought being true.

But he is equally skeptical that we have lost nothing in our avowal of a comprehensively materialist and reductionist view of the world that makes of death just one of those things that happen. He has a novelist’s appreciation for what we have lost in giving up on that faith – an appreciation that makes him kinder to religious thought and experience than is common.

Barnes isn’t at all comfortable with the trite answer that we don’t need God for a sense of awe. For the same worldview that banishes God makes sustaining a sense of wonder very difficult.

“Why do we need some God to help us marvel at such things?

We don’t. Not really. And yet. If what is out there comes from nothing, if all is unreeling mechanically according to a programme laid down by nobody, an if our perceptions of it are mere micromoments of biochemical activity, the mere snap and crack of a few synapses, then what does this sense of wonder amount to? Should we not be a little more suspicious of it? A dung beetle might well have a primitive sense of awe at the size of the mighty dung ball it is rolling.”

He’s also humanly aware of the cost of this in terms of the lives that are no longer available to us and the impact on art.

“Genuine pilgrims arriving at Santa Croce five centuries before Beyle would have seen in Giotto’s newly painted fresco cycle of the of the life of St. Francis an art that told them the absolute truth, and could save them, in this world and the next. It would have been the same for those who first read Dante, or first heard Palestrina. The more beautiful because true, the more true because beautiful, and these joyful multiplications continuing in an eternity of parallel mirrors.”

This is an artist echoing the sense of what we’ve lost without necessarily having a path forward, struggling with any way to reconcile his notions of life and value with a rigorous materialism. Barnes writes that his stock answer to the stock question “What the novel does?” is that “It tells beautiful, shapely lies which enclose hard, exact truths.” Yet in exploring this answer, he finds that religion may be a kind of novel and that what it does is more aptly described as “A beautiful, shapely story containing hard, exact lies.”

Yet Barnes is not without optimism for his real profession and though Nothing to be Frightened Of is not a novel, even during its pages Barnes does not seem to think he is doing more than what he could with a story. He describes his brief experience following in the academic footsteps of his brother:

“Each week I would learn what one philosopher believed about the world, and the next week why those beliefs were false. This, at least, was how it appeared to me, and I wanted to cut to the chase: what’s really true, then? But philosophy seemed more about the process of philosophizing rather than the purpose I had ascribed to it in advance: to tells us what the world consists of and how best to live in that world.”

Barnes is not similarly skeptical of his real profession.

“And so, wisely no doubt, I left philosophy to my brother, and returned to literature, which did, and still does, tell us best what the world consists of. I can also tell us how best to live in that world, though it does so most effectively when appearing not do so.”

He’s right (pun intended) to feel this way. The focus of TW2BR is public philosophy around transformative experience. And there is no art form that is as germane to thinking about transformative experience as the novel. One ought always to be suspicious of sweeping claims that the novel is this or the novel is that because the novel is an incredibly flexible instrument, but it would be hard to imagine a great (or even a good) novel that wasn’t fundamentally about what we experience, how it changes us, and what we should value. Exactly the things we need to understand to make transformative decisions well.

If the novel may not be the best vehicle for a “true” description of what the world consists of, it is certainly the best we have of what the world is like to experience. It is also, almost undeniably, a much better vehicle than academic (or even public) philosophy for helping people think about how “best to live in that world.”

Barnes, striking back at a mechanistic view of death as told by an “expert” in consciousness who, when asked how she would view her own death replied, “I would view it with equanimity, as just another step, you know…and if you ask me why I should do that — I don’t know…that’s what this thing does. And I expect it to do it on its deathbed.”

He’s particularly infuriated by the “demise of the personal pronoun. ‘I’ has mutated to ‘it’ and ‘this thing,’ a switch both alarming and instructive.” The novel, Barnes is sure, cannot live this way.

“Somewhere in between,” he writes, “lies the everyday world of doubting commonsense, or common usefulness, which is also where you find the novelist, that professional observer of the amateurishness of life.

…In novels (my own included) human beings are represented as having an essentially graspable, if sometimes slippery character, and motivations which are identifiable–to us, if not necessarily to them…I am not yet ready to regard myself–or you, or a character in one of my novels–as a distributed neuronal process, let alone replace an ‘I’ or a ‘he’ or a ‘she’ with an ‘it’ or ‘this thing’; but I admit the novel currently lags behind probable reality.”

This is both true and, I believe, quite wrong at the end. Because to be a neuronal process is not to be one whit less human. To be fully determined does not mean that what we do does not matter – certainly it must matter to others even if they are fully determined since we are part of what’s determining them. Nor need we despair of the ability of our neuronal processes to change and shape themselves in ways that are at least partially within our own control.

Novel’s matter and their unique properties make them – by a long way – the most important artistic resource for actually thinking about life.

Which, of course, brings us back to my original question. In Nothing to be Frightened Of, Barnes manages to say some important things about art, the novel, the loss of religion, and the challenge of materialism even if he doesn’t quite manage to answer the question – is death worth thinking about – or provide much from a philosophic perspective that would make that answer a clear yes.

For though it didn’t quite fool me into reading it as novel, its best parts were not about free will or the rationality of fearing death, but about his difficult mother (“One of my sons writes books I can read but can’t understand, and the other writes books I can understand but can’t read”), and his genial but retiring father (“one of my parent’s friends asked Dad, in front of me, which of his sons was the cleverer. My father had his eye – his gentle, liberal eye – on me as he carefully replied: “Jonathan probably, Julian’s more an all-rounder, would you say so, Ju?”, and about his all too philosophic brother (whose almost deathbed last words were “Make sure Ben gets my copy of Bekker’s Aristotle”).

Barnes is truly at his best as a novelist, as a writer about life and its concerns. And by then end of writing “Nothing to be Frightened Of,” he’s pretty much embraced his real career. It is a book of many good sentences and some important ones. And if you don’t think it’s quite as good as reading a Julian Barnes novel, I imagine Barnes would probably have ended up agreeing.