Nothing to Be Frightened Of. Julian Barnes.

Barnes, Julian. Nothing to Be Frightened Of. Knopf, then Vintage New York, 2008/2009. F;3/17.

This is about death. No surprise that there are mixed feelings, mine and I think also his. Barnes has written a fair bit of fiction and non-fiction, and I’ve read and reviewed his novel The Sense of an Ending and wasn’t enthralled. But good for him, in his early-to-mid-60s, for taking a flyer at what must at times (and increasingly) be on us aging postwar babies’ minds. He doesn’t enlighten me much in my own blind speculating about what happens when they turn out the lights but honestly and realistically what did I expect? His captivating British prose style dances around the Big Topic, but although we get a feel for his sensibility, he tells us more about his family than anything else, and it’s not a deeply gracious picture (of any of the family members including him) that he paints.

The book starts beautifully for me: “I don’t believe in God but I miss Him.” …so far we are in agreement. I was a Christian for about four years in late adolescence, and now I fight back tears whenever I darken the door of a traditional church. But I also get sentimental confronting anything that takes me back to my early life. It’s not just about religion. Julian Barnes is a rough-and-ready English-style agnostic with a metaphysical chip on his shoulder, and his professional philosopher brother does away with missing “Him” with a single word: “Soppy.” So much for choking up when the organ starts playing.

Mixed with developing the characters of his parents and brother, there is some serious-sounding engagement with popular metaphysics, and some of the speculation about being afraid that the title promises. Pascal’s wager is a bet on what God is like as much as whether He exists. Barnes takes God’s point of view: wouldn’t He be unimpressed with off-the-cuff belief “just in case”? He deals with fear, fear of extinction, and speculates about how that might have evolved to the advantage of the selfish gene. And he also plunges into philosophy of mind a bit. Who, but more to the point what, is/am “I”? We are not much further ahead on the question of the insubstantial mind as he leaves that topic, but at least he knows it exists.

I liked the conclusion, apropos of his brother, that Barnes drew about philosophy done by philosophers. It’s more about the activity of philosophizing than actually finding out the answers to the big questions. The professionals lose heart for the originally-inspiring quest as they realize… nobody ever gets there. A bit like the practice of law must be more about winning disputes and being more thorough than the other guy than about Justice.

It’s clear (to me anyway from my professional work) that most people die unaware of what’s going on around them and we might speculate that they have the lucky circumstance of animals, having no idea about death and of course lacking the horsepower as it were to be afraid. Julian Barnes hopes for a quick and fully-conscious end. Good luck to him and all the rest of us too but chances are pretty good it will be slow, although “God” willing maybe not completely agonizing.

A bit sadly but to me not a big surprise, somewhere past halfway through this book the balance tips toward an increasing pile of one plummy sentiment on top of another, as hope for a consistent point of view or even attitude fades. Barnes waxes increasingly whimsical and quotes a variety of learned sources in an Oxford-boy offhand and epigrammatic way. It doesn’t look like we’re going to find out why death isn’t anything to be frightened of, and of course we don’t.

Treading water among the bits and pieces left toward the end of the book I sort of lost patience and wanted to say Come on: out with it Julian. What’s it all about? I have a recollection of a cabdriver describing in some (forgotten, by me) fiction to his passenger who might have been TS Eliot or his wife a conversation he had with Bertrand Russell. Recognizing the great man, the cabdriver described asking him that terrifying central question, and the driver said, “And you know, he couldn’t tell me…” Maybe Julian Barnes is in better company than I imagine.

Either way, he’s not particularly enamored of a reader like me that has a bit of a crabby dismissive take on his attempt to tackle what is after all a very difficult subject: “Go on, fuck off and die. Yes, you.” he says. Well, Julian, I guess I will. Not I have to confess a whole lot better informed about it all for hopefully and persistently finding my way through what you’ve had to say on the subject. 6.1/8.0

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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