Socrates bedeviled his fellow Athenians by asking them logically systematic questions that disproved certain of their tenets and beliefs he considered to be mistaken. Example: Laches’ assertion “Courage is a sort of endurance of the soul,” subjected to an hour or so of Socratic bedevilment — one of the famous “dialogues” that Plato recorded — is amended to “Courage is a wise endurance of the soul.” This method was called elenchus, – “scrutiny” or “refutation,” depending on what dictionary or other source you use. Socratic elenchus is the seed from which has grown a tree of Inquiry whose branches include scientific experimentation, legal cross-examination, some aspects of mathematics, psychoanalysis, and certain kinds of literary essays.
It is the last two that bear most closely on the strange and marvelous new book Nothing to Be Frightened Of, by Julian Barnes, four-time Man Booker fiction-prize shortlistee, translator, and all-around international person of letters. Its publisher, Knopf, calls this book a “memoir” — bait-and-switch publishing signage, seems to me, because it is really an extended meditation about death and the author’s fear of it. In any case, this work resembles in some important ways Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, which in turn makes heavy use of Socratic elenchus.
“What on earth is he talking about?” you may well be asking at this point, and so I’ll tell you: In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud thoroughly analyzes previous theories of the origin and meaning of dreams, systematically disproves them, and then proposes his own ideas on the subject. In Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Barnes sets up all the classic efforts to ease the fear of death (afterlife, immortality through artistic creation, reincarnation, the fact that without death we could not have life, etc.) and, as Freud does to previous dream theories, through a sort of essayistic elenchus, knocks them silly.
The trouble is — at least for Barnes — nothing takes their place. Literally nothing, thus the at-first-glance anodyne but finally diabolically Stygian title. It is not as it first hits the ear — pleasant reassurance. It’s the opposite. Barnes is frightened — obsessively terrified — of the nothingness of death. He makes Woody Allen’s famous thanatophobia (“I’m not afraid of death — I just don’t want to be there when it happens”) look like existential-terror chicken feed.
Despite the mordant wit, erudition, and typically British understatement of Nothing to Be Frightened Of, the fear and trembling at its heart are always palpable, lurking in the background or looming in the foreground, and they probably explain why the publisher of this book is trying to dress it in the sheep’s clothing of “memoir.” There are very sad and funny family and growing-up details included here — included quite regularly, in fact. Barnes, describing a point in his adolescence, says that given his mother’s atheism and father’s agnosticism (“brisk irreligion” he calls this heritage), he might have become Jewish, because he “went to a school where, out of 900 boys, 150 were Jewish. On the whole, they seemed both socially and sartorially more advanced; they had better shoes?and they knew about girls.” He recounts his arrival at Oxford, where he announced early on to a chaplain, when offered a chance to “read the lesson” in chapel, “I’m afraid I’m a happy atheist” and to the “captain of boats,” who offered him a chance to try out to row for Oxford, “I’m afraid I’m an aesthete.”
With ruefulness and tacit forgiveness, he also conveys his parents’ emotional reticence. He lets his older brother, Jonathan, a philosopher with whom Barnes seems at once close and at sword’s point, do the talking, in a conversation one imagines they must have had as the author was thinking about this book:
He thinks they were good parents, “reasonably fond of us,” tolerant and generous?. Highly conventional — better, typical of their class period?. But,” he continues, “I suppose their most remarkable characteristic ? was the complete, or almost complete, lack of emotion?. I incline to think that the strongest feeling Mother ever allowed herself was severe irritation, while Father no doubt knew all about boredom.”
Jonathan’s terse, corrective, and hugely funny comments throughout the book sometimes threaten to steal the show from Julian.
Barnes summons up other memories and anecdotes as well: teaching in a French Catholic school while he was at Oxford — perhaps the origin of his lifelong Francophilia and an early indication that he would write the superb novel Flaubert’s Parrot — his work as a translator, various incidents from the lives of writers and artists he admires, particularly (natch!) the French (Renard, Flaubert, Stendhal, Ravel). And he digresses into epistemology and neuroscience and the inevitable obsolescence of our entire species and the life cycle of penguins. Despite a few too-abrupt interruptions and course changes, Barnes keeps the structural lines unusually taut for an essay: you want to know what’s going to happen next. Unity also comes from the implicit understanding that everything here directly or indirectly ends up so much wheat for the Grim Reaper. Barnes dwells on the woeful details of his parents’ deaths. He rejects religion’s promises of an afterlife and supplies a devastating analysis of immortality through writing:
First, you fall out of print?. Then a brief revival, if you’re lucky, with a title or two reprinted; then another fall, and a period when a few graduate students, pushed for a thesis topic, will wearily turn your pages and wonder why you write so much. Eventually the publishing house forgets?society changes ?and humanity evolves a little further, as evolution carries out its purposeless purpose?. At some point between now and the six-billion-years-away death of the planet, every writer will have his or her last reader.
Nothing to be Frightened Of makes short work of the idea of a “good death,” quoting with approbation and agreement Sherwin Nuland’s observation that just about everyone is terrified at the end, save possibly for the lucky person who, at the age of 106, enjoying reasonable health but just about to begin the inevitable decline, is felled by a falling safe or a catastrophic stroke. One would imagine that this book, in essence a Socrato-Freudian dismantling of every traditional consolation for death anyone has ever thought of — including “living on through your children”– and a frank admission of personal dread would plunge almost any reader into despair or at least dismay.
But it doesn’t. It doesn’t for two reasons. One is that it is so good – an object of high literary quality and, paradoxically, great good humor that made this reader not care, even if only temporarily, about the sharp Scythe that awaits us all. His book is a poison that becomes, at least for a while, its own antidote. The second reason, which Barnes puts forward as one way of minimizing death’s terror and then discards, is tied securely to the first. It comes, strangely enough, by way of that arch-atheist, Richard Dawkins, who simply says how lucky, statistically speaking, each one of us is to be here at all. The incalculable amount of happenstance that it took to produce you and me explains why religious people in particular refer to life as a “gift.” It is a gift, even if there is no giver, as Mr. Barnes and I suspect, and as Richard Dawkins claims to know for a fact.
Dawkins refers to the unborn trillions of potential people who never got to be born — because, for example, their almost-fathers missed the trains that their almost-mothers were riding on, or some other, equally arbitrary failure to connect. Barnes finds this idea of the wild contingency of our existence of no soothing use to the awful idea of having to die. I have often thought vaguely about this same kind of mathematical salve for mortality before, but it was only when I read Barnes’s airy rejection of it that it seemed to me suddenly and almost miraculously comforting. Assuming any sort of decent life (which I know, sadly, is a major assumption), we are amazingly lucky to be here, in part to be able to read books like this one. If dying is the cost of living, it’s a steep price, but worth it.
I don’t quite see why or how Barnes so casually refuses to find solace in the axiom that if we didn’t die, we would never have been alive — never have had a hot-fudge sundae or sex, never have seen the sun set, never have awakened to a good cup of coffee, never have felt sleep restore us, never have known love. I would like to talk to him about this. Before it’s too late.