Author Julian Barnes, a self-described atheist turned agnostic, devotes his most recent book, Nothing To Be Afraid Of, on his fear of death. In today’s New York Times Book Revew, Garrison Keillor, describes the effort:
I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him,” the book begins. Julian Barnes, an atheist turned agnostic, has decided at the age of 62 to address his fear of death — why should an agnostic fear death who has no faith in an afterlife? How can you be frightened of Nothing? On this simple question Barnes has hung an elegant memoir and meditation, a deep seismic tremor of a book that keeps rumbling and grumbling in the mind for weeks thereafter.
. . .
Religious faith is not an option. “I had no faith to lose,” he writes. “I was never baptized, never sent to Sunday school. I have never been to a normal church service in my life. . . . I am constantly going into churches, but for architectural reasons; and, more widely, to get a sense of what Englishness once was.”
The Christian religion has lasted because it is a “beautiful lie, . . . a tragedy with a happy ending,” and yet he misses the sense of purpose and belief that he finds in the Mozart Requiem, the paintings of Donatello — “I miss the God that inspired Italian painting and French stained glass, German music and English chapter houses, and those tumbledown heaps of stone on Celtic headlands which were once symbolic beacons in the darkness and the storm.” Barnes is not comforted by the contemporary religion of therapy, the “secular modern heaven of self-fulfilment: the development of the personality, the relationships which help define us, the status-giving job, . . . the accumulation of sexual exploits, the visits to the gym, the consumption of culture. It all adds up to happiness, doesn’t it — doesn’t it? This is our chosen myth.”
So Barnes turns toward the strict regime of science and here is little comfort indeed. We are all dying. Even the sun is dying. Homo sapiens is evolving toward some species that won’t care about us whatsoever and our art and literature and scholarship will fall into utter oblivion. Every author will eventually become an unread author. And then humanity will die out and beetles will rule the world. A man can fear his own death but what is he anyway? Simply a mass of neurons. The brain is a lump of meat and the soul is merely “a story the brain tells itself.” Individuality is an illusion. Scientists find no physical evidence of “self” — it is something we’ve talked ourselves into. We do not produce thoughts, thoughts produce us. “The ‘I’ of which we are so fond properly exists only in grammar.” Stripped of the Christian narrative, we gaze out on a landscape that, while fascinating, offers nothing that one could call Hope. (Barnes refers to “American hopefulness” with particular disdain.)
. . .
All true so far as it goes, perhaps, but so what? Barnes is a novelist and what gives this book life and keeps the reader happily churning forward is his affection for the people who wander in and out, Grandma Scoltock in her hand-knitted cardigan reading The Daily Worker and cheering on Mao Zedong,while Grandpa watched “Songs of Praise” on television, did woodwork and raised dahlias, and killed chickens with a green metal machine screwed to the doorjam that wrung their necks. The older brother who teaches philosophy, keeps llamas and likes to wear knee breeches, buckle shoes, a brocade waistcoat. We may only be units of genetic obedience, but we do love to look at each other. Barnes tells us he keeps in a drawer his parents’ stuff, all of it, their scrapbooks, ration cards, cricket score cards, Christmas card lists, certificates of Perfect Attendance, a photo album of 1913 entitled “Scenes From Highways & Byways,” old postcards (“We arrived here safely, and, except for the ham sandwiches, we were satisfied with the journey”). The simple-minded reader savors this sweet lozenge of a detail. We don’t deny the inevitability of extinction, but we can’t help being fond of that postcard.
. . .
I don’t know how this book will do in our hopeful country, with the author’s bleak face on the cover, but I will say a prayer for retail success. It is a beautiful and funny book, still booming in my head.
Read it all here.