I hope the title to this post didn’t scare you off because I want to address a serious topic: how we face death. But we can address this from a variety of angles — like Christian hope or the medical, physical dimensions of death — and I’d like to look at it from the angle of an atheist. That atheist, if that is the right word, is Julian Barnes and his new book, Nothing to Be Frightened Of
Barnes is a well-known novelist, but this collection of short episodic essays on facing death reflects a lifetime of reading and taking mental notes on death. How does he face death?
It all begins with the irony, if not cynicism, that opens up this book: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him” (3). There’s much here to ponder: the use of capital of respect for God, combined as it is with the opening “I don’t believe in God” and the almost sentimental thought that this nonbeliever somehow misses God. The reader may never quite come to terms with what Barnes means here, but the book does explore this ambiguity with considerable finesse and clear hopelessness.
His thoughts occur within the triangle of himself, his philosopher brother, and his family of origins — for whom he is quite willing to divulge things a more discreet person might wish to keep silent. Perhaps it’s his theory of death. Here’s how he puts his own discovery: “And if I was happy to be free of Old Nobodaddy [God], I wasn’t blithe about the consequences. No God, no Heaven, no afterlife; so death, however distant, was on the agenda in quite a different way” (20). And yet: “God might prefer the honest doubter to the sycophantic chancer” — that is the person who gambles on God (Pacal’s wager). He says it more forcibly: “This weak-tea version, the weary murmur of a man with a metaphysical headache” (22).
In his sketch, Barnes sometimes weighs on issues that bedevil the church, like the person who fashions his or her own view of God: “The notion of redefining the deity into something that works for you is grotesque. It also doesn’t matter whether God is just or benevolent or even observant — of which there seems startingly little proof — only that He exists” (46). Thus, he later speaks of talking God down from being the Vengeful One and made him Infinitely Merciful and says: “we changed Him from Old to New, like the Testaments and the Labour Party” (70). His view of God is ironic: “God is the ultimate ironist.” “Our task is to locate the door behind which eternal life is hidden.” And: “The game thought up by God the ironist is this: to plant immortal longings in an undeserving creature and then observe the consequences” (187). God, he says, sits back “with a beatific smile on His face and watches us try to work it out” (188).
Back to the idea of missing God: “Missing God is focused for me by missing the underlying sense of purpose and belief when confronted with religious art.” Is there any “meaning” to life apart from belief in God? Not for Barnes. Why? Because “evolution carries out its purposeless purpose” (220). And he goes further, providing us all with one of his more eloquent unbeliefs: Missing God “is one of the haunting hypotheticals for the nonbeliever: what would it be like,” he now asks, “if it were true”? His answer: “It would — to put it mildly — add a bit of extra oomph, wouldn’t it?” (54). He says that if there is an eternity, to which present life is a warm-up or preparation, “then it [present life] becomes at the same time less valuable and more serious” (60). The recent de-emphasis on heaven knows the first point but at times seems oblivious to the second — and Barnes knows whereof he is speaking here.
Here is a his sketch of the four options: those who do not fear death because of faith, those who do not fear death but who have no faith, and those who have faith yet remain quite fearful of death. Barnes says this of himself: “And then, out of the medals, below the salt, up shit creek, come those of us who fear death and have no faith” (62).
Perhaps this tells us his faith: “religions were the first great invention of the fiction writers” (78). As he will say on p. 185, “Lessing described history as putting accidents in order, and a human life strikes me as a reduced version of this.” There is no light in the tunnel or at its end: “And so it is with our lives: one damn thing after another — a gutter replaced, a washing machine fixed — rather than a story” (185). Barnes has “terminal curiosity” (110), but he has no answers — he has thoughts, and reflections, and insights but positively no answer. His point about fiction, better yet the stories we so deeply love, need to be seen as the human articulation of the depth of reality. Here is his story: “We live, we die, we are remembered, we are forgotten” (213).