Sunday, May 26, 2013

"Nothing to be frightened of" by Julian Barnes

An absolute masterpiece by Julian Barnes. This is the first novel written by him that I have read. The book is about death and the way he begins to think about it after his parents pass away. He examines his belief in God and how and why people believe in God. Some of the paragraphs are simply explosive. I had to stop myself from quoting the entire book for fear of plagiarism.

This was a typical statement from my mother: lucid, opinionated, explicitly impatient of opposing views. Her dominance of the family, and her certainties of the world, made things usefully clear in childhood, restrictive in adolescence, and grindingly repetitive in adulthood.

It was one of those moments when your parents surprise you - not because you've learnt something new about them, but because you've discovered a further area of ignorance. Was my father merely being polite? Did he think that if he simply plonked himself down he would be taken for a Shelleyan atheist? I have no idea.

He died a modern death, in hospital, without his family, attended in his final minutes by a nurse, months - indeed, years - after medical science had prolonged his life to a point where the terms on which it were being offered were unimpressive.

I had always imagined that his would be the harder death, because I had loved him the more, whereas at best I could only be irritatingly fond of my mother. But it worked the other way around: what I had expected to be the lesser death proved more complicated, more hazardous. His death was just his death; her death was their death. And the subsequent house-clearing turned into an exhumation of what we had been as a family - not that we really were one after the first thirteen or fourteen years of my life.

And so, instead of leaving the final remnants of my parents' lives confidentially bagged. I poured the house-clearer's rejects into the skip and kept the sacks. (Is this what my mother would have wanted?) I looked at the spread of stuff below me and, though there was nothing incriminating or even indiscreet, felt slightly cheap: as if I had buried my parents in a paper bag than a proper coffin.

My mother told me that Grandpa had once told her that the worst emotion in life was remorse. What, I asked, might he be referring to? She said she had no idea, as her father had been a man of utmost probity. And so the remark - a most untypical one for my grandfather - hangs there unanswerably in time. I suffer from little remorse, though it may be on its way, and in the meantime am making do with its close chums: regret, guilt, memory of failure. But I do have a growing curiosity about the unled, the now unleadable live, and perhaps remorse is currently hiding in their shadow.

No words to describe the effect the above passages had on me as I think about my own family. "And the subsequent house-clearing turned into an exhumation of what we had been as a family - not that we really were one after the first thirteen or fourteen years of my life." and "I suffer from little remorse, though it may be on its way, and in the meantime am making do with its close chums: regret, guilt, memory of failure." - so painfully close!

If I called myself and atheist at twenty, and an agnostic at fifty and sixty, it isn't because I have acquired more knowledge in the meantime: just more awareness of ignorance. How can we be sure that we know enough to know? As twenty-first-century neo-Darwinian materialists, convinced that the meaning and mechanism of life have only been fully clear since the year 1959, we hold ourselves categorically wiser than those credulous knee-benders who, a speck of time away, believed in divine purpose, an ordered world, resurrection and a Last Judgment. But although we are more informed, we are no more evolved, and certainly no more intelligent than them. What convinces us that out knowledge is so final?

So I had no faith to lose, only a resistance, which felt more heroic than it was, to the mild regime of God-referring that an English education entailed: scripture lessons, morning prayers and hymns, the annual Thanksgiving service in St. Paul's Cathedral. And that was it, apart from the role of Second Shepherd in a nativity play at my secondary school. I was never baptised, never went to Sunday school. I have never been to a normal Church service in my life. I do baptisms, weddings, funerals. I am constantly going into Churches, but for architectural reasons,; and more widely, to get a sense of what Englishness once was.

No doubt; but the Christian religion didn't last so long merely because everyone else believed it, because it was imposed by ruler and priesthood, because it was a means of social control, because it was the only story in town, and because if you didn't believe it - or disbelieved it too vociferously - you might have a quickly truncated life. It lasted also because it was a beautiful lie, because the characters, the plot, the various coups de theatre, the overarching struggle between Good and Evil, made up a great novel.

One of the reasons I liked Orhan Pamuk and Haruki Murakami was because of their examination of belief - the need for God, the reasons why conventional religion exists. But this book dealt with religion in a huge way. Would you believe in God as you were about to die or at least dilute your insistence that he didn't exist? Was it just a doubt that grows or was it the fear of death and what lay beyond it? Or did you believe in God just to be a part of a group?

Memory in childhood - at least, as I remember it - is rarely a problem. Not just because of the briefer time span between the event and its evocation, but because of the nature of memories then: they appear to the brain as exact simulacra, rather than processed and coloured-in versions, of what has happened. Adulthood brings approximation, fluidity and doubt; and we keep the doubt at bay by retelling that familiar story, with pauses and periods of a calculated effect, pretending that the solidity of narrative is the proof of truth. But the child or adolescent rarely doubts the veracity and precision of the bright, lucid chunks of the past it possesses and celebrates. So at that age it seems logical to think that our memories as stored in some left-luggage office, available for retrieval when we produce the necessary ticket; or, as goods left in one of those arterial roads. We know to expect the seeming paradox of old age, when we start to recall the lost segments of our early years, which then become more vivid than our middle ones. But this only seems to confirm that it's all really nice up there, in some orderly cerebral storage unit, whether we can access it or not.

"Mr Barnes, we've examined your condition, and we conclude that your fear of death is intimately connected to your literary habits, which are, as for many in your profession, merely a trivial response to mortality. You make up stories so that your name, and some indefinable percentage of your individuality, will continue after your physical death, and the anticipation of this brings you some kind of consolation. And although you have intellectually grasped that you may be forgotten before you die, or if not, shortly afterwards, and that all writers will eventually be forgotten, as will the entire human race, even so it seems to you worth doing. Whether writing is a visceral response to the rational, or a rational response to the visceral, we cannot be sure."

There are some who believe that childhood was the best time of their lives and there are those who believe it is the worst. It has something to do with not having to worry about anything serious but honestly the things that seem ridiculous now were deadly serious then. So does it have anything to do with the vividness with which a memory is preserved but the helplessness at not being able to do anything about it?

You come into the world, look around, make deductions, free yourself from the old bullshit, learn, think, observe, conclude. You believe in your own powers and autonomy; you become your own achievement. So over the decades, my fear of death has become an essential part of me, and I would attribute it to the exercise of imagination; while my brother's detachment in death's face is an essential part of him, which he probably attributes to the exercise of rational thought. Yet perhaps I am this way only because of our father, he that way because of our mother. Thanks for the gene, Dad.

Our history has seen the gradual if bumpy rise of individualism: from the animal herd, from the slave society, from the mass of uneducated units bossed by priest and king, to looser groups in which the individual has greater rights and freedoms - the right to pursue happiness, private thought, self-fulfillment, self-indulgence. At the same time, as we throw off the rules of priest and king, as science helps us understand the truer terms and conditions on which we live, as our individualism expresses itself in grosser and more selfish ways, we discover that this individuality, is less than we imagined.

`The wake-up call to mortality' sounds a bit like a hotel service. In some ways, this bad translation of du Bos's phrase is the good one: it is like being in an unfamiliar hotel room, where the alarm clock has been left on the previous occupant's setting, and at some ungodly hour you are suddenly pitched from sleep into darkness, panic and a vicious awareness that this is a rented world.

Religion tends to authoritarianism as capitalism tends to monopoly. And if you think popes seem a sitting - or enthroned - target, consider someone as unpopish as one of their notorious enemies: Robespierre. The Incorruptible One first came to national prominence in 1789 with an attack on the luxury and worldliness of the Catholic Church. In a speech to the Estates General, he urged the priesthood to reacquaint itself with the austerity and virtue of early Christendom by the obvious means of selling all its property and distributing the proceeds to the poor. The Revolution, he implied, would be happy to help if the Church proved reluctant.
In a grand phrase, he declared that `atheism is aristocratic'; whereas the concept of a Supreme Being who watches over human innocence and virtue - and presumably, smiles as unvirtuous heads are lopped - was democratic through and through'. Robespierre even quoted (seriously) Voltaire's (ironic) dictum that `If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.' From all this, you might imagine that when the Revolution introduced an up-to-date belief system, it might avoid the extremism of the one it replaced; might be rational, pragmatic, even liberal. But what did the invention of a shiny new Supreme Being lead to? At the start of the Revolution, Robespierre presided over the slaughter of priests; by its end, he was presiding over the slaughter of atheists.

Learning your way through life, through the way you fall. What a way to learn! But would it necessarily be a better way to learn that have it hammered into you? We think so, maybe assume so. Or in the end are those beliefs we claim to learn only replace those ridiculous ones that we were conveniently spoon fed?

For all his practical wisdom and knowledge of the world - and for all his fame and money - Maugham failed to hold onto the spirit of humorous resignation. His old age contained little serenity: all was vindictiveness, monkey glands, and hostile will-making. His body was kept going in vigour and lust while his heart grew harder and his mind began to slip; he declined into an empty rich man. Had he wished to write a codicil to his own wintry, unwarming advice, it might have been: the additional tragedy of life is that we do not perish at the right time.

Yes, remaining in character: this is what we hope for, this is what we cling to, as we look ahead to everything collapsing. So - and this has been a long way round to an answer - I doubt that when my time comes I shall look for the theoretical comfort of an illusion farewelling an illusion, a chance bundle unbundling itself. I shall want to remain in what I shall obstinately think of as my character.

And there is something infinitely touching when an artist, in old age, takes on simplicity. The artist is saying: display and bravura are tricks for the young, and yes, showing off is part of the ambition; but now that we are old, let us have the confidence to speak simply. For the religious, this might be becoming the child again in order to enter heaven; for the artist, it means becoming wise enough, and calm enough, not to hide.

Those proud lines of Gautier I was once so attached to - everything passes except art in its robustness; kings die, but sovereign poetry lasts longer than bronze - now reads as adolescent consolation. Tastes change; truths become cliches; whole art forms disappear. Even the greatest art's triumph over death is risibly temporary. A novelist might hope for another generation of readers - two or three if lucky - which may feel like a scorning of death; but it's really just scratching on the wall of the condemned cell. We do it to say: I was here too.

A fine ending to a fine story. Who would not want that? But somehow everyone wants to cling on, we refuse to let go. We know we should, but in the end does everyone think rationally?

I also realize that this God I am missing, this inspirer of artworks, will seem to some just as much  an irrelevant self-indulgence as the much-claimed `own personal idea of God' I was deriding a while ago. Further, if any God did exist, He might very well find such decorative celebration of His existence both trivial and vainglorious, a matter for divine indifference if not retribution. He might think Fra Angelico cutesy, and Gothic cathedrals blustering attempts to impress Him by a creation which had quite failed to guess how He preferred to be worshiped.

We live broadly according to the tenets of a religion we no longer believe in. We live as if we are creatures of a free will when philosophers and evolutionary biologists tell us this is largely a fiction. We live as if the memory were a well-built and efficiently staffed left-luggage office. We live as if the soul - or spirit, or individuality, or personality - were an identifiable and locatable entity rather than a story the brain tells itself. We live as if nature and nurture were equal parents when evidence suggests that nature has both the whip hand and the whip.

Maybe another part of my condition is envy for of those who lost faith - or gained truth - when losing faith was fresh and young and bold and dangerous. Francois Renard, suicide and anti-clerical, was the first person to be buried in the cemetery at Chitry without the aid and comfort of a priest. Imagine the shock of that in the remote Burgundy countryside in 1897; imagine the pride of unbelief.

Again the question - if there was a God, how would He feel about all the religions that existed? About the rituals (or lack of), of the architectures we dedicate to Him?

Whatever religions may claim, we are set up - genetically programmed - to operate as social beings. Altruism is evolutionary useful; so whether or not there is a preacher with a promise or a threat of hellfire, individuals living in society generally act in much the same way. Religion no more makes people behave better than it makes them behave worse - which might be a disappointment to the aristocratic atheist as much to the believer.

Common sense raises utility into factitious but practical truth. Common sense tells us we are individuals with (usually integrated) personalities, and those around are as well. It is going to take a while before we start thinking of our parents, say, as bundles of genetic material lacking any `self-stuff', rather than the dramatic or comic (or cruel or tedious) characters, all too riddled with self-stuff, in the narratives we turn our lives into.

This is what, amateurs of our own existence, we believe in, don't we? That the child is father, or mother, to the man, or woman; that slowly but inevitably we become ourselves, and this self will have an outline, a clarity, an identifiability, an integrity. Through life we construct and achieve a unique character, one in which we hope to be allowed to die.

Memory is identity. I have believed this since - oh, since I can remember. You are what you have done; what you have done is in your memory; what you remember defines who you are; when you forget your life you cease to be, even before your death.

So here's another would-you-rather. Would rather die in the pain of being wrenched away from those you have long loved, or would you rather die when your emotional life has run its course, when you gaze out at the world with indifference, both towards others and towards yourself?

It is difficult for us to contemplate, fixedly, the possibility, let alone the certainty, that life is a matter of cosmic hazard, its fundamental purpose mere self-perpetuation, that it unfolds in emptiness, that our planet will one day drift in frozen silence, and that the human species, as it has developed in all its frenzied and over-engineered complexity, will completely disappear and not be missed, because there is nobody and nothing out there to miss us. This is what growing up means. And it is a frightening prospect for a race which has so long relied upon its own invented gods for explanation and consolation.

So if, as we approach death and look back on our lives and `we understand our narrative' and stamp a final meaning on it, I suspect we are doing little more than confabulating: processing strange, incomprehensible, contradictory input into some kind, any kind of believable story - but believable mainly to ourselves. I would expect a dying person to be an unreliable narrator, because what is useful to us generally conflicts with what is true, and what is useful at that time is a sense of having lived to some purpose, and according to some comprehensible plot.


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