Terminal Philosophy

By Walsh, John | The Independent (London, England), March 7, 2008 | Go to article overview
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Terminal Philosophy

Walsh, John, The Independent (London, England)

Nothing to be Frightened of By Julian Barnes JONATHAN CAPE Pounds 16.99 (250pp) Pounds 15.29 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Death has been on Julian Barnes's mind all through his writing career. Flau-bert's Parrot (1984) was, among other things, a meditation on suicide. Staring at the Sun (1986) had a brilliant riff about life insurance and the idiocy of people "weighing up the advantages of their own extinction". The concluding section of A History of the World in 10 Chapters (1989) imagined Paradise as a location where everything is perfect, and therefore terminally boring.

Two decades later, he has gone into mortality overdrive. The Lemon Table (2004) was a collection of short stories on ageing and death. Now we have Nothing to be Frightened of, 250 pages of musings on death, eschatology, the decline of religion, the consolations of art, the mixed blessing of families and the way memory plays tricks with the supposed facts of your life. Barnes pre-emptively declares, "This is not, by the way, 'my autobiography.' Nor am I 'in search of my parents'."

We do, however, learn things about the author we never knew before: that he was a "zealous and unflagging" masturbator when young, that's he's chronically melancholic, deaf in one ear - and that he habitually wakes up in the small hours wailing, punching the pillow, petrified of dying. He has suffered from death-awareness, he tells us, since he was 13 or 14. Frankly envious of a friend called G, who started worrying about the Big Sleep when he was four, Barnes sets out to investigate the territory of death in our minds and bodies.

Following Montaigne's prescriptions about an "exemplary death", Barnes glumly considers various "best-case" scenarios (Alphonse Daudet, fortunate man, snuffed it at his own dinner table, drinking soup, surrounded by his family) and inspects the contrasting beliefs about the post-mortem state held by Platonists, Epicureans and Ciceronians. Now 62, he wonders about Pascal's wager: if you believe in God, and he turns out to exist, you win; if he turns out not to exist, you lose, but not as badly as you might have lost if you hadn't believed in the first place. But you cannot just summon up belief to order, nor assume it will save you. "Keep the faith," my father, a devout but pragmatic Irish Catholic, used to say, "or you'll never have a day's luck" - a post-Pascalian attitude but, alas, a total heresy.

And Barnes's own belief? His father was agnostic, his mother an atheist, so he grew up, he says, with no faith to lose. At Cambridge he used to call himself "a happy atheist". When he once admitted, on the radio, to being agnostic, his mother telephoned him to berate him for taking such a milquetoast position. But some half-admitted impulse of "Godless wonder" keeps nagging away inside him, as it nags at the unreligious cyclist in Philip Larkin's poem "Church Going".

Barnes's book opens with the words, "I don't believe in God but I miss him," and he returns to the line to explain what he means. He dreads the gradual ebbing of Christianity, because of the texture which it gives, or gave, to religious art.

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