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Nothing to Be Frightened Of

by Julian Barnes

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Nothing to Be Frightened Of

© Alfred Knopf

There are two kinds of people in the world - those who bear in mind the thought of their own mortality and those who studiously avoid such thoughts. Because I find that awareness of my own impermanence informs how I live each day in a positive way, I am a card-carrying member of the former group. My wife however is of the latter, and I take care not to enter into any death-related philosophizing in her presence. It seems to work.

Of course, dividing the world into two types of people is ludicrous. There are at least twelve, maybe thirteen types of people in the world, though writers like me are often drawn to the fallacy of a duality because it helps us make our point. Somewhere in Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes divides the world into two types of people - those who are frightened of death and those who aren't. Barnes falls squarely in the fear camp, while his brother Jonathan, he notes incredulously, claims not to fear the reaper, a claim backed up by a close brush with death that drew from Jonathan the rather dry last words: "Make sure that Ben gets my copy of Bekker's Aristotle."
Nothing to Be Frightened Of is Julian Barnes' long meditation on death and dying. The author claims outright that the book is not his autobiography, though he devotes a good deal of its pages to his upbringing and to his parents lives and deaths. Barnes intertwines this personal memoir with much of what he terms "pit-gazing," looking into the abyss of death from various angles, historical and philosophical. In so doing, he unearths the ideas and experiences of numerous members of his "family" - not his biological family, but those writers to whom he feels most deeply connected - Francois Rabelais, Jules Renard, Gustave Flaubert - mostly French, all dead. Indeed, this was a good lot for Barnes to take up with as they all enjoyed the subject as deeply as he seems to and had in fact much to say on the matter. Renard, like many, believed that death was what made life worth living. Without it, he says, "every day you'd want to kill yourself from despair."
With death unavoidable, a certainty, 100% guaranteed, much of Barnes' (and his brothers') focus is upon the question of God and the afterlife, the burning question that resides unanswered inside all of us: does the self survive after we die? Flaubert, who innately distrusted religion, had a response to this which resonated with Barnes as much as it did with me. He wrote:

"Each dogma in itself is repulsive to me, but I consider the feeling that engendered them to be the most natural and poetic expression of humanity. I don't like those philosophers who have dismissed it as foolishness and humbug. What I find there is necessity and instinct. So I respect the black man kissing his fetish as much as I do the Catholic kneeling before the Sacred Heart."
Barnes tells us that he used to be an atheist but that now he is agnostic. "I don't believe in God, but I miss Him," is how he puts his own thoughts on the matter, a stance that his brother Jonathan labels "soppy." There is much to recommend Nothing to Be Frightened Of. Were I a philosopher, I could probably spend years reading, discussing, and rereading the fascinating theorems within, not just from Barnes' French brethren, but from fellow British doubters like Somerset Maugham and Richard Dawkins, who suggests that with so many "potential people" never being born, we should be grateful to have had the experience of living at all.

The author of Flaubert's Parrot and Arthur and George, Julian Barnes is a wonderful writer whose nonfiction is as meticulously wrought as his novels. A subject that in other hands might be dry or morbid is brought to life by his humor and craftsmanship. Nothing to Be Frightened Of raises numerous questions that one could never expect the answers to, but as with life itself the journey holds far richer rewards than the ending. Or so I believe.

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