I got ‘Nothing to be Frightened of’ by Julian Barnes a few years back. I haven’t read a Julian Barnes book before – I had read bits and pieces of ‘A History of the World in 10 ½ chapters’ and liked it, but I hadn’t finished it. The first page of ‘Nothing to be Frightened of’ started with this sentence – “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him. That’s what I say when the question is put.” It grabbed me and so I wanted to read the book as soon as I went home. I read a few pages and they were as good as I expected. But after that, somehow I got distracted and the book went into my bookshelf. A few days back I thought I will pick it up and give it the attention it deserved. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.
What I think
‘Nothing to be Frightened of’ is an exploration, contemplation and meditation on death. Julian Barnes talks about when he first got aware that he was going to die. He talks about his conversations with his brother on this topic. He talks about his parents lives and how they moved on. He also talks about writers and artists and musicians, mostly French – Jules Renard (I want to read his journal!), Stendhal, Montaigne (I want to read his essays!), Daudet, Zola, the Goncourt brothers, Edith Wharton, Somerset Maugham, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Rossini, Ravel – and what they thought about death and the works of art they created when thinking about death. I was actually quite excited that Barnes mentioned two of my favourite writers and composers – Maugham and Ravel – in the book. Most of the time he focuses on what Jules Renard said. On the way, Barnes also talks about God and whether God exists, on life after death and his own take on these topics. He talks about what philosophers and scientists think about it. He also talks about what the non-existence of God would mean to one’s fear of death.
Thus Barnes rambles on and on, on this topic, a topic which most people will be uncomfortable with. When I say rambling, it might look like I found the book boring. Far from it. The book was quite interesting. There were wonderful sentences and passages on every page. One of my favourite anecdotes in the book was about Barnes’ brother. It goes like this :
Before he left England to live in France, my brother went to have his ears syringed. The nurse offered to test his blood pressure while she was about it. My brother declined. She pointed out that it was free. He replied that this might very well be the case, but that he didn’t want to be tested. The nurse, clearly not knowing what manner of patient she had in front of her, explained that at his age he might have high blood pressure. My brother, putting on a joke voice from a radio show transmitted long before the nurse had been born, insisted, ‘I don’t wish to know that.’
‘Nor did I,’ he tells me. ‘Suppose my blood was OK, then the test would have been a waste of time; suppose it wasn’t OK, then I wouldn’t do anything about it (wouldn’t take the pills, wouldn’t change my diet) but from time to time I’d worry about it.’ I reply that surely, ‘as a philosopher’, he ought to have considered the matter in the terms of a Pascalian wager. Thus, there were three possible outcomes : 1. Nothing wrong with you (good). 2. Something wrong with you but we can fix it (good). 3. Something wrong with you, but Sorry, mate, we can’t (bad). However, my brother resists this optimistic reading of the odds. ‘No, no. “Something wrong but we can fix it” = bad (I don’t like being fixed). And “wrong and unfixable” is far worse if you know than if you don’t.’ As my friend G. put it, ‘the evil is knowing it’s going to happen’. And in his preferring of ignorance, my brother for once resembled our father more than I do.
Did you like it?
Another interesting anecdote I liked was about a CEO called Eugene O’Kelly, who is a high-achiever, but who suddenly discovers that he has cancer and has only three months to live. He decides to try to create perfect moments with his friends and family and unwind himself from the world.
For a book which was so wonderful, I had to push myself to get through pages sometimes. I don’t know why. This year I have read a few books which I got years back. I had to push myself while reading a couple of them. I didn’t like one of them as much as I expected to. I don’t know whether a book loses its freshness if it is not read immediately after it is bought and it resides in my bookshelf for a few years. It happens with newspapers. It is difficult to read yesterday’s newspaper. It is even more difficult to read last week’s newspaper. Last month’s newspaper – it is used mostly for packing or wrapping. But I thought that books were always fresh, unless they were on current affairs. ‘Nothing to be Frightened of’ wasn’t on current affairs. It was on a deeper topic. I liked it. But I had to also push myself to read some parts of the book. I don’t know whether it was because the book had lost some of its freshness (or whether my mind had lost the fresh feeling it had for the book). Should I read books as soon as I buy them, in the future? Do you read books as soon as you buy them or do you put them in your bookshelf and let them age like wine?
I would like to read ‘Nothing to be Frightened of’ again sometime, atleast my favourite passages. If I survive till my sixties, I would like to read it again – I think the book will say some surprising and totally different things to me then.
I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from this book.
A common response in surveys of religious attitudes is to say something like, ‘I don’t go to church, but I have my own personal idea of God.’ This kind of statement makes me in turn react like a philosopher. Soppy, I cry. You may have your own personal idea of God, but does God have His own personal idea of you? Because that’s what matters. Whether He’s an old man with a white beard sitting in the sky, or a life force, or a disinterested prime mover, or a clockmaker, or a woman, or a nebulous moral force, or Nothing At All, what counts is what He, She, It or Nothing thinks of you rather than you of them. 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 startlingly little proof – only that He exists.
The Modern Heaven
We encourage one another towards the secular modern heaven of self-fulfilment : the development of the personality, the relationships which help define us, the status-giving job, the material goods, the ownership of property, the foreign holidays, the acquisition of savings, 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, and almost as much of a delusion as the myth that insisted on fulfilment and rapture when the last trump sounded and the graves were flung open, when the healed and perfected souls joined in the community of saints and angels. But if life is viewed as a rehearsal, as a preparation, or an anteroom, or whichever metaphor we choose, but at any rate as something contingent, something dependent on a greater reality elsewhere, then it becomes at the same time less valuable and more serious. Those parts of the world where religion has drained away and there is a general acknowledgement that this short stretch of time is all we have, are not, on the whole, more serious places than those where heads are still jerked by the cathedral’s bell or the minaret’s muezzin. On the whole, they yield to a frenetic materialism; although the ingenious human animal is well capable of constructing civilizations where religion coexists with frenetic materialism…
Individualism – the Twist in the Tale
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-fulfilment, 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 also discover that this individuality, or illusion of individuality, is less than we imagined. We discover, to our surprise, that as Dawkins memorably puts it, we are ‘survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes’. The paradox is that individualism – the triumph of free-thinking artists and scientists – has led us to a state of self-awareness in which we can now view ourselves as units of genetic obedience. My adolescent notion of self-construction – that vaguely, Englishly, existentialist ego-hope of autonomy – could not have been further from the truth. I thought the burdensome process of growing up ended with a man standing by himself at last – homo erectus at full height, sapiens in full wisdom – a fellow now cracking the whip on his own account. This image must be replaced by the sense that, far from having a whip to crack, I am the very tip of the whip itself, and that what is cracking me is a long and inevitable plait of genetic material which cannot be shrugged or fought off. My ‘individuality’ may still be felt, and genetically provable; but it may be the very opposite of the achievement I once took it for.
On Wise Writers
I used to believer, when I was ‘just’ a reader, that writers, because they wrote books where truth was found, because they described the world, because they saw into the human heart, because they grasped both the particular and the general and were able to re-create both in free yet structured forms, because they understood, must therefore be more sensitive – also less vain, less selfish – than other people. Then I became a writer, and started meeting other writers, and studied them, and concluded that the only difference between them and other people, the only, single way in which they were better, was that they were better writers. They might indeed be sensitive, perceptive, wise, generalizing and particularizing – but only at their desks and in their books. When they venture out into the world, they regularly behave as if they have left all their comprehension of human behaviour stuck in their typescripts. It’s not just writer either. How wise are philosophers in their private lives?
…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 ambition; but now that we are old, let us have the confidence to speak simply. For the religious, this might mean becoming as a child again in order to enter heaven; for the artist, it means becoming wise enough, and calm enough, not to hide. Do you need all those extravagances in the score, all those marks on the canvas, all those exuberant adjectives? This is not just humility in the face of eternity; it is also that it takes a lifetime to see, and say, simple things.
Good News and Bad News
Would you like the good news first, or the bad? A sound tactic is always to choose the good – you might die before you get to hear the bad.
The Last Reader
We live, we die, we are remembered, – ‘misremember me correctly’, we should instruct – we are forgotten. For writers, the process of being forgotten isn’t clear-cut. ‘Is it better for a writer to die before he is forgotten, or to be forgotten before he dies?’ But ‘forgotten’ here is only a comparative term, meaning : fall out of fashion, be used up, seen through, superseded, judged too superficial – or, for that matter, too ponderous, too serious – for a later age. But truly forgotten, now that’s much more interesting. First, you fall out of print, consigned to the recesses of the secondhand bookshop and dealer’s website. Then a brief revival, if you’re lucky, with a title or two reprinted; then another fall, and a period when a few graduate students, pushed for a thesis topic, will wearily turn your pages and wonder why you wrote so much. Eventually, the publishing houses forget, academic interest recedes, society changes, and humanity evolves a little further, as evolution carries out its purposeless purpose of rendering us all the equivalent of bacteria and amoebae. This is inevitable. And at some point – it must logically happen – a writer will have a last reader. I am not asking for sympathy; this aspect of a writer’s living and dying is a given. At some point between now and the six-billion-years-away death of the planet, every writer will have his or her last reader. Stendhal, who in his lifetime wrote for ‘the happy few’ who understood him, will find his readership dwindling back to a different mutated, perhaps less happy few, and then to a final happy – or bored – one. And for each of us there will come the breaking of the single remaining thread of this strange, unwitnessed, yet deeply intimate relationship between writer and reader. At some point, there will be a last reader for me too. And then the reader will die. And while, in the great democracy of readership, all are theoretically equal, some are more equal than others.
My last reader : there is a temptation to be sentimental over him or her. Indeed, I was about to make some authorial gesture of thanks and praise to the ultimate pair of eyes to examine this book, this page, this line. But then logic kicked in : your last reader is, by definition, someone who doesn’t recommend your books to anyone else. You bastard! Not good enough, eh?
Have you read ‘Nothing to be Frightened of’? What do you think about it?