Dying of the Light
By GARRISON KEILLOR
NOTHING TO BE FRIGHTENED OF By Julian Barnes
“I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him,” the book begins. Julian Barnes, an atheist turned agnostic, has decided at the age of 62 to address his fear of death — why should an agnostic fear death who has no faith in an afterlife? How can you be frightened of Nothing? On this simple question Barnes has hung an elegant memoir and meditation, a deep seismic tremor of a book that keeps rumbling and grumbling in the mind for weeks thereafter.
Thanatophobia is a fact in his life — he thinks about death daily and sometimes at night is “roared awake” and “pitched from sleep into darkness, panic and a vicious awareness that this is a rented world . . . awake, alone, utterly alone, beating pillow with fist and shouting ‘Oh no Oh No OH NO’ in an endless wail.” He dreams about being buried and “of being chased, surrounded, outnumbered, outgunned, of finding myself bulletless, held hostage, wrongly condemned to the firing squad, informed that there is even less time than I imagined. The usual stuff.” He imagines being trapped in an overturned ferry. Or locked by kidnappers in the trunk of a car that is then driven into a river. He imagines being taken underwater in the jaws of a crocodile.
Beyond the big knock-down stuff, he dreads the diminution of energy, the drying-up of the wellspring, the fading of the light. “I look around at my many friendships, and can recognize that some of them are not so much friendships any more as memories of friendships.” He has seen his parents through their decline and deaths — “however much you escape your parents in life, they are likely to reclaim you in death” — his father, a teacher of French, felled by strokes, reading the “Mémoires” of Saint-Simon at the end still tyrannized by his wife “always present, nattering, organizing, fussing, controlling” — a few years later, his mother in a green dress, in a wheelchair paralyzed on one side, “admirably unflinching, and dismissive of what she saw as false morale-boosting,” and what he sees there is hardly comforting.
Religious faith is not an option. “I had no faith to lose,” he writes. “I was never baptized, never sent to Sunday school. I have never been to a normal church service in my life. . . . I am constantly going into churches, but for architectural reasons; and, more widely, to get a sense of what Englishness once was.”
The Christian religion has lasted because it is a “beautiful lie, . . . a tragedy with a happy ending,” and yet he misses the sense of purpose and belief that he finds in the Mozart Requiem, the paintings of Donatello — “I miss the God that inspired Italian painting and French stained glass, German music and English chapter houses, and those tumbledown heaps of stone on Celtic headlands which were once symbolic beacons in the darkness and the storm.” Barnes is not comforted by the contemporary religion of therapy, the “secular modern heaven of self-fulfilment: the development of the personality, the relationships which help define us, the status-giving job, . . . 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.”
So Barnes turns toward the strict regime of science and here is little comfort indeed. We are all dying. Even the sun is dying. Homo sapiens is evolving toward some species that won’t care about us whatsoever and our art and literature and scholarship will fall into utter oblivion. Every author will eventually become an unread author. And then humanity will die out and beetles will rule the world. A man can fear his own death but what is he anyway? Simply a mass of neurons. The brain is a lump of meat and the soul is merely “a story the brain tells itself.” Individuality is an illusion. Scientists find no physical evidence of “self” — it is something we’ve talked ourselves into. We do not produce thoughts, thoughts produce us. “The ‘I’ of which we are so fond properly exists only in grammar.” Stripped of the Christian narrative, we gaze out on a landscape that, while fascinating, offers nothing that one could call Hope [Still less, Faith or Charity]. (Barnes refers to “American hopefulness” with particular disdain.)
“There is no separation between ‘us’ and the universe.” We are simply matter, stuff. “Individualism — the triumph of free-thinking artists and scientists — has led to a state of self-awareness in which we can now view ourselves as units of genetic obedience.”
All true so far as it goes, perhaps, but so what? Barnes is a novelist and what gives this book life and keeps the reader happily churning forward is his affection for the people who wander in and out, Grandma Scoltock in her hand-knitted cardigan reading The Daily Worker and cheering on Mao Zedong,while Grandpa watched “Songs of Praise” on television, did woodwork and raised dahlias, and killed chickens with a green metal machine screwed to the doorjam that wrung their necks. The older brother who teaches philosophy, keeps llamas and likes to wear knee breeches, buckle shoes, a brocade waistcoat. We may only be units of genetic obedience, but we do love to look at each other. Barnes tells us he keeps in a drawer his parents’ stuff, all of it, their scrapbooks, ration cards, cricket score cards, Christmas card lists, certificates of Perfect Attendance, a photo album of 1913 entitled “Scenes From Highways & Byways,” old postcards (“We arrived here safely, and, except for the ham sandwiches, we were satisfied with the journey”). The simple-minded reader savors this sweet lozenge of a detail. We don’t deny the inevitability of extinction, but we can’t help being fond of that postcard.
“Wisdom consists partly in not pretending anymore, in discarding artifice. . . . And there is something infinitely touching when an artist, in old age, takes on simplicity. . . . Showing off is part of ambition; but now that we are old, let us have the confidence to speak simply.” And so he does. In this meditation on death, he brings to life, in short sure strokes, his parents, Albert and Kathleen.
“She lay in a small, clean room with a cross on the wall; she was indeed on a trolley, with the back of her head towards me. . . . She seemed, well, very dead: eyes closed, mouth slightly open, and more so on the left side than the right, which was just like her — she used to hang a cigarette from the right corner of her mouth and talk out of the opposite side. . . . I touched her cheek several times, then kissed her at the hairline. Was she that cold because she’d been in the freezer, or because the dead are naturally so cold? . . . ‘Well done, Ma,’ I told her quietly. She had, indeed, done the dying ‘better’ than my father. He had endured a series of strokes, his decline stretching over years; she had gone from first attack to death altogether more efficiently and speedily.” In her effects he finds a full bottle of cream sherry and a birthday cake, untouched.
I don’t know how this book will do in our hopeful country, with the author’s bleak face on the cover, but I will say a prayer for retail success. It is a beautiful and funny book, still booming in my head.
Garrison Keillor’s most recent book is “Liberty: A Lake Wobegon Novel.” New York Times
I wonder what the blasphemous and profanatory P.Z. Myers thinks of late at night.