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'Nothing to Be Frightened Of': Diverting thoughts on Grim Reaper

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The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT) - "Nothing to Be Frightened Of" by Julian Barnes; Knopf ($24.95)

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By Frank Wilson
McClatchy Newspapers (
10/1/2008 (1 decade ago)

Published in U.S.

Julian Barnes' "Nothing to Be Frightened Of" is about something Barnes himself happens to be very frightened of, namely, death. Or, more particularly, the prospect of his own inevitable demise.

Its ostensibly grim subject notwithstanding, it is quite entertaining, studded with quotable lines, from his opening _ "I don't believe in God, but I miss Him" _ to his very funny meditation on "my last reader":

" ... I was about to make some authorial gesture of thanks and praise to the ultimate pair of eyes. ... 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?"

I have no trouble recommending this book. It's a delicious mix of personal reminiscence, family history, literary criticism _ "a novelist is someone who remembers nothing yet records and manipulates different versions of what he doesn't remember" _ and philosophical speculation.

Barnes' older brother is a professor of philosophy whose specialty is the pre-Socratics, although he seems to share none of their quasi-mystical sense of wonder. Philosophy for him seems to consist of analyzing grammar (which struck me as being the exact secular equivalent of biblical literalism, reducing words to mere signifiers devoid of nuance, connotation or symbolism).

Barnes' own philosophical outlook is severely circumscribed. He seems to have swallowed hook, line and sinker what is perhaps best described as mechanistic determinism: "1/8F3/8ar from having a whip to crack, I am the very tip of the whip itself, and what is cracking me is a long and inevitable plait of genetic material which cannot be shrugged or fought off."

Later on he cites a "specialist in consciousness" who explained over the radio "how there is no center to the brain _ no location of self _ either physically or computationally; that our notion of a soul or spirit must be replaced by the notion of a 'distributed neuronal process.'" In other words, the specialist declared, "these words coming out of this mouth at this moment, are not emanating from a little me in here, they are emanating from the entire universe just doing its stuff."

So "I" don't really exist, and neither do "you," dear reader. Nor does "Julian Barnes." Each of "us" is but the end-point of a chain of causation, just one thing after another until one or another of "us" pops up. "We're" happenings, man!

This means, of course, that one can only compare the output of one chain of causation to that of another. It certainly cannot be said that one output is correct and another isn't. Both simply "are.

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So the endpoint of the chain of causation that I happen to be couldn't help "thinking" that looking for a self-center in the brain is a bit like looking for a larynx in the telephone receiver. And what about that "plait of genetic material"? Barnes' chain of causation evidently forces him to accept the view that Richard Dawkins' chain of causation forces Dawkins to hold: that we are "survival machines _ robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes."

But my chain of causation prompts me to wonder why we should give pride of place to genes. They're pretty far along in the chain of causation themselves and are every bit as much robot vehicles as "we" are, one more way station on that ever-lengthening sequence of causes that is "the entire universe doing its stuff." All of which seems to "me" to get "us" _ like Mr. Toad _ "nowhere in particular."

Barnes is aware of how superficial religious discourse can be:

"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 turn and 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. ... The notion of redefining the deity into something that works for you is grotesque.

However much Barnes may assent intellectually to the notion that our sense of self is an illusion, it has in no way eased his fear of death, and he should perhaps be warned that faith would not entirely dispel that, either. As Newman observed, faith means "being capable of bearing doubt." The faith that my own chain of causation forces me to profess offers, not the assurance, but the hope that God in his mercy will forgive me my many sins and allow me, eventually, to take up residence in one of the humbler corners of a much better neighborhood of being.


© 2008, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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