Friday, December 30, 2011

Nothing to be frightened of

So many books read this last year, so few of them commented on here. End-of-year reflections will haunt me for the next seven weeks, I'm sure — I'll be too busily distracted for them after that — so I won't anguish over my failure to share notes on Frederic Tuten, or Patrick Leigh Fermor, or Carolyn Brown, or Patti Smith, to cite only the most impressive of the authors I've learned from recently.

Instead I'll concentrate, for the moment, on a book uniquely appropriate to the season: Julian Barnes's Nothing to be Frightened Of (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008). Barnes is better known as a novelist, I suppose, at the present moment at least, with his A Sense of Ending on the lists: I haven't read that yet, partly because I wanted to approach it through this earlier book, which is not fiction but memoir, meditation, and criticism — a conflation-medium I'm particularly attracted to these days. (One's late seventies launch an autumnal mood.)

Barnes was the second son of two teachers of French and French literature, and that language and literature are central, it seems, to his address to life, its observation and discussion. Nothing to be Frightened Of is a contemplation of a selected history of man's meditations on death — not many women's such meditations, be it noted, though a few do turn up — as a way, no doubt, of pinning down his own view of the matter. A consummate writer, Barnes writes, I believe, as the best writers do, in order to discover (or at least approach) resolutions of his own confusions, or misgivings, or as a friend said this morning apprehensions, about the subjects at hand: and what greater subject than death?

Death; dying; God; religion. Someone asked Thoreau, as he lay on his deathbed, if he had made his peace with God. "I hadn't realized we'd quarreled," he replied — at least that's how I recall the line. Googling it just now, I find it often quoted, but the source never cited.

(I do, though, find two other nice deathbed lines: When Voltaire was on his deathbed, a priest abjured him to accept Christ and renounce Satan. Voltaire replied, "Father, this is no time to be making enemies!"
As Talleyrand lay on his deathbed, he cried, "I suffer the torments of Hell!" A friend (I forget his name) sitting up with him replied, "Already?")

Barnes loops gracefully through confrontations with these four principal themes (death; dying; God; religion; remember?) and more; interweaving funny stories about his childhood and his philosopher brother (who, oddly, lives at the near geographical center of France in order to teach in Geneva); and considering similar confrontations by a number of minds of the highest ranks. The book is not indexed, which is a major flaw — especially in a book with the imprint of Alfred A. Knopf! — but my endpaper notes will provide an idea:

36 treacherous memory
38 childhood memory
40 Montaigne
47 Renard
54ff god out of art (art sans god)
61 fear of death (thanatophobia)
83 S. Maugham
86 Daudet: adieu, moi
95 Flaubert
97-8 d. of Daudet; of Sand, Braque
99 Title!
107 either you or I
108 Critics
117 The dead appear to the dying
121 Chabrier
124 Wharton, James, Turgenev, Falukner
132 Stravinsky
134 Edm. Wilson
138 memory is identity.
166 last words. Hegel. Dickinson.
185 meaning
189ff problem of eternal life
193 Rossini
195 Goethe
202 Shostakovich 14
209 flux
That last note, of course, sums it all up. There is nothing that is fixed, as Heraklitus famously noted. Acceptance of death, which is to say acceptance of life, is acknowledgement of flux. If it's true, as Emerson notes in his essay "Circles," that
…this incessant movement and progression, which all things partake, could never become sensible to us, but by contrast to some principle of fixture or stability in the soul. While the eternal generation of circles proceeds, the eternal generator abides.
quoted by Ross Posnock in his review of American Nietzsche by Jennifer Ramer-Rosenhagen, The Nation, Nov. 21, 2011
it is also true that these principles of fixture are site-specific to "the soul", are individual and unique and not fungible, are there for purposes of convenience only: and life (and its apparent extinction) are not there for convenience. Emerson goes on to note "Life is a series of surprises": those who yearn for stability, certainty, reassurance, are denying the essence of life.

Barnes gives a good deal of attention to Jules Renard, "one of my dead, French, non-blood relatives," known to students of elementary French in my day (the 1950s, in this context) simply as the author of Poil de carotte but much more significant (and influential
on literature) as a memoirist. Clearly Renard has been a muse for Barnes, providing him with both details for contemplation and a model for its practice and expression.

Such influence or inspiration is linked, I think, to the subject at hand, for what Harold Bloom calls "the anxiety of influence" (in a book by that title, which I haven't yet read, perhaps fearing to be influenced by it) — the fear or apprehension that influence will dull individuality — is related to the apprehension of death. Both are rooted in a mistaken notion of identity, which notion is one of the most seductive, therefor sinister, of the "principles of fixture" Emerson concedes to us.

I sometimes think we are, at best, like books. I bought this copy of Nothing to be Frightened Of at Title Wave, the deaccessioning outlet of the Portland (Oregon) Public Library, and I'm off this afternoon to lend it to an ailing friend. Human thought about existence and its consequences, from Epicurus to Shostakovich, go with the book, with Barnes. I'll print out a copy of this post and tuck it into the endpaper: perhaps it will be read, perhaps not. So it goes.


Curtis Faville said...

The apprehension of the approach of death is marked by an increasing sense of futility. But this futility was no less inevitable when was was 15, or 30, or 55. While we're young, we "think" there's a long stretch of open territory ahead, which we'll gradually adjust to as it shrinks, as we get closer to the end. But the sense of indignation (and confidence) is as real now (to me at 64) as it was at 15. Death is still a rumor, though I've come perilously close to it a couple of times. After one passes 60, it's clear that one is living on borrowed time, as any one of many kinds of infirmities may rise up and strike us down, and for no reason, it seems, other than chance. I look towards 80, but of course there's no rational basis for this expectation.

Charles, is your obsessive concentration on food somehow a beating back of the sense of mortality? Does picturing and imagining and savoring food as keenly as you do, make you feel more alive, less "mortal"?

Charles Shere said...

I'm not sure my attention to food is either obsessive or a concentration; it's just one of the things I attend to. Others are books, landscape, travel, conversation, occasionally music, art (in the sense of visual art). I think all of these are a celebration of the sense of mortality, rather than an offensive against it. To me there's no distinguishing ["sense of mortality"] from [enjoyment of life]. To be alive is to be mortal, and the more keenly I savor it, consider it, occasionally express myself about it, the better.

Curtis Faville said...

I think this subject is one mostly neglected.

Why not have dialogues about it?

I mean the relationship between the pursuit of the pleasure of eating, and the flipside--between the stoic and the epicurean.

Your pursuit of quality meals is both an expression of your animal instincts, and the ultimate sophistication of a refined art. The ascetic and the luxurious seem to diverge--but how are they linked?