Who doesn’t love a good conversation about death? It’s the one transcendent experience we are all guaranteed to have. And it’s a subject that comes up more and more as you grow older and start to see the vague outlines of that Enemy in the distance. You may not want to engage with death, but it is determined to engage with you.
Death makes itself felt through the death of others and when we anticipate our own. The death of others, most painfully of those we love, entails a whole other type of conversation about loss and pain. And it entails a lot of suffering that is in no way abstract. But that is not what this post is about. This is about books that contemplate one’s own death. This engenders discussion that is always abstract. Once it is no longer an abstraction, you can’t be a part of the discussion anymore.
The following three authors have spent some time contemplating their death and they come to some instructive conclusions: Julian Barnes writes from the viewpoint of a secular nonbeliever, Richard John Neuhaus writes as a Catholic priest but also as person like everyone else contemplating the unknown, and Christian Wiman writes as poet who was raised in the faith, left it, and returns as an early death threatens his young life.
For the writer Julian Barnes, the problem is that for him death is not the final transcendent experience. For Barnes, death is The End, period, full stop. And that scares the living daylights out of him. His book title even makes a double entendre of the ways we can view our own death: Nothing to be Frightened Of is exactly what Barnes is frightened of—the nothing that looms.
Although Barnes is wrestling with a difficult subject—he sometimes wakes up terrified “beating pillow with fist and shouting ‘oh no, Oh No, OH NO'”—he is a very funny and introspective companion. He finds those nocturnal outbursts of his a “shocking display of exhibitionist self-pity” and berates himself:
For God’s sake, you’re a writer…You do words. Can’t you improve on that?
Barnes examines the perspectives of his friends, family, and other writers, commenting that “a sense of death is like a sense of humour. We all think the one we’ve got—or haven’t got—is just about right, and appropriate to the proper understanding of life.… I think my sense of death—which appears exaggerated to some of my friends—is quite proportionate. For me, death is the one appalling fact which defines life; unless you are constantly aware of it, you cannot begin to understand what life is about.… ” But he says of his friend G that he “has a worse case of death, so I find his hauntedness excessive….”
Barnes’ brother on the other hand does not fear extinction at all. Barnes wonders what accounts for the difference between the two of them. His brother says the fear of death is irrational, but Barnes counters:
How can reason not reasonably detest and fear the end of reason?
Although the two of them approach the abyss differently, they both believe that only the abyss looms. There is no God to catch them.
Barnes wonders why there might be a presence of a religious affinity in some and why an absence in others such in him and his brother. And though Barnes in his first line of the book confesses he does not believe in God, he does say wistfully, that he misses Him. His brother declares such a sentiment “soppy.”
Unlike Rod Dreher or Peter Hitchens who both found belief when viewing art and architecture that was created with Christ in mind, Barnes finds the he misses God most when he misses “the underlying sense of purpose and belief when confronted by religious art.” He goes on to muse, “It is one of the haunting hypotheticals for the nonbeliever: What would it be like ‘if it were true’… Imagine hearing the Mozart Requiem in a great cathedral… and taking the text as gospel….It would to put it mildly add a bit of extra oomph, wouldn’t it?” But alas he laments,
Pretending to beliefs we don’t have during Mozart’s Requiem is like pretending to find Shakespeare’s horn jokes funny (though some theater goers still relentlessly laugh).
His perspectives on navigating life with the pall of extinction hanging over him are revelations a Christian is likely never to get directly from a nonbeliever. But in his book Barnes confides his deepest fears. He coins a phrase that he unhappily finds others have already thought of:
I wouldn’t mind Dying at all, as long as I didn’t end up Dead at the end of it.
In fact, he finds that of his friends that fear death, they too don’t mind the dying part. But those that don’t mind being dead seem to all fear the dying.
But it is the end of himself that Barnes fears the most. And no matter how much he studies: Neuroscientists tell us that the “I” is an illusion, so there really is nothing there to die. The professional atheist Richard Dawkins tells us to grow up because when you’re dead you’re dead. Look at the stars if you want to experience wonder. Barnes realizes that evolution instills a healthy fear of death to continue the species but doesn’t seem to care if the fear causes discomfort as you age. He tries a palliative that has been tried before: making the eternal life seem worse than death (he notes that “that’s one of the problems with death: almost everything’s been tried before”).
He quotes the French writer Jules Renard: “Imagine life without death. Every day you’d want to kill yourself from despair.”
But all this is to no avail. Barnes can’t convince himself that death is nothing to be frightened of.
Amazingly, in the passage where Barnes contemplates eternity, he echoes one of the great passages of Scripture: 1 Corinthians 13. Since he doesn’t make reference to it (and he is careful to give attribution to the many writers he quotes), I wonder if he knows it. Barnes declares that
We spend our lives only partially seeing ourselves and others and being partially seen by them in return. When we fall in love, we hope—both egotistically and altruistically—that we shall be finally, truly seen, judged and approved.
He finishes the passage with this:
But still we long for the comfort and the truth of being fully seen. That would make for a good ending, wouldn’t it?
It would indeed, Mr. Barnes, it would indeed.
I’ll take up Richard John Neuhaus’ brush with death and his meditations about mortality in the next post.