Monday, October 06, 2008

NYT review of "Nothing to be frightened of"

I'm back from my trip from Omaha and LA (more on that later) - but here is a note about a book review. Just last week I had commented on Weinberg's view of life in the absence of God and contrasted it with Sagan's more upbeat outlook. On cue, yesterday's NYT has a review of a new book, Nothing to be frightened of by Julian Barnes, and his views fall somewhere in the middle of Weinberg and Sagan spectrum.
“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.
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.”
But for the alternative, Barnes seems to be closer to Weinberg than Sagan, and finds little solace in science:

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. (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.”

Aah...but this is Sagan used the same facts to create a positive narrative. Yes, Sun will eventually die, but some of its material will be used in creating new stars and new life. Indeed, there is no separation between "us" and the universe, but again, that is all the more reason to celebrate our intimate connection with the universe. Where Sagan finds comfort in the story of the unfolding universe, Barnes, being a novelist, finds hope in the human drama:

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.

Looks like a fantastic read. Garrison Keillor certainly thinks so:

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.

Read the full review here.


Matthew said...

I am a little put off when I read that the loss of God means an end to "Hope". Hope (with a capital H) is always read to mean "hope that we remain conscious after physical death", but I don't think it needs to be. It's simply a question we're brought up to ask.

But it makes me wonder what it is that creates this fear (or at least wonder) of what happens after we die. Is it sentience generally? Formally we have one datapoint (humans) to study, but a few other species seem to recognize death and have rituals and grieve -- elephants come to mind.

I wonder whether questions about death are a human experience, a sentient experience, or a sentient experience for creatures that evolved here? I wonder if it's a question that might not even occur to other species.

Salman Hameed said...

I wonder whether questions about death are a human experience, a sentient experience, or a sentient experience for creatures that evolved here? I wonder if it's a question that might not even occur to other species.
This has been the operating assumption. But just recently, there was a story of a gorilla who refused to let go of her dead baby. So again, we may find that, at least apes blur this boundary. Who knows, we may find that they also have an ape religion to deal with this fear of death (check out this short story, Pope of the Chimps by Robert Silverberg)

Matthew said...

This New Scientist article I just found on emotions in animals (including grief & death ritual) is interesting, including the two arguments for and against at the bottom (although the "against" is really an agnostic "we don't really know").

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this.

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