The Other Ineffable
By James K. A. Smith
When did I start reading obituaries? I hadn’t really noticed the acquisition of the habit until questioned about it by my wife. Hmmm . . . good question, dear. When did I start reading the obituary page? Certainly it has been since I moved to the Midwest (East and West Coasters will think such geographical exile might be reason enough to contemplate death). But I can’t quite name the day or the hour, so to speak. I can’t recall a moment that I was converted to obituary-reading, but it is now a regular habit. (Which is not to say it’s an obsession. It’s not that I rush to the front porch, gather up the daily delivery, and rifle through the paper in order to seize upon the couple of pages of obituaries and memorials tucked in the back of the Region section of our city newspaper. At least not very often.)
I suppose embedded in my wife’s question is a more incisive, albeit unstated one: Why am I reading the obituaries? I’m too young to be tracking the deaths of schoolmates and old chums. I’m not even doing it to track the demise of the parents of schoolmates and old chums. I’m reading the obituaries in a foreign land: in a town not my own, in a country not my own. Because of this self-imposed exile, the names and faces staring back at me from the obituaries are not familiar to me. They are at once pages of anonymity and slices of intimacy. And yet they fascinate me, lure me, speak to me. And, as my wife will attest, they leave me in tears more often than not. So why am I doing this?
Julian Barnes, cribbing from French critic Charles du Bos, would suggest that reading obituaries is perhaps my way of responding to le réveil mortel. Barnes thinks that a first, clunky translation of the phrase remains the best. Although “ ‘the wake-up call to mortality’ sounds a bit like a hotel service,” Barnes writes, in fact this hits just the right note: “It is like being in an unfamiliar hotel room, where the alarm clock has been left on the previous occupant’s setting, and at some ungodly hour you are suddenly pitched from sleep into darkness, panic, and a vicious awareness that this is a rented world.” Nothing to Be Frightened Of is Barnes’s way of grappling with this wake-up call to mortality, which seems to have jarred him from his slumbers at a young age, and has been harassing him ever since, as if he has been unable to change the settings on that hotel room clock.
This book, which was published in Britain and Canada this spring and will be brought out in the United States in September, is a delightfully strange one, resisting categorization much like Barnes’s experimental fiction, which has often pressed “meta-fictional” questions about the relationship be-tween history and literature (A History of the World in 10½ Chapters) or the tense relation-ship between art, criticism, and biography (Flaubert’s Parrot). Thus he protests (a bit too much?) that this is “not my autobiography”; nor can it be comprehended with recourse to “the therapeuto-autobiographical fallacy.” Instead, the book hovers somewhere between memoir, essay, and criticism. At center stage is his family, including his long-dead grandparents, his recently deceased parents, and his still-living brother, Jonathan, a philosopher of some international renown who makes regular appearances in the book as the straight-laced rationalist counterweight to Julian’s “soppy” tendencies toward nostalgia. But Barnes also warns against reading Nothing to Be Frightened Of as a family scrapbook: “Family piety is not my motivation,” he cautions.
Hence the stage is also shared by other writers, particularly French writers, mainly from the nineteenth century, Jules Renard in particular. (There are a few cameos by English authors like Bertrand Russell and the Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein, but none of the Germanic sources one might have expected, not even Heidegger’s Sein-zum-Tode, which seems pretty ripe for writerly musing.) At times it feels like the book began its life on index cards filled with quotes and pas-sages from these writers, which the author has now taken up, not just as a foil but also because they have given him words to try to if not make sense of, at least be articulate about le réveil mortel—a veritable gauntlet that death throws down at the writer’s feet. At one point he castigates himself for failing in the face of this challenge:
Only a couple of nights ago, there came again that alarmed and alarming moment, of being pitch-forked back into conscious-ness, awake, alone, utterly alone, beating pillow with fist shouting “oh no Oh No OH NO” in an endless wail, the horror of the moment—the minutes—overwhelming what might, to an objective witness, appear a shocking display of self-exhibitionist pity. An inarticulate one, too: for what sometimes shames me is the extraordinary lack of descriptive, or responsive, words that come out of my mouth. For God’s sake, you’re a writer, I say to myself. You do words. Can’t you improve on that? Can’t you face down death—well, you won’t ever face it down, but can’t you at least protest against it—more interestingly than this?
Barnes himself has suggested that it was Flaubert who found a language for sex; Edmund Wilson claimed that D. H. Lawrence finally found an English vocabulary for the same. We might suggest that Barnes has written a book that picks up the gauntlet, hoping to find a language for death. That language is crisp, even breezy; Barnes doesn’t impress (or intimidate) his readers by scouring the OED for arcane expressions. His prose has a cunning simplicity about it that feels incredibly honest—honest enough to sometimes be vulgar, at other times sentimental. One might say that in his hands, the language of death is democratic, which makes good sense since death is quite impartial (talk about e pluribus unum). And, as one would expect from Barnes, the language of death also turns out to be funny as hell.
While Nothing to Be Frightened of is not straightforwardly an autobiography, a memoir, or an essay, its own slipperiness continues Barnes’s pursuit of some of those slippery differences and distinctions that get put into question by what we call “meta-reflections.” Here the persistent theme is the unreliability of memory, and hence the very fuzziness of the genres of autobiography and memoir, not to mention history and legal testimony (better addressed in the “fiction” of A History of the World). The theme is introduced in a banal way just as we are also meeting his family, including his grandparents, who would sometimes entertain themselves with a ritual the grandchildren called “The Reading of the Diaries.” Having kept separate diaries, Grandma and Grandpa would read their entries for the same day, but several years prior. Grandpa’s entry would read: “Friday. Worked in garden. Planted potatoes.” “Nonsense,” Grandma would retort, reading her entry for the very same day: “Rained all day. Too wet to work in garden.” Here the elusive nature of the description, not to mention memory, makes itself felt. This is at least part of the reason we have four Gospels.
Unlike his philosopher brother, who distrusts memories, at least early on Barnes the novelist only distrusts “the way we color them in.” This basic trust of memory is corroborated by an archive: “I also have the family documentation in the shallow drawer to back me up.” But by the end of the book it seems as if this basic, albeit chastened, trust of memory has begun to tremble a bit, on the verge of crumbling, along with prior tidy distinctions between fiction and history or art and criticism. And not even an archive of documentation will save it. Indeed, in the case of Stendhal’s famous bout of “Stendhal Syndrome” in Florence, the archive dismantles the memory: what is recounted by Henri Stendhal in 1826 has almost no connection to what was re-corded in the journals of (then) Henri Beyle in 1811. “Memory took one road,” Barnes comments, “and truth another.” Not even the eyewitness testimony of Barnes’s young nieces regarding a childhood story told by his brother holds up. Instead he gets three conflicting accounts of the same event. “You see (again) why (in part) I am a novelist?” he asks. The result is that “memory itself comes to seem much closer to an act of the imagination than ever before.”
But this is still not a distrust of memory; it is, instead, an appreciation for “different kinds of truthfulness.” Indeed, Barnes seems to find in this the very vocation of the novelist: “I am left with a new proposed definition of what I do: a novelist is some-one who remembers nothing yet records and manipulates different versions of what he doesn’t remember.” So the novelist, he concludes, “is less interested in the exact nature of that truth, more in the nature of the believers, the manner in which they hold their beliefs, and the texture of the ground between competing narratives.” That could also pass as a pretty good description of a theologian.
Questions of death and extinction raise questions about eternity and afterlife, until soon you are bumping up against questions about God and divinity.
“I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.” This is the opening line of the book, described by the author’s philosopher/brother as “soppy.” Despite being solidly secular in a way that must still seem exotic to many Americans (“I was never baptized, never sent to Sunday school. I have never been to a normal church service in my life”), Barnes does not offer merely secularized meditations on death. Questions in the orbit of death and extinction inevitably raise questions about eternity and afterlife, until pretty soon you find yourself bumping up against questions about God and divinity. Barnes follows the questions where they might lead, and shows an understanding of some of the nuances of Christianity that are missed by others in his generation. (This stems at least in part from time spent in France teaching at a Catholic school.)
That’s not to say he isn’t up front about his agnosticism. As part of an inverse hagiography, Barnes shows an interest in conversions to atheism and agnosticism, querying his family and friends regarding when and how they lost their faith (not unlike new evangelical friends who are interested in when I became a Christian—by which they mean, date and time, please). Barnes’s own testimony in this regard is entirely adolescent and completely honest:
My own final letting go of the remnant, or possibility, of religion, happened at a later age. As an adolescent, hunched over some book or magazine in the family bathroom, I used to tell myself that God couldn’t possibly exist because the notion that He might be watching me while I masturbated was absurd; even more absurd was the notion that all my dead ancestors might be lined up and watching too. [. . .] The thought of Grandma and Grandpa observing what I was up to would have seriously put me off my stroke.
No evidential problem of evil; no intellectual dissatisfaction with the doctrine of the Incarnation; no vaulted claims to rational Enlightenment; just an honest, onanistic confession of a rather pragmatic agnosticism. But more titillating, in fact, is Barnes’s mature reflection on this loss of faith:
As I record this now, however, I wonder why I didn’t think through more of the possibilities. Why did I assume that God, if He was watching, necessarily disapproved of how I was spilling my seed? Why did it not occur to me that if the sky did not fall in as it witnessed my zealous and unflagging self-abuse, this might be because the sky did not judge it a sin? Nor did I have the imagination to conceive of my dead ancestors equally smiling on my actions: go on, my son, enjoy it while you’ve got it, there won’t be much more of that once you’re a disembodied spirit, so have another one for us.
He thus owns up to his “breezy illogic” in moments of self-critique, and the critique of others who lost faith in God because of unanswered prayers: “No subsequent reflection from any of us that perhaps God’s main business, were He to exist, might not be as an adolescent helpline, goods-provider, or masturbation-scourge. No, out with Him once and for all.”
Unlike so many secularist screeds that are happy to caricature religion whenever possible, Barnes resists such easy targets. But he also resists defanging religion. In-deed, the agnostic Barnes can sometimes be a surprising apologist for what might be construed as “conservative” religion. Intolerant with squishy spirituality, he finds “the notion of redefining the deity into some-thing that works for you” as nothing short of “grotesque.” Recounting a dinner party with neighbors, he overheard a young man shout sarcastically, “But why should God do that for His son and not for the rest of us?” “Because He’s God, for Christ’s sake,” Barnes shouted back. Taking up the mantle of agnostic prophet, he hurls criticism at the idolatries of “C of E” niceties, in a way that surprisingly echoes Cardinal Newman’s famous critique of “Liberalism”: “There seems little point,” Barnes muses, “in a religion which is merely a weekly social event (apart, of course, from the normal pleasures of a weekly social event), as opposed to one which tells you exactly how to live, which colours and stains everything.”
And the metaphor returns later: “What’s the point of faith unless you and it are serious—seriously serious—unless your religion fills, directs, stains and sustains your life?” If the young Barnes thought a God who cared about stains on his trousers couldn’t possibly exist, the older Barnes thinks the only religion worth embracing (and rejecting) is one that stains everything.
It’s hard not to read Nothing to Be Frightened Of against the backdrop of “new atheist” bestsellers by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens. But Julian Barnes will not be anthologized in the next edition of Christopher Hitchens’s Portable Atheist (which just barely masks its desire to be the Hitchens Bible; I’m holding out for the Hitchens Atheist Study Bible, with evolutionary charts and all). Unlike Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie (literary figures with their own epistles in Hitchens’s canon), Barnes lacks the fundamentalist swagger of the new atheists. In particular, he lacks their chronological snobbery and their epistemological confidence:
If I called myself an atheist at twenty, and an agnostic at fifty and sixty, it isn’t because I’ve acquired more knowledge in the meantime: just more awareness of ignorance. How can we be sure that we know enough to know? As twenty-first century neo-Darwinian materialists, convinced that the meaning and mechanism of life have only been fully clear since the year 1859, we hold ourselves categorically wiser than those credulous knee-benders who, a speck of time away, believed in divine purpose, an ordered world, resurrection and a Last Judgement. But although we are more informed, we are no more evolved, and certainly no more intelligent than them. What convinces us our knowledge is so final?
Given his own epistemological tentative-ness, Barnes can’t resist a bit of fun, imagining a divine game at the expense of our celebrity atheists:
If there were a games-playing God, He would surely get especial ludic pleasure from disappointing those philosophers who had convinced themselves and others of His non-existence. A. J. Ayer assures Somerset Maugham that there is nothing, and nothingness, after death: whereupon they both find themselves players in God’s little end-of-the-pier entertainment called Watch the Fury of the Resurrected Atheist. That’s a neat would-you-rather for the God-denying philosopher: would you rather there was nothing after death, and you were proved right, or that there was a wonderful surprise, and your professional reputation was destroyed?
In short, Barnes has nothing to do with the silliness which claims that “religion poi-sons everything.” To the contrary, Barnes’s appreciation for religious art—both painting and music—is one of the best sections of the book, and leaves him not a little haunted. “Missing God is focused for me,” he confesses, “by missing the underlying sense of purpose and belief when confronted with religious art.” He seems, if not tempted, at least a bit intrigued by an aesthetic argument never entertained in Aquinas’s “Five Ways”: that it might just be true because it is beautiful. “The Christian religion didn’t last so long merely because everyone believed it,” Barnes observes. It lasted because it makes for a helluva novel—which is pretty close to Tolkien’s claim that the Gospel is true because it is the most fantastic fantasy, the greatest fairy story ever told. And Barnes, a great lover of both music and painting, knows that much of what he enjoys owes its existence to Christianity. Without the madness of the Gospel, Mozart would never have composed a Requiem; Giotto would never have left us the treasures in the chapel of Padua. Thus he finds himself asking, “What if it were true?”—a question never entertained by the dogmaticians of the new atheism.
What would it be like, he asks, to listen to the Requiem and take it as nonfiction? Un-fortunately at this point Barnes constructs a false dichotomy: “The Christian,” he sur-mises, “would . . . have been concerned more with truth than aesthetics.” Whence the distinction? One might say that the mad-ness of the Incarnation obliterates such a dichotomy, that the logic of incarnation scandalously claims that truth and beauty kiss (cp. Psalm 85:10). Taking it to be true does not trump the beauty; receiving it as nonfiction does not de-aestheticize the work of art, reducing it to a textbook. But though Barnes’s dichotomy is misplaced, it seems laudable that he entertains what it would mean for these works of art to also be more than (merely) aesthetic. “It is one of the haunting hypotheticals for the non-believer,” he concludes: “what would it be like ‘if it were true’. . . .”
In this openness to haunting, Barnes re-mains a good disciple of Flaubert, of whom he comments:
[W]hile he distrusted religions, he had a tenderness towards the spiritual impulse, and was suspicious of militant atheism. “Each dogma in itself is repulsive to me,” he wrote. “But I consider the feeling that engendered them to be the most natural and poetic expression of humanity. I don’t like those philosophers who have dismissed it as foolishness and humbug. What I find there is necessity and instinct. So I respect the black man kissing his fetish as much as I do the Catholic kneeling before the Sacred Heart.”
It is Barnes’s flaubertien self-suspicion that I find both interesting and winsome—not because I think it provides comfort or fodder for my faith, but because it illustrates the possibility of being an atheist without being a fundamentalist. It also strikes me as something many believers would do well to imitate.
James K. A. Smith teaches philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A collection of his essays and criticism will be published next year by Eerdmans.