R.K. Narayan’s abridged, prose version of India’s national epic, The Mahabharata, is concise, fast paced, well written, and – unfortunately – passionlR.K. Narayan’s abridged, prose version of India’s national epic, The Mahabharata, is concise, fast paced, well written, and – unfortunately – passionless. Narayan has excised nearly everything not directly related to the Pandavas (Yudhistira, Bhima, Arjuna, and Nakula and Sahadeva) and their wife, Draupadi. In the process, he’s also stripped the story of any emotional power. For the most part, it’s like reading a book summary rather than a proper story. For example, there’s the chapter that has come down to us as The Bhagavad Gita, one of the more profound scriptures by anyone’s reckoning. In Narayan’s telling, it’s reduced to:
When Arjuna fell into a silence after exhausting his feelings, Krishna quietly said, “You are stricken with grief at the thought of those who deserve no consideration.”
Krishna then began to preach in gentle tones, a profound philosophy of detached conduct. He analyzed the categories and subtle qualities of the mind that give rise to different kinds of action and responses. He defined the true nature of personality, its scope and stature in relation to society, the world, and God, and of existence and death. He expounded yoga of different types, and how one should realize the deathlessness of the soul encased in the perishable physical body. Again and again Krishna emphasized the importance of performing one’s duty with detachment in a spirit of dedication. Arjuna listened reverently, now and then interrupting to clear a doubt or to seek an elucidation. Krishna answered all his questions with the utmost grace, and finally granted him a grand vision of his real stature. Krishna, whom he had taken to be his companion, suddenly stood transformed – he was God himself, multidimensional and all-pervading.
Time, creatures, friends and foes alike were absorbed in the great being whose stature spanned the space between sky and earth, and extended from horizon to horizon. Birth, death, slaughter, protection, and every activity seemed to be a part of this being, nothing existed beyond it. Creation, destruction, actity and inactivity all formed a part and parcel of this grand being, whose vision filled Arjuna with terror and ecstasy. He cried out, “Now I understand!”
The God declared, “I am death, I am destruction. These men who stand before you are already slain through their own karma, you will be only an instrument of their destruction.”
“O Great God,” said Arjuna, “my weakness has passed. I have no more doubts in my mind.” And he lifted his bow, ready to face the battle. Krishna then resumed his mortal appearance. (pp. 147-8)
If all you’re looking for is a readable English synopsis of the epic, then I would recommend this book. But if you’re looking for an English version that captures the gravitas of the original, you won’t find it here....more
In Defense of Anarchism is an extended essay that is not so much the titular defense of anarchism as it is an offensive against the moral authority ofIn Defense of Anarchism is an extended essay that is not so much the titular defense of anarchism as it is an offensive against the moral authority of the state, i.e., that there is a case where the state can command an individual even against that person’s moral beliefs. Since Wolff insists on the total autonomy of the individual, it’s not surprising that he can’t find any polity that can claim the de iure right to compel obedience, with one exception. That exception is the case of a unanimous universal democracy. A condition found only in small groups, and – even there – one that breaks down in a short time.
I’m catching up on a depressingly large backlog of reviews and I don’t want to devote a lot of time to this so I offer up the notes I took while reading, which may interest readers sufficiently that they will read the book themselves:
• [author] can find no de iure justification for “the state”
• i.e., there exists no form of government that in some manner doesn’t deny individual autonomy, even democracies
• all states rest on violence (cf. Jensen), economic coercion and the myth of legitimacy
• a state can be de facto legitimate in the sense that the majority of its citizens accept its prescriptions but there is no moral imperative to obey, esp. since most citizens forfeit autonomy when accepting state authority
• [author] holds out possibility of such a state because social and political conventions are manmade, not natural, and some genius could someday create the conditions where individual and state were reconciled
• I think the issue is unresolvable. We can aim for an ideal – the least amount of coercive authority and the greatest amount of individual autonomy* – but we must recognize that we’ll only achieve an approximation. We should strive for a society that can best handle that constantly moving target.
• Whatever legitimacy a state possesses comes from its ability to promote the welfare of all its citizens and provide opportunity for them to influence its policies. If power is concentrated in the few or the one, then a state has little or no legitimate authority.
* And this point is not universally accepted. A Neo-Confucian, for example, would be appalled at the idea of individual autonomy (at least as conceived by myself or Wolff). And even in the Western democracies there are far too many (IMO) who would grant the state enormous coercive and intrusive powers....more
Voice Claudia also describes the history of a potential, and probable, active-trait male in her territory. He declared himself a living god-emperor, a
Voice Claudia also describes the history of a potential, and probable, active-trait male in her territory. He declared himself a living god-emperor, and through marriage to Bene Gesserat Livia produced several generations of active-trait males. One appears to have been the first known Abomination, a man who heard “voices” and claimed to be both male and female, but whose actions were so perverse that Voice Claudia refuses to describe them. (“Bene Gesserit History,” Dune Encyclopedia Tr, p. 121)*
I begin this short note on Antonin Artaud’s Heliogabalus with a quote from a fictional encyclopedia of a fictional future history because this novel puts me most in mind of the Bene Gesserit’s obsessive search for the kwisatz haderach, the person who would bridge the gap between Male and Female. Especially based on this quote:
All the same, Heliogabalus the pederast king who wanted to be a woman, was a priest of the Masculine. He achieved in himself the identity of opposites, but did not achieve it without harm, and his devout pederasty had no origin other than an obstinate and abstract conflict between Masculine and Feminine. (p. 72)
Having now read Artaud’s version of The Monk and this, I feel confident in writing that I am not a fan of French Surrealism. I fear that I am far too bourgeois to feel much except distate in the author’s worldview. That said, I understand why Artaud feels such rage and why he responds as he does. I don’t think it’s a compelling response but there are nuggets of interest (like the aforementioned conflict between Male and Female principles).**
* The reference here is to Caligula (AD 37-41), of course, and not to the hapless child elevated to the throne by his grandmother and mother in AD 212 but I think the characterization applies equally.
** I emphasize that this is entirely a personal opinion. If some – and from the reviews, there are – find meaning in Artaud, that’s fine, and I would recommend Heliogabalus to them....more
There’s a scene early in Asimov’s Foundation when Hari Seldon is on trial for sedition (he’s been prophesizing the collapse of the Empire) and the proThere’s a scene early in Asimov’s Foundation when Hari Seldon is on trial for sedition (he’s been prophesizing the collapse of the Empire) and the prosecutor asks him about the group of people he’s assembled, if they’re there to save the Empire. Seldon replies (and I paraphrase freely since I don’t have the book in front of me):
“Oh, no, the Empire’s toast. The most we can do is make sure the ensuing dark age doesn’t last as long as it might without our intervention.”
Another author who’s brought to mind is Olaf Stapledon, who, in Last And First Men, recounts the fall of the First Men – having exhausted all the energy and mineral resources of the planet, they were unable to cope mentally or physically with the ensuing catastrophes:
“The collapse of this first world-civilization was due to the sudden failure of the supplies of coal. All the original fields had been sapped centuries earlier, and it should have been obvious that those more recently discovered could not last for ever…. (A) superstition had arisen in the clouded minds of the world-citizens that it was in some mysterious manner inexhaustible….
“The sane policy would have been to abolish the huge expense of power on ritual flying, which used more of the community’s resources than the whole of productive industry. But to believers in Gordelpus such a course of was almost unthinkable. Moreover, it would have undermined the flying aristocracy….
“(T)he race was now entering upon an unprecedented psychological crisis, brought about by the impact of the economic disaster upon a permanently unwholesome mentality.” (pp. 70-71) (Note 1)
There’s also Mike McQuay’s duology, which I read 15+ years ago, Pure Blood and Mother Earth. That series ends with civilization destroyed, and the survivors reduced to the Stone Age.
And then there’s H.M. Hoover’s Children of Morrow>, one of my favorite books when I was a kid. It’s the story of a post-apocalypse world where ecological collapse has left the planet oxygen starved, and the survivors struggle to eke a marginal living out of the depleted soil.
And what would a review be without a reference (two actually) to the Malazan Book of the Fallen?
“There is something profoundly cynical, my friends, in the notion of paradise after death. The lure is evasion. The promise is excusative. One need not accept responsibility for the world as it is, and by extension, one need do nothing about it. To strive for change, for true goodness in this mortal world, one must acknowledge and accept, within one's own soul, that this mortal reality has purpose in itself, that its greatest value is not for us, but for our children and their children. To view life as but a quick passage alone a foul, tortured path...is to excuse all manner of misery and depravity, and to exact cruel punishment upon the innocent lives to come.” The Bonehunters
Separated at birth? Perhaps not but both have the same goal – to bring down civilization.
I’m reminded of all these books (and more) because all reflect Derrick Jensen’s view of human civilization. As he succinctly puts it on p. 231 of volume one:
“We are fucked. We are so fucked. “Not in the good sense of the word.”
Or in a more nuanced – and less scatological – version:
1. Industrial civilization is unsustainable. It’s not a question of “if” but a question of “when” it’s going to fall. 2. The fall is going to be messy. 3. The longer it takes civilization to fall, the worse the tragedy. In that light there are two things we should be doing: Bringing about the fall sooner rather than later; and preparing to survive it.
He puts forth his case in 20 premises (which I list below in abbreviated form), and the pages following present his evidence and his arguments. (Note 2)
Civilization is not sustainable.
Traditional communities do not voluntarily give up their resources.
Industrial civilization requires persistent and widespread violence.
Civilization is based on a hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower down is invisible or rationalized as necessary; violence done by those lower on the hierarchy is taboo.
The property of those higher on the hierarchy is more important than the lives of those lower down.
Civilization is not redeemable; it cannot undergo a transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living.
The longer civilization takes to fall, the worse the crash and the longer it will take for humans and nonhumans to recover.
The needs of the natural world are more important than the needs of the economic system.
The current level of human population will be reduced drastically.
That reduction will be violent and involve privations – not necessarily because the means are violent but because violence and privation are the defaults in our culture.
Civilization is driven by a death urge, an urge to destroy life.
Civilization is a culture of occupation.
There are no rich; there are no poor; there are just people. The “rich” make claims against the “poor” and enforce them with police and other instruments of authority, aided by the deluded collusion of the poor.
Those in power rule by force.
From birth, humans are conditioned to hate life, the natural world, themselves and others. If they weren’t, they would be unable to destroy the world around them.
Love does not imply pacifism.
The material world is primary.
It is a mistake to base decisions on what to do about the situation on whether or not it will frighten fence-sitters.
Our sense of self is no more sustainable than our use of energy or technology.
Civilization’s problem above all is the belief that controlling and abusing the natural world is justifiable.
Economics drive social decisions that are justified by how well they are able to control or to destroy the natural world.
I wish I had the time and the endurance to look at each premise and discuss it here in this review. But he covers such a wide range of topics in such a discursive manner that it’s difficult to summarize them or to mount rebuttals (if you have a mind to). Like many reviewers on this site (at least the ones who’ve written anything), I agree with Jensen that civilization is moribund. Even if it is not doomed to utter collapse, its fate will be an unhappy one for the foreseeable future.
But there’s something troubling about his prescriptions.
For me, the first is an overly romanticized view (IMO) of indigenous cultures. For example, he mounts a hysterical (in the Victorian sense of the word) attack against Charles Mann’s analysis of pre-Columbian tribes and their exploitation of the natural environment (in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus), excoriating Mann for suggesting that Native manipulations of forest and wildlife were in any way similar to industrial civilization’s manipulations of the same environments – examples of humanity’s desire to control nature. He even goes so far as to call Mann “evil,” which (I think) is going a bit far. I don’t know – and I doubt Jensen knows – what Mann’s position on the merits of the respective exploitations is. I’ve read the book in question and, if anything, would be inclined to think Mann prefers the Indian’s management over the cock-up we’ve made of things.
The second concern I have is that Jensen’s language is the fanatic’s or fundamentalist’s. I understand his fear and his anger; that the elites who control the wealth and thus politics and economic development seem to be unreachable by anything short of violence; and that most of us act like battered wives, refusing to see how destructive and deadly our relationship is, but I fear his certitude – that he’s right and there’s only one thing we can do – hinders convincing more people that we have a problem. I’m accepting of his premises because I was already a convert but if I were one of his “fence-sitters” or a mainstream environmentalist, I’d probably shut out his arguments when confronted with the anger and his advocacy of violence (Note 3). His attitude is too cavalier and dismissive of the consequences. Violence has a way of spiraling out of control, of hurting unintended targets, and of provoking responses that are even more violent. It prompted me to reread Emma Goldman’s essays on the subject because she ultimately rejected violence in most circumstances (Note 4).
At the end of reading these volumes, Jensen’s question – What are you going to do? – is still the correct one, however.
What am I going to do?
The problems are overwhelming but the solutions are awful to contemplate.
I don’t know…. I sincerely don’t know. ________________________________
Note 1: While prescient, Stapledon did give our species 4,000 years of supremacy before he drew down the curtain. In think in Jensen’s view, we’ll be lucky to have 40 years of continued civilization before everything we know of the world and how we live in it ends.
Note 2: Mostly “arguments.” The hard facts and figures he usually relegates to a citation in the notes.
Note 3: Jensen is very coy about this advocacy. He argues that violence is about the only method left to effect real change at this point, but he doesn’t tell anyone to commit a violent act. He says that, after reading Endgame, it’s up to you to decide how you are going to respond – if that includes blowing up a dam, committing arson, toppling cellphone towers or hacking into computer networks, that’s your choice.
Note 4: Emma Goldman is one of the saints in my pantheon (it’s she and not Jane Austen’s Emma after whom my cat is named). Her essays on violence and the prison system read as if they were written only yesterday, and she anticipated Derrick with some of her conclusions, e.g., “(I)f the production of any commodity necessitates the sacrifice of human life, society should do without that commodity, but it can not do without that life” or “The ultimate end of all revolutionary social change is to establish the sanctity of human life, the dignity of man, the right of very human being to liberty and well-being.”
And, unlike Jensen, who claims never to have had the nerve to commit a violent act, Emma “walked the walk.” It’s that experience and her observations of the Russian Revolution that informed her subsequent conclusions. “Though Goldman grew skeptical about the value of individual acts of violence…she never doubted the necessity for collective revolutionary violence against capitalism and the State…. After her experience of Bolshevik terror in Russia…she began to reexamine her feelings about sustained collective revolutionary violence as well…. ‘I know that in the past every great political and social change necessitated violence…. Yet it is one thing to employ violence in combat as a means of defence. It is quite another thing to make a principle of terrorism, to institutionalize it, to assign it the most vital place in the social struggle. Such terrorism begets counter-revolution and in turn itself becomes counter-revolutionary.’”
And, “The one thing I am convinced of as I have never been in my life is that the gun decides nothing at all. Even if it accomplishes what it sets out to do…it brings so many evils in its wake as to defeat its original aim.”...more
Finished this last night around midnight. Review to come. ----------------------------------------
I’ve written it before and I’ll write it again here:Finished this last night around midnight. Review to come. ----------------------------------------
I’ve written it before and I’ll write it again here: I am not a Lit major. My chief exposure to “great literature” came through my high school teachers, some of whom were quite extraordinary and none were anything less than good. And it was one of those teachers who introduced me to the philosophies of Existentialism and Transcendentalism (in their American manifestations). I forget her name because I never had her in an actual English class but she presented a series of lectures/readings in the early morning hours before classes started that I attended – being the consummate student that I am. I was never much attracted to the Transcendentalists but I was (and am) to the Existentialists, and that fascination continued (if unconsciously) through my subsequent reading career, though not to the extent that I read anything by Sartre or de Beauvoir, or any other non-American author. The genesis for picking up All Men Are Mortal was not Existentialism; rather it was a discussion I had with a coworker about death and mortality. At the time, I was reading something that somehow led to the topic, and she mentioned that she had read the book when she was an undergraduate and liked it. “Life,” “death,” “mortality” – these are Big Issues which interest me and when I wikied All Men Are Mortal it sounded interesting.
The book is divided into 5 parts, a prologue and an epilogue. The prologue is the best part of the novel (the epilogue is too short to really count), and I wish that de Beauvoir had stuck with her initial protagonists, Regina, a self-centered actress, and Raymond Fosca, the immortal man who’s brought back to life by Regina’s interest in him. The intervening parts are episodes of Raymond’s life that he recounts to Regina to explain himself and as a warning that he will destroy her life if she continues to see him. It’s a weakness of the novel that these sections drag on too long and to reiterate what’s gone before but there’s enough good material here that I could forgive the occasional doldrums (particularly the relationship with Marianne de Sinclair in part 4 and Armand in part 5).
Raymond imbibes a potion of immortality in 13th century Italy with grand designs about what amazing things he could accomplish if he had all the time in the world only to see his designs constantly fail. In this first section, he brings his home city of Carmona (a fictional Italian city-state) to the heights of power only to see everything undone by the Black Death. He starts all over and brings his people to the heights of power again to see it all undone again (this time by the machinations of the French and Germans). The other sections cover the same ground in various settings until we reach 19th century France and the revolutions of 1832 and 1848, which promised a whole new society that would fulfill the grand promises of the original Revolution, only to see those dreams smashed. The point is made over and over again that any victory, any progress is ephemeral, and for every marginal advance there’s a catastrophic retreat.
In the face of such unrelenting futility, you would expect this to be a terribly depressing book but it isn’t. De Beauvoir’s conclusion won’t satisfy a believer in immortality or that there’s purpose in human life but I found it convincing. Her clearest explication of it comes in part 5 in a conversation between Raymond and Armand, one of his descendants and a participant in the revolutionary movement (the first speaker is Raymond):
“‘I don’t believe in the future,’ I said.
“‘There will be a future, that at least is certain.’
“‘But all of you speak of it as if it were going to be a paradise. There won’t be any paradises, and that’s equally certain.’
“‘Of course not.’ He studied me, seemed to be searching my face to find the words that might win me over. ‘Paradise for us is simply the moment when the dreams we dream today are finally realized. We’re well aware that after that other men will have new needs, new desires, will make new demands.’…
“‘I’ve had a little smattering of history. You’re not teaching me anything. Everything that’s ever done finally ends by being undone. I realize that. And from the hour you’re born you begin to die. But between birth and death there’s life.’…
“‘In my opinion, we should concern ourselves only with that part of the future on which we have a hold. But we should try our best to enlarge our hold on it as much as possible.’…
“‘You admit,’ I said after a short silence, ‘that you’re working for only a limited future.’
“‘A limited future, a limited life – that’s our lot as men. And it’s enough,’ he said. ‘If I knew that in fifty years it would be against the law to employ children in factories, against the law for men to work more than ten hours a day, if I knew that the people would choose their own representatives, that the press would be free, I would be completely satisfied.’ Again his eyes fell upon me. ‘You find the workers’ conditions abominable. Well, think of those workers you know personally, only of them. Don’t you want to help change their lot in life?’” (pp. 327-28)
The more I ruminate about the book, the more I like it. I’m not going to change my initial 3-star rating but it’s a more confidant one. I’m not rushing out to buy all of de Beauvoir’s oeuvre but I am interesting in reading more of her stuff and it reinforces the notion that I should get around to reading The Second Sex one of these days....more
The best vacation I've ever had was the three weeks I spent in Nepal in 1995 or '96. I was lucky. The military junta had been overthrown but the CommuThe best vacation I've ever had was the three weeks I spent in Nepal in 1995 or '96. I was lucky. The military junta had been overthrown but the Communist insurgency hadn't begun; the Nepalese were enjoying what turned out to be an all-too-brief peace. Of those 21 days, the best of the best were the eleven I spent at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery north of Kathmandu. I've always had an intellectual interest in Buddhism, and my week and a half of direct exposure to people who were living a version of it made a lasting impression. Fifteen years later, I find that my cast of mind becomes increasingly Buddhist-like. Not to the point of converting - the faith-based assumptions of the various Buddhisms prevent that - but to the point that the four noble truths, the eight-fold path and its universal compassion and my own actions and opinions look much alike.
Becoming Enlightened is not for the already practicing Buddhist or for someone seriously committed to becoming one (except to the extent that it might be useful as a quick reference to doctrine as they become more familiar with actual scripture). Though some Buddhist authorities - Nagarjuna, Shantideva, Aryadeva, among others - are quoted, there is not in-depth discussion of any of them or their doctrines. Instead, I think, His Holiness attempts to speak to the curious nonbeliever, explaining the whats and whys of Buddhism (of course, I doubt he'd be unhappy to pick up a convert along the way). Unfortunately, it makes the bulk of the book (200 pages of 250+) potentially irrelevant as it lays out the program a Buddhist should follow. Yet even if you don't accept reincarnation, the illusory nature of perception, the wisdom of extinguishing the self, or the reality of nirvana, the moral and social consequences that flow from these beliefs are worth considering - indeed, implementing, IMO.
The first six chapters, then, were the most interesting to me - "A Book About Enlightenmnet", "Comparing Religions", "The Buddhist Framework", "Practicing Buddhism", "Knowing the Qualifications of a Teacher", and "Buddhism in India and Tibet". Three of the most attractive features of the religion are its rationality, its inclusiveness and its morality.
An example of that rationality is His Holiness' insistence that every teaching of the Buddha as well as subsequent gurus be able to withstand analysis and reflection. In short, doubt should be the initial reaction of the student to anything they hear. If it can't endure examination, the teaching must be a "wrong view" (more on this below). Another example (and one fundamentalists of any stripe should pay attention to) is the correct interpretation of scriptures. The sacred writings of any faith are guidelines that - if truly inspired - cannot be wrong. If reason, science or experience show that a valid teaching cannot be literally true, don't deny reality or abandon scripture but understand it in another way. There's a variety of scriptures because there's a variety of human experiences and understandings. Validity depends upon implementing a scripture to good effect. If it results in continuing the cycle of suffering, then it cannot be "true" in any sense.
Buddhism's inclusiveness is reflected in the Dalai Lama's belief that any teaching that promotes compassion and altruism has some worth. Different minds understand the Four Noble Truths differently; no one should be pushed into understanding more than they can handle. He explicitly says that Christians, Muslims and others should try to understand via their own faiths; this book is not meant as a call to conversion. (If the teaching's valid, it will eventually bring you to the place the Buddha arrived at, afterall.)
In the final matter of morality, as I reflected on "what I learned from this book" - and what has made it loom larger in my thoughts than it might otherwise have done - I came to the realization of how inhumane we as a society are. As individuals and concerned groups/congregations, most people are pretty good. Not saints but neither sociopathic libertarians when they take the time to reflect on others' situations. It's as a so-called civilization that we're failing. Consider the ten nonvirtues that should be avoided. It seems modern society perversely elevates many, if not all, as virtues:
1. Killing: Wrong under any circumstances, though the details and intent of a death are important. The sheer scale of celebrated murder in the name of state, faith, corporation or for the convenience of low-priced hamburgers beggars the imagination on this one. 2. Stealing: As a society we idolize the accumulation of "things," which fosters covetousness (nonvirtue #8, see below). 3. Sexual misconduct: A tricky concept that the Dalai Lama avoids discussing in much detail but it includes possessive desire. 4. Lying: I don't know that we've enshrined lying as such as a virtue yet but insofar as it's necessary to justify what we have made virtuous, our society tends to practice it to perfection. 5-7. Divisive talk, harsh speech & senseless chatter: Following these injunctions would eliminate 99.9% of what we hear in the media and what passes for entertainment today. 8. Covetousness 9. Harmful intent 10. Wrong views: Another nebulous concept but one that includes beliefs that promote selfishness or any of the other nonvirtues (Objectivism just went out the window).
I don't want to preach, however. As the Dalai Lama argues, a rational, unbiased person who contemplates existence will come to recognize the effects of nonvirtuous conduct and belief and will cultivate their opposites....more
It takes 185 pages (in my edition) but Julian Barnes finally manages to define what “life” means to him: “a span of consciousness during which certainIt takes 185 pages (in my edition) but Julian Barnes finally manages to define what “life” means to him: “a span of consciousness during which certain things happen, some predictable, others not; where certain patterns repeat themselves, where the operations of chance and what we may as well call for the moment free will interact; where children on the whole grow up to bury their parents, and become parents in their turn; where, if we are lucky, we find someone to love, and with them a way to live, or, if not, a different way to live; where we do our work, take our pleasure, worship our god (or not), and watch history advance a tiny cog or two.”
To get there one must traverse (or endure) a stream-of-conscious essay which touches on family history, literature, music, philosophy, science and any other subject that Barnes feels relates to his ruminations on death.
And what is the final verdict? Is there life after death? Should we be afraid?
To the former, Barnes is pretty sure the answer is “no.” But he’s an agnostic – the author has no truck with the relatively simplistic visions of post-mortem paradises found in most religions but he can’t quite summon the certain atheism of his elder brother. If there is life after death it’s of a nature utterly incomprehensible to us still living. To the latter question, Barnes’ answer is “yes.” At least in his own case. Again, though, his terror is moderate. While he can’t face the certainty of his extinction with the (so-far) fearless calm of his brother, he’s not obsessively terrified of it as he claims his friend G. is. But he does think about it. Every day. And he does take a perverse pleasure in tracking down what “the wise” have to say on the subject; how they met their own demises; and what evidence there is for immortality, if only the kind that an artist seeks when he paints, composes, writes, etc. (Not much, as it turns out.)
I suspect that whether or not you credit Barnes with any seriousness depends, in part, upon how sympathetic you are with his point of view. There are sections where his scattershot digressions and whimsy come across as charming and to the point. There are other sections where it’s just smarmy and condescending. Barnes is ill equipped, at least in these essays, to face the erudite believer well able to defend his position vis-à-vis God and death. Not that I missed a worthy opponent much; I will confess to being of life mind with Barnes in much of his conclusions. And he’s such a pleasure to read that, if his fiction writing is as vibrant as his nonfiction, then I should take the time to read some of it. A less-than-raving critic made an interesting point in a review that Barnes is far more empathic and insightful about the subject in his latest collection of short stories (The Lemon Tree).
If the reader tackles this book hoping for some certitude or resolution, they will be sorely disappointed. The book is, rather, Barnes’ reflections over the course of his life on what “death” means and how it’s affected him and his acquaintances. In the end, I liked the conversational style. It can be rambling and tedious but there were some intriguing observations that stimulated reflection of my own. Just a few examples from passages marked while reading:
Like myself, Barnes is a fan of Somerset Maugham, particularly his contention that the best way to face life is with “humorous resignation” (p. 84). A goal Maugham failed to meet at the end. But then, one of the fruits of Barnes’ investigation is that few ever meet their deaths with equanimity. In light of which, Barnes pushes the thought further to comment “the additional tragedy of life is that we do not perish at the right time” (p. 84). This reminded me of JRR Tolkien and the Numenoreans, who, before they fell from grace with the Valar, chose the time of their deaths and refused to cling to life. Death was a gift from Eru, and I strongly suspect Prof. Tolkien would have profoundly disagreed with Mr. Barnes.
Later, Barnes discusses how science (particularly evolution and neurobiology) has demolished ideas of free will or purpose and asks “do we get any better at dying?... If we have enjoyed our time, made provision for our dependants, and have little to feel sadness over, then looking back on life will be more bearable. But that’s a different matter from looking forwards to what is immediately ahead: total extinction. Are we going to get any better at that?” (p. 94). He doesn’t answer that question (I suspect it’s “no” for him) but it reminded me of the scene in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop when Father Latour mourns the loss of death rituals to ease the dying and their observers’ acceptance of the end. Barnes also seems to regret the disappearance of such customs from Western culture. Many of his reminiscences are of his parents’ final years when both declined physically and mentally, and died essentially alone in hospital beds. An end he foresees for himself but without pleasure.
This brings us back to the problem of doctors and/or the moribund prolonging life just to prolong it, to keep death at bay for just a bit longer. There’s still no clear-cut resolution to the dilemma in Barnes’ mind. Which doesn’t matter to Barnes so much. He’d like an answer but he’s resigned to living with uncertainty. In fact, the reader should realize that’s the whole point of the book – it’s not to give anyone answers (even Barnes); it’s to highlight the journey.
Another personally interesting observation crops up in the essay on pp. 117-9. Here, Barnes brings up the fact that his agnostic/atheist friends are indistinguishable from his “professedly religious ones in honesty, generosity, integrity and fidelity – or their opposites” (p. 117). “Religion no more makes people behave better than it makes them behave worse…” (p. 119). Why then do people act “good”? Why “bad”? Barnes, being who he is, looks to science and finds many evolutionary theorists posit selection for altruism and other traits we usually define as morally “good.” Which disturbs him because it means we’re little more than robots doing what we’re wired to do to perpetuate the species. He may find comfort in the fact that other scientists are positing the existence of a “god” gene – a selection for belief.
A final observation: Throughout this book, Barnes toys with several hypotheses about God – he doesn’t exist, he existed but doesn’t anymore, he’s a disinterested watchmaker, etc., One of these – that there is a God but Man is, at present, unworthy of the eternal life he offers – reminded me of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men. In that SF novel, Stapledon traces humanity’s development through 16 iterations of the “human” across billions of years. The tragedy of most of these humanities is that, while they’re smart enough to sense that there is a purpose to life and an existence beyond the merely physical, they’re not intelligent enough to understand it. For eon after eon, humans struggle with the “big” questions, develops ethics that they are unable to live up to, and write books like Nothing to Be Frightened Of.
I suppose Barnes’ final words on the subject slip in on page 213 when he writes: “We live, we die, we are remembered, we are forgotten.” We do our best to live life well and face death with as much calm as we can muster but chances are, there’s no reason for any of it and over the longest term imaginable will make no difference for even the universe will die eventually.
I didn’t learn anything new, my personal philosophy wasn’t shaken (strengthened, rather, I would say) but I enjoyed “talking” with Barnes. I’d recommend this to the interested. If you’re like me, you too might enjoy Barnes’ take on the matter. If you’re a believer, I don’t hope that it changes your mind but I would hope that it challenges your assumptions and makes you reflect more deeply on what and why you do believe – faith unquestioned is dogma. ...more