— D. J. Enright or perhaps Julian Barnes, or was it Thomas Nagel? Possibly all three.
For me, death is the one appalling fact that defines life; unless you are constantly aware of it, you cannot begin to understand what life’s about. Only a couple of nights ago, there came again that alarmed and alarming moment, of being pitchforked back into consciousness, awake, alone, utterly alone, beating pillow with fist and shouting, “Oh no Oh no OH NO” in an endless wail, the horror of the moment. I say to myself, “Can’t you face down death?” Can’t you at least protest against it more interestingly than that? For God’s sake, you’re a writer; you do words. We know that extreme physical pain drives out language; it’s dispiriting to learn that mental pain does the same.
No, that’s not me talking. You should know that by now.
Any guesses? The title of this essay should give you a hint since it’s the title of a book he published about ten years ago.
OK, he’s English. Primarily known as a novelist. Winner of the Man Booker Prize and many other literary honors.
He’s Julian Barnes, and he has a dread of death.
The account above, which I’ve condensed from the original, is just one example of what Barnes, who is an avid Francophile, likes to call le réveil mortel – an awakening with a sudden overwhelming terror of death.
I’ve been reading Barnes’s novels on and off for years, beginning with one of his best known early books, Flaubert’s Parrot, of which I’m embarrassed to say I now remember nothing except that I was drawn to it by its intriguing title. But in recent years, I’ve returned to Barnes with pleasure and have read a number of his last spate of books, most of which strike a certain reflective elegiac tone. Among them, The Sense of an Ending, which is the book that was awarded the Man Booker Prize; The Noise of Time, a book based on some critical incidents in the life of the Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich; Levels of Life, a book in three parts that ends with a haunting and harrowing memoir of grief following the death of his wife, Pat Kavanagh; and, just now, another novel in three parts, The Only Story.
But the book I want to dwell on in this essay, one written just before the death of his wife and published in 2008, the very year of her death, is Barnes’s meditation on death with the cunning title, Nothing To Be Frightened Of. On the contrary, however. As the book, at times unabashedly confessional but often laced with humor, makes clear, for most of Barnes’s life, beginning when he was a young teenager, he has been obsessed with death and has come to dread it. For him, as he has remarked in more than one book, there is no God, no afterlife, only extinction and eternal nothingness. Just the inevitable passage toward this unspeakable abyss fills him with horror.
A friend asks him how often he thinks about death, and Barnes replies: At least once each waking day...and then there are the intermittent nocturnal attacks -- what Barnes again calls le réveil mortel and goes on to elaborate with the help of a metaphor.
How to best to translate it? “The wake-up call to mortality” sounds a bit like a hotel service….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.
This is the sudden eruption of the terror of death, a kind of cosmic panic attack from which there is really no escape, only a temporary surcease until it recurs.
Writers seem to be particularly susceptible to such overwhelming frissons at the thought of death. Barnes recounts one such frightening incident in the life of Zola who seems to have been a particularly death-haunted person. Zola was part of a group of writers – all atheists or resolute agnostics – who used to meet at the Magny restaurant in Paris. It was a distinguished group that included, besides Zola, such literary eminences as Flaubert, Turgenev, Edmond de Goncourt and Alphonse Daudet.
In 1880, the year of Flaubert’s death, when Zola was forty, le réveil mortel seemed to have struck him with a shuddering impact. Zola was apparently unable to sleep and was gripped by what Barnes describes as “mortal terror.” He later confessed all this to the remaining members of the Magny group, and Goncourt recorded it for his diary. Zola’s confession and Flaubert’s recent death got them all talking about death and eventually elicited a similar confession from Daudet about his own morbid obsessions about death.
Incidentally, there is an ironic coda concerning the death of Zola twenty years later. Zola was known to have imagined a kind of belle mort for himself where he would die in a sudden dramatic accident. He did in fact die in one, but not the kind he had envisioned for himself. He died of carbon monoxide poisoning in his bed.
This in fact is one of Barnes’s great themes. He gives many examples of people imagining the way that they will die or would like to die, and then it turns out that their actual deaths are nothing like those suppositions and often take the form of a nasty surprise. As Barnes remarks:
“We shall probably die in hospital, you and I.” A foolish thing to write, however statistically possible. The pace, as well as the place, of our dying is fortunately hidden from us. Expect one thing and you will likely get another.
He then goes on to mention that the death of one of his favorite French authors, Jules Renard. When Renard turns forty-four, he thinks he may not double his years and die at eighty-eight. He was right, but his death came a lot sooner than he had imagined. By the next year, he could hardly walk and was dead at forty-six. Ya never know. Another reason that Barnes is spooked by death.
The poet Philip Larkin was still another writer who was preoccupied with thoughts and fears about death –- and what would come after. In one of his poems, he wrote these lines:
Not to be here
Not to be anywhere
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true
A biographer tells us that in his fifties, “the dread of oblivion darkened everything,” and by his sixties, his fears became even more evident. Larkin himself wrote, “I don’t think about death all the time, though I don’t see why one shouldn’t, just as you might expect a man in a condemned cell to think about the drop all the time, Why aren’t I screaming?”
Larkin’s own death was particularly and perhaps predictably ghastly. A friend visiting him the day before Larkin’s death testified, “If Philip hadn’t been drugged, he would have been raving. He was that frightened.”
Barnes alludes to other famous writers whose psyches, likewise, were tormented by thoughts of death, including Kingsley Amis (whose early book, Lucky Jim, had me in stitches when I read it) and the poet, John Betjeman. Even the great Goethe, according to the doctor who attended him when he lay dying, went to his death “in the grip of a terrible fear and agitation.”
Not content to frighten us by parading his roster of death-fearing writers before us, Barnes also devotes considerable attention to composers who were obvious “thanatophobes.” Rachmaninov is a well known exemplar of this condition, and Barnes aptly characterizes him as “a man both terrified of death, and terrified that he might survive afterward.” Shostakovich is another familiar case. Among many other statements he made about death were these remarks: “Fear of death may be the most intense emotion of all. I sometimes think there is no deeper feeling.”
As a kind of sidebar to give us a break from these morbid souls, as a lover of classical music myself and as one who has written a couple of books about classical composers, I couldn’t help noticing how often Barnes would make references to them; they are strewn throughout his book. I eventually started making a list of them. Besides Rachmaninov and Shostakovich, Barnes alludes to Haydn, Mozart, Brahms, Ravel, Stravinsky, Rossini, Chabrier, Prokofiev and Bruckner – and I might have missed some!
He gives particular attention to Ravel because, I feel sure, what happened to him in his later years is especially tragic and horrifying. Which of course is just the sort of depressing grist that Barnes is keen to grind out to stoke our own fears of death.
As it happens, when I was writing about classical composers, I had read several books about Ravel, so I was already familiar with the story Barnes relates after Ravel began suffering from a form of cerebral atrophy during the last five or so years of his life. Believe me, you would wince in tearful sympathy to read it, so I will spare you the details. But toward the end, Ravel could no longer recognize his own music. At times this became almost comical and not just heartbreaking. After a performance of one of his pieces, the audience rose to salute him. But Ravel thought they were applauding the man next to him, so he joined in the applause. (By the way, the same thing happened to Chabrier, who died of tertiary syphilis. He was also eventually unable to recognize the opera he had written – like Ravel, he thought it was the work of another composer.)
In a kind of macabre way, Barnes seems almost to relish narrating these stories, and there are far worse ones in his book, because he wants his readers to know how much can go wrong in our lives even before death, and why any sane person might well go nearly insane when it comes to thinking about death itself. “Nothing to be frightened of” indeed.
How did Barnes come to have the views he propounds in this book, as if to wake us from what we’ve been denying – the terrifying specter of death and the undeniable fact that it represents the absolute extinction of one’s personality?
Barnes grew up in a non-religious home, and comments, almost with pride, that he was “never baptized, never sent to Sunday school [and that he has] never been to a normal church service in my life.” His only sibling, a brother who became a philosopher, was likewise a non-believer and told Barnes that he had never “lost his faith” since he never had any and thought “it was a load of balls.”
By the time he reaches Oxford, he tells the college chaplain that he is “a happy atheist,” and, one gathers, so are most of his friends.
Once he becomes a well known writer, his views about religion are pretty much set – “No God, no heaven, no afterlife,” as he pithily puts it. And the writers he most admires – those from the past as well as the present – seem mainly to hew to a similar perspective, one in which God has no purchase. Barnes, too, comes to have his own Magny-like group, except it meets in Soho, and at the time of his writing his book on death, it is down to seven men, most in their sixties and seventies. When one night the conversation turns to a consideration of belief in an afterlife, “five and three-quarters” give it no credence, the fractional party calls religion a ‘cruel hoax,’ yet admits he ‘wouldn’t mind if it were true.”
This, then, is Barnes’s intellectual milieu. The writers he honors are mostly from the same skeptical tribe and share the same mindset. This is his reference group; these are the people whose esteem he understandably cherishes. In a sense, they are the sorts of people he must have in mind when he writes his books.
So, naturally, he will make fun of and mock those who are religious and still believe, and seems to take delight in the fact that the great churches of England and Western Europe are these days mostly empty or just filled with tourists. After all, in a world after Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud had sent God packing, who can believe in this kind of superstitious crap any longer? It’s unseemly.
And an afterlife? Barnes pokes fun at that too, as if to say, were he an American, “give me a break!” At one point in this connection, he refers to Arthur Koestler, who:
...before committing suicide, left a note in which he expressed “some timid hopes for a depersonalized afterlife.”
Such a view is unsurprising – Koestler had devoted many of his past years to parapsychology – but to me is distinctly unalluring. Just as there seems to be little point in a religion which is merely a weekly social event…so I would want my afterlife, if one’s on offer, to be an improvement – preferably a substantial one – on its terrestrial predecessor. I can just imagine slopping around half-unawares in some gooey molecular mix, but I can’t see that this has any advantage over complete extinction. Why have hopes, even timid ones, for such a state?
Barnes continues for another paragraph or two with more droll sarcasm of this kind, and he does seem to turn the idea of an afterlife into a complete absurdity. But here I have to interrupt where I want to take this essay for a moment to say that I am really being a bit unfair to Barnes. There is so much more in his book than I have indicated – a lot about his family, for example -- that is witty, engaging, and wonderfully entertaining. He is a marvelous storyteller, as you would expect from a great novelist, which he is, and his book is full of memorable and amusing anecdotes (if you read it, be sure to look for the one about Rossini as an old lecher). But still...
Barnes is woefully and perhaps willfully ignorant, it seems, about what has been happening for more than the last forty years in a world away from the one in which he has been immersed. I’m referring, of course, to all the research that has been done during that time on the near-death experience and similar phenomena. That research has given us an entirely new understanding of death (actually, it is a very old one; it’s just been out of fashion for a long time) and is just one line of evidence, of several, that has made the case for survival of bodily death not only plausible, but almost impossible to deny. I submit that any person who is curious enough to examine this literature with an open mind will come to see that the accumulated body of evidence that has been amassed during this period clearly points to the conclusion that life is not a dead end and does not, as Barnes avers, end either in extinction or cosmic goo.
Ah, Julian, why don’t you read my books since I have now read so many of yours? Something has happened since your Oxford days, and you haven’t been paying attention. You might just have to reconsider some of your views!
Actually, Barnes might have already missed his chance when he was a young man. At that time, he was a journalist and one day came to interview an elderly novelist…
then in his eighties, frail and bed-bound; death was not far away. At one point he picked up from his bedside table an anthology about immortality, and showed me a heavily underlined account of an out-of-body experience. This, he explained, was identical to one he had himself undergone as a soldier in the First World War. 'I believe in resurrection,” he said simply. I was awkwardly silent. “No, well, nor did I at your age,” he went on sympathetically. “But I do now.”
Barnes adds: “So perhaps I shall change my mind (though I doubt it).” Ken adds,“It’s not too late, Julian!”
Well, of course, Barnes will never read these words and it’s also doubtful that at his age – he is now 72 – he will start perusing the literature on NDEs, yet if he did, he would not only find evidence pointing to survival, but to the fact that as you enter through the portal of death, you take your personality with you, as NDErs attest.
Let one example stand for many. One woman I interviewed told me that during her NDE, she found herself standing in a mist, “and I knew immediately that I had died and I was so happy that I had died, but I was still alive. And I cannot tell you how I felt. It was, ‘Oh, God, I’m dead, but I’m here. I’m me!’” As the title of one recent book, which provides abundant documented evidence for the authenticity of NDEs, puts it, The Self Does Not Die.
And it’s not just the research on NDEs that is giving us a new view of death. There’s other research that is helping us to understand dementia in a new way, too. Barnes in his book relates some very distressing instances of people in demented states, and both of his parents eventually suffered debilitating strokes as well. Of course, these are the things we all dread and what makes the end of life for so many a fearful calamity, and yet it is not the whole picture. Consider, for example, the work on what is called “terminal lucidity.”
It refers to a situation like this. Let’s say you have an aged relative – let’s make him your grandfather – who has had Alzheimer’s for years during which time he has never been able to speak. Whoever he was seems to have disappeared leaving only the shell of his body. But then, astonishingly, shortly before his death, his eyes brighten, he is able to talk as lucidly as ever, and is able say how much he has always loved you, etc. He’s clearly back in his full and familiar personality.
You are amazed and thrilled – but then, he becomes unconscious and not long afterward dies.
What to make of this? Was he there all along and just not able to break through until the end? How is such a thing possible when his brain has suffered irreversible damage?
You’d be surprised how often this sort of thing occurs, even though until recently there hasn’t been much research on it. But I’ve been in touch with some of the leading researchers of terminal lucidity in this country and abroad and have a keen interest in their work. Heck, if I weren’t pushing 83 and hampered by the trials of creeping decrepitude, that’s what I’d be researching now!
One more piece of evidence that something entirely unexpected – and profoundly comforting and reassuring – can occur at the point of death. I am reminded of a line in Auden’s long poem, “For the Time Being,” that goes,“We who must die demand a miracle.” Maybe terminal lucidity qualifies.
But returning to NDEs, I have saved the best news for last for all for people like Barnes who find themselves terrified by the thought of death. And here it is in a nutshell: The greatest antidote to the fear of death, and what will quash it, is having an NDE! Of course, not everyone can have an NDE, but as I point out in my book, Lessons from the Light, anyone who takes the trouble to look into and absorb the insights from NDEs can begin to reap for themselves many of their benefits, including the loss or sharp diminishment of the fear of death.
In any case, when I was first researching NDEs forty years ago, I collected testimonies from NDErs about the effects of their experience on their fear of death. Here’s a small sampling of what they told me:
--I had been terrified of death before, it [the NDE] left me with a total lack of fear of death.
--Well, I certainly have no fear of death.
--I’m not afraid of death at all.
--I have no fear of death. I don’t to this day.
--If this is what death is like, then I’m not afraid to go….I have absolutely no fear at all.
--I have no fear of death.
--I’m not afraid of dying. I’m really not afraid and I used to be scared to death.
I collected many such quotes from this research (but there is no point in endlessly listing them here) and all other NDE researchers have reported the same findings.
It’s probably too late for Barnes to learn and take heart from these experiences, but presumably not for you, if you still find yourself fearful of death. Read the literature on NDEs, or better yet, talk to NDErs. It’s one of the best ways I know to conquer the fear of death.
But all this, to be sure, doesn’t fully address all aspects of Barnes’s fear. Quite apart from the fear of death, what about the fear of dying?
Of course, NDEs don’t do anything to diminish that. It’s understandable to fear dying. If old age isn’t for sissies, dying is surely not for the craven. Let’s not kid ourselves; no one looks forward to dying (except those in extreme pain or those who are simply weary of life). And who knows what dying will be like for us? Who can say whether when the time comes, we will die “in character?” Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the great expert on death, apparently had a very difficult time dying and was very angry. Who knows whether Ken Ring, the guy who spent half his life studying NDEs, won’t die like Tolstoy’s Ivan Illich by screaming for three days before his death? It’s a crapshoot and you don’t have the chance to load the dice.
Still, there’s another way to look at this, and one that puts it in a more hopeful frame. Women know the pain of childbirth, but every person is eventually going to have to go into labor in order to jettison the body, to give it back. Women rightly fear childbirth; we all are right to fear dying. But afterward women have their babies and rejoice, and all of us who have to endure the possible agony of dying will be granted a second birth into a new life, which promises wonders of its own. Who would not look forward to that?
To end, perhaps you’ll permit me a personal word, one that will allow me to come back full circle to the beginning of this essay and Barnes’s le réveil mortel.
When I was a boy I rarely thought about death. Perhaps that was because no one close to me had died. Perhaps it was because I was not very imaginative. But I was not the kind of kid who would wake up during the night, terrified by the thought that one day I would die. So I never had my own réveil mortel. I was too busy thinking about baseball and girls to concern myself with the prospect of my death in the far distant future.
But now that I am well past eighty and waiting to die, I naturally think about death quite a lot. However, because I have been privileged to have talked to many hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand, near-death experiencers since 1977 during a long career as an NDE researcher and author, I no longer have any fear about death itself. Like virtually all NDErs who have lost their fear of death, mine has dissolved mainly because, I think, of my long immersion in near-death studies.
Instead of fear, I am ever more curious about what I will find when I die, assuming I ever get around to it. I have heard so many stories of what death is like. And I remember what Melville wrote about death’s affording a last revelation that only “an author from the dead” could adequately tell. But what will I experience, if anything at all? That remains a mystery, a complete unknown. All my research concerning the experience of dying avails me no certainties about my own death. Life is an adventure, but the greatest adventure yet to come still lies ahead shrouded in darkness. But we know what follows darkness, don’t we?
Dr. Ring is Professor Emeritus of psychology at the University of Connecticut where he researched near-death experiences. He designed scientifically structured studies of 102 near-death survivors that further developed Dr. Raymond Moody's early NDE findings. He is well-known for his ground-breaking research of investigating NDEs among blind persons in his book Mindsight. Ken Ring is the co-founder and past president of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) and is the founding editor of the Journal of Near-Death Studies. He has published several near-death experience related books, including Life at Death (1980), Heading Toward Omega (1984), The Omega Project: Near-Death Experiences, UFO Encounters, and Mind at Large (1992), and his most well-known and celebrated NDE book, Lessons from the Light (2000).
CHECK OUT KENNETH RING'S NEW BOOK: