Saturday, December 20, 2008

Obiter Dicta

A recent read that has continued to haunt me (not a random choice of clichés, as you’ll see) is Julian Barnes’ absorbing new non-fiction work, Nothing To Be Afraid of. As soon as I heard of the book I knew I’d get my hands on it ASAP and devour it, because the whole project is something I’ve thought of doing myself. I.e.: Mr. Barnes has taken 244 pages to explore his worries, hopes, ideas about -- and general sense of outrage over -- the fact that he will one day die.

Even the title evinces his ambivalence; he notes that that the titular statement, so often offered the dying as a fortificaiton against mortal terror, reveals its ambiguities with a mere shift in emphasis: “there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Precisely, Mr. Barnes says. It’s that “nothing” that scares us.

Not that the book’s a blustery rodomontade about staring death down. Actually, just as you’d expect from the fabulist’s fiction, he brings great brio and self-deprecating humor to his task, as though faintly embarrassed to be admitting to his thanatophobia in the first place.

Since I share his dread, I thought the book was a great read, from start to finish. Here’s just a taste of it:

“Do we create art in order to defeat, or at least defy, death? To transcend it, to put it in its place? You may take my body, you may take all the squidgy stuff inside my skull where lurks whatever lucidity and imagination I possess, but you cannot take away what I have done with them. Is that our subtext and our motivation? Most probably—though . . . it’s pretty draft. Those proud lines of Gauthier’s I was once so attached to—everything passes, except art in its robustness; kings die, but sovereign poetry lasts longer than bronze—now read as adolescent consolation. Tastes change; truths becomes clichés; whole art forms disappear. Even the greatest art’s triumph over death is risibly temporary. A novelist might hope for another generation of readers—two or three if lucky—which may feel like a scorning of death; but it’s really just scratching on the wall of the condemned cell. We do it to say: I was here too.”

Keeping the inevitable at bay is not the only reason to write, or paint or compose or what have you. But isn’t some element of that always present, however sublimated it may be? I'm grateful to Julian Barnes for this humorous, well-considered circumnavigation.


Anonymous said...

I love it that you linked to Powell's. Yes!

Marissa Skudlarek said...

This book sounds like it would be a remarkably good companion piece to "Synecdoche New York." I know I was rather ambivalent about that movie on my own blog, but that's probably because I am still young enough that I can (mostly) shut my ears to the tomb's siren threnody... Would be interested in hearing your perspective on it, if and when you see it.

Mead said...

Actually your post about the movie made me desperate to see it! I responded to your descrption right away, even with your demurrers. Sounds like my cup o'tea....

Now you do know that the term synecdoche comes from the theater, right? Well -- from poetry. Well -- from the days when theater and poetry were synonymous terms. So right away I was captivated by the title. And starring PSH? Mo better. And now you tell it's a threnody?? Can't wait!

Marissa Skudlarek said...

Mead, believe me when I say that you are probably what Kaufman imagined as an Ideal Viewer when he made "Synecdoche New York." Ideal!

And even if, structure-wise, I think the movie doesn't quite work, I am still thinking about it and wanting to discuss it with other people several weeks after seeing it, and that's a good thing, right?

And I take it as a great compliment that my review, despite its caveats, made you want to see the movie. I think that it's more important for a review to give the reader an accurate feel for the play/movie/etc. than to issue "thumbs up/thumbs down" judgments.