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Julian Barnes

“I know many people who don’t think about death as much. And not thinking about it is the surest way of not fearing it – until it comes along. ‘The evil is knowing it’s going to happen.’ My friend H., who occasionally rebukes me for morbidity, admits: ‘I know that everybody else is going to die, but I never think I am going to die.’ Which generalizes into the commonplace: ‘We know we must die but we think we’re immortal.’ Do people really hold such heaving contradictions in their heads? They must, and Freud thought it normal: ‘Our unconscious, then, does not believe in our own death; it behaves as if it were immortal.’ So my friend H. has merely promoted her unconscious to take charge of her conscious.

Somewhere, between such useful, tactical turning away and my appalled pit-gazing there lies – there must lie – a rational, mature, scientific, liberal, middle position. So here it is, enunciated by Dr Sherwin Nuland, American thanatologist and author of How We Die: ‘A realistic expectation also demands our acceptance that one’s allotted time on earth must be limited to an allowance consistent with the continuity of our species… We die so that the world may continue to live. We have been given the miracle of life because trillions and trillions of living things have prepared the way for us and then have died – in a sense, for us. We die, in turn, so that others may live. The tragedy of a single individual becomes, in the balance of natural things, the triumph of ongoing life.’

All of which is not just reasonable but wise, of course, and rooted in Montaigne (‘Make room for others, as others have made room for you’); yet to me quite unpersuasive. There is no logical reason why the continuity of our species should depend upon my death, or yours, or anybody else’s. The planet may be getting a bit fullish, but the universe is empty – lots available, as the cemetery placard reminds us. If we didn’t die, the world wouldn’t die – on the contrary, more of it would still be alive. As for the trillions and trillions of living things that ‘in a sense’ – a phrase of giveaway weakness – died for us: I’m sorry, I don’t even buy the notion that my grandfather died ‘in a sense’ that I might live, let alone my great-grandfather and forgotten forebears… Nor do I accept that I die in order that others may live. Nor that ongoing life is a triumph. A triumph? That’s far too self-congratulatory, a bit of sentimentalism designed to soften the blow. If any doctor tells me, as I lie in my hospital bed, that my death will not only help others to live, but be symptomatic of the triumph of humanity, I shall watch him very carefully when next he adjusts my drip…

I understand (I think) that life depends on death. That we cannot have a planet in the first place without the previous deaths of collapsing stars; further, that in order for complex organisms like you and me to inhabit this planet, for there to be self-conscious and self-replicating life, an enormous sequence of evolutionary mutations has had to be tried out and discarded. I can see this, and when I ask ‘Why is death happening to me?’ I can applaud the theologian John Bowker’s crisp reply: ‘Because the universe is happening to you.’ But my understanding of all this has not evolved in its turn: towards say, acceptance, let alone comfort. And I don’t remember putting in to have the universe happen to me.”


From Julian Barnes’s remarkable memoir on mortality, Nothing to Be Frightened Of.