Monday, 2 December 2013

Nothing to be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes (2008)



A little learning makes them shallow in their religion said Cardinal Newman characterising the attitude taken by former co-religionists to one who has turned. I would add that if for 100 years there has been no religion in a very academic family then the treatment of it will be as deep as the tread of a pond skater. Julian Barnes is the flower of this culture of irreligion who feels that he has understood it well enough if 50 odd years ago he stood in assembly at school and has gone to a few burial services. He affects a wistful approach to the absence of God - I don't believe in God but I miss him. His brother Jonathan, the Ancient Greek philosophy scholar, thinks that's soppy. I concur, wet to the point of saturation and beyond: dripping a pool of aesthetic regrets. ' If I were religious then works of art that had a religious theme would incite a greater frisson'. That's my summary of his approach which is answerable by the evidence of the profound ugliness
of some sacred spaces which have been built by the most committed believers. Don't worry, a Bach Cantata would bounce off them. What matters is faith and whether it plays a role in the creation of sacred art is a matter for the individual artist. I am coming to the invidious conclusion that without faith an artist is likely to be without access to inspiration or only intermittently so. By faith I mean not merely a confessional adherence or not even that; it is more an openness to what cannot be established by reason, the more without which everything is less.

The book that might be for him an introduction to Christianity or clear-light Catholicism would be The Imitation of Christ. It's the ultimate 'you feel warm because your house is on fire' book. Then I read the fatuous judgement of his guru Rene Girard, the main source of quotable quotes in his book which mines the cahiers of Barnes's youth.
"Neither does Jesus propose an ascetic rule of life in the sense of Thomas a Kempis and his celebrated Imitation of Christ, as admirable as that work may be."

Julian Barnes is a good writer. I re-read his Flaubert's Parrot recently after many years and I enjoyed it even more. There is a smoothness and assurance to his prose and like the pond-skater he distributes his weight impeccably. When a shriek is about to form it is banished by qualifications and remains under the surface.

'Nothing' nots as Geach said of Heidegger. As a meditation on death and those that he seems to have been lightly attached to it had to wait for the serious upgrade that the death of his wife brought about. The curious thing is that the death of his wife occurred only a few months after 'Nothing' was published. This followed 37 days after the diagnosis of a brain tumour. Levels of Life: to be read.


2 comments:

ktismatics said...

"...and the spirit of the elohim was hovering over the surface of the deep."

Sounds like pond skating to me.

ombhurbhuva said...

John:
Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts: all thy waves and thy billows are gone over me. (Ps. 42.7)
But being made of hydrofugic stuff and an hairy man the air that I trap causes me to bounce back to the surface.