Halloween is around the corner, and what with the silly dressing up and tricking and treating, here are two books that give real meaning to all things grim and deathly. Death is a difficult subject to write about, but particularly when it is not coincidental but core to a book’s theme or plot. I’ve (re)read two books recently that are about death: One, Terry Pratchett’s Reaper Man, has death as a subject, a character, and as a major theme. The other, Julian Barnes’ Nothing to be Frightened of, has death as a major theme, and the author’s own death as a subject. Now let these authors open up the creaking door to the vault of your sub-consciousness where your fear of death lurks in unspeakable obscurity. Which is much scarier than ghosts and ghoulies.
(Go directly here to read about Reaper Man.)
Nothing to be Frightened of, by Julian Barnes
Julian Barnes slices the subject of death open as cleanly and as deeply as a professional forensic pathologist. Not one angle, not one idea stays untouched. He writes what most of us simply do not want to hear or think about. But it’s not all down-beat. Writing about death means writing about life leading up to it. The descriptions of people’s interesting lives and ways of coping with impending death are fascinating. It is still a discomforting read, but really, really well done – not a word out of place, not a superfluous, phrase or concept, each idea neatly segueing into the next one. You laugh at some witty anecdote, and in the next line, wham!, he drops a profoundly and distressingly accurate observation. It’s unavoidable – like literary bait-and-switch.
In the end, you have a headful of death. Which you probably had no intention of having. Like being doused with a bucket of ice water, this turns out to be not so much an entertaining memoir as a very astute and though-provoking dissection of the subject of death – or rather, the NOTHING aspect of it.
Death from every angle
Barnes looks at you from the cover of the book with his piercing eyes, and speaks to you on every page with piercing analysis, and sometimes piercing humour, cutting through all the wishy-washy sentiment, phobias, and comforting concepts about death that people and institutions have been going on about through the ages.
He writes about his mother and father, how they got old, how they died. He mentions his wife, Pat Kavanagh, once or twice, and the book is dedicated to her (“To P.”). She died October 20, 2008, and Nothing to Be Frightened of originally came out January 1, 2008. You can imagine that death – hers in particular – must have been very much on his mind that year.
Two years after that, in 2011, he released his eleventh novel, The Sense of an Ending, which won the Man Booker Prize. But it took another two years before he wrote about the death of his wife. In 2013, he published a collection of essays, Levels of Life, in which he writes about grief and his love for her. The loss of her left him feeling as though he’d been; “…dropped from a height of several feet, conscious all the time, having landed feet first in a rose bed with an impact that has driven you in up to the knees and whose shock has caused your internal organs to rupture and burst forth from your body.”
So have no doubt – he has confronted the death of someone he loved deeply. But he does not go into that in this book. In stead, he looks as death from every other aspect. He goes into death and school religious teaching, death and sex, death and the church, death and beauty, coping mechanisms for death, beliefs about death, etc., and the views on death of famous artists and writers.
He takes apart the philosophical arguments about death given to him by his family, friends, and his brother, Jonathan Barnes, who specializes in ancient philosophy. Which leads to analyses of fiendishly difficult ideas. Barnes is not a writer to be read lightly, and I started this one with trepidation. As I expected, some references, especially to the ideas of French writers and philosophers, went right over my head. He writes:
“Perhaps I should warn you (especially if you are a philosopher, theologian or biologist) that some of this book will strike you as amateur, do-it-yourself stuff. But then we are all amateurs of our own lives. When we veer into other people’s professionalisms, we hope that the graph of our approximate understanding roughly shadows the graph of their knowledge; but we cannot count on it. I should also warn you that there are going to be a lot of writers in this book. Most of them dead, and quite a few of them French.” (That comment came 39 pages into the book! So I’d already noticed by then that I was out of my depth.)
Clear, punchy writing
But apart from giving readers a mental challenge, the book is not obscure. Despite all the complex ideas, Barnes’ writing style is straightforward, clear and punchy. The book simply starts, no index or contents page, no chapter headings, and without much ado, he leads you deeper and deeper into the analysis of the human reaction to, and thinking about, death. And not just the thinking of important historical figures, but – very candidly – his own thoughts and beliefs.
Sometimes it’s laugh-out-loud funny (something of an achievement, considering the subject), especially when he describes famous last words and famous last moments, and when he is his sharp-witted and irascible self:
“My niece C went to visit her [Barnes’ mother]. I called her to ask how it had gone, and how Ma was. ‘Completely bonkers when I got there, but once we started talking about make-up, completely sane.’ Suspecting the harshness of youth in my niece’s assessment, I asked – perhaps a little stiffly – what form being “bonkers” had taken. ‘Oh, she was very angry with you. She said you’d stood her up three days running for tennis, and left her there on court.’ OK, bonkers.” (p.104)
For a man who keeps his private life private, he discloses a great deal. When talking about his and his brother’s deafness, Barnes writes:
“When the ear-nose-and-throat specialist diagnosed my condition, I asked if there was anything I might have done to cause it. ‘You can’t give yourself Ménière’s Disease,’ he replied. ‘It’s congenital.’ ‘Oh good,’ I said. ‘Something I can blame my parents for.’” (p.67) Now that’s acerbic – but I did laugh.
So what is there to be frightened of?
Amongst all the anecdotes of weird, sad, funny, and dastardly deaths, Barnes does reveal an admirable ideal – the writer, Alphonse Daudet, who, in his [Daudet’s] notes about dying, exhibited “proper, adult pit-gazing – the exact glance, the exact word, the refusal to aggrandize or to trivialize death – exhilarating.” (p.97).
To explain the book’s title, he points out that it is the great and ultimate oblivion, or nothingness, of death, that is the actual terrifying thing.
“I find this in my diary, written twenty and more years ago. ‘People say of death, “There’s nothing to be frightened of.” They say it quickly, casually. Now let’s say it again, slowly, with re-emphasis. “There’s NOTHING to be frightened of.” Jules Renard: “the word that is most true, most exact, most filled with meaning, is the word ‘nothing’”.” (p.99)
Barnes acknowledges his own increasing fear of this idea which he, as a human, is biologically programmed to be unable to process or accept.
“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 – the minutes – overwhelming what might, to an objective witness, appear a shocking display of exhibitionist self-pity.” (p.125)
Barnes shows us a lot of himself – but, I suspect, he reverts to his identity as an author and judiciously reveals what he wants to reveal. He shows sadness and weakness, anger and irritation, but only to the extent that they explain his point and make him seem like “Everyman” – and in that way he appeals to his readers. Unlike other authors whose memoirs or biographies are tell-all exposés of their weaknesses and mistakes, Nothing to Be Frightened of left me with the image of Barnes not as a broken, mourning man, but as the erudite scholar, the cool analyst who has confronted and dissected that “nothing” that everyone is so scared of.
Reaper Man, by Terry Pratchett
Pratchett solves the problem of writing appealingly about death by making death one of the most popular and fantastical characters in his Discworld novels – “Death”, a.k.a. Mr. Bill Door. Reaper Man is part of the Death Series, others being Mort and Soul Music.
Death (capital D) is a non-negotiable kind of guy. Whenever he appears to someone as a seven-foot skeleton, and talks to them in capital letters, they are dead already (with the exception of Reaper Man, in which he becomes, temporarily, mortal). Sometimes the recently deceased question why, where, who and what’s going on, or don’t want to go with him. But they always do. Death is tall, bony, and polite. He has some difficulty with being human and what goes with that – like clothes, eating, sleeping and children. Children recognize him instantly, whereas adults look past him and through him, like he is some kind of temporal anomaly or homeless person sleeping on a hot-air vent. He knows everything there is to know about the soon-to-be-dead – their life spans, the manner of their deaths, and what they were hoping for after life. A Valkyrie and feasting in the halls of Åsgard anyone? A long walk into a black desert? A reunion with the lover of your youth?
A Rightness to the Cycle of Life and Death
Pratchett, speaking through Death, gives readers the comfort that, firstly, the time each person, from pharaohs to wizards, is allocated is logical and right, and not to be borrowed or extended unless the world is going up in flames, so to speak. Also, that death is part of the cycle of life. There is life, then death, then life again. If there were no death, there would be no new life. Or there would be terrible chaos, the world would be out of balance – too many people, too much growth, too much energy, overcrowding in the after-life, and problems with the half-dead, like poor old wizard Windle Poons, and “Dead Rights activist” and zombie, Reg Shoe. Pratchett describes the excess of energy that results from Death being out of a job, as an energy storm that causes the “popping into life” of little snow-globes and shopping carts, that eventually form a huge living shopping mall, ready to consume people. Even swear-words pop into existence as weird flying creatures.
Prisoners and the flight of birds
Pratchett writes that everything living needs Death for the sake of mercy, the same mercy that prisoners experience when they see, through the windows of their cells, birds in flight. Mercy, but also longing and hope, since they look at the birds and think that one day they too might be free. Death’s plea to “Azrael, the Great Attractor, the Death of Universes, the beginning and the end of time”, is one of the most prolific Discworld quotes on the internet since it obviously resonates with people. It is bitter-sweet, evocative and can have multiple interpretations. It is also core to the meaning of the book:
“LORD [Azrael], WILL YOU GRANT ME JUST A LITTLE TIME? FOR THE PROPER BALANCE OF THINGS. TO RETURN WHAT WAS GIVEN. FOR THE SAKE OF PRISONERS AND THE FLIGHT OF BIRDS.”
The image of prisoners and the flight of birds has been a popular metaphor for a wide variety of ideas since the earliest writings, across all world cultures, from the West to the East.
In the West
In the western world, as early as AD 46, in Ancient Greece, the historian Plutarch (c. AD 46 – AD 120), in Plutarch’s Lives, describes how the mass flight of birds was seen as a good omen for Gaius Julius Caesar the day that the battle of Pharsalia was fought, with Caesar killing many and taking many prisoners and losing few of his own men.1
The prisoner/bird metaphor is used to express a variety of meanings, for instance, the body as a prison, or life as a prison, with the soul as an imprisoned bird in a cage, and death as the release of the bird or the soul. As Derek Niemann wrote in his book, Birds in a Cage, about the rarely mentioned pastime of British World War II POWs – birdwatching, “One of the chief joys of watching was that they inhabited a different world than I”. In other words, the birds were free.
Release of the bird from the cage can also be interpreted as that the mind is set free and allowed to soar and develop to its full potential. A famous misuse of the bird image for prisoners occurs in William Shakespeare’s play, King Lear, when Lear remarks to Cordelia, his mistress: “Come let’s away to prison; / We two alone will sing like birds I’ th’ cage”, which is confirmation of Lear’s twisted view of the world, since he sees prison as a happy place.2
The word jail or gaol has its etymological roots in the Latin cavea, “cage” and has numerous both positive and negative associations. From this we get the expression “jail-bird”, or just “bird”, for prisoners.
In the Ottoman Empire
In the Middle and Far East, “cage” metaphors in epitaphs during the Ottoman Empire (1299 – 1922) had the function of consoling the parents of a deceased child, by someone dying young being depicted as a bird flying out of its nest, or dying being compared to a bird flying out of its cage, thus escaping captivity. Other interpretations are that “nest” and “cage” symbolize the present, earthly world, and “bird” symbolizes the deceased, or that “nest” and “cage” [both] symbolize the body of the deceased and “bird” his or her soul.
The bird-prison-metaphor was used by the mystic Yahya ibn Habash Suhrawardī (executed 1191 in Aleppo) in a poem written shortly before his death:
“Say to friends who, on seeing me dead, bewail me, when they see me, out of sadness,
‘Do not think that I am dead! That dead person is, by God, not me!
I am a little bird, and this is my cage; I flew away from so that it was deprived of a pledge.”3
In the Far East
In the Far East, China and Japan in particular, the caged song-bird was both a source of entertainment and a promise of delivery from the constraints of mortality – with free flight symbolizing death. The following is an traditional Chinese idiom (1920s translation 1920 by Arthur Guiterman):
“Though man and wife together dwell
As birds of one embowered dell,
When death shall fling the fatal stone
They needs must take their flight, alone.”4
In the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), a familiar Taoist concept was that; “The human need is, in the end, the same as that of other creatures, birds or fish. It is the freedom the caged bird wants or the fish in its pool. It allows the mind to achieve ‘space and silence’.” This concept was frequently expressed in poetry, for instance by the poet T’ao Yuan-ming a.k.a T’ao Ch’ien (365-427AD) This, and the extract below, are beautifully translated and illustrated by Tony Kline on his website, Poetry in Translation):
Young, I was always free of common feeling.
It was in my nature to love the hills and mountains.
Mindlessly I was caught in the dust-filled trap.
Waking up, thirty years had gone.
The caged bird wants the old trees and air.
Fish in their pool miss the ancient stream.
I plough the earth at the edge of South Moor.
Keeping life simple, return to my plot and garden.
My place is hardly more than a few fields.
My house has eight or nine small rooms.
Elm-trees and Willows shade the back.
Plum-trees and Peach-trees reach the door.
Misted, misted the distant village.
Drifting, the soft swirls of smoke.
Somewhere a dog barks deep in the winding lanes.
A cockerel crows from the top of the mulberry tree.
No heat and dust behind my closed doors.
My bare rooms are filled with space and silence.
Too long a prisoner, captive in a cage,
Now I can get back again to Nature.
These examples – a random few of hundreds – are just to illustrate how old and how universal the image of the body/prison/cage and the soul/bird-in-flight are.
The necessary harvest and harvester
The common thread in Reaper Man seems to be that death is a release and therefore both a mercy and a necessity. That is the thread throughout the novel: Death, once he has been working and living amongst ordinary people, and has to face the fact that he himself is also going to die (“morticide”), discovers also that he is necessary, and that it is necessary for death to be a caretaker, the one who shows mercy, the one who reaps the corn to save it from ruin, and the one who reaps the living:
“LORD, WHAT CAN THE HARVEST HOPE FOR, IF NOT THE CARE OF THE REAPER MAN?” – hence the title.
I have no doubt that Pratchett meant many different things with these lines, since the references and allusions in his novels are always widely varied and sometimes obscure. He teases you along with linguistic puzzles and intriguing references. Windle Poons’ last words, when he finally gets to die, are: “’I’m just going out,’ he said. ‘I may be some time.’” (p. 258.) Those are the reported last words of Captain Lawrence Oates (17 March 1880 – 16 March 1912), who was on the Terra Nova Expedition to Antarctica, got gangrene and frostbite, and walked out into the snow to his certain death, in order to give his three fellow explorers a better chance of survival.
Reaper Man was published in 1991, long before Sir Terry’s illness and death. Yet, it seems an oddly philosophical Discworld novel, quieter and less uproarious than others, with fairly difficult scenarios to get your head around – Death as mortal, the dance of the seasons, the fairness and requisite nature of death, Death not as a ruler with a crown, but as a caretaker.
Pratchett takes the sting out of death – yet still leaves you wondering if the flight of birds represents freedom or oblivion.
1 Plutarch’s Lives, translated from the original Greek with Notes Critical and Historical and a New Life of Plutarch, in six volumes, volume IV, by John & William Langhorne, First Worcester Edition, Massachusetts, December 1804, p. 511.