consolation of mortality

I just finished Jonathan Barnes’ Nothing to be Frightened Of, which is the memoir of a novelist who fears death. I read it because the quotations in reviews were very funny; because, as a fellow chronophobiac, I hoped that some wisdom and solace might be mixed in with the humor; and because I knew the author’s brother Jonathan at Oxford around 1990 and wanted to understand more about this philosopher who “often wears a kind of eighteenth-century costume designed for him by his younger daughter: knee breeches, stockings, buckle shoes on the lower half; brocade waistcoat, stock, long hair tied in a bow on the upper.” (This is Julian’s description. I would add that the effect is less foppish that you’d think. The wearer resembles a plain-spun, serious Man of the Enlightenment much more than a dandy.)

Anyway, it’s a good book and certainly amusing. But Barnes treats the most powerful consolation of morality very subtly–if he recognizes it at all. I mean the consolation of the first person plural. I will die, but we will live on. We think in both the singular and plural and probably began the former first, when we stared at our parents. Language, thought, culture, desire–everything that matters is both individual and profoundly social.

“After I die, other people will go about their ordinary lives, laughing, singing, complaining about trifles, never mourning or even missing me.” That is the solipsist’s jealous lament. But the mood changes as soon as the grammar shifts. “Even though I must pass, our ordinary life will continue in all its richness and pleasure.”

What we count as the “we” is flexible–it can range from a dyad of lovers to the whole human race. No such “we” is guaranteed immortality. It depresses Jonathan Barnes that humanity must someday vanish along with our solar system (and we may finish ourselves off a lot faster than that). But no large collectivity of human beings is doomed to a fixed life span. We can outlive you and me, and you and I can help to make that happen. This is a consolation available to all human beings, whatever they may believe about souls and afterlives. But it is not, I think, much of a comfort to Jonathan Barnes.

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