After beloved office pet Steve the Hamster decided to join hamster heaven last week, we’ve been contemplating the big questions life poses to us all. English writer Julian Barnes made this a bit easier during our research, as we turned to the Vintage Mini book Death, which is an extract from Barnes’ novel of sorts Nothing To Be Frightened Of (2008).
Humans are pretty obsessed and terrified with death and we all deal with it in our own way. Whether you’re religious or you have an existential bent, it’s a controversial and often provocative topic we’re not very good at dealing with. How about some irreverent humour alongside learned insights? We’ll take that.
Barnes doesn’t trivialise death here, or mock conditions leading up to it, but in a calm and insightful manner he lays out his opinions. He begins with a look at his parents, who suffered debilitating strokes, as well as considering the “worst case scenario” for your demise – i.e. falling off a cliff and landing on a spike. That type of thing.
It’s the fear of the unknown which causes the matter to be such a taboo subject. Recently, we received Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian which tackled the matter of death with dark humour, whilst the likes of Richard Dawkins in the God Delusion has also discussed the issue rationally. However, for as many sound minds there are thousands of others freaking out, even those convinced they’re heading to some form of afterlife – that always seemed somewhat contradictory to us.
What Barnes sets out to answer, though, is whether there’s a “best case scenario” for your demise. To find an answer, he takes a witty and reflective look at his life and the wider world around him. We’ve covered this with other book reviews, such as Dr. Frances Larson’s Severed and Roy Porter’s short history of medicine Blood & Guts. Both have a macabre topic, but are nonetheless riveting, often weirdly comical books.
As is Death, which is an upbeat, existential consideration which we think is summed up rather nicely by Barnes’ outlook below. If you’re not too much of a scaredey pants, pick up a copy (it’s only £3.50 – like, $5) and work your way through to find a little peace of mind, eh?
"What if you lived to sixty or seventy with half an eye on the ever-filling pit, and then, as death approached, you found that there was, after all, nothing to be frightened of? What if you began to feel contentedly part of the great cycle of nature (please, take my carbon atoms)? What if those easeful metaphors suddenly, or even gradually, began to convince? The Anglo-Saxon poet compared human life to a bird flying from darkness into a brightly lit banqueting hall, and then flying out into the dark on the farther side: perhaps this image will calm one's pain at being human and being mortal."
Death in Popular Culture
Comedy is one of the best ways to deal with death – gallows humour (black comedy, if you will) has been around for as long as human beings have immersed themselves in wanton carnage. Particularly during military endeavours, most obviously in war, with endless instances from WWI and WWII.
Elsewhere, our esteemed editor, Mr. Wapojif, is particularly noted for it amongst his friends and enemies. On a flight back from Amsterdam in 2005, the plane juddering in turbulence and our student troupe hungover, a friend named Kieran remarked he was happy sitting next to Mr. Wapojif as, during the inevitable crash, he knew Mr. Wapojif would be a laugh to crash-land with. Nice of him to say so, non?
He was no doubt influenced by his cultural interests as a younger one, such as Monty Python. They tried on all sorts of things over the years. In the Meaning of Life, there’s a particularly gruesome scene involving organ donations, plus one where Death turns up with a really quite terrifying deep voice. The Life of Brian is one long story about death, whilst the Holy Grail also constantly treats death in a frivolous way.
There are so many instances of comical deaths in Monty Python, we struggled to choose the best few clips for today’s post. Whether a morbid fascination or the comedy troupe’s intelligent disregard for its inevitability, there was a well considered and all-encompassing look at mortality.
Elsewhere, Death has been depicted usually for subversive laughs. The bony character Death crops up in Family Guy, South Park is incredibly flippant about it (even often killing Kenny at any given moment), and Rick and Morty is positively alive with the inevitability of death. However, a final quick nod to Bottom star Rik Mayall who recorded the below shortly before his death in June of 2014. Fearless!