Sunday, May 16, 2010

Of Index Cards and the Fear of Nothing

I bought today Julian Barnes's Nothing to Be Frightened Of, a memoir billed as "barbarously intelligent." Well ... intelligent it is, and I read more than half of it, which I take to be a sign of the grip it had on me.

On p. 83 he speaks of Somerset Maugham and his envy of Maugham's "knowledge of the world" in his "early twenties." He confides: "At this time, I kept a box of green index cards, onto which I copied epigrams, witticisms, scraps of dialogue and pieces of wisdom worth preserving." Some of these, he says "strike me now as the meretricious generalizations that youth endorses (but then they would); though they include this, from a French source: 'The advice of the old is like the winter sun: it sheds light but does not warm us." The two pieces of wisdom are "beauty is a bore;" and "The great tragedy of life is not that men perish, but that they cease to love" (84).

It appears that the entire memoir is informed by index cards, no matter whether they are green or "the other" colors.[1] Many of them appear to be from Montaigne, and many more are from Jules Renard's Journals. All of them concern God, death, and the fear of death. Not even Kuebler-Ross is left out (182).

The memoir is indeed "beautifully done" and "very entertaining" in an intellectual sort of way. Perhaps it is even "cunningly composed," but I would not say that it "tells beautiful, shapely lies which enclose hard, exact truths" (78). Rather, it warms over shapely and meretricious truths in a flabby enclosure.

Mind you, I recommend the book. It makes for a good afternoon read, just don't expect it to change your life or how you think about death. But, remember Pascal, an early adopter of the note-card method and even more obsessed by God and death? He claimed, as one of my electronic note cards informs me: "All of man’s troubles stem from his being unable to sit quietly alone in a room." Barnes made me sit quietly alone in a room for several hours. Not bad![2]

1. Close to the beginning, Barnes tells the story of how, as a child, he came to collect stamps of all countries other than Great Britain just because his brother was collecting stamps of Great Britain. It seems that stamp collecting led to collecting "epigrams, witticisms, scraps of dialogue and pieces of wisdom worth preserving." We hear nothing about how this might have happened.

2. In addition, some of Barnes's cards will undoubtedly end up in my own electronic card index. You never know when you might need them.

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