From the fact-checking department: Let me count the ways

The errors and inaccuracies of Richard Bradford.

Here, for the record, is a list of some of the factual errors alluded to in my review of Richard Bradford's book Martin Amis: The Biography:

- "Around 1956-57 Martin's parents' marriage came close to collapse, due primarily to Hilly's affair with the journalist Henry Fairlie. Fairlie resembled the sort of character played by Leslie Phillips or Terry-Thomas in Ealing Comedies". Neither Leslie Phillips nor Terry-Thomas appeared in an Ealing comedy. Terry-Thomas did, however, play Bertrand Welch in the adaptation of Lucky Jim.

- "Butterfield was fully aware of Peterhouse's reputation as the most conservative ... of the Cambridge colleges - Tom Sharpe's Porterhouse Blue was comprised partly of stories, many accurate, of the bizarre, ritualistic archaisms of the place." Herbert Butterfield may have been aware of Peterhouse's reputation in 1961, when he interviewed Kingsley Amis for a Fellowship, but Tom Sharpe's novel wouldn't have reinforced that impression for another 13 years.

- "Kingsley Amis met Elizabeth Jane Howard at the Cheltenham Literature Festival in October 1962. She was, that year, director of the event. Its theme was 'Sex in Literature', drawing in such luminaries as Joseph Heller and Carson McCullers and encouraging flirtatious banter between all involved." I cannot be certain on this point; accounts differ. But it seems that Elizabeth Jane Howard was the honorary artistic director for that year's festival, of which "Sex in Literature" was not the theme, merely the title of one panel discussion. I am fairly confident that there was no flirtatious banter between Kingsley Amis and Joseph Heller.

- "Martin's and Philip's initial encounter with Jane occurred shortly after their return from Majorca and is described in Experience, rather as if a piece by Iris Murdoch had been rewritten by a copy-editor with some cognizance of the real world." Iris Murdoch possessed cognizance of the real world.

- "Thirty-five years later the letters between Amis senior and Philip Larkin would be published and recognized as the most outrageous epistolary novel ever". The letters of Kingsley Amis and the letters of Philip Larkin were published almost a decade apart. (Neither was recognised as the most outrageous epistolary novel ever - or rather, as half of one.)

- "His tutor Jonathan Wordsworth was the poet's great, great, great, great nephew and in case anyone suspected otherwise his rooms were generously distributed with 'family' memorabilia". Leaving aside the use of "distributed" in that sentence, it should be noted that despite the memorabilia, some might have suspected that Jonathan Wordsworth was in fact William Wordsworth's great-great-great nephew. (Christopher Ricks once said, memorably, that Jonathan Wordsworth had an Oedipal relationship to the poet, although he was only "a collateral descendant".)

- "Like most major writers he rarely if ever admits to anything so compromising as influence". It's hard to know where to start. Let this admission, from a 1980 article never collected in a book, stand for all the hundreds of reasons why Bradford's claim is false: "That bit about 'wiry wings' [in The Rachel Papers] was stolen ... from Dickens ... I once lifted a whole paragraph of mesmeric jargon from J G Ballard's The Drowned World."

- "John Gross, then editor of the TLS, and guest at one of the numerous, informal gatherings at Lemmons, asked Martin if he had any interest in a full-time junior post. He did but asked if the appointment could be deferred for about six months ... He began work officially at the TLS in March 1972." John Gross did not move from the New Statesman to the TLS until 1974 (as Bradford later informs us).

- "[In 1973, Clive James] had only been in London for three years." Clive James came down from Cambridge in 1969 (or thereabouts), but he had lived in London for three years in the 1960s, having left Australia in 1961.

- "'To get to [Tina Brown's] room in college I would have to step over waiting TV crews, interviewers, profilists.'... Martin's description is certainly not hyperbole." It is hyperbole.

- Jeremy Treglown did not work "mainly for the TLS" in 1977. At that time, he taught at UCL; he joined the TLS in 1979. According the Times Literary Supplement Historical Archive, established in part by Jeremy Treglown, his first article appeared in the issue of 23 November 1979.

- Bradford quotes Clive James as saying that Leavis retired in 1964. However you define "retired" in relation to an academic, Leavis didn't retire in 1964.

- "Martin and Mary and later Angela were the Becks and Posh of their day." Really?

- "Martin continued for the simple reason that Kavanagh had settled a fee that went far beyond any advance even the most popular novelist could hope for: £30,000." At around the same time, Joseph Heller - hardly the most popular novelist - received around a $1m for Good As Gold.

- Ernest Hemingway is not an example of "the kind of essayist that the British press had not previously countenanced", and which Amis hoped to become.

- Philip Roth (b. 1933) and John Updike (b. 1932) are not "near contemporaries" of Vladimir Nabokov (b. 1899).

- Saul Bellow had not "three turbulent, and failed, marriages" but four.

- "Shortly after Money was published Martin wrote an essay for Atlantic Monthly on Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March". It was written more than a decade later.

- George Steiner's The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. was published in 1981, not 1979. Malcolm Bradbury, in one of his numerous books about fiction, described it as a "long novella", and recalls that it was one of the books - Amis's Other People was another - considered for that year's Booker Prize, on which he was chair of judges. The prize eventually went to Midnight's Children.

- In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray's character does not awake "in full knowledge of what fate has in store for him for the next twenty-four hours."

- Peter Hitchens doesn't contribute articles to "the Daily Mail that made Thatcherism seem spinelessly irresolute by comparison" - he did so for the Express and then the Mail on Sunday.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

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Why can't we stop for death?

The Black Mirror and The Worm at the Core reveal the human obsession with, and denial of, our mortality.

When he was entering what he knew would be the final stage of his terminal illness, Bob Monkhouse used to joke that the terrible thing about dying was how stiff it left you feeling the next day. There is something pleasantly cavalier in the comedian’s quip. Why make a tragedy of something that will happen to us all? Perhaps we’d be wiser if we didn’t think of death at all, but instead – as the philosopher Spinoza recommended – only of life. But that kind of wisdom seems to be beyond our capacity. The human preoccupation with death is pervasive and universal, and every society offers remedies for the anxiety that the fact of mortality evokes.

Religions have their afterlives, while secular faiths offer continuity with some larger entity – nations, political projects, the human species, a process of cosmic evolution – to stave off the painful certainty of oblivion. In their own lives, human beings struggle to create an image of themselves that they can project into the world. Careers and families prolong the sense of self beyond the grave. Acts of exceptional heroism and death-defying extreme sports serve a similar impulse. By leaving a mark, we can feel we are not just fleeting individuals who will soon be dead and then forgotten.

Against this background, it might seem that the whole of human culture is an exercise in death denial. This is the message of Stephen Cave’s thoughtful and beautifully clear Immortality: the Quest to Live For Ever and How It Drives Civilisation (2012). A more vividly personal but no less compelling study of our denial of death is presented in Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematorium (2015), in which the author uses her experience of working at a Californian funeral parlour to show how contemporary mortuary practice – removing the corpse as quickly as possible, then prettifying it so that it almost seems alive – serves to expel the fact of death from our lives.

Both books cite the work of the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker. In The Denial of Death (1973) Becker, whose work is now undergoing something of a revival, suggested that flight from death is the driving force of civilisation. Many of humanity’s greatest achievements, as well as its worst crimes, can be understood as attempts to ward off mortality.

Becker’s work is the avowed inspiration of the latest book in this growing canon, The Worm at the Core, co-authored by three American social psychologists. They begin with a story:

On a rainy, grey day in December 1973, philosopher Sam Keen, writing for Psychology Today, trundled down the halls of a hospital in Burnaby, British

Columbia, to interview a terminally ill cancer patient who doctors said had just days to live. When Keen entered the room, the dying man told him, with a touch of mortal irony: “You are catching me in extremis. This is a test of everything I’ve written about death. And I’ve got a chance to show how one dies . . .”

The dying man was Ernest Becker. Talking to Keen, he summarised the theory that others are now taking up and developing: “We build character and culture in order to shield ourselves from the devastating awareness of our underlying helplessness and the terror of our inevitable death.”

Becker’s career had not been easy. Born in 1924, he joined the army at the age of 18 and served in an infantry battalion that liberated a Nazi death camp. After a period working at the American embassy in Paris he decided to become an anthropologist and entered academic life. Drifting from one university to another, he was popular with students (who at one point offered to pay his salary when his contract was terminated) but failed to make much of an impression on his colleagues. In another irony, his book The Denial of Death was awarded the Pulitzer Prize two months after he died in 1974.

Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski chanced upon Becker’s writings in the early 1980s. “Like the Rosetta Stone, they were to us a revelation . . . Becker explained how the fear of death guided human behaviour.” Filled with enthusiasm, the three young psychologists tried to share his ideas at the 1984 meeting of the Society for Experimental Psychology. But the audience started drifting away when they mentioned that their work was influenced by psychoanalysis and existential philosophy; when they went on to cite the ideas of Marx, Kierkegaard and Freud, “renowned psychologists were storming the conference room exits”. The authors then submitted a paper to a flagship academic journal. Some months later, they received a one-line review: “I have no doubt that this paper would be of no interest to any psychologist, living or dead.” ­Somehow, one suspects that Becker would not have been surprised by this response.

Undaunted, the authors then did 25 years of research to test their ideas. Melding existential thinking with the findings of empirical social science, they argue that terror of death infuses a wide range of human behaviours – from obsessive-compulsive disorders and the anxious pursuit of sex through to the search for self-esteem and the use of violence to harm those who challenge our beliefs. The Worm at the Core is the most comprehensive and well-evidenced account to date of the idea that fending off the awareness of death is the prime mover of the human condition. It’s a considerable achievement, showing up the bigotry and timidity of the initial academic reaction to the authors’ ideas.

At the same time, like other such accounts – including Becker’s – The Worm at the Core suffers from neglecting the conflicting impulses that have shaped the human response to death. They are right to suggest that it is awareness of death, more than anything else, which differentiates human beings from other animals. They are also right to argue that denial of death is one of the most powerful forces in human life. Where they go astray is in passing over how, on the contrary, many human beings have welcomed their mortality.

To start with, religions aren’t always immortality cults. A preoccupation with death may be universally human, and attempts to escape from it are found in many cultures and traditions – including, as the authors show, Chinese alchemy. But a longing for everlasting life has been at its strongest in societies and individuals whose values are shaped by monotheism, more particularly by Christianity. (Belief in an afterlife hasn’t been central in most currents of Judaism.) In ancient Greek polytheism, it was believed that the gods envied people their mortality; everlasting life might be a curse – an eternity of boredom. In many of their forms, Hinduism and Buddhism express a search for mortality, the project of releasing human beings from the unending life that comes with the cycle of transmigration and rebirth.

For the poets and philosophers of pre-Christian Europe, death was by no means always an evil. The Roman Stoic Seneca had no compunction in writing to a young disciple that he should not be afraid to consider suicide if he had already tasted most of life’s pleasures. Even more boldly, the Greek poet Theognis, writing some time in the 6th century BC, declared: “Best for all for mortal beings is never to have been born at all” – a line that Nietzsche used in his analysis of ancient Greek culture. In his poem “Tess’s Lament”, Thomas Hardy has the heroine of Tess of the D’Urbervilles give voice to a similar sentiment: “I cannot bear my life as writ,/I’d have my life unbe;/Would turn my memory to a blot/. . . And gone all trace of me!” What Tess wants is not just to cease to exist, but to “unbe” – never to have been born. Hardy’s character illustrates the power of Freud’s insight that human beings can be moved as much by a longing for complete extinction as by the urge to live.

In The Black Mirror Raymond Tallis, trained as a doctor and for much of his life an expert in geriatric medicine, writes as a philosopher. He writes in his overture to this strange, bold, and courageous book, “If to be a philosopher is to be an onlooker, the vantage point of death is the ultra ne plus of the philosophical viewpoint: you look upon your life from the virtual position of one who has outlived it.” As he observes, his book is an implicit rejoinder to Spinoza’s injunction that a free human being should think only of life: “The free man (and woman) who is preparing for life may think more deeply and, indeed, more freely by thinking about death. In order to live like a philosopher, it is necessary to die like one – that is, to die in thought and in imagination before you die in body.”

It’s an observation that encapsulates the central paradox of the book. It may be necessary, if you want to live as a philosopher, to think of yourself as already dead, but it is also impossible given that, as Tallis admits, what comes when life ends is inconceivable to us. How can we envision non-existence? If we are tormented by the thought of death, one reason is that we can’t imagine what it means to be dead. It is hard to see how philosophy can help us here.

In The Black Mirror, Tallis explores the life that will be lost when he is gone. Although he discusses bereavement – for many people, a loss worse than the prospect of their own death – it is not a large part of the book. It is his own loss that chiefly concerns him. He refers to himself throughout in the third person:

 

Visitors paying their last respects will direct them to the capital of RT’s body, to the head with which they had been tête-à-tête for so long. It was here, more than any other part of his frame, that revealed his changing take on a changing world. Little of its meaning-packed anterior surface had been excused the duty to communicate: mouth, eyes, nose, forehead, cheeks, all had their say.

 

This third-person perspective is more than a stylistic device. It’s an attempt to achieve a point of view on one’s life that is outside oneself and yet not that of another living being. But unless you believe in some kind of divine mind, there is no such point of view. Tallis is a convinced atheist – not the all-too-familiar kind, typified by Dawkins, which rants on incessantly about the evils of religion, but the rarer, more intelligent variety that finds the very idea of God empty and incoherent. If the idea of God is devoid of meaning, however, so, too, is the idea that the world can be seen from the standpoint of someone who has died. After all, who – or what – is looking?

Tallis tries to adopt this standpoint because he wants to “live philosophically”. Having been imaginatively dead, he hopes to come back with his love of life re-energised. The Black Mirror, he tells us, “is, ultimately, a work of praise and gratitude”. It is true that the book contains many invocations of beauty and joy: “ploughlands bordered with bare hawthorn hedges scribbled on low dark and grey skies rifted with brilliance”; the simple pleasure in existing on a dull Wednesday afternoon. Overall, though, the mood is melancholy, heavy with regret for how much of the life that is gone was left unlived. Pursuing “some dream of changing the world (and of course his prospects in it) for the better”, the author “allowed himself to be indifferent to an April evening, glistening with dew and birdsong, that could have become itself in his consciousness”. Now it is getting late: “With age he had lost some of his singularity and become ‘Old Man’ or ‘Elderly Gentleman’ in the eyes of strangers – a sign of the de-differentiations to come.” Seeing life from the standpoint of death – “the philosophical viewpoint” – does not seem to have produced the hoped-for reinvigoration. By playing the corpse, dying “in thought and in imagination”, you may end up a fretful ghost.

If this remarkable book fails to deliver the uplift it aims to provide, the fault lies with the hopes the author has invested in philosophy. Like rationalists the world over, Tallis wants to believe that discordant impulses can be reconciled through a process of reflection. But the human response to mortality is intrinsically contradictory. We fear the  prospect of death and build up elaborate defences against it, yet at the same time yearn for the inconceivable transformation that death will bring.

It is unreasonable to look to philosophy for remedies for this quintessentially human self-division. Better take up a religion, or else accept and enjoy the short, uncertain life we are given. In the end, feeling stiff the next day is no big deal.

The Worm at the Core: on the Role of Death in Life by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski is published by Allen Lane
The Black Mirror: Fragments of an Obituary for Life by Raymond Tallis is published by Atlantic Books

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism