Sunday, January 07, 2007


Julian Barnes's "The Past Conditional," a brief memoir published in the Dec. 25/Jan. 1 issue of The New Yorker, is a good read, but the best part of it is the first paragraph:

I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him. That’s what I say when the question is put. I once asked my brother, who has taught philosophy at Oxford, Geneva, and the Sorbonne, what he thought of such a statement, without revealing that it was my own. He replied with a single word: “Soppy.”


Donald Brown said...

I'm with Barnes' brother. Though around here we use the term "sappy" for such propositions as: "I have to my own satisfaction rigorously removed the possibility of God or the need for belief in such an entity, however, I maintain a sentimental attachment to the old bastard."

Andrew Shields said...

I agree that it is a wimpy thing to say, but at the same time, it's a great first paragraph, establishing both the self-deprecating character of the speaker of the text and the particular feel of his relationship to his brother.

Anonymous said...

Wimpy?? That's an intellectually-smug copout, in my (much more humble!?) opinion. Ditto for "soppy" for that matter. Dig a little deeper, please!

Below is my initial reply to the original post about JB's lead paragraph in the New Yorker's holiday issue (before I saw DB's and AJS's further conversation on the subject, that is).

JB's (un)belief reminds me of a quite similar one of my own:

I do not believe in ghosts
… but I am afraid of them.

I first became aware of this particular quirk of mine about a quarter-century ago, soon after my aunt's death (and my acquisition of her housecoat as a primary part of my small inheritance).

Not surprisingly, my hand-me-down housecoat evoked pleasant memories of my recently departed aunt. So I wore it quite frequently at first. Soon, however, I began to notice an unanticipated down side to this new habit -- which I will describe right after providing a bit more in the way of context:

In the house I lived in, back then, my fairly small bedroom had a fairly large picture window that looked out on a fairly small and very private courtyard. All of which made keeping the picture window's curtains open around-the-clock the simplest way to handle my (relatively) mild claustrophobia ... right? Right!

Right up until my discovery, that is, that whenever I wore my aunt's housecoat after dark and/or before dawn, I was well and truly afraid to look up at that expanse of dark glass ... just in case the reflection-in-the-housecoat-looking-back-at-me would have my aunt's face, rather than my own!

– dhsh

Andrew Shields said...

Digging deeper:

Rhetorically, Barnes's comment is brilliant: it captures a whole range of ideas and feelings in one brief, somewhat paradoxical point.

Intellectually, it's wimpy, soppy, or sappy—but all of those responses are based on the (conscious or unconscious) assumption that the emotional element expressed in such a rhetorically effective way by "I miss him" is not worth as much as the intellectual element expressed by the initial statement of disbelief.

Barnes's brother, the philosopher, might be using "soppy" to mark a lack of intellectual rigor he perceives in the statement. But Barnes, the novelist, is being a novelist here: the particular perspective of the character (character, even if in this case it is Barnes himself) ironizes any general intellectual claims that the character makes. (See Coetzee's "Elizabeth Costello," chapter 1, "Realism.")

Anonymous said...

Ah, that's so much better. Thanks! -- dhsh