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John Updike 2

“Do I really want it, this self, these scattered fingerprints on the air, to persist forever, to outlast the atomic universe?

Those who scoff at the Christian hope of an afterlife have on their side not only a mass of biological evidence knitting the self-conscious mind tight to the perishing body but a certain moral superiority as well: isn’t it terribly, well, selfish, and grotesquely egocentric, to hope for more than our animal walk in the sun, from eager blind infancy through the productive and procreative years into a senescence that, by the laws of biological instinct as well as by the premeditated precepts of stoic virtue, will submit to eternal sleep gratefully? Where, indeed, in the vast spaces disclosed by modern astronomy, would our disembodied spirit go, and, once there, what would it do?

In fact we do not try to picture the afterlife, nor is it our selves in our nervous tics and optical flecks that we wish to perpetuate; it is the self as window on the world that we can’t bear to think of shutting. My mind when I was a boy of ten or eleven sent up its silent screams at the thought of future aeons – at the thought of the cosmic party going on without me.

The yearning for an afterlife is the opposite of selfish: it is love and praise for the world that we are privileged, in this complex interval of light, to witness and experience. Though some believers may think of the afterlife as a place of retribution, where lives of poverty, distress, and illness will be compensated for, and where renunciations will be rewarded – where the last shall be first, in other words, and those that hunger and thirst shall be filled – the basic desire, as Unamuno says in his Tragic Sense of Life, is not for some otherworld but for this world, for life more or less as we know it to go on forever: ‘The immortality that we crave is a phenomenal immortality – it is the continuation of this present life.'”

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John Updike, writing in the best book I’ve read this year, Self-Consciousness: Memoirs.

To truly get the entire heft of his argument, it’s essential that you read all of this chapter, which closes Self-Consciousness on a note of such extra perception, depth, and clarity that you wish John Updike had lived a dozen lives to write memoirs about. These paragraphs, which deserve an attentive reread, tie into the remarks from King below. At bottom, both men emphasize a shift in perspective; the truly unselfish desire to live on is like the desire to help another – each requires that fundamental shift in perspective, from thinking first about “I” to thinking about “thou”.

Publicity photo of author John Updike