Brain Pickings

John Updike on Writing and Death

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“Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?”

“The mystery of being is a permanent mystery, at least given the present state of the human brain,” John Updike told writer Jim Holt in his poignant recent meditation on why the world exists. But Updike had been seriously pondering the question of existence for much longer: A good portion of his altogether fantastic 1996 memoir, Self-Consciousness (public library), is dedicated to the notion of the afterlife — one of the most enduring forms of human escapism from the soul-crushing unease of the mortality paradox — and what it teaches us about the only life we have, the present one:

If we picture the afterlife at all, it is, heretically, as the escape of something impalpable — the essential “I” — from this corruptible flesh, occurring at the moment of death. . . . The thought of this long wait within the tomb afflicts us with claustrophobia and the fear of being lost forever; where is our self during the long interval? … The idea that we sleep for centuries and centuries without a flicker of dream, while our bodies rot and turn to dust and the very stone marking our graves crumbles to nothing, is virtually as terrifying as annihilation. Every attempt to be specific about the afterlife, to conceive of it in even the most general detail, appalls us.

But Updike reminds us that death, rather than an annihilation of the self, is just another manifestation of the fact that our personalities are a series of incremental evolutions and our selves are invariably fluid:

Not only are selves conditional but they die. Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time? It is even possible to dislike our old selves, those disposable ancestors of ours. For instance, my high-school self — skinny, scabby, giggly, gabby, frantic to be noticed, tormented enough to be a tormentor, relentlessly pushing his cartoons and posters and noisy jokes and pseudo-sophisticated poems upon the helpless high school — strikes me now as considerably obnoxious, though I owe him a lot: without his frantic ambition and insecurity I would not be sitting on (as my present home was named by others) Haven Hill.

In that regard, Updike argues, work — especially a writer’s work — serves the same purpose as religion (which, as Mark Twain famously grumbled, is chiefly an anchor of human ego). Writing, he observes, has a built-in rewards mechanism — from the fruits of a strident daily routine to the gratification of awards and honors — that affirms the writer’s existence, assuages his awareness of the mortality paradox, and distracts him, much like religion does, from the nothingness toward which his existence is inevitably headed:

For many men, work is the effective religion, a ritual occupation and inflexible orientation which permits them to imagine that the problem of their personal death has been solved. Unamuno: ‘Work is the only practical consolation for having been born.’ My own chosen career — its dispersal and multiplication of the self through publication, its daily excretion of yet more words, the eventual reifying of those words into books — certainly is a practical consolation, a kind of bicycle which, if I were ever to stop pedaling, would dump me flat on my side. Religion enables us to ignore nothingness and get on with the jobs of life.

Citing an interview with a clergyman who envisioned the afterlife as “this life in review, viewed in a new light,” Updike — who exorcised his fascination with the passage of time in his lesser-known and lovely 1965 children’s book, A Child’s Calendar — finds himself oddly uncomforted by this conception and ponders the irreversible direction of it all with his exquisite eloquence:

Is it not the singularity of life that terrifies us? Is not the decisive difference between comedy and tragedy that tragedy denies us another chance? Shakespeare over and over demonstrates life’s singularity — the irrevocability of our decisions, hasty and even mad though they be. How solemn and huge and deeply pathetic our life does loom in its once-and doneness, how inexorably linear, even though our rotating, revolving planet offers us the cycles of the day and of the year to suggest that existence is intrinsically cyclical, a playful spin, and that there will always be, tomorrow morning or the next, another chance.

Ultimately, however, Updike returns to writing both as his religion and his sacrilege, his “sole remaining vice,” precisely because it alleviates — even if through deliberate delusion — the unbearable weight of that awareness:

Writing … is an addiction, an illusory release, a presumptuous taming of reality, a way of expressing lightly the unbearable. That we age and leave behind this litter of dead, unrecoverable selves is both unbearable and the commonest thing in the world — it happens to everybody. In the morning light one can write breezily, without the slight acceleration of one’s pulse, about what one cannot contemplate in the dark without turning in panic to God. In the dark one truly feels that immense sliding, that turning of the vast earth into darkness and eternal cold, taking with it all the furniture and scenery, and the bright distractions and warm touches, of our lives. Even the barest earthly facts are unbearably heavy, weighted as they are with our personal death. Writing, in making the world light — in codifying, distorting, prettifying, verbalizing it — approaches blasphemy.

Self-Consciousness is an enchanting cabinet of wisdom in its entirety. Complement it with Updike’s contribution to the sublime Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012, then revisit Montaigne on death and the art of living.

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