Inside Cover Blurb
- John Updike's memoirs consist of six chapters in which he writes of his home town, his psoriasis, his stuttering, his discomfort during the Vietnam war, his Updike ancestors, and his religion and sense of self. These essays together give the inner shape of a life, up to the age of fifty-five, of a relatively fortunate American male.
- He has attempted, his foreword states, "to treat this life, this massive datum which happens to be mine, as a specimen life, representative in its odd uniqueness of all the oddly unique lives in this world."
- In the service of this metaphysical effort, he has been hair-raisingly honest and beautifully eloquent, not to say, in a number of places, self-effacingly funny. He takes the reader beyond self-consciousness1, into sheer wonder at the world and its fabric.
- John Updike was born in 1932, in Shillington, Pennsylvania. His father was a high-school mathematics teacher and his mother a writer. After graduating from the Shillington public schools in 1950, he attended Harvard College and, on a Knox Fellowship, the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, England. From 1955 to 1957 he was a member of the staff of The New Yorker, to which he has contributed short stories, poems, and book reviews. Since 1957, he has lived in Massachusetts. He is the father of four children and the author of thirty-six books, including thirteen novels and five collections of verse. His fiction has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the American Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The photograph on the back of this jacket was taken in Czechoslovakia in 1986, at a session of signing Czech and Slovak translations of some of his works.
- Shortly before the first of these personal essays was composed (but several years after the soft spring night in Shillington that it describes) I was told, perhaps in jest, of someone wanting to write my biography — to take my life, my lode of ore and heap of memories, from me! The idea seemed so repulsive that I was stimulated to put down, always with some natural hesitation and distaste, these elements of an autobiography. They record what seems to me important about my own life, and try to treat this life, this massive datum which happens to be mine, as a specimen life, representative in its odd uniqueness of all the oddly unique lives in this world.
- A mode of impersonal egoism was my aim: an attempt to touch honestly upon the central veins, with a scientific dispassion and curiosity. The veins had been tapped, of course — the lode mined — in over thirty years' worth of prose and poetry; and where an especially striking or naked parallel in my other work occurred to me, I have quoted it, as a footnote.
- But merciful forgetfulness has no doubt hidden many other echoes from me, as well as eroded the raw material of autobiography into shapes scarcely less imaginary, though less final, than those of fiction.
- Were I to make this attempt five or ten years from now, it would be different; the medical history of the second chapter, for instance, changed after this account appeared in The New Yorker in September of 1985, and has accordingly been adjusted. A life-view by the living can only be provisional. Perspectives are altered by the fact of being drawn; description solidifies the past and creates a gravitational body that wasn't there before. A background of dark matter — all that is not said — remains, buzzing.
- [Acknowledgements] …
- A Soft Spring Night in Shillington - 3
- At War with My Skin - 42
- Getting the Words Out - 79
- On Not Being a Dove - 112
- A Letter to My Grandsons - 164
- On Being a Self2 Forever - 212
- The last Chapter is the only chapter of interest to me, and the only one I’m likely to read, unless I need some context.
- I was alerted to the following quotation from the book (p. 221 of my edition, quoted in The Week)
“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? ”
- I think this thought is muddled in several respects:-
- Death3 is a biological event that – at least in the ordinary case – can happen to an organism only once.
- Whatever Selves4 are, they don’t die every night.
- Follow the links above for further discussion on death and selves.
- We do indeed “wake slightly altered”; indeed, we alter slightly whenever we encounter an event that has an impact on us.
- I’m not sure what Updike means by our “selves” being “conditional”, but I can well believe it.
- Updike seems to subscribe to some “strict and philosophical” view of identity, whereby nothing survives change. This is not a useful understanding.
- Any comfort we might get from such thoughts concerning our inevitable deaths is entirely spurious.
- Updike covers issues to do with Personal Identity – in particular Selves – throughout the Chapter. Discussion will follow:-
- p. 212: Tics as “self”.
- p. 213: Random recollections as part of the self.
- p. 213: Blobby signature revealing his “true, deep self”.
- p. 214: Illusory smells revealing his “most intimate self – the bedrock, as it were, beneath (his) more or less acceptable social, sexual, professional performance”.
- p. 214: Does he really want “this self, these scattered fingerprints in the air, to persist forever, to outlast the atomic universe”.
- p. 214: Those who scoff at the Christian hope of an afterlife have on their side not only biological arguments whereby the self-conscious mind is knitted tight to the perishing body but the moral objection against selfishness – why not gracefully submit to “eternal sleep”5? Where would our disembodied spirit go, and what would it do?
- pp. 214-215: Acknowledgement of the absurdity of the popular image of haloed cloud-sitters with harps. Some fairly detailed – if rapid-fire – exegesis:
- Allusions to the Ezekiel & Revelation temples,
- Jesus and the Sadducees concerning marriage-partners and resurrection, and
- Paul considered mad by the Roman procurator for believing in the resurrection of the dead.
- Suggestion that Paul construes resurrection metaphorically “as the spiritual renewal that righteousness in Christ brings”, but
- Paul’s rejection of the Gnostic idea that it has already taken place.
- Paul’s possible acceptance of the Platonic distinction between the natural and spiritual bodies. 1 Corinthians 156, and
- The vanity of a Christian doubting the resurrection.
- Christian orthodoxy agrees with modern materialism that “the body is the person”; hence, “the resurrection of the body” in the Apostles’ Creed.
- p. 215: We picture the afterlife as “the escape of something impalpable – the essential ‘I’– from the corruptible flesh occurring at the moment of death, and not at the ‘last trump’” … the claustrophobia of the long wait in the tomb; the fear of becoming lost forever; where is our self in the long interim? The idea that we sleep7 for centuries without a flicker of a dream while our bodies and even graves crumble to nothing … is virtually as terrifying as annihilation.
- p. 216: Any attempt to conceive of the afterlife in even the most general terms appalls us.
- p. 216: Medicine has achieved many practical resurrections. Reports of “returnees” – “radiant tunnel and suffusing love” have – he says – a kitschy feel.
- p. 216: “Our brains are no longer conditioned for reverence and awe”: we can’t but imagine the Second Coming cut down to size on the evening news or the deliverances of the Last Judgement “second guessed” in The New York Review of Books.
- p. 216: we resist “vague reassurance”.
- p. 216: George Bernard Shaw – then aged 92 – claimed that8 personal immortality would be an “unimaginable horror”, and Updike agrees that “any endlessly sustained condition or activity9” would be “as much a torture as live entombment”.
- p. 217: It’s not our idiosyncratic self we want to live on, but we can’t bear to think of our “self as window on the world that we can’t bear to think of shutting”.
- p. 217: Updike – aged 11 – silent scream at the “cosmic party going on without him”.
- p. 217: Allegedly the yearning for an afterlife is “the opposite of selfish” – rather it’s a response to our privileged experience of the world.
- p. 217: Quotation from "Unamuno (Miguel De), Flitch (Crawford J. E.) - The Tragic Sense of Life".
In-Page Footnotes ("Updike (John) - Self-Consciousness")
- Updike also quotes earlier Shavian works.
- Shaw claims “we die voluntarily, knowing that it is time for us to be scrapped”.
- But he then goes on to suggest we are “remanufactured” and “come back”.
- However, “… what man is capable of the insane self-conceit of believing that an eternity of himself would be tolerable even to himself?”.
- See the Makropulos Case.
- Quite what we’d do in eternal life is a major issue.
Alfred A Knopf; 1st Trade Edition (1 Mar. 1989)
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)