Monday, April 07, 2014

The last chapter…

…in John Updike's book of memoirs, Self-Consciousness, is called "On Being a Self Forever." As a reflection on personal immortality I would recommend it over the labored ponderings of any philosopher or theologian you can name.

I say this even though Updike had an optimistic sense of an afterlife -- just as he carried a nuanced Christian faith to the grave, rather as one might keep and treasure old family photographs.

Updike was well versed in science. He was no biblical literalist, and was aware of the aching, empty immensities of the cosmos. He recognized the absurdity of looking for heaven among the myriad galaxies, and knew that the doubters and atheists had all the best arguments.

But poet and lover that he was, he also knew that the staggering complexity of the cosmos left every door at least a little bit ajar, so that even a crack of light might lessen the overwhelming darkness of death.

What he had a hard time accepting, he tells us, is "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 interval of light, to witness and experience.
Updike knows that any discussion of an afterlife must begin with a definition of the "self." And, oh my goodness, what a complicated thing that is. A self is constantly changing. It is a body of tics and blemishes, atoms flowing in and out, a tow-sack of microbes, loves, longings, languishings, imaginings and dreams. Today's self is not yesterday's. And yet the self longs for persistence.

For Updike, religion and the dream of immortality are our hope of persistence, against all the evidence of science, an apparently absurd but irresistible affirmation that "we are not insignificant accidents within a vast uncaused churning," that our lives are stories with "a pattern, a moral, and an inevitably."

Longing, of course, does not make it so. Storytelling is a gift, but not every story is true. Yet what I like about Updike's account of "being a self forever" is that it is a story, and like every other story from his masterly hand, it has its own pattern, moral, and -- for Updike -- inevitably.