The Need of Some Imperishable Bliss: John Updike's toward the End of Time
Parks, John G., Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature
IN his searching and self-questioning memoir, Self-Consciousness (1989), John Updike writes: Perhaps there are two kinds of people, those for whom nothingness is no problem, and those for whom it is an insuperable problem" (240). Readers familiar with his long career know that Updike is one of the second kind. Indeed, it may be said that the issues of belief and faith are central to his creative enterprise. Early in his career, Updike shows his acceptance of Karl Barth's critique of liberal Protestant humanism and its superficial self-confidence. For Updike, as with Barth, "there is no way from us to God--not even a via negativa ..." (Assorted Prose 212). To believe otherwise is intellectual and spiritual prometheanism. Recently, in an essay in The New Yorker, entitled "The Future of Faith," Updike writes that "a God who could be proved would be an unescapable tyrant, an inert datum. No religion is apt to be founded on cold reason. It takes faith out of the equation. Belief, like love, must be voluntary" (90). His fiction shows the problematics of that will to faith in America since the Second World War. As Andrew Delbanco shows, in his important book The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil (1995), progressive secularization has led to what he calls a "Culture of Irony" where all judgments of value are relativized and undermined. Delbanco writes: "We have reached a point where it is not only specific objects of belief that have been discredited but the very capacity to believe" (210). It is the spiritual terrors of this condition that Updike addresses in his recent fiction, especially Toward the End of Time (1997).
From time and gravity there is no escape for us, no matter how assiduously we apply the latest skin ointments or how much we consume of salubrious herbs. All deathward everything moves, ineluctably, irreversibly. But are there not moments of glory, of ecstasy, that give our journeys lift? Ah, but there is nothing new under the sun, and seasons come and seasons go, and all is vanity. This is the iterative melancholy note that resounds through John Updike's novel Toward the End of Time, a novel that is a virtual compendium of contemporary biology and physics, whose views reduce human beings to insignificance. The novel reflects Updike's career-long concerns: the possibilities of faith in a totally secular and materialistic world, the possibility of transcendence in a world sunk in its immanence, the consolations of love and nature. The novel faces all the annihilationist possibilities of Nature and finds no escape from utter obliteration. The novel asks what, if anything, lasts? Like Wallace Stevens's poem "Sunday Morning," the novel seeks an answer to "the need of some imperishable bliss." And the answer the novel gives is there is none, and as such the novel poses a challenge to men and women of faith.
The novel takes the form of a journal kept by Ben Turnbull, a 66-year-old retired investment advisor, and covers one year, a seasonal cycle running from winter to winter. Ben lives with his second wife, the beautiful but controlling Gloria, in a lovely home situated on eleven acres on the Bay north of Boston. The year is 2020, which Ben describes as "a jeering staring number that once denoted perfect eyesight" (22). The novel thus offers a vision--perfect or not--of a disintegrating world. Less than ten years earlier there was a brief but terrible war between the U.S. and China. As a result, there has been great devastation and depopulation. The midwest is a radioactive wasteland. There is no effective national government. Local thugs extort protection fees from the gentry, and each state or region prints its own currency. The money in Massachusetts is called "welders"--Updike's little joke on a recent Republican governor of Massachusetts, Mexico has become the new land of opportunity and has reclaimed control of Texas. New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California. Such post-apocalyptic elements are sprinkled throughout the novel but really do not play a crucial role in the narrative, except to displace or dislocate the story from contemporary history to an essentially post-historical situation. …