Tag Archives | Updike

Death as Metamorphosis

Via Andrew Sullivan (“Death as Metamorphosis”), a previously unpublished interview in which John Updike talks about death in Vladimir Nabokov’s writing and says, “I take dying to be for a lepidopterist like him a kind of entry into immortality, just the way a butterfly on its pin becomes deathless, in a sense, and is preserved.”

I’m not sure whether the reassurance that Updike found in a lepidopterist’s metamorphic rather than terminal vision of death has much of a real basis in Nabokov’s work, but I’ve always found a very different kind of comfort regarding mortality in the writing of the Russian master, especially in this passage from the opening of Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory:

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged—the same house, the same people—and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence… But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if, in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated.

The first time I read this, I realized I’d never feared “the prenatal abyss” in the same way I instinctively dreaded the possibility of permanent extinction after this life. If there is a God, I thought, then the Creator who cared enough to bring me into being out of an eternal and untroubled preexistence might have something equally benign and purposeful in store after I’m dead. And it is Nabokov’s smiling imaginative eloquence, rather than the Gothic spookiness of that empty baby carriage, that has stayed with me.

November 21, 2010 at 4:51 pm

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