Thursday, March 26, 2020

Quarantines and Updike's Four Life Forces

Model of the Tabernacle in Imna Park, Israel
You must stay at the entrance to the tent of meeting day and night for seven days and do what the Lord requires, so you will not die; for that is what I have been commanded.”--Leviticus 8:35

I once wanted to write a one-act play about the above passage from Leviticus 8. It is one sentence long but my imagination entered into it because just as Aaron had four sons who had just been consecrated for the priesthood, so also my own parents had four boys. And when I saw how Aaron and his sons were to be quarantined for seven days at the entrance of the Tabernacle (after a whole bunch of consecrations had been carried out) it made me wonder... What did they talk about for seven days?

I never did complete the play, though I'd written a portion of it. To some extent it was autobiographical in that I imagined the varied personality components that my brothers and I share and don't share. Each of us is distinct from the others, so the conversations this family had during the course of seven days in lock up could have easily been very interesting.

The first day, I projected that the conversations revolved around the meaning of all these things that they had just experienced, from the Exodus from Egypt to Moses on Mount Horeb for 40 days where he met God and received the ten commandments... and what did all those details regarding the ritual sacrifices mean, and why had their father Aaron been selected for this important office of the priesthood.

Day two would likely be more of the same, but as the days wore on I imagined (In my script) that these men talked about other things as well, including stories from childhood, stories about growing up. Maybe they got their father telling stories they's never heard before about when he grew up, and stories about Moses, who had been raised in Pharaoh's house and what led to Moses fleeing Egypt and how leadership is created. Who knows?

In my skit, though, as the week progressed there were also conflicts as the personalities grated. Time began to pass slowly and that week began to feel like a year. By the fifth or sixth day things come to a head and things change. There is a breaking that takes place, and the family ends up discovering a new kind of honesty, love, acceptance, mercy and such that it had never known before. This level of intimacy became possible only after they had been quarantined for a week in a small space where there were no distractions or diversions.

That skit was mentally mapped out and partially written perhaps 30 years ago, and I found it unearthed by this week's quarantine orders. Unless we take time and make time, most of us are so busy and distracted most of the time that we don't really know one another, including the people in our own families. One of the positive's of the Covid-19 pandemic may be how it forces us into some reflective thinking about who we are, and perhaps some deeper levels of communication with on another.

John Updike's Four Life Forces
IN THE WEE HOURS last night I thought again about John Updike's four life forces. It seemed like a relevant time to share this blog post that I wrote in 2012.

John Updike once suggested that there are four life forces: Love, Habit, Time and Boredom. This morning's ramble (reference to my daily blogging) is the product of Habit. I'm not sure I have that much to say, and the proper thing to do when you have nothing to say is to shut your mouth. But then, I digress.

When Updike speaks of love he is referring to passion. Passion is the driver that impels us to make sacrifices in order to accomplish great things. Passion is what makes Olympians, not simply skill. There are plenty of pianists with skill, but it's passion that sets apart the cream from the rest. It's passion that leads them to make the sacrifices necessary to sharpen their virtuosity.

Time is another one of those amazing things that has been endlessly debated and dissected. What is time really?

Wikipedia explains it this way: Time is the continuing sequence of events occurring in apparently irreversible succession from the past through the present to the future, a measure of the durations and frequencies of events and the intervals between them. Time has long been a major subject of study in religion, philosophy, and science, but defining it in a manner applicable to all fields without circularity has consistently eluded scholars.

Like life itself, we all know what it is but don't always do well at explaining it. That doesn't stop people from trying. Here is an interesting article from Wired magazine titled What Is Time? One Physicist Hunts for the Ultimate Theory. The article is an interview with Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at Caltech. He begins by noting something we all have noticed because it is obvious. The future is different from the past. We remember the past but we don't remember the future. Why? 

There was an album we listened to a long time ago called It's A Beautiful Day and it had a song on it about time. At the time I did not know that the most memorable line was actually a quote from Henry Van Dyke. "Time is too slow for those who wait, too swift for those who fear, too long for those who grieve, too short for those who rejoice, but for those who love, time is eternity."

In short, time is perceived differently based on our circumstances. Hence there are some who propose ideas like the notion that time does not exist, it is simply a perception.

The first point, "Time is too slow for those who wait," brings to mind a scene from Immortal Beloved, a film about Beethoven. Beethoven (Gary Oldman) is on his way to a hotel for a tryst with a woman he loves. But it's a rainy night and the wheels on his horse-drawn carriage get stuck in the mud. Time is slipping away and the painful strains of the second movement of his Seventh Symphony fill the theater with his anguish. Eventually, the woman becomes impatient with waiting, and leaves.

Boredom is another of those interesting forces that surprised me when Updike placed it in this list, but it's a real force. Bertrand Russell once observed, "Boredom is... a vital problem for the moralist, since half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it." What strikes me is that last part of this statement. People really do fear boredom. And this may be why some people fear death. What if there really is an afterlife and it was boring? Eternal boredom would truly be hell.

* * * *
It's this last life force that our current quarantine brought to mind. I wonder how well we'd all be doing if we did not have Internet connections and television sets or iPhones and were truly quarantined from one another. Would our actions be primarily driven by efforts to stave off boredom? Or would we motivated by the Passion driver, seeking to fulfill our purpose in being?

Hang in there, friends. And don't forget to wash your hands.

Related Links
The Three Phases of Time

If you have ever read the Bible from start to finish, then you will likely recall that there are certain sections that can be exceedingly tedious. I'm thinking here of certain genealogical sections and the minutia detailed in certain places like the Books of Numbers and Leviticus. When I got bogged down in these two books, I went to a blind friend and borrowed a couple vinyl records of Alexander Scorby reading the Bible. By listening, and he kept reading non-stop, I made it through without falling asleep. Maybe not the best way, but that's how I did it the first time through. 

Photo at the top of page available through Creative Commons. Attribution details here.


philhale said...

Hi Ed, interesting stuff, thanks. Just read this having just explored Schopenhauer's "The Fourfold Root of Sufficient Reason". I feel there is a connection there somewhere. It could of course be nothing more than the number 4 but the "philosopher of pessimism" might well have inspired Updike here. This is the first time I have heard of Updike's comments so if it's a well known fact that he was then file this under "things that everyone knows but Phil Hale" I have one of those and it's bursting at the seams! I hope you are doing well, Phil

Ed Newman said...

Thanks for the notes, Phil.
Just finished reading Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals, and some of this book as a reaction against Schopenhauer's dour view of things. Interesting that Updike took the tragic and took it a different direction. There's a sense in which all attitudes and viewpoints could be attributed to a response to this tragic sense of life.