Lifeguard by John Updike, 1962

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by John Updike, 1962

The story "Lifeguard" by John Updike was first published in The New Yorker and then included in the collection Pigeon Feathers (1962). At first one wonders if the story should be considered a piece of fiction at all. The piece is entirely a meditation by the speaker, punctuated by only the most perfunctory kind of "action" in the form of the predictable pastimes of the crowd on the beach. In the end, however, one sees that the absence of events in the story is itself a reflection of its religious theme: the relationship of a teeming world and human race to a superior, if rather lonely, person (divine or human) who is, or thinks of himself as being, above that world, involved in but also detached from it, both its creator and its helpless observer. The substance of the story, then, becomes fiction in a somewhat altered sense, a rendering of various modes of imagining, making, creating.

It is easy enough to read "Lifeguard" as an allegory in which the speaker stands for God, as for a kind of portrait. As God, the lifeguard sits high on his "elevated … throne" surmounted by a red cross, "attentively perched on the edge of an immensity," and privileged with a panoramic view of space and of time, which he can play backward like a film. He feels amusedly superior to the fumbling and superficial efforts by theologians and other religious writers, both serious and popular, to understand him. He finds it hard to envisage his own ceasing to exist. He utters edicts, "Be Joyful is my commandment." An early reference to the skin as a disguise invokes the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. His great "exercise" (a pun, for the lifeguard/God is the only inert figure on the scene) is "to lift the whole mass into immortality," a heavy task in light of the commonplace unworthiness of human beings en masse. Above all, his role is to save, though so far no one has called on him to do any such saving.

One can also read "Lifeguard" more literally, as a self-portrait of a young man who, presumably conditioned by his career as divinity student, has acquired the habit of taking cosmic views of the world, of people, and of himself. ("Divinity student" is another pun, for the protagonist is both divinity and human student, a word that, incidentally, comes from the Latin for "being eager," or "desiring.") He, too, exists to save people, though up to now there has been no real call for his help despite the adulation paid him. As with God, his protective surveillance of his flock amounts to mere admonitions from above, alarmed tweetings of a whistle.

Perhaps the most significant thing about "Lifeguard," whether we read it allegorically or literally, is the view it takes of humanity. When the speaker says that he grounds his sermon in the complementary relationship between the "texts of the flesh" and "those of the mind," he means by "flesh" not merely the nearly "naked" beachgoers but also whatever is incarnate, that is, human. As divinity or divinity student, the lifeguard is disturbingly ambivalent toward the myriad creatures under his care. He regards this teeming, often banal fleshliness—the "vast tangle of humanity"—with paternalistic solicitude mixed with repulsion, but he also regards it with ineffectual desire. As human lifeguard, the speaker is powerful and superior, but he confesses wistfully that he "would love" and that he hopes, just as wistfully, that "someday my alertness will bear fruit; from near the horizon there will arise, delicious, translucent … the call for help, the call, a call, it saddens me to confess, that I have yet to hear." An act of deliverance, the lifeguard has already told us, is how he envisages love, for in loving intercourse we descend into a world of "grotesque and delicate shadows," in effect, a submarine world, so that we can bring the loved one "into this harbor," this "security." An all-powerful chivalric rescuer, he is impotent until and unless someone acknowledges a need to be rescued. The speaker has as yet found no one who wants to share this amatory immersion with him, no equivalent of the "vivacious redhead" flirting with her boyfriend and "begging to be ducked."

As deity, the lifeguard represents a god who, being God, likewise enjoys plenary power but is also dependent on a reciprocal recognition by human beings that they need to be saved. The humans on the beach are at most only vaguely aware of such a need. Like the literal lifeguard's admiring public, the teenage satellites who pay him impersonal homage (he is "edible" but not one of them), this God is remote, isolated, lonely, unfulfilled. Science has begun to discredit his reality as a person and as nature's ruler. The ocean no longer comfortably serves as a divine metaphor, and the immortality to which he wishes to lift "the whole mass," the "clot" of humanity, has become a matter of the survival of cells, the biological cells of the body or the communal cells that constitute the beehive. Confused by sheer human multitudinousness, he is not confident that he can adequately manage the Last Judgment, or "final Adjustments Counter." The "sea of others exasperates and fatigues" him most on Sunday mornings, when church attendance has depressingly declined. Like the actual lifeguard, this God is the only being in the entire vulgar, seething scene who sits idle, isolated from activity, honored but essentially ignored. His commandment "Be Joyful" seems less a gesture of magnanimity toward human beings than an acknowledgment of his own removal from human joy.

The speaker is entirely accurate, then, in telling us that the "sermon" we are hearing has to do with the relationship of flesh to mind, that is, of humanity to the transcendental. This holds true on both literal and allegorical levels, the levels of both poignant human longing for love and uneasy divine hegemony. Either way, to quote William Blake, "Eternity is in love with the productions of time."

—Brian Wilkie