Pinhole of Light: John Updike's Philosophy of the Self

 

In his senior year at Harvard, John Updike took a seminar with the poet Edwin Honig, in which he fell in love with the poetry of Wallace Stevens. Reading all of Harmonium and Stevens’s Selected Poems , he threw himself into his first paper with great gusto.  It was with less enthusiasm that he received his grade: a gentleman’s C+. “Honig said I tried to cover too much,” wrote Updike. “Better from narrow to broad than from broad to narrow, was the life-lesson this comedian as the letter C taught me.”

This lesson would prove lasting. With Updike’s passing in January, the literary world has seized upon the gemlike aspect of his work, his vivid and precise descriptions of specific moments that bloom like wildflowers into meditations on American life. “He took the novel onto another plane of intimacy: he took us beyond the bedroom and into the bathroom,” wrote Martin Amis in The Guardian. Updike was, to many, a master seismologist, tracing the fine cracks in the surface of the social, revealing the tremors behind the white house and picket fence. “Religion, sex, science, urban decay, small-town life, the life of the heart, the betrayals—who can follow him?” asked Ian McEwan.

In the foothills of this intellectual Olympus, however, resided a number of slightly less enamored gods. Gore Vidal’s complaint that Updike “describes to no purpose” reflected the sentiment of many critics who saw no grander project in Updike’s minutely focused details. He was, wrote James Wood, “a prose writer of great beauty, but that prose confronts one with the question of whether beauty is enough.” The most damning praise of all came from David Foster Wallace, who once claimed that “no U.S. novelist has mapped the solipsist’s terrain better than John Updike, whose rise in the 60’s and 70’s established him as both chronicler and voice of probably the single most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV.”

Wallace hit on something profound about his subject, though his charge was meant as a criticism. Updike may indeed have been “self-absorbed”—to him, subjectivity dominated through “secret channels,” and outer reality and the universe had a personal structure. But he was also deeply concerned with the social. By digging deeply inward and knowing himself, Updike genuinely believed that he would be better able to understand, in a metaphysical sense, those around him as well. There is, then, no contradiction between Updike’s acclaim as a genius of social description and the accusations leveled against him of solipsism. In an essay on Walt Whitman, he called it “egotheism”—the idea that “billions of consciousnesses silt history full, and every one of them the center of the universe.”

 

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One April evening in 1980, Updike found himself standing alone in Shillington, Pennsylvania, the town where he had grown up, with nothing but the clothes on his back. He had come down from Boston to visit his mother, but the airport had failed to send along his luggage with his flight. So while he waited for a girl from Allentown to come down with his two bags, he decided to kill time by taking a stroll through the streets. Passing Henry’s Variety Store, Artie Hoyer’s barber shop, Grace Lutheran Church, the local elementary school, and other landmarks of his youth—some replaced, some still standing—sent him spiraling back into the past and into himself, in a curious mixture of philosophy and memory: “Dasein. The first mystery that confronts us is ‘Why me?’ The next is ‘Why here?’ Shillington was my here.” He writes:

 

Toward the end of Philadelphia Avenue, beside the park that surrounds the town hall, I turned and looked back up the straight sidewalk in the soft evening gloom… The pavement squares, the housefronts, the remaining trees receded in silence and shadow. I loved this plain street, where for thirteen years no great harm had been allowed to befall me. I loved Shillington not as one loves Capri or New York, because they are special, but as one loves one’s own body and consciousness, because they are synonymous with being… If there was a meaning to existence, I was closest to it here.

 

This incident is retold in Self-Consciousness, the autobiography Updike published in 1989, decorated in its paperback version with a mock sepia floral print and a picture of the author as a young man. It is in this book that he comes closest to a direct expression of his philosophy of self.

Though weighty in substance, Self-Consciousness is rare in Updike’s oeuvre in being physically slim. Indeed, approaching the body of his work can be a humbling experience. Updike wrote more than fifty books over the course of his long life, spanning from fiction to non-fiction to poetry; every decade or so, he would release another massive slab of collected work. As the years went on, he himself recognized this tendency, commenting wryly on his penchant for self-documentation and slapping titles like More Matter on his books. He wrote about everything from psoriasis to masturbation to religious struggles to golf, not to mention hundreds of reviews for The New Yorker that lay bare his literary predilections in the form of incisive commentary.

Rarely, in short, has an inner self been so well-documented in print; Updike was the Boswell to his own Dr. Johnson in a way few men have ever been. His obsessive compulsion to exhume his personal life was driven by a near manic faith that in cataloguing every aspect of his self, he would reveal cross-linkages and undetected truths. Nor did this stop at the meticulous archiving of his own work. Both his fiction and non-fiction bear everywhere the thumbprint of the personal; every piece is—to steal a phrase from one of his characters—“aerated by the sinuous channels of experience.” His few forays into magical realism and historical fiction were responsible for rare flops, like the strained rewrite of Tristan and Isolde in Brazil.

Updike’s determination to describe in exquisite detail what he knew best as a portal to greater truths—the lesson first learned in Honig’s poetry seminar—explains his reputation as a chronicler of the mundane eccentricities of middle America. It also accounts for his ambivalence toward social theory, which he repeatedly referred to as a “game”—an “exercise in constellation-making,” “less a pragmatic servicing of reality than the execution of a fiendishly difficult, self-imposed intelligence test.” He ends a review of Levi-Strauss’ volume The Origin of Table Manners by writing:

 

Levi-Strauss’s ‘science of the mythology’… functions like a clock, with its calibrated ratios, axes, symmetries, and interlockings. It is beautiful like a clock, and cool like a clock—a strangely elegant heirloom from the torture-prone, fear-ridden jungles and plains. Its orderly revolutions and transpositions have the inverted function of not marking but arresting time, and making a haven, for their passionate analyst, from the torsion and heat of the modern age.

 

For Updike, truth was instead “anecdotes, narrative, the snug opaque quotidian”; while respectful of the author’s mind, the cool razor’s edge of anthropological analysis seemed to him to be missing the hot, visceral complexity of life that only personal description could capture. It lacked, in other words, the “essential ‘I’”—without this, one could perhaps analyze life but could never really know it.

The poetry in his summary of Levi-Strauss’s frequently dry, quasi-scientific prose, then, comes as a kind of revenge. So does the ironic title he lent the piece, A Feast of Reason—ironic because, for Updike, the fleeting satisfactions of reason could never be enough.

 

***

Shillington—where Updike was raised—was a small suburban enclave outside of Reading, small enough for him to grow intimately acquainted with the buildings and people there, which he would later describe in books like The Poorhouse Fair. The overwhelming trait that drew together the community was its Protestantism; this was a place where family values were treated with reverence and the Lord’s Prayer was recited every day at school.

Disillusionment arrived in adolescence, as Updike came to recognize the hypocrisy of his town’s Christianity. “No one believed it, believed it really,” he wrote, “not its ministers, nor its pillars like my father and his father before him.” He noted the pews empty in the cold winter light, the withered faces of those at daily masses, and the reluctant attendance of families on Sundays, motivated more by good citizenship than true devotion. Outward displays of faith came to seem a mirage, “as fog solidly opaque in the distance thins to transparency when you walk into it.” And yet: “I decided I nevertheless would believe.” Updike buttressed this resolution in college with Chesterton, Unamuno, and Emerson—all “literary” theologians, philosophizing through stories and vivid prose rather than strict rational argument. His own essays would eventually take a similar form, and indeed he hoped that they could serve as a spiritual anchor for modern university students, just as Unamuno had for him.

But his doubts never left him. During the year he spent at Oxford’s Ruskin Drawing School, after Harvard and before going to work at The New Yorker, he recalled the “gray moments, in which my spirit could scarcely breathe.” Staring “in dumb faith” at the dusty tomes of the collected Aquinas at Blackwell’s bookstore on Broad Street, he thought that “surely in all this volume of verbiage there lay the saving seed, the pinhole of light.” Such religious misgivings would always haunt him, permeating deeply into the lives of his fictional characters. The first sentence of a short story entitled “Varieties of Religious Experience,” published in The Atlantic in 2002, reads, There is no God.”

Updike could not stop believing in God, however, because for him God was not something external—rather, it was inside himself. “The need for our ‘I’ to have its ‘Thou,’ something other than ourselves yet sharing our subjectivity, something amplifying it indeed to the outer rim of creation, survives all embarrassments, all silence, all refusals on either side,” he wrote. Religion was something personal, with God an extension of his own being, “a dark sphere enclosing the pinpoint of our selves.” His conception of the self had truly struck deep, even into his theology.

Since belief was for him so dependent upon the activity of the self, it constantly had to be rewoven out of experience and wonder at the world. “Theology is not a provable accumulation, like science, nor is it a succession of enduring monuments, like art,” he put it in a review. “It must always unravel and be reknit.”

 

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Updike’s unceasing desire to know himself could make him a frustrating reviewer at times. The best critics need a tinge of bloodlust, but because Updike always reserved the possibility that the other self knew something he didn’t—could at any moment pull some thin silvery strand of brilliance out of an artist’s hat—he was reluctant to strike the killing blow. One of his fundamental rules for literary criticism, as outlined in a 1975 < New Yorker piece, was to “try to understand what the author wished to do, and [t]o not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” Judging books by the standards of the author in this way, rather than by those of the reviewer or some objective criteria, could result in more forgiving pieces—and duller ones.

Updike feared that on his grayest days, his reviews shaded into mere plot summaries, and indeed, in comparison to many of his modern counterparts, they can come off as clawless—a kind of verbal grout to fill in the spaces between the quotations and biographical details that provide the bulk of his pieces. At the end of his life, perhaps wearied by criticisms of banality, his style packed an added punch: “Toni Morrison has a habit, perhaps traceable to the pernicious influence of William Faulkner, of plunging into the narrative before the reader has a clue as to what is going on.”

Most of the time, though, he didn’t need any literary pyrotechnics. When he got it right, as he often did, the results could be astounding in their subtlety of observation and delicacy of prose. Updike’s criticism never contained forced description, as his fiction sometimes did. It was written in a quick, vigorous tone, full of startling insights and bold thought experiments. Of Nabokov’s lectures he wrote that they are “still redolent of the classroom odors that an authorial revision might have scoured away”:

 

Nothing one has heard or read about them has quite foretold their striking, enveloping quality of pedagogic warmth… During [long] stretches of quotation we must imagine the accent, the infectious rumbling pleasure, the theatrical power of this lecturer who, now portly and balding, was once an athlete and a participant in the Russian tradition of flamboyant oral presentation. Elsewhere, the intonation, the twinkle, the sneer, the excited pounce are present in the prose, a liquid speaking prose effortlessly bright and prone to purl into metaphor and pun: a dazzling demonstration, for those lucky Cornell students in the remote, clean-cut Fifties, of the irresistibly artistic sensibility.

 

Passages like this are sensuous, full-bodied; Updike took a clear pleasure in writing them. Like all critics, he was never quite comfortable with his own profession, retaining the “nagging unease” of living off the vivid imaginations of others. For him, writing criticism was to writing fiction and poetry “as hugging the shore is to sailing in the open sea.” But he continued to write it, and his non-fiction came to make up the bulk of his work.

This comes as no surprise. To write a review is to filter a concentrated version of the world through the lens of one’s own mind, recording the resulting impressions. It is a process of making a shared thing personal, in order to understand and explain it better for others. Updike spent his entire life—through all of his many modes of writing—doing just that.

 

***

The best description of Updike, encapsulating both his personality and his Roman profile, comes from the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. It must have pleased him, for it is reprinted in his finest collection of non-fiction, Hugging the Shore:

 

“Awkwardly shielding himself with his wing,

Thirsting for secrets

       and weary of secrets,

gaunt as a stork,

on a house of his own books,

anxiously stands Updike with his noble beak”

 

This, in the end, is what we are left with—the image of Updike, alive in the world yet at home with his books, burning always with the noble desire to know. One widely printed eulogy depicts him as an owlish student of literature, reading the “chastely severe, time-honored classics” in his college dorm room as he leaned back in his “wooden Harvard chair,” cigarette in hand.  But Updike’s introspection was always in the service of something greater, a hope that by knowing himself he could know something of the rich and various world around him. One hopes that he would have said of his life what he said after his walk through the streets of Shillington: “I had expected to be told who I was, and why, and had not been entirely disappointed.”