Updike’s Song of Himself

by Ralph C. Wood

Ralph C. Wood’s most recent book is The Comedy of Redemption: Christian Faith and Comic Vision in Four American Novelists (Notre Dame).

This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 17, 1989, p. 526. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Ralph C. Wood regards John Updike as a writer to be "reckoned with theologically" though he finds in the novelist’s recent memoirs — and in his work as a whole — more "justification by sin" then justification by faith.

This positive estimate of Updike is far from unanimous. For all of his huge literary success, he remains a dubious figure for many readers. What they find worrying is Updike’s determination to bare all. He makes public display of his sexuality and many other private matters as well. For instance, soon after the break of his 25-year marriage, he published a novel titled Marry Me. Even the most charitable of Updike’s readers winced.

Whether bitterly or blessedly, all writers work from their own experience. But the truly eminent writer, the one who writes not for the moment but the age, transmutes the personal into the perduring. Updike’s adversaries allege that he has failed to perform this essential artistic task. He has forsaken large social and political issues, they charge, for private concerns. Thus do Updike’s critics chastise him for being an elegant adolescent, an irresponsible youth of 57 who has little to say but who has the refinement and bravado for saying it.

Such critics will not be cheered by the contents of Self-Consciousness. In six longish memoirs Updike does not recount his life-history so much as his life-obsessions. We hear but little of his two wives, for example, and next to nothing about his four children. Yet entire chapters are devoted to his psoriasis and his stutter. His asthmatic and dental histories are also described at length. This would hardly seem promising matter for moral or theological insight. Yet only the most churlish of readers will turn away in disgust. For it is Updike’s consuming subjectivity that makes him both succeed and fail as a writer of theological import.

Updike has long been the advocate of what in an essay on Walt Whitman he called "egotheism." Mere egoism is a vain self-addiction to one’s own pleasure and comfort. Egotheism, by contrast, is awestruck wonder and thanksgiving to God for the staggering miracle of unrepeatable life, the utterly unique self-consciousness that enables one to say "I." In a 1960 remembrance of his childhood, Updike traced his transcendent sense of self-importance to the mystery of being an incarnate ego: a self within "a speck so specifically situated amid the billions of history. Why was I I? The arbitrariness of it astounded me; in comparison, nothing was too marvelous."

Such egotheism is the theme and the theology that Updike pursues throughout Self-Consciousness. Against the grain of a bland and trivial time, he wants to preserve a plangent sense of the personal and the particular. Like Whitman, Up-dike sings the song of himself. Despite all the pain he has inflicted and suffered, Updike offers praise to God that he is who he is. Such egotheistic thanksgiving, far from being an act of proud self-indulgence, chants the goodness of the whole creation.

Updike is most lyrical when describing his youth in the small eastern Pennsylvania town of Shillington, poignantly evoking the people and the places which served as his defining presences. At 117 Philadelphia Avenue he gained a sense of his own reality that he would rarely know again -- not at cultured Harvard, not at venerable Oxford, not in the suave world of the New Yorker.

Winding down the final score of his allotted three plus ten, Updike returns to assess what it means to have such modest origins. He treads the streets of Shillington with a Proustian sense that he is walking on "the dizzying stilts of time," a ghost haunting the boyhood world where he once felt "secure as a mole in the belief that I was known, watched, placed."

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, looking for what the superstitious old people of the country used to call a "sign." 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 grown body and consciousness, because they are synonymous with being. It was exciting to be in Shillington, as if my life, like the expanding universe, when projected backwards gained heat and intensity. If there was a meaning to existence, I was closest to it here.

Updike has repeatedly found his life’s worth amid small-town security, safely "out of harm’s way," as he calls it. For more than two decades -- the years when he was establishing his career -- he resided in the Boston suburb of Ipswich. It was real to him, he confesses, as life in Manhattan and Cambridge was not. Updike can live and move and have his being only in a world that is not the fabrication, of his own mind, a world whose measure he knows how to take because it first takes the measure of him.

Not by happenstance is Updike our premier eulogist of suburban life. He has deliberately aligned himself with the middle classes, celebrating their privileges and shouldering their burdens. There is something immensely admirable, he finds, about people who have made their way in the quotidian world. They know how things work and what makes them happen. Updike honors these worldly folk because they are not exempted, as many writers are, from the dirty, dreary business of maintaining the overarching order."

Updike has little patience with the romantic ideal of the artist as alienated aesthete. He is no Shelleyesque art-martyr whose task is to fling himself upon the thorns of life and bleed. We learn, instead, that Updike has cheerfully assumed his bourgeois responsibilities. He tells of his work on church committees and historical commissions. He recounts his travels to Russia. Eastern Europe and Africa as an emissary for the State Department. And in a chapter titled "On Not Being a Dove," he elaborates the arguments that angered so many of his fellow artists during the 1960s, when he defended the motives of Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey in the Vietnam catastrophe. Updike is thus a middle-class writer almost in the literal sense: one summoned to steer a difficult course between easy extremes.

Updike’s politics springs from his profoundest theological convictions. He insists, with Kierkegaard and a host of existentialists, that human experience is inherently dialectical. Our glory and shame is that we are entangled in the oppositions of flesh and spirit, sin and salvation, this world and the next. That God has set us on a dizzying divide between the two realms renders us self-conscious in a way mere animals are not.

This vaulting self-awareness fills us with both longing and dread. We yearn for happiness and joy, yet we rebel against every contentment. Our volatile consciousness consumes all satisfactions with a burning urge for the new and the unexplored. Like Huck Finn and Rabbit Angstrom, we are forever "lighting out for the territory." Despite the secure sense of self that childhood and hometown provided, Updike had to leave them behind. He could become a fully conscious self only as he broke the mold of Shillington.

The same dialectic is at work in Updike’s fascinating account of his bodily afflictions. He attributes much of his success as a writer to a lifelong struggle with his skin and his tongue. It was not only Updike’s literary talent that sharpened his sense of singularity. His psoriasis and his stutter were at once the cause and symptom of his artistic calling. They forbade him entry to what Kierkegaard called the universally human. Already as a young man Updike saw that he lacked the smooth self-oblivion required for a public career. He was called to fight inward and spiritual battles instead. "Whenever in my timid life I have shown courage and originality," he confesses wryly, "it has been because of my skin."

Yet for Updike consciousness itself is epidermal. We are not one self but a succession of selves which we slough off like so many skins. By giving permanence to this constant shedding of selves, art seeks to make their loss bearable. But such consolation is delusory. Artists shape the world’s swirling chaos into an order that it does not intrinsically possess. They commit violence against life even as they beautify it. Because art is always an act of knowing self-deception, Updike has a dark, dialectical vision of his own vocation:

Writing is my sole remaining vice. It is an addiction, an illusory release, a presumptuous taming of reality, a way of expressing lightly the unbearable. That we age and leave behind this litter of dead, unrecoverable selves is both unbearable and the commonest thing in the world -- it happens to everybody. In the morning one can write breezily, without the slightest acceleration of one’s pulse, about what one cannot contemplate in the dark without turning to God. In the dark one truly feels that immense sliding, that turning of the vast earth into darkness and eternal cold, taking with it all the furniture and scenery, all the bright distractions and warm touches, of our lives. . . . Writing, in making the world light -- in codifying, prettifying, verbalizing it -- approaches blasphemy.

Like the Luther for whom a self-regarding righteousness was the only alternative to sin, Updike blasphemes boldly. He skates lightly over the thin ice that covers the abyss of nihilism. Updike is nothing if not candid in confessing that his religion is a refuge from personal futility and cosmic loneliness. a momentary stay against final confusion. God often serves Updike as a desperate Postulate against the void, an Archimedean point for lifting the lifeless universe.

"The guarantee that our self enjoys an intended relation to the outer world is most, if not all, of what we ask from religion. God is the self projected onto reality by our natural and necessary optimism. He is the not-me personified."

It was not Kierkegaard or Chesterton or Barth -- Updike’s much-admired knights of Christian faith -- who called God "the eternal not-ourselves" or who spoke of biblical language as a human net "thrown out at a vast object of consciousness." It was the Victorian skeptic Matthew Arnold. As the advocate of a God who is humanly hypothesized rather than self-revealed, Updike also stands in solidarity with the great heterodox American modernists, especially Emerson and Whitman. Like them, Updike subscribes to a deeply American sort of religion:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea -- this odd and uplifting line from among the many odd lines of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" seemed to me, as I set out, to summarize what I had to say about America, to offer itself as the title of a continental magnum opus of which all my books, no matter how many, would be mere installments, mere starts at the hymning of this great roughly rectangular country severed from Christ by the breadth of the sea.

Updike shares the optimistic 19th-century vision of America as a free-riding nation which is not saddled to the worn-out nag of European Christendom. In our distance from the old world lies our liberty. Yet Updike the dialectician knows this to be a mixed blessing. It gives Americans a dangerous naïveté about what Updike calls the "shameful things of life." As faithful chronicler of the American experiment, he wants to show how these shameful things, being endemic to human existence, must be faced and embraced: "Down-dirty sex and the bloody mess of war and the desperate effort of faith all belonged to a dark necessary underside of reality that I felt should not be merely ignored, or risen above, or disdained."

This accounts for what is sometimes voyeuristic and callused in Updike’s fiction. He regards an egoistic hardness of heart as the unavoidable requisite of self-conscious life; We cannot live, he argues, except by devouring others, whether physically or spiritually: "To be alive is to be a killer." Against all soft-centered optimism, Updike salutes the doctrine of original sin for acknowledging this obdurate fact: "The world is fallen, and in a fallen world animals, men, and nations make space for themselves through a willingness to fight. Christ beat up the money-changers in the temple, and came not to bring peace, He distinctly said, but a sword."

Updike hopes such statements will outrage his readers into thought. He seems not to consider that we may find them more pathetic than provocative. One is embarrassed rather than scandalized, for example, to learn that Updike absorbs life through the pores of his own dermatological suffering: "1 am unfortunate, is my prime thought." And Updike’s notion of eternal life is more amusing than edifying. In a concluding chapter titled "On Being a Self Forever," Up-dike puts his final hope in the perpetual prolongation of our egoistic life, not in its eschatological redemption:

It is the self as window on the world that we can’t bear to think of shutting. My mind when I was a boy of ten or eleven sent up its silent scream at the thought of future aeons -- at the thought of the cosmic party going on without me. The yearning for an afterlife is the opposite of selfish: it is love and praise of the world that we are privileged, in this complex interval of light, to witness and experience.

Updike fails to consider whether Christians are privileged to love and praise the world because God has reclaimed and restored the fallen creation in Jesus Christ. Nor does he ask whether the chief honor of believers is to know and enjoy God forever. Thus is it tempting to wish that Updike might write a sequel in praise of God for being who God is. Yet the task of the critic, as T. S. Eliot said long ago, is to dissect the cadaver, not to supply the corpse. Gratefully, therefore, can we learn from one whose viewpoint we must criticize and qualify. Hence our thanksgiving to John Updike for his unabashed theological candor. In a dissembling age, this is a rare thing indeed.