January 29, 2009

What to Make of Updike's Output?

Must lives, well-lived, imitate stories? For example, would the gospel message have penetrated so thoroughly without the Crucifixion? Let's say Christ performed earthly miracles, died out of the public eye, rose, and ascended into Heaven. Would He have left the impact He did given our lust for story (i.e. conflict) that seems hardwired into our DNA? The story of Jesus, on a purely natural level, is very compelling, which is why Malcolm Muggeridge once said that Mary had to be a virgin if only for the purposes of the story. Grace builds on nature even if the the genesis of nature or story is supernatural.

I hesitate to bring up the personal example of aunts and grandparents on this public blog, but their deaths remain so vivid precisely because they were in such conflict with their lives. The story remains incomplete, of course, pending the general Resurrection. But certainly the seeds of one are sown here. There was no continuity; the iron graciousness of an aunt, her productivity in terms of civility and friendliness and sociability was unimaginably prolific until it completely lapsed to the point where she refused to see her children in her final year. There was no fault involved whatsoever since her disease affected her both physically and mentally, but the contrast in her personality was the stuff of stories, in how the most consistent of persons was laid low. (Death, of course, lays everyone low, and so there is no human story without that particular conflict.) We see Pope John Paul II, the most articulate of popes, the skiing, mountain-climber suffering great disabilities in his final years. I'll never forget an uncle saying that he should retire, give over his duties to someone who can do them. My sad, sad defense was that the "Vatican runs itself" and can handle a semi-incapacitated pope for awhile. We'd both missed the whole message of Pope John Paul II's weakness, of how he was trying to teach us of the sanctity of life from cradle to grave and how we are not our productivity. How would the legacy of JPII be changed if we never saw his weakness? Why do all of our heroes, from Achilles to Superman, have something that weakens them, be it their heel or kryptonite?

Updike seemed to break the pattern, cheerfully writing presumably up until his death. Two months ago anyway he was his gracious, smiling self as reported by one of the literati. He also never had to face his Achilles' heel, that which he most feared: the diminution of his talent to the point where he couldn't go on. For those whose main pleasure is in their talent, the risk of embarrassment is omnipresent (in sports, see Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali). Updike died while still in decent form.

The literary critic James Woods seems to find this discipline of Updike's a point of offensiveness. Updike was never laid low, never let himself be fallow. (Cue Olivia Newton John lyrics: "Have you never been mellow? Have you never tried? To find the comfort from inside you?") This very persistency and steadiness is seen as the flaw, the reason Updike never achieved the greatness he was capable of:
For some time now Updike’s language has seemed to encode an almost theological optimism about its capacity to refer. Updike is notably unmodern in his impermeability to silence and the interruptions of the abyss. For all his fabled Protestantism, both American Puritan and Lutheran-Barthian, with its cold glitter, its insistence on the aching gap between God and His creatures, Updike seems less like Hawthorne than Balzac, in his unstopping and limitless energy, and his cheerfully professional belief that stories can be continued; the very form of the Rabbit books – here extended a further instance – suggests continuance. Updike does not appear to believe that words ever fail us – ‘life’s gallant, battered ongoingness’, indeed – and part of the difficulty he has run into, late in his career, is that he shows no willingness, verbally, to acknowledge silence, failure, interruption, loss of faith, despair and so on...Updike’s language, for all that it gestures towards the usual range of human disappointment and collapse, testifies instead to its own uncanny success: to a belief that the world can always be brought out of its cloudiness and made clear in a fair season.

Updike is really a kind of pagan writer, for in fact, traditionally, God does not always enable language and its easy flow, but beggars it, forcing the writer into approximations and helpless ineffabilities: the Psalmist, after all (in Psalm 90), is ‘consumed away in thy sight’. One would wish Updike’s prose a little more ‘consumed away’, and a little less consuming.
What's interesting to me personally is how Mother Teresa became such a figure of interest to me only after it became clear that she had a story, i.e. that she struggled. Mother Teresa was the least interesting modern saint to me in that hers was a story of iron will, utter predictability in terms of her devotion, dedication, and closeness to God. She was, before the revelations of her long dark night were made known, a "plaster saint". She was like Jesus, only she was like Jesus if He had never been crucified.

But I'm not sure Updike should've just "embraced his inner writer's block" one day and refused the discipline to get up and write. I tend to think that writing for Updike was perhaps the greatest source of pleasure in his life, the way eating is for the very old. And one cannot live without pleasure. If it wasn't always producing of pleasure, then certainly there is something to be admired in someone who plugs along. Fellow writer Paul Theroux admired Updike's output saying "His capacity for work was huge. I think of something V. S. Pritchett once wrote. 'The fewer novels or plays you write—because of other parasitic interests—the fewer you will have the ability to write,' Pritchett said, lamenting his own small fictional output." So I'm not convinced he should've just given into despair for awhile in the hope that it would produce greater depth in his works or a higher-quality book. To simply break something that isn't working the way it ought isn't the way of God. I think it would've been better for Martin Luther to have not let his personal demon of scrupulosity lead to the fracturing of Christianity, for example.

Mother Teresa prayed and worked despite her dryness while Updike produced some books of lesser quality during similarly lean times. It's true that God doesn't like lukewarmness, that he would prefer we would be either cold or hot (Rev. 3:15), but fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, and fear of God would suggest plugging along in the absence of direct divine revelation is not a bad thing.

1 comment:

Maureen said...

I'd argue that to keep on going during times of dryness, running totally on faith and naked persistence, _is_ hot. It's a hidden fire.