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John Updike

“Early in my adolescence, trapped within the airtight case for atheism, I made this logical formulation:

1. If God does not exist, the world is a horror-show.
2. The world is not a horror-show.
3. Therefore, God exists.

The second premise, of course, is the weaker; newspapers and biology lessons daily suggest that it is a horror show, of landslides and plagues and massacres and falling airplanes and incessant carnivorousness… Yet this and all bad news merits reporting because our general expectation is for good: an instinctive vision of health and peace underlies our horror stories. Existence itself does not feel horrible; it feels like an ecstasy, rather, which we only have to be still to experience. Habit and accustomedness have painted over pure gold with a dull paint that can, however, be scratched away, to reveal the shining under-base. The world is good, our intuition is, confirming its Creator’s appraisal as reported in the first chapter of Genesis.

During that same adolescence, I reluctantly perceived of the Christian religion I had been born into that almost no one believed it, believed it really — not its ministers, nor its pillars like my father and his father before him. Though signs of belief (churches, public prayers, mottos on coins) existed everywhere, when you moved toward Christianity it disappeared, as fog solidly opaque in the distance thins to transparency when you walk into it. I decided I nevertheless would believe. I found a few authors, a very few — Chesterton, Eliot, Unamuno, Kierkegaard, Karl Barth — who helped me believe. Under the shelter that I improvised from their pages I have lived my life. I rarely read them now; my life is mostly lived. God is the God of the living, though His priests and executors, to keep order and to force the world into a convenient mould, will always want to make Him the God of the dead, the God who chastises life and forbids and says No. What I felt, in that basement Sunday school of Grace Lutheran Church in Shillington, was a clumsy attempt to extend a Yes, a blessing, and I accepted that blessing, offering in return only a nickel a week and my art, my poor little art…

My writing here about my religion feels forced — done at the behest of others, of hypothetical ‘autobiography’ readers. Done, I believe, in an attempt to comfort some younger reader as once I was comforted by Chesterton and Unamuno… But there seems, my having gone this unfortunately far, still this to say: One believes not merely to dismiss from one’s life a degrading and immobilizing fear of death but to possess that Archimedean point outside the world from which to move the world. The world cannot provide its own measure and standards; these must come, strangely, from outside, or a sorry hedonism and brute opportunism result — a greedy panicked heart and substance abuse. The world punishes us for taking it too seriously as well as for not taking it seriously enough.”


From John Updike’s magisterial Self-Consciousness: Memoirs.

Well, it’s beautifully written. That’ll be your initial reaction to Self-Consciousness. No, let me rephrase: Wow, it’s beautifully written. Updike is a writer who pulls the sublime from effortless, conversational sentences, affirming his reflection that “to give the mundane its beautiful due” was the purpose of his writing style. And man, do you feel the power of that impulse in these memoirs.

Typically, a writer’s memoir is not really about his or her lived-life. Writers are not boring people, but they often do, when viewed from the outside, lead boring lives. Sure Conrad manned a steamer in the Congo and Kipling was deployed with a battalion in India and Hemingway drank his way through every bullring in Cuba. But that was a century ago. Nowadays, as writing has become largely professionalized, the pulse of a writer’s life has slowed significantly. A writer’s craft is a solitary and silent one, done with a pen and a pad, at the desk, day after day. So his memoir must concern matters beyond the workaday. Just to stick to some covered on this blog: Martin Amis’s memoir is about family; Christopher Hitchens’s is about friendship; Nabokov’s is about education. John Updike’s is about faith (and sex, as he could never avoid the subject).

At the conclusion of one of the finest contemporary novels I’ve read, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, the young protagonist Richard Papen wonders if he possesses a singular fatal flaw. “I have always mistaken beautiful or intelligent people for good” is his paragraph-long confession paraphrased, an admission which, upon reading, spurred within me a pang of recognition (“I’m busted”). And so too it is with writers. Beautiful prose can hide myriad sins of logic. So it’s essential when reading excerpts like the one above (found on pages 230-235) that you do not fall lazily into the ease of the prose, surrendering the critical faculties that such dense epistemology demands.

There is more to say here, but I will leave it for another day. Perhaps for when I post another section from Self-Consciousness. Still, there are two relevant sources concerning Updike’s final point about seriousness which may add some flavor to the discussion:

From Nothing to Be Frightened, Julian Barnes’s memoir about mortality (see: there’s always one unifying theme).

But if life is viewed as… something dependent on a greater reality elsewhere, then it becomes at the same time less valuable and more serious. Those parts of the world where religion has drained away and there is a general acknowledgement that this short stretch of time is all we have, are not, on the whole, more serious places than those where heads are still jerked by the cathedral’s bell… On the whole, they yield to a frenetic materialism. [emphasis mine]

There is also Philip Larkin’s exquisite poem “Church Going,” where the writer wanders into a church and in the final stanza muses on its perennial significance:

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious

Not to put too fine a point on the issue, but I think the contemporary American Church, with its Hollywood aesthetic and prosperity gospel, has lost much of that crucial, validating seriousness.

Updike, who died in 2009, would have been 82 this week.

Read on:

  • G.K. Chesterton’s defends his faith from cynics
  • Updike and a host of other thinkers reflect on whether we can simply assume God’s existence
  • Philosopher Alvin Plantinga dissects how evolutionary psychology intersects with Christian docrine

John Updike and Family