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John Updike

“Not only are selves conditional but they die. Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?

It is even possible to dislike our old selves, these disposable ancestors of ours. For instance, my high-school self — skinny, scabby, giggly, gabby, frantic to be noticed, tormented enough to be a tormentor, relentlessly pushing his cartoons and posters and noisy jokes and pseudo-sophisticated poems upon the helpless high school — strikes me now as considerably obnoxious, though I owe him a lot: without his frantic ambition and insecurity I would not now be sitting on (as my present home was named by others) Haven Hill. And my Ipswich self, a delayed second edition of that high-school self, in a town much like Shillington in its blend of sweet and tough, only more spacious and historic and blessedly free of family ghosts, and my own relative position in the ‘gang’ improved, enhanced by a touch of wealth, a mini-Mailer in our small salt-water pond, a stag of sorts in our herd of housewife — flirtatious, malicious, greedy for my quota of life’s pleasures, a distracted, mediocre father and worse husband — he seems another obnoxious show-off, rapacious and sneaky and, in the service of his own ego, remorseless. But, then, am I his superior in anything but caution and years, and how can I disown him without disowning also his useful works, on which I still receive royalties? And when I entertain in my mind these shaggy, red-faced, overexcited, abrasive fellows, I find myself tenderly taken with their diligence, their hopefulness, their ability in spite of all to map a broad strategy and stick with it. So perhaps one cannot, after all, not love them…

Writing… 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.”

__________

From John Updike’s magisterial study of the internal life, Self-Consciousness: Memoirs.

Apart from his consistently masterful (and often playful) use of language, the real charm of Updike, at least in this reader’s view, can be boiled down to several factors that don’t exist in another American writer — or at least not in another one of Updike’s caliber. Like his style itself, which constantly bears the marks of a mind at serious play, these attributes exist in relationships that are, in some essential sense, oppositional. His intellect, weighted with a heavy dose of classical philosophy but buoyed by a boyish inquisitiveness; his well-bred WASPiness, clothed in the pastels of New England sans the starch you can smell on the pages of a Fitzgerald or John Irving; his fixation on women, tempered always by the guilt of consistently looking (and usually pursuing) the ones who are — in some sense, and for one reason or another — wrong. Tack all of this atop a Christianity which comprehended doubt, and a cheeriness that could face deep questions, and you have a mind that will always give you something worth seeing – if you can only keep up with such an agile pen.

Looking close at the above paragraph, you’ll recognize all of these attributes. If you do yourself the favor of exploring deeper into Self-Consciousness, you’ll get a better sense of each of them and how they shape the man and his understanding of the conscious and subconscious life.

Read on:

  • Paul Newman reflects: “Men experience many passions in a lifetime. One passion drives away the one before it.”
  • Updike explains why he was skeptical as a young man
  • Updike ruminates on how religious belief is ‘a part of being human’

John Updike