Marya: A Life - Back in Print
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Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Text and Criticism

John Updike's American Comedies

by Joyce Carol Oates

Originally published, in somewhat different form, in Modern Fiction Studies, Fall 1975. Reprinted in The Profane Art.

. . . I must go to Nature disarmed of perspective and stretch myself like a large transparent canvas upon her in the hope that, my submission being perfect, the imprint of a beautiful and useful truth would be taken.

—The Centaur 

John Updike's genius is best excited by the lyric possibilities of tragic events that, failing to justify themselves as tragedy, turn unaccountably into comedies. Perhaps it is out of a general sense of doom, of American expansion and decay, of American subreligions that spring up so effortlessly everywhere, that Updike works, or perhaps it is something more personal, which his extraordinarily professional art can disguise: the constant transformation of what would be "suffering" into works of art that are direct appeals to the her of the above quotation, not for salvation as such, but for the possibly higher experience of being "transparent," that is, an artist. There has been from the first, in his fiction, an omniscience that works against the serious development of tragic experiences; what might be tragedy can be reexamined, reassessed, and dramatized as finally comic, with overtones of despair. Contending for one's soul with Nature is, of course, the Calvinist God Whose judgments may be harsh but do not justify the term tragic.

Like Flannery O'Connor, who also studied art before she concentrated upon prose fiction, Updike pays homage to the visual artist's "submission" to the physical stimuli of his world far more than most writers. He transcribes the world for us, and at the same time transcribes the experience of doing so, from the inside. His world, like O'Connor's, is "incarnational"—vividly, lovingly, at times meanly recorded—perhaps because, in Updike, such a synthesis of fidelity and inventiveness allows an escape of sorts from the tyrannical, unimaginative cosmology of Calvinism. O'Connor was affirming her faith through allegorical art: Updike usually affirms it in words, but the act of writing itself, the free lovely spontaneous play of the imagination, is salvation of a kind. Does the artist require anything further? Updike's prose style resembles Nabokov's in certain respects and yet in Updike the activity of art is never for Nabokovian purposes—never to deceive, to conceal, to mock, to reduce Nature to an egoistic and mechanical arrangement of words. On the contrary, Updike seems at times too generous, too revealing. His energies are American in their prolific and reverential honoring of a multitude of objects, as Nature is scaled down, compressed, at times hardly more than a series of forms of The Female.

The title story of Museums and Women makes the point explicitly that "museums" and "women" are both mysterious structures which, once entered, once explored, inevitably lose their mystery. In the beginning the museum is explored with the boy's mother, under her curiously wordless guidance: "Who she was was a mystery so deep it never formed into a question." Some years later the boy sights the girl who will become his wife on the steps of a museum; she is a fine arts student, a "pale creature," an "innocent sad blankness" where he felt he must stamp his name. In the Guggenheim Museum the narrator, now married, experiences an indefinable enchantment in the presence of another woman, a slight acquaintance whom he never comes to know more intimately; and still later, he walks in the Frick Collection with a woman whom he loves, or believes he loves, very much. Their love is "perfect"—or so it seems. But the women, he realizes, are nameless. As museums are nameless. One turns a corner in the Louvre and confronts the head of a sphinx whose body is displayed in Boston. "So, too, the women were broken arcs of one curve."

Significantly, the lovers part in a museum. Their love, powerful as it seemed, could not endure. And the narrator concludes, sadly:

I looked back, and it came to me that nothing about museums is as splendid as their entrances—the sudden vault, the shapely cornices, the motionless uniformed guard like a wittily disguised archangel.... And it appeared to me that now I was condemned, in my search for the radiance that had faded behind me, to enter more and more museums, and to be a little less exalted by each new entrance, and a little more quickly disenchanted by the familiar contents beyond.1

Yet women are, as Peter Caldwell, adolescent hero of The Centaur, says, "high religious walls" that attract the artist, as they attract the lover, again and again.

Flannery O'Connor's interest was in love of a distinctly spiritual nature, but Updike speaks with Alexander Blok, surely, in saying, "We love the flesh: its taste, its tones/Its charnel odor, breathed through Death's jaws . . ." 2 Because O'Connor's Catholic faith was unshakable, she could invent for her allegorical people ghastly physical-historical fates, assuming that their souls, encompassing but not limited to their egos, were unkillable. Updike's faith is possibly unshakable as well, which, judging from observations scattered throughout his writing, in a way alarms and amuses him, but his sympathies are usually with those who doubt, who have given up hope of salvation as such, wanting instead to be transparent, artists of their own lives. The "beautiful and useful truth" that Peter Caldwell prayed for has little to do with religious convictions, but everything to do with the patient, reverential transcribing of Man comically descended into the flesh: into Nature. Once in the flesh, once individualized, Man can then attempt some form of rebellion against "fate"—enjoying the very absurdity of his position.

The hero of Couples, Piet Hanema, is a man of artistic imagination, somehow trapped by his work, his marriage, the unholy and entertaining town of Tarbox, and he is, despite his despair and his promiscuity, a religious man. Foxy, Piet's mistress, tells him that "his callousness, his promiscuity, had this advantage for her; with him she could be as whorish as she wanted, that unlike most men he really didn't judge." Piet answers that it is his Calvinism: "Only God judged." But more than this, Piet believes that God has already judged: it is all over, history, melodrama, comic arrangements and rearrangements of adulterous couples, the Day of Judgment is—as Kafka has said—a perpetual event, the court always in session and the judgments known ahead of time because everything is predestined.. Updike understands women well in allowing Foxy to compliment her lover on character traits that, ironically, activate less than admirable traits in her, but she speaks more generally for the sly truth that must gradually but inevitably dawn upon the Puritan Calvinist of any intellectual capacity: one can do exactly as one wishes, since salvation or damnation are accomplished facts, impersonal, boring, finally irrelevant. A sense of determinism, whether religious or economic or biological, has personal advantages never dreamt of by those who believe in free will. When Updike explores the non-Protestant possibilities of the imagination, when he sends out his soul, let us say, in the guise of an atheistic Jew, we have the fantastically funny and despairing Bech who, in being elected to a society of arts and letters to which Updike was himself elected in real life, and precociously, muses:

His mother was out there in chat audience! . . . But she had died four years ago, in a nursing home in Riverdale. As the applause washed in, Bech saw chat the old lady . . . was nor his mother but somebody else's.... The light in his eyes turned to warm water. His applause ebbed away. He sat down.... Bech tried to clear his vision by contemplating the backs of the heads. They were blank: blank shabby backs of a cardboard tableau lent substance only by the credulous, by old women and children. His knees trembled, as if after an arduous climb. He had made it, he was here, in Heaven. Now what? 3

Bech is Updike's projection of an Updike unprotected by women, children, God; though attached to his mother as Updike's characters are often attached to their mothers, he "ascends" to this mock-Heaven only after her death, when it is too late. His adventures must be seen as comic because they are so desperate, so horrible. In this way Updike explores wittily the very real possibilities of a shallow imaginative life "free" of Calvinistic gloom, though it must be said, in my opinion at least, that he does not convince us of Bech's "Jewishness"—Bech is a man without a soul. In the brief reverie "Solitaire," in Museums and Women, a husband contemplates leaving his wife for his mistress, but contemplates it only with one part of his mind—the esthetic—since he knows very well that his identity would be lost outside the confining and nourishing circle of wife and children: in fact, he married young, had several children almost at once, in order to assure his being trapped. Bech escaped the trap, but at great cost to his soul.

By isolating those lines from The Centaur in which Peter-as-Prometheus speaks so eloquently about submitting himself to Nature, I am deliberately giving more weight to the pagan-classical-artistic-"immoral" side of Updike's imagination than to the Calvinistic, though in fact the two are balanced. The Centaur, being a relatively early and emotionally autobiographical work, is valuable in its obvious statement of the dichotomy in the author's imagination between the "pagan" and the "Christian." Critics may well disagree about the merit of the uses to which Updike put his childhood interest in "old Greek folk stories told anew," and surely the example of Joyce's Ulysses was always in his mind; but, unlike Joyce, he did not evoke the classical in order to give structure to quantity4or to comment ironically upon it, but to provide for himself, for Peter, for George Caldwell, another spiritual dimension in which they might be heroic without fear of being heretical. Significantly, the "pagan" world is really a feminine world; Updike alludes to the whimsical and tyrannical figure of Zeus, but it is Venus Aphrodite who speaks to Chiron at such length in Chapter 1 and even offers to embrace him, though he is part-beast, and Venus Aphrodite in the form of Vera Hummel, the girls' gym teacher, with whom the young, impressionable Peter Caldwell imagines himself "sharing a house" in a concluding chapter. Venus, not Zeus, presides over the pagan world. Unlike the woman who awaits Peter and his father back on the farm, in that fertile but uncultivated land that is more a burden than a place of retreat, Vera Hummel is all warmth, simplicity, radiance, nourishment. She, of course, is promiscuous; Cassie Caldwell is someone's faithful wife, herself trapped, complaining and bitter and yet, ultimately, fairly satisfied with her lot. Vera is the promise; Cassie the reality. Vera forever beckons, but is not known; Cassie is known. Though Peter and his father return to the farm, and will always return (as the narrator of Of the Farm returns—to betray his wife with his mother!), 5 it is Venus Aphrodite who has the power of altering lives without exactly touching them. Here is the adolescent Peter:

The next two hours were unlike any previous in my life. I shared a house with a woman, a woman rail in time, so tall I could not estimate her height in years, which at the least was twice mine. A woman of overarching fame; legends concerning her love life circulated like dirty coins in the student underworld. A woman fully grown and extended in terms of property and authority; her presence branched into every corner of the house.... Intimations of Vera Hummel moved toward me from every corner of her house, every shadow.... 6

Always outside the masculine consciousness, this archetypal creature when embodied, however briefly, in flesh, has the power to awaken, however briefly, the "religious" experience common to the entering of both museums and women; she is life itself, the very force of life, playful, promiscuous as Nature, ultimately uncaring as the ancient Magna Mater was so viciously uncaring of the beautiful adolescent youths she loved, and devoured. Contemplating the naked green lady of the Alton Museum, a fountain-statue, the child Peter is at first troubled by the mechanical logistics of the statue that forbid its ever quenching its thirst; but, artist as he is, manipulator of reality as he will be, he tells himself that at night the statue manages to drink from its own fountain. "The coming of night" released the necessary magic. Because the Venus-figure is experienced as archetypal rather than personal, she is never connected with any specific woman, but may be projected into nearly anyone. She is simple, vital, enchanting, and yet—curiously—she is no threat. Men remain married or, at the most, remarry women with children (like Peggy of Of the Farm; like Foxy of Couples, one baby alive, one baby aborted, but a mother nevertheless), and as everyone knows Venus is sterile. She has never entered history. Piet Hanema perhaps speaks for Updike in diagnosing his eventual dissatisfaction with one of his mistresses, Georgene, because she made adultery too easy, too delightful, for his "warped nature." And so in The Centaur Venus/Vera attracts her opposite, the Reverend March, he whose faith is so unshakable, intact, and infrangible as metal, and "like metal dead." Economically and concisely developed, the Reverend March is a type that appears occasionally in Updike ("The Deacon" is an older, wearier version), and whose function in The Centaur is to angrily resist the desperate George Caldwell's desire to speak of theological matters at a basketball game, but, more important, to be the man whose faith is dead and metallic and yet rather wonderful—

Though he can go and pick it up and test its weight whenever he wishes, it has no arms with which to reach and restrain him. He mocks it.7

—and whose faith allows him a psychological insight that, in Updike-as-Peter, would be annihilating, when he muses upon the fact that a woman's beauty depends only upon the man who perceives her: her value is not present to herself, but given to her. "Having been forced to perceive this," the Reverend March is therefore "slow to buy."

Because the Feminine Archetype is always projected outward, and the knowledge of this projection ("valuing"—"pricing," in the Reverend March's crude terminology) cannot be accepted except at the risk of emotional impotence, it is unconsciously denied. It is not seen to be a natural psychological fact, in which the perceiver-artist values, creates, and honors everything he sees—not only women—and in which he himself re-creates himself as an artist; it is, instead, a despairing "truth," so grotesque it had better not be admitted. So, Updike puts into the mouth of Janice Angstrom of Rabbit Redux words no woman would say, being in one sense obvious and in another sense completely incorrect: "I'm just a cunt. There are millions of us now." And Bech's horrific vision in "Bech Panics" is the stuff of which religious conversions are made, so intense and incredulous is his experience of the falsity of an old faith:

He looked around the ring of munching females and saw their bodies as a Martian or a mollusc might see them, as pulpy stalks of bundled nerves oddly pinched to a bud of concentration in the head, a hairy bone knob holding some pounds of jelly in which a trillion circuits, mostly dead, kept records, coded motor operations, and generated an excess of electricity that pressed into the hairless side of the head and leaked through the orifices, in the form of pained, hopeful noises and a simian dance of wrinkles. Impossible mirages! A blot on nothingness. And to think that all the efforts of his life—his preening, his lovemaking, his typing—boiled down to the attempt to displace a few sparks . . . within some random other scoops of jelly. . . . 8

Bech gives voice to suspicions Updike may play with, but cannot take seriously; he knows we are not free, and so Bech's lazy "freedom" is mere fiction, the maniacal cleverness of an intellectual consciousness unhampered by restraint, by the necessary admission of its subordinate position in the universe. And yet—if Bech were correct—one would be free of the tyrannical father as well, and free of the need to perform, ceaselessly, the erotic activity that defies him: writing. For Bech, of course, is a writer who cannot write. Updike may write about him but Bech requires a week to compose a three-page introduction to the book. Free, yes, undamped and unhaunted—but whoever wanted such freedom?

Most of the time, however, the projection is not recognized as such: it is experienced in a religious manner, the woman is "adored," she is associated with Nature, is either the Mother herself or a form of the mother—as, significantly, Foxy Whitman is loved when she is pregnant and because she is pregnant; once delivered of her child, her "flat" being somehow disappoints and bewilders her lover, and is in any case the promise of timelessness within the oppressive context of time. Burdened with the difficult responsibility of making men immortal, the woman-as-adorned either tires of the whole thing (as Joan Maple has grown tired in Museums and Women) or shares with her adorer a baffled metaphysical rage: Why isn't love permanent?

In asking of love that it be permanent, Updike's characters assert their profoundly Christian and historically oriented religious temperament, for not many religions have really promised an "immortality" of the ego, or even the Theistic mechanism to assure this permanence. In Updike, Eros is equated with Life itself, but it is usually concentrated, and very intensely indeed, in terms of specific women's bodies. Hence Bech's terror, his breakdown, hence the fact "monstrous and lovely" Peter discovers in kissing his girl, Penny, that at the center of the world is an absence: "Where her legs meet there is nothing." Because he is an adolescent and will be an artist, Peter still values this "nothing" and equates it with "innocence." He experiences his own artistry, through this equation, as Chiron/George Caldwell experiences his own divinity by simply accepting, as an ordinary human being, the fact of mortality. The Centaur is the most psychologically satisfying of Updike's numerous books—it may or may not be his "best" book—because it has expressed its author's considerable idealism in the guise of adolescent love, for Woman and for Father, an idealism Updike may not trust in adult terms.

(Or perhaps the world has changed, has become more "adult" and secular and unworthy of redemption—the dismal Tarbox of Museums and Women is far less attractive than the same Tarbox of Couples, though that was degenerate enough. An earlier novel, Rabbit Run, explored quite remorselessly the consequences of a reduced, secularized, "unimagined" world, Updike's conception of Updike-without-talent, Updike trapped in quantity. But the consciousness of a Rabbit Angstrom is so foreign to Updike's own that it seems at times more a point of view, a voicing, of that part of the mind unfertilized by the imagination, than a coherent personality. Rabbit is both a poet and a very stupid young man. A decade later, as Rabbit led back, penned, now finally trapped, he has become an uneasy constellation of opinions, insights, descriptive passages, and various lusts, a character at the center of Rabbit Redux called "Harry"; he ends his adventure in a motel room with his own wife, Janice, Venus-led-back; he is exhausted, impotent, but agreeable: O.K. The Yes of Ulysses is the weary O.K. of a man imagined as typically "American." 9)

The world itself has not changed, though history—both personal and collective—has certainly changed. Couples dramatizes in infinite, comically attentive detail the melodramatic adventures of "typical" Americans in a "typical" though sophisticated town in New England: love vies with the stock market in reducing everyone to ruins. Much has been said, some of it by the author himself, of the novel's religious and allegorical structure, which is so beautifully folded in with the flow of life, the workings-out of numerous fates, as to be invisible except in concluding scenes: the Congregational Church is struck by "God's own lightning," its weathercock is removed, Piet discovers in the ruins a pamphlet containing an eighteenth-century sermon that speaks of the "indispensable duty" of all nations to know that "the LORD he is God." Piet is not much of a hero, and does not choose to be heroic. He has, after all, helped arrange for the abortion of a baby both he and his mistress really wanted; but he is one of the few characters in Updike's recent fiction who can somehow synthesize the knowledge of human "valuing" with a religious faith that sustains it while reducing it to scale.

Piet does not require that love be permanent—or even "love." If he is an artist it is at compromises he is best; failing to be an architect, he winds up as a construction inspector for military barracks; failing to keep his wife from divorcing him, he moves on to the next stage, the next compromise. He has not much choice except to compromise his ideal love (Foxy pregnant) with his real love (Foxy the individual). After the desperate violence of his love ebbs he is able to see the woman dearly, not perfect, not even very charming, at times embarrassingly "tough," "whorish," as if performing for him, her waist thickened by childbirth, her luminous being somehow coarsened into the flesh of historical experience. Yet Piet says, without lying, that she is beautiful anyway; he adores her anyway; he marries her and they move to another town where "gradually, among people like I themselves, they have been accepted as another couple." The practical wisdom of the novel's concluding sentence may be interpreted as cynicism, or as a necessary and therefore rather comic working out of events that made their claim for tragic grandeur, but fell short.

In this way Piet accepts his own mortality, a movement into adulthood, middle age, in which the adolescent yearnings for an inexpressible transcendence in fleshly terms is put aside. In a powerful paragraph at the end of chapter 3 ("Thin Ice"), Piet has already come to terms with his own death by recognizing that "the future is in the sky.... Everything already exists" and this knowledge has the effect of undoing some of the magic of Foxy: "Henceforth he would love her less." The "love" he had experienced for Foxy was a form of delirium in which his terror of death was temporarily obliterated in the body of Venus—but only temporarily, for his real allegiance is to doom, to a future already in existence, a God Who manipulates men according to His inscrutable design. 10

At the same time Piet articulates what is sometimes kept beneath the level of consciousness in Updike: that the infatuation with surfaces, the artist's-eye aspect of his imagination, is somehow less basic to him than a deeper and more impersonal tendency toward unity, toward the general. After Angela has asked Piet to move out of their home he finds himself with a great deal of time, little to do, very much alone; and out of his loneliness the discovery that

the world was more Platonic than he suspected. He found he missed friends less than friendship; what he felt, remembering Foxy, was a nostalgia for adultery itself—its adventure, the acrobatics its deceptions demand, the tension of its hidden strings, the new landscapes it makes us master. 11

By a subtle—but not too subtle—shifting from the relatively restricted third person of "he" to the communal "us" Updike invites his readers to admit, in league with his doomed character, that the particular objects of any kind of infatuation, however idealized, are mere stimuli that activate the inborn responses of "love"; Venus Aphrodite is a figure that somehow unites and in that way attempts to explain a bewildering multiplicity of love-urges, but cannot exist "in herself" and cannot be more permanent than the brain-structure in which these love-urges exist. And yet does this really matter? Lying with Foxy in his squalid rented room Piet makes comic moaning noises, at first disgusting Foxy and then drawing her into imitating him; and Updike comments, again with an ironically confident nineteenth-century omniscience: We are all exiles who need to bathe in the irrational.

In a poem, "South of the Alps," the speaker is being driven to Lake Como by a beautiful Italian woman; is seated in the back of the car, terrified at the woman's careless speed while "her chatting lover occupied the death seat." The elements of an essential romance are present: the woman is seen as an "ikon," her beauty is "deep in hock to time" and reckless with itself and the men around it, slavish, adoring, hopeless. The poet sees himself as a "cowardly word-hoarder."

Of course I adored her, though my fate
was a midge on her wrist she could twitch away;
the Old Testament said truly: fear
is love and love is rigid-making fear.

Unknown in any personal, fleshly sense, unentered, unexplored, Signorina Angeli, an "angel" as finally remote and rejecting as Piet's wife Angela, alarms the poet and has the final line of the poem: "Tell me, why doesn't anything last?" And here it is Venus speaking from the disappointed idealism of the male, promised permanence and yet continually denied it.

"South of the Alps" shows us, in beautifully compressed language, the bewildering locked-in fates of the adorer and the adored: the masculine consciousness that, having failed to integrate the "Feminine" with its own masculinity, seeing it as essentially pagan and heretical, must continually project it outward; the feminine consciousness that, having taken on the masculine, Faustian quest for permanence, must be forever loved, a beloved, an ikon with nostrils "nice as a skull's." Male and female here unite only through a declaration of their common predicament. A writer who shares Updike's extreme interest in the visual world as well as his obsession with language is Joseph Conrad who, significantly, could imagine the ideal and the real only as hopelessly separate: when the "ideal" is given historical freedom to experience itself in flesh, in action, we have the tragicomedy of Nostromo, we have the Feminine Archetype, Mrs. Gould, at the very center of a storm of mirages, each an "ideal," each a masculine fantasy. But Conrad—ironic and witty as he may be—is finally without Updike's redeeming sense of humor. Art itself is not redemptive; but the sudden shifting of point of view that allows for a restoration of sanity is often redemptive. There is an Updike who is forever being driven along dangerous narrow roads by a beautiful woman with an intriguing, because mysterious, past, himself a hoarder of words, hoping only to experience transparency in the face of such wonder; there is another Updike in the guise of Reverend March, knowing his bitter metallic Calvinistic faith so unkillable that he may mock it, betray it, take every possible risk of damnation—because he is already saved, or already damned anyway. And out of this curious duality comes the paradoxical freedom of the true artist: having conquered both his temptation by vice and his temptation by virtue, he may live as ordinarily as anyone else.

The present action of The Centaur is a long "dreaming-back" as Peter Caldwell, now a young adult, a painter who lives with his black mistress in a loft in New York City, tortures himself with doubts. Was it for this that my father gave up his life? In Of the Farm it is mentioned that George Robinson's death may have been hastened—but it is more his wife's fault, probably, than his son's; and in "Flight" it is the mother, eerily powerful, who insists upon the brilliant young boy's flight, his escape from that part of Pennsylvania in which she knows herself trapped, partly by the burden of her own aged but undying father. Yet though Peter worries about the role he may have played in exhausting his father, the novel as a whole works to liberate him from guilt and would be, for this reason alone, an unusual work for an American writer; O'Neill's A Long Day's Journey into Night is its exact reverse. The point is made explicitly that the father, in giving his life for others, enters a total freedom. He is the "noblest of all the Centaurs" and certainly the noblest of all the characters in Updike's now vast canvas: it is not Peter's right to doubt.

From George Caldwell's experience, then, comes a conviction that permeates Updike's work even when it appears in secularized and diminished settings: that one cannot assume any ultimate truths about other people, that they forever elude the word-nets we devise. Fearing he had cancer of the bowels, Caldwell had been more or less ready to die and (like Piet Hanema after the missile crisis) feels somewhat cheated after learning that his X-rays are clear, having been "spoiled" by the expectation of an end to his troubled life. Yet he accepts it all again. Life consists and will always consist of some version of Caldwell's lot:

The prospect of having again to maneuver among Zimmerman and Mrs. Herzog and all that overbearing unfathomable Olinger gang made him giddy, sick; how could his father's seed, exploding into an infinitude of possibilities, have been funnelled into this, this paralyzed patch of thankless alien land, these few cryptic faces, those certain four walls of Room 204? 12

Yet he accepts it. By doing so he is blessed with the release of death. He is freed of his ego, his concern for himself, and is liberated from the tyranny of the Calvinistic vision of life which his son cannot avoid inheriting. Peter, Prometheus and artist, a Daedalus as well who must rebel against so holy a fate in order to honor it through his art, can encompass this wisdom only in the speculative recesses of his dreaming mind—he imagines his father as "saved," but he dare not accept such salvation for himself, because in giving his life to others (particularly to the mother who so blackmails him with her "love") he cannot be an artist.

In assembling the short stories and sketches called, simply, Olinger Stories, Updike spoke of having said the "final word" in 1964; by having written The Centaur and transforming Olinger into Olympus, he closed the book on his own adolescence—the past is now a fable, receding, completed. But the past is never completed; it is not even past. It is a continual present. And so, having in a way immortalized and killed the "George Caldwell" of The Centaur, the author takes on, perhaps unconsciously, those traits he found so exasperating in the man as an adolescent: "Daddy, why are you so—superstitious? You make everything mean something it isn't. Why? Why can't you relax? It's so exhausting!" And he has taken on as well that remarkably detached, rather elegantly egoless ability to glance without judgment on all sides of a melodramatic event, a basic clownishness, that seems to go largely unnoticed in his writing, but which gives it its energy, its high worth. Caldwell is funny, very funny, not with Bech's overwrought and neurotic wit, but with a fundamentally amiable acceptance of mystery. He reduces theological arguments to their basic emotional core and, correctly, presents it all as a cosmic joke:

What I could never ram through my thick skull was why the ones that don't have it [the non-Elect] were created in the first place. The only reason I could figure out was that God had to have somebody to fry down in Hell. 13

Caldwell's life is a torment but the torment is relieved by his sense of humor, and the sense of humility that so often accompanies humor.

The truly religious imagination is often given energy by a sense of the individual's relative smallness (and, perversely, his significance) that has much to do with the underlying spirit of comedy. It is doubtful that such an imagination can be "tragic"—it may even prove itself zestfully capable, like Flannery O'Connor, of a high-handed burlesque cruelty toward her characters that can alarm the liberal imagination because this cruelty—pratfalls, mass murders, and all—must be interpreted as part of a cosmic joke. The pattern is always for compromise, for a reexamination and scaling down of passions, as we see in the course of Saul Bellow's fiction as well: from the intense subjectivity of Dangling Man to the wildly comic (but no less serious) Humboldt's Gift. Comedy can contain any number of tragic plots because it strives for omniscience, and—very simply—the "omniscient" viewpoint is not a human viewpoint. In Updike, when faith in the spiritual world recedes, a surrogate must appear, or be summoned forth; in any case new people will come along, a new generation, powerful in their innocence (as at the conclusion of Couples the socially conscious and "radical" younger generation of citizens is taking possession, rather self-righteously, of Tarbox). If faith is time-bound, historical rather than "eternal," it carries within it the germ, the necessity, of its own disintegration. The process in time is always toward disintegration: the physical conquest of any embodiment of the life-giving Venus is a self-destructing act. And yet— "We love the flesh: its taste, its tones . . ."—what to make of this torment except an art that, being totally transparent, submissive, finally achieves its own immortality?


1. Museums and Women (New York: Fawcett, 1972), p. 20.

2. Couples (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968), epigraph, p. v.

3. Bech: A Book (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), p. 187.

4. When someone denounced Gothic architecture as a fussy multiplication of accents that demonstrated only "a belief in the virtue of quantity," James Joyce stated that he did something similar in words; there was no need to force the trivial into a symbolic expression of "beauty" since it is already, by simply existing, beautiful. The emotional and artistic consequences of such a belief, however admirable the belief, are sometimes dangerous: the writer finds himself unable to stop the multiplication of specific detail. There is a scholastic maxim (omnis determinatio est negatio) that, in psychological terms, warns against the generous dissolving of the ego in its submission to all that is outside it. What some critics dislike in Updike is this tendency toward detail for its own sake, as in Couples at the start of a dramatic scene one is sometimes given the setting at too great a length, or in Rabbit Redux one is dizzily informed of the furnishings of the Angstroms' house while scandalous events are taking place. The "external circumstances" of the visual world can be an exhausting burden. One example (p. 175) from The Centaur: "Vera enters the back of the auditorium by one of the broad doors that are propped open on little rubber-footed legs which unhinge at a kick from snug brass fittings." This naturalism, this fidelity to the concreteness of things, shades into the "absurdistic" techniques of Celine, Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, Ionesco, and many others, as faith in the divinity of things as things is lost.

5. The Centaur (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963) and Of the Farm (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966) illuminate one another, just as, scattered in his fiction but always recognizable as the nuclear fable of Updike's life, a certain set of tensions appears and reappears. At the center is the mother who waits out in Nature, patient, diabolically clever, more than a match for any female rival who would tempt her son away from her, and more than a match for the son himself. Hence the rudeness, the bluntness, the devastating accuracy of Mrs. Robinson of Of the Farm, who, when her thirty-five-year-old son challenges her by saying (p. 35), "You can't reduce everything to money," replies at once: "What would you reduce it to? Sex?" She knows him completely, from the inside, and the means by which Joey is able to transcend his situation—his mortality—is belittled simply by being named.

6. The Centaur, pp. 205 - 206.

7. Ibid., p. 178.

8. Bech: A Book, p. 115. Twelve years later, in the sequel Bech Is Back, Bech's long-awaited novel Think Big has at last been published—and, to its author's amazement, becomes a best-seller. So his "preening, lovemaking, and typing" have, after all, yielded fruit of a sort; though, by this weary time in his career, poor Bech has not only married but has been divorced; and, when last seen, finds himself cast upon the flotsam of a New York publishing world as terrifying in its emptiness as anything envisioned during his panic. "Radiant America; where else but here? Still, Bech, sifting the gathering with his inspired gaze, was not quite satisfied. Another word occurred to him. Treyf, he thought. Unclean." (Bech Is Back, p. 195.)

9. A dozen years later, in another celebrated sequel, Rabbit Angstrom discovers himself adrift in a surprisingly serene middle age, in which domestic problems present themselves with the frequency (and the texture) of situation-comedy complications. Yet, for all Rabbit's problems, he is rich, at least in a manner of speaking; and convinced that life is sweet, though finite. Or is it sweet because finite? At the conclusion of Rabbit Is Rich he holds his son's baby in his lap and muses: "Through all this she has pushed to be here, in his lap, his hands, a real presence hardly weighing anything, but alive. Fortune's hostage, heart's desire, a granddaughter. His. Another nail in his coffin. His."

10. Another of Updike's several undeveloped shadow-selves is that of a distinctly American theologian, as his thoughtful essays on Barth, Tillich, and de Rougemont (in Assorted Prose, 1965) and such stories as "The Astronomer" (in Pigeon Feathers, 1962) make clear.

11. Couples, p. 429.

12. The Centaur, p. 221.

13. Ibid., p. 189.