It was a classic John Updike sentence:
“Nothing will be lost, not the least grain of remembered dust, and the multiplication shall be a thousand thousand fold; love me.”
One struggles to think of a more romantic thing to say to one’s true love. There’s a lushness to the sound of the written words, a depth to the sentiment that raises it above mere sentimentality, an earnestness and exuberance combined that swoops the reader up in the emotion of the thing. And it is followed in subsequent sentences by more lushness: honey, jade, cinnamon, a “stream of balm,” “apples and ancient books.”
But I re-read the exceedingly short story by Updike, called “Archangel,” in whose last paragraph these words flow like the most beguiling little mountain stream you’ve ever seen — and I say to myself: “What the heck is he saying?” In truth, I have no idea what the subject of this Updike story is. I can’t make heads or tails of it. It sounds awfully good. But what does it mean?
That’s the problem I kept running into when I was in my Updike phase: The man’s style often seemed to outstrip his substance. He had great sensibilities, or maybe sensitivities… but toward what end? So many of his characters were either amoral or immoral, unlovely or unlovable, that sometimes reading Updike was downright unpleasant.
Yet Updike, who died Tuesday at age 76, will rightly be missed and mourned. Certainly and clearly one of the greatest American writers of the past half century, he had the courage to take on big subjects and the seriousness often to wrestle, even if obliquely, with questions of faith. He was obsessed, it seemed, with sex, sometimes clinically or graphically so, in ways that sometimes detracted from any enjoyment a reader could ordinarily expect — yet there was something that kept one reading, anyway. A Jesuit professor of mine at Georgetown, George Hunt, S.J., was intrigued enough by Updike to have become perhaps the leading Updike scholar in all of academia, earning praise from both John Cheever and from Updike himself for Hunt’s learned criticism of Updike’s work — which confirmed for me, as Hunt was a thoughtful fellow, that there was moral seriousness at the heart of Updike’s work. In Hunt’s book-length work of literary criticism called John Updike and the Three Great Secret Things: Sex, Religion, and Art, Hunt’s concluding page referred to Updike as “an analogist of fall and possible redemption.”
Redemption is a good thing, indeed.
Personally, I found Updike’s novel Rabbit Redux to be an execrable piece of work — but I read it, specifically, because I had been so impressed and intrigued, against my better judgment, by the earlier Rabbit, Run. Even in the first book of that particular series of novels, the character Rabbit Angstrom was hard to like — but not hard to sympathize with. Maybe it was the former high-school cross-country runner in me who appreciated, or rather loved and wholly identified with, the last lines: “His hands lift of their own and he feels the wind on his ears even before, his heels hitting heavily on the pavement at first but with an effortless gathering out of a kind of sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter, he runs. Ah: runs. Runs.”
And maybe that, that way in which Updike hooked me into identifying with a character with whom I had nothing in common, was part of his genius. Maybe that’s how he hooked others, hundreds of thousands strong who read him: by writing so many individual sentences perfectly evocative of particular feelings or emotions that somewhere, somehow, almost any reader would come across some sentence that wouldn’t let the reader go even if the reader thought the rest of the story was dreck. For me, frankly, it was Updike’s non-fiction — his paeans to golf, or to my beloved Red Sox — that was most enjoyable and fulfilling. But somebody else might read the short story “Archangel” (the one I didn’t understand) and know exactly what Updike was writing about, and love it.
So, yes, there was a greatness to this writer. An uneven greatness perhaps, but a greatness nonetheless. I might prefer to stick with Walker Percy, C.S. Lewis, Mark Twain — but Updike’s work had a literary merit one can’t lightly set aside.
So many of our modern authors who are superb craftsmen — Ian McEwen, Richard Russo, Richard Ford — leave me, in the end, exhausted and cold. There may or may not be struggles, in their novels, with questions vaguely moral or ethical — but the redemptiveness is almost never even hinted at, and certainly not a redemptiveness having much to do with the realm of faith. Updike was a regular churchgoer, and in subtle ways his faith informed and seeped through his work.
What’s worrisome is that so few works accepted as great (or near-great) literature these days share even the semi-religious sensibilities of Updike’s best. Redemption (religious or even secular) is out of style. A novel ending on a “down” note seems to be seen as a mark of profundity. Protagonists these days don’t run, like Rabbit; they trudge. They make up alternate endings because they screwed up their real chance at doing things right. They watch their kids deliberately get beaned with a baseball. They suffer, and suffer…. And that’s the point: People suffer.
But in truth, that’s not profundity, it’s banality. So people suffer: That’s not exactly news. What would be news is if people didn’t just endure their suffering, but moved through the suffering into something redemptive, something of a faith or even a joy. Something, in short, that Updike at his best liked to capture. As Hunt writes of the protagonist at the end of Updike’s novel Of the Farm, “He becomes a ‘hero’ and enters what Kierkegaard calls the ethical, the second sphere of existence.” Or read Updike’s epilogue in The Centaur: “Here in the Zodiac, now above, now below the horizon, he assists in the regulation of our destinies, though in the latter time few living mortals cast their eyes respectfully toward Heaven, and fewer still sit as students to the stars.”
There is in Updike a reverence for the eternal that is fundamentally conservative — not politically conservative, but attitudinally so. Not culturally so — far too much adultery, far too much acceptance of narcotics, etcetera — but spiritually so, in the sense of a respect for things and themes that transcend the merely human.
What really ought to concern political and cultural conservatives is that we don’t produce enough novelists, or painters, or musicians, who are so talented as to force even the post-post-modern elites to recognize their greatness. We produce some good essayists, and a plenty of brilliant legal theorists or political analysts — but when was the last time a conservative, identifiably conservative, produced great art? We grab onto an Updike, or a Percy, or a Solzhenitsyn, for any scrap of conservative-themed insight, anything to hang our hats on, even though the classical-liberal tradition of Madison and Jefferson that is the basis of modern conservatism finds little or no echo in these writers’ works or even their interests.
We need to do better. We are the ones who think that the finer things of civilization must be saved, must be conserved — the “great books,” the “canon,” the cultural touchstones often derided as the things of “dead white males.” Yet we ourselves do not produce enough of these great things for the future. Our monuments are measured in the incomes they produce, not in the lasting values of wonder and joy and transcending awe. If we conservatives don’t promote enough of the things of the mind and/or of surpassing aesthetic value, then we risk leaving a legacy where nothing will be saved, not the least grain of remembered dust. And we will have produced no centaurs lighting the way of future generations, as if from the heavens.