27 January 2009

John Updike Dead: 1932 - until as long as people read

John Updike was one of our greats. Ridiculously prolific, he wrote novels, poems, essays, reviews and short stories as if he were a factory of the profound insight. I loved and envied his mastery of writing.

I think that no other writer quite captured the essence of what it means to be a soul trapped in the body of an animal as did Updike. He wrote with such personal intimacy about our better and lesser selves, the animal spirits and animal instincts that drove our petty interests. He grappled with what it meant to be American – to be alive – in a time when the individual mostly has to go it alone, the old pathways covered in asphalt and no obvious footpath for the soul in sight.

At his best, the novelist performs the most amazing feats. He exposes the broadest cultural trends by tapping into the most intensely personal truths. He alters our consciousness, entering it and tweaking it and our emotions at will with the oldest and still most effective of technologies – peculiar symbols scratched on paper.

Updike was a genius who wrote about reason, emotion, sexuality, and spirituality with incredible insight. I’m sad that he’s gone.

Updike wrote The Witches of Eastwick. In this scene, Jack Nicholson delivers a speech essentially penned by Updike. After the video, just a few quotes to give you a sense of the man's gift.

Quotes from Updike:

Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or doing it better.

“That the neo-Babbit in the third volume contains the witness to the apocalyptic events of the second would strain plausibility did not so many peaceable citizens contain lethal soldiers, so many criminals contain choirboys, so many monogamous women contain promiscuous young things. An adult human being consists of sedimentary layers. We shed more skins than we can count, and are born each day to a merciful forgetfulness. We forget most of our past but embody all of it.”

From John Updike’s The Terrorist

“Relief at escaping their students unscathed for another day makes the teachers’ chatter of farewell in the halls and on the parking lot too loud, like the rising excitement of drunks. The teachers revel when they are away from the school. Some have the pink lids and bad breaths and puffy bodies of those who habitually drink too much. Some get divorces; some live with other unmarried. Their lives away from the school are disorderly and wanton and self-indulgent. They are paid to instill virtue and democratic values by the state government down in Trenton, and that Satanic government farther down, in Washington, but the values they believe in are Godless: biology and chemistry and physics. On the facts and formulas of these their false voices firmly rest, ringing out into the classroom. They say that all comes out of merciless blind atoms, which cause the cold weight of iron, the transparency of glass, the stillness of clay, the agitation of flesh. Electrons pour through copper threads and computer gates and the air itself when stirred to lightning by the interaction of water droplets. Only what we can measure and deduce from measurement is true. The rest is the passing dream that we call our selves.”

“The very bad girls, the ones already thoroughly fallen, have tattoos where only their boyfriends get to see them, and where the tattoo artist had to poke his needle most gingerly. There is no end of devilish contortions once human beings feel free to compete with God and to create themselves.”

“’My whole life seems just out of my reach,’ one character on All My Children once said.”

Bush complains about Putin turning into Stalin, but we’re worse than the poor old clunky Kremlin ever was. The Commies just wanted to brainwash you. The new powers that be, the international corporations, want to wash your brains away, period. They want to turn you into machines for consuming – the chicken-coop society. All this entertainment – Madam, it’s crap, the same crap that kept the masses zombified in the Depression, only then you stood in line and paid a quarter for the movie, where today they hand it to you free, with the advertisers paying a million a minute for the chance to mess with your heads.

[the programming – sports and comedies and talk shows] It’s slop. And Leno and Letterman, more slop. But the commercials, they are fantastic. They’re like Faberge eggs. When somebody in this country wants to sell you something, they really buckle down. They get intense. You watch the same commercial twenty times, you see how every second has been weighed out in gold. They’re full of what physicists call information.

[George Washington] showed the world what can be done against the odds, against a superpower. He showed – and this is where Vietnam and Iraq come in – that in a war between an imperialist occupier and the people who actually live there, the people will eventually prevail. They know the terrain. They have more at stake. They have nowhere else to go.

History isn’t something over and done, you know. It’s now, too. Revolution never stops. You cut off its head, it grows two.

All I’m saying is that kids like Ahmad need to have something they don’t get from society any more. Society doesn’t let them be innocent any more. The crazy Arabs are right – hedonism, nihilism, that’s all we offer. Listen to the lyrics of these rock and rap stars – just kids themselves, with smart agents. Kids have to make more decisions than they used to, because adults can't tell them what to do. We don’t know what to do, we don’t have the answers we used to; we just futz along, trying not to think. Nobody accepts responsibility, so the kids, some of the kids, take it on.


Anonymous said...

I liked all of Updikes quotes here, but for me, the best word in the lot is futz! "...we just futz along, trying not to think." I can hardly wait to put futz into use.

Anonymous said...

The last quote sounds like Steve Earle's John Walker's Blues (which he was crucified for singing).

I liked Updike's short stories, but for some reason his novels never really clicked with me. I think I would have like him.

Gypsy at Heart said...

I liked this last phrase very much: "...Only what we can measure and deduce from measurement is true. The rest is the passing dream that we call our selves.”

The neo-Babbit has become a favorite and the one about commercials being like Faberge eggs is right on the money as far as I'm concerned.

He said a lot of things in a very precise and (to my mind) true way. A voice like his will surely be missed because, even though his words remain, there is nothing new to succeed it and eventually with time, his now visible wisdom is bound to diminish. That's just the way of the world and time.

Great tribute Ron.

Anonymous said...

You're the second blogger that's given tribute to Updike. I need to look into his work.
Thanks Ron.

Anonymous said...

Well, heh, probably not only the second blogger, but the second blogger I've read today. :0)

coffee said...

I haven't fallen in love with all of Updike's work, though i do enjoy his candid writing style; his passing is a sad loss indeed