John Updike’s pragmatic embrace of Christianity reminds me of many on the Dissident Right (as well as former Nazis in post-WWII Germany) who take on Christianity as a socially acceptable expression of their traditionalist views.
* Updike’s academic critics are right on at least one key point: his religious position is indispensable to any broad comprehension of his work. Updike has always been a visible Christian, and he is more insistent about theological niceties today than when he started out. The enduring, autobiographically urgent, themes of his work are Christian-existential: a fear (bordering on phobia) of eternal nonbeing; an attempt to reconcile both spiritual and erotic striving with awareness of the implacable heartlessness of the natural world; and a resultant struggle to believe in the grace of personal salvation.
* he has radically divorced his notion of Christian theology from that of Christian ethics. It is precisely that dissociation, I believe, which accounts for the main dilemmas posed by his most ambitious fiction.
In Updike’s youthful works, righteous belief and righteous conduct marched confidently hand in hand.
* We can see the new, morally emancipated Updike quite clearly in his credo poem, “Midpoint,” of 1969:
Our Guilt inheres in sheer Existing, so
Forgive yourself your death, and freely flow. Transcendent Goodness makes elastic claims;
The merciful Creator hid His Aims.
What this meant in practice was that Updike would not feel bound by standard notions of sin. Instead, he would seek in sheer experience, and above all in sexual experience, continual reassurance against the terror of nothingness which has haunted him, so he tells us, since his preadolescent years. As he put the matter succinctly in the same poem,
ASS = 1/ANGST.
That is, sex—the more the better—had become Updike’s answer to Kierkegaard, his preferred means of validating his existence through immersion in the tangible.
Needless to say, what Updike had in mind here was not the obligations of the marriage bed. As his fictions repeatedly implied, the seeker’s wife was almost by definition a death bearer who could clip his metaphysical wings and, by entrapping him in bland and benign routine, allow the doomsday clock to tick irreversibly away. Somebody else’s wife, on the other hand, would be another story. Thus Updike wryly recast the ninth (Lutheran) commandment as follows: “Don’t covet Mrs. X; or if you do, / Make sure, before you leap, she covets you” (M, p. 41). Since the time of Couples, that has been pretty much the extent of Updike’s ethical vision.
But no one could imagine that Updike’s leave-taking from his first wife and children in 1974, after twenty-one years together, was effected without remorse. The many stories and novels that dwell upon that trauma tell us that his Christian upbringing and his sense of fair play would not leave him in peace. Nevertheless, we can also gather that he fiercely resisted the condemnatory internalized voice of his Pennsylvania forebears, steeling himself, perhaps like the philandering Tom Marshfield in A Month of Sundays, to register “no distinct guilt but rather a sort of scrabbling restiveness, a sense of events as a field of rubble in which he is empowered to search for some mysterious treasure.”
That struggle, I believe, was directly responsible for the anesthetic tone and the moral inconclusiveness of Updike’s novels about disintegrating marriages—books that stew in a pervasive yet unacknowledged atmosphere of self-reproach. The author made no effort to disguise the unprovoked, perverse quality of his heroes’ yearnings for escape. Readers thus found it hard not to side with the long-suffering wives—Janice in the Rabbit books, Angela in Couples, Ruth in Marry Me—who had to put up with the compulsive Updikean man-child. But at the same time, for obvious reasons, Updike could not afford to register the full asininity of Piet Hanema and Jerry Conant, “heroes” who are routinely unfaithful, maddeningly indecisive and self-absorbed, yet nonetheless religiously priggish.
The oddest-looking element in this picture was surely Updike’s and his heroes’ dogged insistence on conservative Protestant theology. His zeal for salvational dogma, it is clear, waxed in direct proportion to his abandonment of sin as a judgmental category. But that development looks less paradoxical if we reflect that orthodoxy can itself be a means of discharging guilt, and doubly so when the favored tenets minimize the importance of virtuous conduct. Indeed, Updike’s whole project of mooting ethical injunctions looks like an overreaction to self-judgment on the single point of adultery. A truly untroubled existentialist would hardly think to take such casuistic pains.
* The action of Roger’s Version spreads across a Boston-like city whose slums and upper-middle-class enclaves are drastically, perhaps terminally, disconnected. The threat of criminal black incursion hangs like smog over the Lamberts’ tidy home on Malvin Lane (another, too cute, reference to a Hawthornian Roger), and the protagonist’s involvement with the ghetto-dwelling Verna brings the black menace psychologically closer. Beyond Roger’s academic dignity, what is threatened is the once-smug WASP mentality which, like Roger himself, has lost “whole octaves of passion” and now appears helpless to cope not only with technically apt Asians and “grounded” Jews unhobbled by the Puritan legacy, but also with that supposedly violent, licentious, imperfectly quarantined black race which, Roger vilely thinks, “travels from cradle to grave at the expense of the state, like the aristocrats of old.”
The “messy depths” that Roger encounters on the black side of town, suggesting a “random human energy too fierce to contain in any structure,” are at once an emblem of his inner condition, a counterpart to the untamably alien physical universe, and a reminder of the socioeconomic chaos that goes unrecognized by most Americans, who prefer to live “inside Reagan’s placid, uncluttered head as inside a giant bubble.” Updike implies that his propertied white readers had better wake up—not, however, to social injustice, but to the fact that their homes, jobs, and persons cannot be indefinitely safeguarded against the covetous have-nots.
Unfortunately, this show of class-based misanthropy cannot be dismissed as a passing aberration. A general ill will toward the marginal has informed Updike’s outlook at least since the time of Rabbit Redux (1971) and probably much earlier. Remember, he has always given fair warning that he is “not necessarily advanced over Harry Angstrom” (PP, p. 508). Some of the low remarks that his protagonists toss off about spoiled youth, loud and ugly Jews, freeloading, animalistic blacks, butch feminists, degenerate hippies, and whining peaceniks find counterparts in cartoonlike figures who pass through his works, from the demonic Skeeter and the spaced-out Jill in Rabbit Redux to the pudgy, obnoxious Myron Kriegman in Roger’s Version and the ghetto girls whom Roger must hurry past, “fat, with fat Afros and fat rubber-dark rounded arms and fat false pink pearls.”