A tribute to “a village wise man” … on the passing of John Updike.

FROM Robert H. Crilley …

I FULLY REALIZE that a lot of John Updike’s literary work involved explicit sex, and that some readers don’t like the manner in which he treated women, but he also wrote some things of great excellence in the area of the human spirit.
    I think, for example, of his poem, “The Seven Stanzas Of Easter.” To my mind it is one of the finest affirmations of the bodily Resurrection of Christ by anyone at anytime.

Make no mistake: if He rose at all

it was as His body;

if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules

reknit, the amino acids rekindle,

the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,

each soft Spring recurrent;

it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled

eyes of the eleven apostles;

it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,

the same valved heart

that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then

regathered out of enduring Might

new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,

analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;

making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the

faded credulity of earlier ages:

let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,

not a stone in a story,

but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow

grinding of time will eclipse for each of us

the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,

make it a real angel,

weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,

opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen

spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,

for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,

lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are

embarrassed by the miracle,

and crushed by remonstrance.

    I believe, on balance, Updike’s literary contributions outweigh his shortcomings. For example: his powers of description helped me also to learn how to see — and not only to see but  appreciate what I was seeing and to think about it, and ponder it — often a long time afterwards.

    My introduction to John Updike was his first novel, “The Poorhouse Fair.” In this work his descriptive powers as a writer already reveals itself. Updike describes a character in the book by the name of Mendelssohn. “His eyes grew redder, and he was dabbing at his cheeks with the huge handkerchief he always carried…and for him to hear them sing was an experience in which joy and grief were so mixed, laughter and tears battled for control of his face.”
    That image of “laughter and tears battling for control of his face” never left me.
    Later in this work he describes Elizabeth Heinemann, who is blind, describing the world, “The things you see, are to me composed of how they feel when I touch them, and the sounds they make, for everything has a sound, even silent things.” She then goes on to describe what she believes Heaven will be like, “We live in a house with a few windows, and when we die we move into the open air, and Heaven will be, how can I say, a mist of all the joy sensations have given us. Perfumes, and children speaking, and cloth on our skin; hungers satisfied as soon as we have them. Other souls will make themselves known like drops of water touching our arms.”
    But these examples of thoughtful seeing, and Updike’s ability to turn them into   memorable word pictures, can be multiplied by the thousands in his subsequent many novels, short stories, essays etc.
    The other significant contribution John Updike made for me was to reinforce a kind of continuing steady self-confidence in my own take on life — to trust the truth that we human beings have a unique view, slant, perspective of the way things are in this world and when we die this particular way of seeing is lost forever. So if we are able, and have the opportunity, while we live we should share with the world what we see, experience and, for us, discover and know to be true.

    This all came together for me when I saw on the New York Times web site this past Wednesday morning a video of Updike talking this past October with Sam Tanenhaus, Editor of the Book Review, about his life as a writer. (See:  “N.Y.Times, January 28,2009 “A Conversation With John Updike.”)
    In the video, Updike talks about the importance of wisdom coming with living. “In our age we don’t believe in the wisdom of the ages. In a way we are all failed youths. We don’t have a village wise man.”

    Updike says of his career as a writer, “I attempted to write with precision about what my mind’s eye conjured up — to deliver to the reader my images, my sense of human experience, the shape of the landscape. And then, as a kind of summary of everything he did as an author, Updike says: “This is my life. This is what I know.”
    Isn’t it interesting that here, one of America’s most eminent literary men, at the end of his long writing career was, with great self-confidence, still honoring the long-held principle that beginning writers are often given — write what you know.

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    (Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)

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