Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Curious Beauty



Here is my favorite passage from John Updike:

The grape leaves outside my window are curiously beautiful. "Curiously" because it comes upon me as strange, after the long darkness of self-absorption and fear and shame in which I have been living, that things are beautiful, that independent of our catastrophes they continue to maintain a casual precision, the effortless abundance of inventive 'effect', which are the hallmark and specialty of Nature. Nature: this morning it seems to me very clear that Nature may be defined as that which exists without guilt.

Man, talk about casual precision.

John left us today. One by one, the literary lions make their way heavenward and leave us with our lot: reality TV, podcasts, blogs. With every step forward in technology, I fear we've left a bit of our humanity behind us.

Updike was a master at humanity. He said his writing sought to give the mundane its beautiful due. His short stories on Married Life and Family Life are uniquely American & domestically devastating, and his Rabbit novels should be required reading, first in college for the craft, then again later in life as we see our lives unfolding with the same menagerie of missteps as Harry Angstrom's did. Slowly, our idealism is shifted in a trajectory that leads us to a life unexpected.

Updike was a man of faith who could express the most human of shortcomings: divine doubt. He once said, "I am very prone to accept all that the scientists tell us, the truth of it, the authority of the efforts of all the men and woman spent trying to understand more about atoms and molecules. But I can't quite make the leap of unfaith, as it were, and say, 'This is it. Carpe diem (seize the day), and tough luck.'"

He helped the New Yorker carve its reputation for erudite writing. He sparred with fellow authors, most famously Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe, about their craft. And perhaps his last great societal contribution was a passionate defense of bookstores and words - words on paper, that is - at a publishing convention in 2006. Responding to the notion of a digital future, he scorned this "pretty grisly scenario" and praised the paper book as the site of an "encounter, in silence, of two minds."

John Updike's work always elicits two responses from me: it makes me want to read more and write more.

May we all find the occasion to set aside our technological addictions from time to time so we can, in silence, encounter the mind of a master such as Updike.

Curious beauty awaits us all. We only need turn the page.

No comments: