Posts Tagged ‘John Updike’


November 3, 2010

No, my post title is not about the election results. So far as I can tell, the sky did not fall yesterday. Jon Stewart said recently that “we’ll be fine,” and I’m holding him to that.

Today we have reports from Harrison and Kayla (and ?), and we continue to explore the ways in which we are not gadgets.

But first: Kelley’s report yesterday on Zombies seems relevant here. “Zombies are exactly like us in all physical respects but have no conscious experiences.” They’re not evil, they’re misunderstood, like the undead in general. Like us all.

Lanier is sure he’s conscious, and that other authors and artists and creative people are too. He’s not sure present trends favors conscious artistry, though.  If we stop respecting the mental autonomy and independence of our most creative peers, they’ll suffer and we’ll be deprived of their best efforts. Wake up, says Lanier, before it’s too late.

And, he gets off a wicked shot at those philosophers who seem to undervalue the meaning and importance of individual consciousness. “Zombies can only be detected if they happen to be professional philospohers. Daniel Dennett is obviously a zombie.” Ouch. But Dennett and Lanier should find common ground on the point that we don’t really understand our own consciousness very well. All the more reason not to rush into a hasty marriage to our machines.

Jaron Lanier is concerned with the future of money. How will people make a living with their hearts and heads, as the machines continue to evolve? The Open Source culture has become, for many, a “free culture” of downloadable music, online videos, and other cultural commodities increasingly available and on tap for the discerning consumer. What becomes of creativity when people expect you to give it away? Won’t they become detached from their own creations, alienated from their intellectual and artistic labor?  Won’t that have a chilling affect on art and inspiration? Won’t it result in bad art, uninspired and stagnant culture, and species arrest?

Digital Maoists, cybernetic totalists, remashers, and Web 2.0 enthusiasts generally prefer meta-level revisions of old-fashioned culture. “A mashup is more important than the sources who were mashed.” This seems exactly backwards, since creative originality doesn’t just fall from the Cloud but always begins in somebody’s brain – not the hive mind.  But creativity is being marginalized and downgraded in the depleted desert of Information, on Lanier’s view, not properly rewarded. This is bad news for creative people, and for the species.

This is an echo of that Updike-Kelly debate over the future of books we talked about in September. Do artists really want to hawk t-shirts and submit to “meet the author” occasions, to pay the rent, rather than reap a fair and even generous return for their hard solitary labors? Of course not. This is America, and so can you.

This is, as I read it, a pretty *grisly scenario. “Performances, access to the creator, personalization,” whatever that is — does this not throw us back to the pre-literate societies, where only the present, live person can make an impression and offer, as it were, value? Have not writers, since the onset of the Gutenberg revolution, imagined that they already were, in their written and printed texts, giving an “access to the creator” more pointed, more shapely, more loaded with aesthetic and informational value than an unmediated, unpolished personal conversation? Has the electronic revolution pushed us so far down the path of celebrity as a summum bonum that an author’s works, be they one volume or 50, serve primarily as his or her ticket to the lecture platform, or, since even that is somewhat hierarchical and aloof, a series of one-on-one orgies of personal access?

This does sound like the end of authorship, and the wrong way to go.

We’ve not gone there, yet. Lanier recalls confident predictions from VR skeptics, two decades ago, that “only a tiny minority of people would ever write anything for others to read.” Now, it seems, just about everybody’s blogging and tweeting and status-updating etc.

Granted, a lot of that falls well short of anything we’d want to celebrate as “creative.” But there’s plenty of content coming from all quarters. Lanier’s worried about its future in a “free and open” environment where everyone is encouraged to cadge and copy and cut and paste and remix and remash…

Hence, his “epiphany”:  the human world works, to the extent that it does, because it can depend on an “ocean of good will” backed by civilized formal constraints on greed and aggression. This is somewhere between Hobbes and Rousseau. Guess you could call it Human Nature 2.0. People are just about good enough, cooperative and friendly enough, if given their space and their stuff and a fair return on investment, secured by the full faith and credit of an effective, legitimately sovereign mutual authority: your tax dollars at work.

The message: let creative people be themselves, let ’em  sell their work as they see fit, and don’t “steal this book” or anything else produced by the hearts and brains of conscious, vital, flesh-and-blood human beings.

That would be unconscionable.

NOTE to students: A reporter for the campus newspaper Sidelines is doing a story for Monday’s edition on the upcoming “Environmental Ethics and Native Wisdom” course, and wants to include some students’ perspectives.  If you’re interested in sharing, you can contact her directly:


September 22, 2010

First, to follow up Monday’s impromptu discussion:  I was wondering if books face a future of figurative immolation, not the  literal burning of the Alexandrian library (or the crazy Gainesville pastor) but every bit as terminal. Our large-scale cultural turn to e-reading, away from traditional book authorship and publication, raises questions about the long-term durability of the printed word and, hence, of our ability to transmit any legacy at all to future generations.

John Updike had important thoughts about the future of books, late in his life. He disputed Kevin Kelly’s rosy vision of a future of literary mash-ups and “snippets” unmoored from their thus-marginalized and fungible authors.

Books traditionally have edges: some are rough-cut, some are smooth-cut, and a few, at least at my extravagant publishing house, are even top-stained. In the electronic anthill, where are the edges? The book revolution, which, from the Renaissance on, taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling cloud of snippets.

Updike elaborated his concerns in this speech, released as a podcast

Kevin Kelly, you may then think, is some kind of radical firebrand. But he doesn’t come across that way in our Clock of the Long Now reading today. The most sensible statement in today’s text, though, is Hillis’s response to Kelly’s report of the “complexity scientists” and their mocking of Long Now’s ambitions:

Believing in the future is not the same as believing you can predict or determine it. The Long Now Foundation is not about determining the destiny of our descendants, it is about leaving them with a chance to determine a destiny of their own.

(That’s exactly the point Harrison was making on Monday,  right?)

Also in Sunday’s Times Magazine special issue on the future of technology in education, Kelly’s conservative framing of computing as a tool we may pick up and put down at will is measured and reassuring. He quotes his previously home-schooled son, about to enter High School:

“I’m learning how to learn, but I can’t wait till next year when I have some real good teachers — better than me.”

He had learned the most critical thing: how to keep learning. A month ago he entered high school eager to be taught — not facts, or even skills, but a lifelong process that would keep pace with technology’s rapid, ceaseless teaching.

If we listen to technology, and learn to be proficient in its ways, then we’ll be able to harness this most powerful force in the world.

And if we don’t? Not so reassuring. But this seems right enough:

• The proper response to a stupid technology is to make a better one, just as the proper response to a stupid idea is not to outlaw it but to replace it with a better idea.

Jaron Lanier, who– we will read soon– insists that he’s not a gadget (and neither are you), also points out that education does what genes cannot, viz., transfer nongenetic information (“memes”) between generations:

To the degree that education is about the transfer of the known between generations, it can be digitized, analyzed, optimized and bottled or posted on Twitter. To the degree that education is about the self-invention of the human race, the gargantuan process of steering billions of brains into unforeseeable states and configurations in the future, it can continue only if each brain learns to invent itself. And that is beyond computation because it is beyond our comprehension. Learning at its truest is a leap into the unknown.

Leaping can be a good thing, it’s how we get somewhere. But, as Lanier cautions: “Trusting teachers too much also has its perils.” Danger, Will Robinson.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

But on the other hand, Will did always trust his Robot. It’s the duplicitous Dr. Smiths you really have to watch out for.


June 1, 2010

Nashville 8, Iowa 0. It was a pitcher’s duel for 7 innings, until the wheels fell off for the Cubs’ hurler. He started issuing unintentional walks,resulting in a couple of runs for the home team; and then Luis Cruz cleared the bases with a shot over the big sign in left that seemed to just hang in the air at the upper extent of its long arc, motionless and perfect, for the longest time. I was inspired to embellish the headline, in my tweet:

Cruz Crushes Iconic, Platonic Grand Slam In Nashville’s 8-0 Win. We were there!

Just a passing moment before a modest Memorial Day crowd at a minor league park, but it vindicated the cliche about how much this game is like life. Nothing happens for days (or innings) on end, to casual and careless inspection, until something spectacular breaks the spell and pulls back the veil, revealing wonders and possibilities we’d put out of mind while we were busy ruminating on less inspiring things like oil spills and such.

Just a game, sure. Like John Updike was just a writer. He could have written something nice about that shot, if he’d cared about our little purchase on the national pastime as much as he cared about the Sox and Teddy Ballgame. And if he weren’t dead yet.

But the real inspiration for me yesterday was not that long ball, it was just the privilege of sitting and sharing a scorecard with a pair of bright young ladies who will inherit, transform, and “refresh” (Pepsi has co-opted the word, I want it back) this troubled but sporadically-brilliant world. They’re why I’m a pie-eyed optimist, when I am. See those girls in the stands? They have good ideas.

And one of them has a birthday today. Hope you enjoy that shiny new Schwinn with the bells & whistles (& lights & speedometer), Younger Daughter!


March 16, 2010

A nice barely-planned symmetry: we begin the second half of our semester in A&S with  Carl Sagan, who also began the first.

In Demon-haunted world the “elegant and witty” exobiologist again implores us to light a candle and neither curse nor fear the darkness. Cursing and fearing are inveterate bad habits of our species, going back to St. Paul’s “high places” and beyond. How delightfully, wickedly ironic, that “demon” means “knowledge”… and that women have so frequently been demonized in our sexually repressed, male-dominated society. And, how appalling that more than half of Americans tell pollsters they “believe” in the Devil’s existence. They should read the Devil’s Dictionary: FAITH, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.

In the Gifford lectures that became Varieties of Scientific Experience we’re reminded it’s very easy to call people who believe in a different kind of god atheists, and in fact anybody who doesn’t believe exactly as I do. Sagan brings the same perspective to bear in sifting the differences among Abrahamic believers as he does when comparing ours to the gaze of an extra-terrestrial. The fundamental differences among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are trivial compared to their similarities.But those trivial differences, comic though they are (as with the naive Western view of God as an outsize, light-skinned male with a long white beard) have been deadly. Maybe it’s time to give Spinoza’s and Einstein’s God a hearing.

Sagan: Certainly it is insufficient to say “I believe in that sort of god because that’s what I was told when I was young”… We cannot depend entirely upon what people say. We have to look at the evidence, or else admit that we’re just not interested in trying to defend rational beliefs.

There are a few arguments Rebecca Goldstein missed here. The argument from atomic combinations and the argument from the suspension of the world fail, but they try.

Is Sagan being impertinent when he asks why God wouldn’t have engraved the Ten Commandments (say) on the Moon?

Also in today’s reading: an excerpt from John Updike’s Roger’s Version (Updike was a theist, btw), J.L. Mackie’s Miracle of Theism, Michael Shermer’s “Genesis Revisited,” A.J. Ayer’s weird oxygen-deprivation account of “what I saw when I was dead” (not God), and Dan Dennett’s more sensible (and grateful) reflections on his own near-death experience in “Thank Goodness!”

[NOTE to A&S students: the syllabus got ahead of itself. For Thursday read thru the next Dennett piece, “A Working Definition of Religion”]

medievals and scholastics

February 24, 2010

What fun, teaching my evening class last night to an engaged, intelligent, impassioned group of adult learners whose eagerness to discern the spiritual possibilities inherent in a world without gods matches my own! We didn’t quite solve the challenge: how to create a self-sustaining, mutually supportive, visibly active community of non-believers in this region of the country, traditionally so inhospitable to non-belief. But we sure took a good first step, proclaiming (like those Whos down in Whoville) we are here, we are here...

And that on the heels of a terrific A&S class yesterday, led by Miso’s report of his interview with a Muslim friend who grew up here but left his heart in Kurdistan, considering American culture crass and licentious. The profile of the young man he painted for us so vividly struck me as chilling– just as the late John Updike’s young man in Terrorist was chilling, at home in neither world, a kind of ticking bomb just waiting for tinder to set him off.

But this is a post about medievals and scholastics, who we’re reading about in Intro. [NOTE TO STUDENTS: come to class today, all your questions about the Friday exam, reports, presentations etc. will be answered.]

The first figure discussed by Simon Critchley in today’s reading is The Venerable Bede, who apparently faced his end considerably less venerably than the poet advised, without “unfaltering trust.” With his dying words he quoted Paul, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” breaking down and weeping over the dread departure of the soul from the body and the prospect of God’s judgment. This is disappointing: I always thought Bede had earned his name. Wallace Stegner cited his “truest vision of life” as analogous to a bird flying out of darkness into a lighted hall, and then soon out again (Spectator Bird). My wife and I used that quote on our wedding-scroll tokens.

Then there’s the Neoplatonist John Scottus Eriugena, who (like Plotinus) said the world is best understood as a dynamic process of emanation from the divine One. His view anticipated the pantheism of Spinoza— “Atheism is reversed Pantheism,” said Feuerbach (who also said you are what you eat) and the “heresy” of Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in 1600 for discovering a few astronomical truths and speculating about other worlds. The human being is the microcosm of the divine macrocosm of nature. Perhaps your fear in passing judgment on me is greater than mine in receiving it,” he said as he batted away the crucifix that would supposedly have saved him.

The Inquisitors were more successful in extracting a recantation from Galileo, but it’s nice to believe he did mutter “Pero si muove” under the breath of his confession.”Philosophy is written in this grand book, the universe, which stands continually open to our gaze.”

It’s so refreshing to be reminded of the Islamic “falsafa” tradition, committed (as in the case of Al-Farabi) to combining logical rigor and empiricism with their neoplatonic mysticism. Avicenna‘s concupiscible faculties are impressive. “I prefer a short life with width to a narrow one with length.”

Critchley has a good answer to Anselm. I can conceive of neither death nor God. They both passeth understanding. The ontological proof comes up short, the soul remains elusive (or illusory).

Poor Abelard. Hard to say his name without cringing.

Averroists defended the autonomy of philosophy and its separation from questions of theology and religious faith. We still wage that battle. Can’t we all just co-exist? No, our magisteria really do overlap, Professor Gould notwithstanding.

MaimonidesGuide for the Perplexed was a perennial best-seller throughout the middle ages: a measure of the perplexity many faith traditions engender, when running up against the realities of modernity.

Aquinas argues against the separation of the natural and the spiritual and in favor of their continuity. Me too! But not quite like he says.

Bonaventure worried that the separation of the worlds of faith and reason would ultimately culminate in atheism. Could be.

Duns Scotus gave us haecceity, a very useful word that never comes up in casual conversation. It means the uniqueness or the indivisible “thisness” of a person.

Ockham gaves us a razor. Machiavelli a manual, Erasmus a satire. More lost his head. Luther played with paradox and renounced philosophy. Copernicus re-oriented us. Montaigne invented the essay…

Gotta love Francis Bacon’s death by empiricism, when his strange sudden impulse to stuff a chicken with snow backfired and he caught his death. Curiosity and the experimental imperative killed him, it seems, but generations of carnivores ever-after were gratified by his sacrifice.


August 9, 2009

Hottest day of the year yesterday, but early risers don’t get beat by the heat. I stayed a step ahead of the sun as long as I could, then cooled off under the Little House ac… far from the madding crowd of Younger Daughter, her house guest, and their loud stuffed menagerie of fluffy playmates. I do envy their ability to slip into fantasyland at will, just like that. But I didn’t want to be in the front row for the performance this time.

I did have my own version of fantasyland, staged in my shack with the dogs, the Yankees and Red Sox, and some newly-acquired books for company. Andrew Chaikin’s new moon book came a couple days ago, and I’d just  settled into my favorite old comfy chair (the big blue rocking recliner my wife long ago decreed no longer fit for civilized domicility) and started to escape low earth orbit when the little girls arrived at my door insisting on a ride to Walgreen’s to develop the photos they’d just snapped of their inanimate friends in action.

Mission delayed.  But in an exploratory mood, I persuaded my charges to accompany me to the oddly-named Used Book store down the street while they waited for their images to materialize.  I don’t know why I got out of the habit of patronizing the place, it used to be one of my favorite diversions. Years had passed since my last visit.

I didn’t make a haul, like I used to, but what a delight to find a bargain-priced, high quality original (1963) edition of myCentaur favorite Updike novel, and two glossy illustrated tomes about ancient Greece and Rome for $4 each…  just when I’d started fishing for a fresh slant on the ancient world for the new batch of students I’ll soon be meeting.

Happiness is settling into your favorite old chair, in your favorite old hiding place, with serendipitously-timely “new” old books, a cold beer, in the presence of undemanding friends and reassuring pastimes, and unpleasantly extreme weather on the other side of the door.

One of my versions of a warm puppy.

honest feeling and care

July 10, 2009

honest feeling and care

John Updike said all he ever tried to do in his books was give the mundane its beautiful due… to craft models of how to use the language, of honest feeling, of care.

CBS Sunday Morning ran this brief tribute in February.

Updike told Charles McGrath and a Times Talks audience,  just three months before his death, that he was cheered by the thought of being read by posterity, a prospect “soothing to the anxious ego fearful of extinction.” His last novel was a meditation on aging, his and ours and his witches and widows of Eastwick. He promised no sequels.

“You need to have a sense, as a writer, of an ending as well as a beginning.”

Something always escapes

June 26, 2009

That’s probably enough said in this forum about Updike and Williams, ‘least for now. If you’ve not read the former, get started and maybe you can catch up in a month of Sundays or so. (In fact, start with A Month of Sundays or The Centaur if you’re looking for something to take to the beach or the mountains.) There’s plenty to read about Teddy Ballgame too, beyond Updike’s little New Yorker gem. Best bio is Leigh Montville’s, including a very smart parallel  account of “Hub Fans” alongside a more conventional sportswriter’s account of Williams’ last game by Ed Linn. I still wouldn’t call him, or any athlete (save maybe Jackie Robinson) “heroic”. But Williams came  as close to personifying Platonic perfection with respect to willed mastery of  a single difficult skill as, well, as a person can. Updike’s genius was intellectual and creative and and versatile and  various, hence more impressive to me. Heroic even, especially at the end when Updike very deliberately witnessed, transmuted, and shared his very own final days. (Williams’ end was distrurbingly, perversely unheroic. “Refrigerated,” as Montville has it.) But I prefer to draw illuminating and not invidious comparisons, so let it be.

On to my next obsessive working concern: William James’s A Pluralistic Universe. Howard Callaway has given us a new reading of that 1909 pragmatic classic.  My “crowds” post foreshadowed this theme, and how our various inner lives can converge to create shared meanings and rituals and public displays. When they do not converge, we sometimes find one another opaque and incredible. Consider Callaway’s opening epigraph:

“As a rule we disbelieve all facts and theories for which we have no use.”  -James, “Will to Believe” (1896) This isn’t quite what a wag meant by: “Disregard all facts in conflict with your favorite theories.” But it may be too close for pragmatic comfort.

Another epigraph, drawn from A Pluralistic Universe itself, notes that “something always escapes” from every theory, every system, every account of things. Something , somewhere, somehow will always evade our best efforts to impose ultimate order and tidy, predictable, rational unity. Pluralists are happy about this. An open universe invites and promises adventure, for those who go to meet it.

Ask Carl Fredricksen.

carl fredrickson

Appreciating the crowd

June 25, 2009

The crowd at the ball game is moved uniformly

by a spirit of uselessness which delights them…

-William Carlos Williams

John Updike dedicated Due Considerations, his last collection of essays and criticism, to the New Yorker editors “who kept me in the game into the late innings.” He was 28 when “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” appeared in its pages in 1960, already one of their seasoned veterans; his last short fiction piece The Full Glass appeared there just last May. Like  his baseball hero Ted Williams he became fused in his fans’ imagination with the team he represented so ably for so many years. Unlike Williams  he didn’t have to keep coming back from injury and interruption; his literary productivity was unstinting. And unlike Williams, he always expressed appreciation for  his audience.

If Williams was the “concentrated essence” of his game, Updike was Williams’  literary counterpart. But a writer’s essence is  manifestly a reaching out to perceptive readers. Gods may not answer letters, as Updike famously wrote of Williams’ aloof detachment on the the field, but an old New Yorker artist  named Saul Steinberg answered young John Updike’s teenage fan letter & request for a particular drawing.

Is either activity (swatting baseballs, discharging syllables) ultimately important? I don’t know. But the conditions of success  for ballplayer and writer alike were fundamentally the same: both were driven by an urgent desire and  need to connect (with the  ball, the word, and each with his own knowledge and experience and potential). Believing in the purity of  their passion propelled them across decades of incomparable attainment.

But Updike was driven as well, from the start, by a desire to make solid contact with the reader. Williams sometimes gave the impression that he’d have been happy to smack baseballs in an empty yard, without the crowd.  The fans’ appreciative cheers seemed to him more a storm to get out of than a glow to bask in.

The belief may not always create the fact, but it may sustain for some at least a perception (or illusion, if you wish) that the game matters. Do we need more, in the game of life? Updike sometimes said so, craving “supernature… beyond the claims of matter and private appetite.” But in the same breath he also admitted that  “subjective sensations, desires, and may we even say, illusions compose the substance of our daily existence.”

ted_cap_lgBut that we all entertain subjective illusions is an objective fact about us, and when our subjectivities converge we have the inter-subjectivity that can bring a crowd to its feet to cheer the flight of a ball. The real inner lives of other people, like our own, are the makers of  worlds.  Writers of fiction know that implicitly, sometimes it takes ballplayers longer to learn it.

Ted didn’t want to doff his cap while in uniform, but time at last brought him the wisdom to appreciate the crowd.

“The crowd and Ted always shared what was important, a belief that this boys’ game terrifically mattered.”

Mattering is something we do together, on this crowded sphere.

everybody’s right

June 23, 2009


by John Updike

It looks easy from a distance,
easy and lazy, even,
until you stand up to the plate
and see the fastball sailing inside,
an inch from your chin,
or circle in the outfield
straining to get a bead
on a small black dot
a city block or more high,
a dark star that could fall
on your head like a leaden meteor.

The grass, the dirt, the deadly hops
between your feet and overeager glove:
football can be learned,
and basketball finessed, but
there is no hiding from baseball
the fact that some are chosen
and some are not—those whose mitts
feel too left-handed,
who are scared at third base
of the pulled line drive,
and at first base are scared
of the shortstop’s wild throw
that stretches you out like a gutted deer.

There is nowhere to hide when the ball’s
spotlight swivels your way,
and the chatter around you falls still,
and the mothers on the sidelines,
your own among them, hold their breaths,
and you whiff on a terrible pitch
or in the infield achieve
something with the ball so
ridiculous you blush for years.
It’s easy to do. Baseball was
invented in America, where beneath
the good cheer and sly jazz the chance
of failure is everybody’s right,
beginning with baseball.

“Baseball” by John Updike, from Endpoint and Other Poems. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.

Recited by Garrison Keillor on The Writer’s Almanac, 6.22.09

(Keillor reflects on Updike’s passing…)