Saturday, July 25, 2009

Updike 1932-2009

"Ancient religion and modern science agree: We are here to give praise. Or, to slightly tip the expression, to pay attention."

I am quoting John Updike, who probably understood science better than any other major literary figure. He had an oarsman's grip on religion, too. Add women -- their unaging beauty, their desirability -- and you have the Holy Trinity of his work.

I don't believe I took note here of Updike's passing earlier this year, at age 77. I should have. We were near enough contemporaries. We shared foibles, frailties and preoccupations. Our geographic trajectories were not dissimilar. I could not, of course, hope to equal his huge talent, but I followed along behind as he bounded rabbity ahead.

I have just read his posthumous collection of stories, My Father's Tears. The names change, as usual, but the protagonists are the same, that is to say, some transmogrification of Updike himself. And, as usual, in these final stories science, religion and women figure strongly, but now shadowed by the encroachments of old age and death.
Why should it bother Martin Fairchild? In his long, literate lifetime he had read of many revisions of cosmic theory. Edwin Hubble's discovery of a pervasive galactic red shift and therefore universal expansion had occurred a few years before he was born; by the time of his young manhood, the theory of the Big Bang, with its overtones of Christian Creation by fiat -- "Let there be light" -- had prevailed over the rather more Buddhist steady-state theory claiming that space itself produced, out of nothingness, one hydrogen atom at a time...Ever stronger telescopes, including one suspended in space and named after Hubble, revealed a swarm of fuzzy ovals, each a Milky Way. Such revelations -- stupefying for those who tried truly to conceive of the distances and time spans, the titanic amounts of brute matter accumulating, exploding, and dispersing throughout a not quite infinite vacancy seething with virtual particles -- had held for Fairchild the far-fetched hope of a last turn: a culminating piece in the great skyey puzzle would vindicate Mankind's sensation of central importance and disclose an attentive mercy lurking behind the heavenly arrangements.
Alas, Fairchild's far-fetched hope is not to be. As he drifts toward the end of life, astronomers discover that the universe of the galaxies -- under the influence of a dark energy -- is apparently drifting towards an infinite dispersal, a cold, dark nothingness. In the face of this colossal cosmic erasure -- and, metaphorically, a crashing collapse of his own past that I will leave to the reader -- Fairchild experiences a split second of redeeming mercy from somewhere deep within himself. It is all typical Updike: the science, the religion, the addled protagonist stumbling through a life that is complicated beyond his understanding, always wanting to have his cake and eat it too, hoping for an Attentive Mercy, settling instead, reluctantly, inevitably, for a sprinkling of tender happenstance.

Giving praise. Paying attention. Updike did that in spades. I can't remember where, but in some much earlier work, perhaps the same essay from which I gleaned the initial quote, he said this: "What we certainly have is our instinctual intellectual curiosity about the universe from the quasars down to the quarks, our delight and wonder at existence itself, and an occasional surge of sheer blind gratitude for being here."