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Testing The Limits of What I Know and What I Feel
As heard on NPR’s All Things Considered, April 18, 2005.
A person believes various things at various times, even on the same day. At the age of 73, I seem most instinctively to believe in the human value of creative writing, whether in the form of verse or fiction, as a mode of truth-telling, self-expression and homage to the twin miracles of creation and consciousness. The special value of these indirect methods of communication — as opposed to the value of factual reporting and analysis — is one of precision. Oddly enough, the story or poem brings us closer to the actual texture and intricacy of experience.
In fiction, imaginary people become realer to us than any named celebrity glimpsed in a series of rumored events, whose causes and subtler ramifications must remain in the dark. An invented figure like Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary emerges fully into the light of understanding, which brings with it identification, sympathy and pity. I find in my own writing that only fiction — and rarely, a poem — fully tests me to the kind of limits of what I know and what I feel. In composing even such a frank and simple account as this profession of belief, I must fight against the sensation that I am simplifying and exploiting my own voice.
I also believe, instinctively, if not very cogently, in the American political experiment, which I take to be, at bottom, a matter of trusting the citizens to know their own minds and best interests. “To govern with the consent of the governed”: this spells the ideal. And though the implementation will inevitably be approximate and debatable, and though totalitarianism or technocratic government can obtain some swift successes, in the end, only a democracy can enlist a people’s energies on a sustained and renewable basis. To guarantee the individual maximum freedom within a social frame of minimal laws ensures — if not happiness — its hopeful pursuit.
Cosmically, I seem to be of two minds. The power of materialist science to explain everything — from the behavior of the galaxies to that of molecules, atoms and their sub-microscopic components — seems to be inarguable and the principal glory of the modern mind. On the other hand, the reality of subjective sensations, desires and — may we even say — illusions, composes the basic substance of our existence, and religion alone, in its many forms, attempts to address, organize and placate these. I believe, then, that religious faith will continue to be an essential part of being human, as it has been for me.
John Updike won two Pulitzer Prizes for his series of novels chronicling the life and death of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. He is also a noted poet and essayist as well as a literary and fine art critic. Updike grew up in rural Pennsylvania and lived in Massachusetts. He passed away on January 27th, 2009.
Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick. Edited by Ellen Silva. Photo by Nubar Alexanian.