John Updike Saves the Universe (sorta)

David Corbett

I’m writing this on Christmas Day, after reading Stephen’s incredible interview with Sean Black. Nothing quite so bracing today, I’m afraid. More grateful and reflective.

I want to thank all our readers for visiting so faithfully over the preceding year. It’s so easy to fear that one is bellowing into a vacuum. Every day, you spare us that by logging on, and at times chiming in. I can’t tell you how much all of us appreciate it. I hope we continue to see you here in 2013.

On the reflective front: I’ll keep it brief, because I know everyone’s busy.

In trying to think of something that resonated with what it is we’re trying to celebrate this time of year — the wonder of warmth and light at a time of cold and darkness, the comfort of family and friends, the hope of love against the certainty of death, the promise of meaning in the face of an at times far more convincing void — I thought back to an article from earlier this year, upon publication of Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? 

The article was adapted from an interview Holt conducted for the book with the author John Updike the year before he died. It’s a marvelously positive and loving testament to our humble existence, and I found myself reading it hungrily this morning. I thought you might enjoy reading it as well. 

You can find it online here. Or read the text below.

Merry Christmas one and all. And best wishes for a 2013

filled with warmth and light and love and promise.

Jukebox Hero of the Week: I was tempted to share Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria, my favorite piece of Christmas music, sung by one of my favorite vocal groups, Chanticleer. But instead, in keeping with the theme of wonder, I’m going to share Martin Lauridsen’s O magnum mysterium, a work of modern polyphony that is simply stunningly beautiful, and which I’ve been listening to all morning:

 * * * * *

Late winter in Manhattan. Afternoon. A siren in the distance. (There is always a siren in the distance.) The phone rings. It’s John Updike.

I had been expecting the call. Earlier that month, I had sent a letter to Updike describing my interest in the mystery of existence. I had guessed, I said, that he shared this interest, and I wondered whether he would be willing to talk about the matter. I included my phone number in case he did.

A week later, I received a plain postcard with Updike’s return address on the front and a long type-written paragraph crowded onto the back. The occasional typo had been corrected in pen with a proofreader’s “delete” or “transpose” sign. At the bottom, in blue ink, it was signed “J.U.”

“I’d be happy to talk to you about something rather than nothing,” Updike had typed, “with the warning that I have no thoughts.” He then, in a trio of brisk sentences, mentioned the dimensionality of reality, the possibility of positive and negative being, and the anthropic principle—the last of which, he cryptically added, “to some extent works for somethingness.” Then, as a comment on the mysteriousness of it all, came the kicker:

“Beats me, actually; but who doesn’t love the universe?”

That Updike loved the universe had long been obvious to me. His novels and stories are suffused with the sheer sweetness of being. We “skate upon an intense radiance we do not see because we see nothing else,” he wrote in a memoir of his youth. “And in fact there is a color, a quiet but tireless goodness that things at rest, like a brick wall or a small stone, seem to affirm.”

In this respect, Updike was the anti-Woody Allen, who once described human existence as “a brutal, meaningless experience” (in an interview he gave to a Catholic priest, curiously enough).

But, in another respect, he was at one with Woody Allen. He shared the same horror of eternal nothingness—and the conviction that sex offered a psychological hedge against it. Indeed, he found that his phobia of nonbeing was inversely proportional to his carnal flourishing—a point he put in succinct mathematical form in his 1969 credo poem, “Midpoint”:


But it was not only eros that fortified Updike against the terrors of nothingness. He also claimed to draw consolation from religion—specifically, from a leap-of-faith version of Christianity—and the hope it offered of all-encompassing grace and personal salvation. Here his heroes were Pascal and Kierkegaard and, especially, Karl Barth. “Barth’s theology, at one point in my life, seemed alone to be supporting it (my life),” Updike once observed. He professed to share Barth’s belief that God is totaliter aliter—wholly other—and that the divine mysteries could not be approached by rational thought. He was also drawn to Barth’s somewhat mystical equation of nothingness with evil. In an early collection of writings, Picked-up Pieces, Updike darkly dilates on the idea of “Satanic nothingness”—and then, as if in search of metaphysical relief, transitions directly to an essay on golf.

Updike’s obsession with sex and death, with the goodness of being and the evil of nonbeing, is perhaps not unusual in the literary profession. But only with Updike do you find the mystery of existence figuring directly and explicitly in his fiction. His 1986 novel, Roger’s Version, a merry roundelay of theology, science, and sex, culminates in a virtuoso passage that explains, over the course of nearly 10 pages, “how things popped up out of nothing”: a detailed scientific account of the Big Bang. The explanation is delivered in the course of a cocktail party, and no doubt Updike didn’t mean for us to take it too seriously. It is being mouthed, after all, by a character in a novel, and a somewhat ridiculous character to boot. Still, Updike had clearly pondered the mystery of being from the scientific as well as the theological angle. And that was reason enough to seek out his thoughts.

Updike was calling from his longtime home in the town of Ipswich, on the Massachusetts shore an hour north of Boston. In the background I could hear his visiting grandchildren at play. As he spoke, in his characteristically soft and richly modulated voice, I could see him in my mind’s eye: the thick thatch of gray hair, the curved beak of a nose, the mottled, psoriatic complexion, the eyes and mouth forming his habitual expression, that of a man, as Martin Amis once put it, “beset by an embarrassment of delicious drolleries.”

I began by asking Updike whether the theology of Karl Barth had really sustained him through a difficult time in his life.

“I’ve certainly said that and it did seem to be true,” he said. “I fell upon Barth having exhausted Kierkegaard as a consoler, and having previously resorted to Chesterton. I discovered Barth through a series of addresses and lectures called The Word of God and the Word of Man. He didn’t attempt to play anybody’s game as far as looking at the Gospels as historic documents or anything. He just said, essentially, that this is a faith—take it or leave it. So yes, I did find Barth comforting, and a couple of my early novels—not so early, actually—are sort of Barthian. Rabbit Run certainly presents a Barthian point of view, from the standpoint of a Lutheran minister. And in Roger’s Version, Barthianism is about the only refuge for Roger from all the besieging elements that would deprive one of one’s faith—both science, which Dale tries to use on behalf of the theist point of view, and the watering down of theology with liberal values.”

Was that 10-page scientific account of the origin of the universe from nothingness meant to be convincing?

“Not entirely, and that’s an embarrassment for science. Science aspires, like theology used to, to explain absolutely everything. But how can you cross this enormous gulf between nothing and something? And not just something, a whole universe. So much … I mean the universe is very big. Ugh! I mean, it’s big beyond imagining squared!”

Updike’s voice rose a register in genuine wonderment.

“It’s interesting,” I said, “that some philosophers are so astonished and awed that anything at all should exist—like Wittgenstein, who said in the Tractatus that it’s not how the world is that is mystical, but that it is. And Heidegger, of course, made heavy weather of this too. He claimed that even people who never thought about why there is something rather than nothing were still ‘grazed’ by the question whether they realized it or not—say, in moments of boredom, when they’d just as soon that nothing at all existed, or in states of joy when everything is transfigured and they see the world anew, as if for the first time. Yet I’ve run into philosophers who don’t see anything very astonishing about existence. And in some moods I agree with them. The question Why is there something rather than nothing? sometimes seems vacuous to me. But in other moods it seems very very profound. How does it strike you? Have you ever spent much time brooding over it?”

“Well, to call it ‘brooding’ would be to dignify it,” Updike said. “But I am of the party that thinks that the existence of the world is a kind of miracle. It’s the last resort, really, of naturalistic theology. So many other props have been knocked out from under naturalistic theology—the first principle argument that Aristotle set forth, Aquinas’s prime mover … they’re all gone, but the riddle does remain: why is there something instead of nothing?”

I told Updike that I admired the way he had a character in Roger’s Version explain how the universe might have arisen from nothingness via a quantum-mechanical fluctuation. In the decades since he wrote the book, I added, physicists had come up with some very neat scenarios that would allow something to emerge spontaneously out of nothing in accordance with quantum laws. But then, of course, you’re faced with the mystery: Where are these laws written? And what gives them the power to command the void?

“Also, the laws amount to a funny way of saying, ‘Nothing equals something,’ ” Updike said, bursting into laughter. “QED! One opinion I’ve encountered is that, since getting from nothing to something involves time, and time didn’t exist before there was something, the whole question is a meaningless one that we should stop asking ourselves. It’s beyond our intellectual limits as a species. Put yourself into the position of a dog. A dog is responsive, shows intuition, looks at us with eyes behind which there is intelligence of a sort, and yet a dog must not understand most of the things it sees people doing. It must have no idea how they invented, say, the internal-combustion engine. So maybe what we need to do is imagine that we’re dogs and that there are realms that go beyond our understanding. I’m not sure I buy that view, but it is a way of saying that the mystery of being is a permanent mystery, at least given the present state of the human brain. I have trouble even believing—and this will offend you—the standard scientific explanation of how the universe rapidly grew from nearly nothing. Just think of it. The notion that this planet and all the stars we see, and many thousands of times more than those we see—that all this was once bounded in a point with the size of, what, a period or a grape? How, I ask myself, could that possibly be? And, that said, I sort of move on.”

Updike chuckled softly. His mood appeared to lighten.

 “When you think about it,” he continued, “we rationalists—and we’re all, to an extent, rationalist—we accept propositions about the early universe which boggle the mind more than any of the biblical miracles do. Your mind can intuitively grasp the notion of a dead man coming back again to life, as people in deep comas do, and as we do when we wake up every morning out of a sound sleep. But to believe that the universe, immeasurably vast as it appears to be, was once compressed into a tiny space—into a tiny point—is in truth very hard to believe. I’m not saying I can disprove the equations that back it up. I’m just saying that it’s as much a matter of faith to accept that.”

Here I was moved to demur. The theories that imply this picture of the early universe—general relativity, the standard model of particle physics, and so forth—work beautifully at predicting our present-day observations. Even the theory of cosmic inflation, which admittedly is a bit conjectural, has been confirmed by the shape of the cosmic background radiation, as measured by the Hubble space telescope. If these theories are so good at accounting for the evidence we see at present, why shouldn’t we trust them as we extrapolate backward in time toward the beginning of the universe?

“I’m just saying I can’t trust them,” Updike replied. “My reptile brain won’t let me. It’s impossible to imagine that even the Earth was once compressed to the size of a pea, let alone the whole universe.”

Some things that are impossible to imagine, I pointed out, are quite easy to describe mathematically.

“Still,” Updike said, warming to the argument, “there have been other intricate systems in the history of mankind. The scholastics in the Middle Ages had a lot of intricacy in their intellectual constructions, and even the Ptolemaic epicycles or whatever were … Well, all of this showed a lot of intelligence, and theoretical consistency even, but in the end they collapsed. But, as you say, the evidence piles up. It’s been decades and decades since the standard model of physics was proposed, and it checks out to the twelfth decimal point. But this whole string theory business … There’s never any evidence, just mathematical formulas, right? There are men spending their whole careers working on a theory of something that might not even exist.”

Even so, I said, they’re doing some beautiful pure mathematics in the process.

“Beautiful in a vacuum!” Updike exclaimed. “What’s beauty if it’s not, in the end, true? Beauty is truth, and truth is beauty.”

I asked Updike if his own attitude toward natural theology was as contemptuous as Barth’s was. Some people think there’s a God because they have a religious experience. Some think there’s a God because they believe the priest. But others want evidence, evidence that will appeal to reason. And those are the people that natural theology, by showing how observations of the world around us might support the conclusion that there is a God, has the power to reach. Is Updike really willing to leave those people out in the cold just because he doesn’t like the idea of a God who lets himself be “intellectually trapped”?

Updike paused for a moment or two, then said, “I was once asked to be on a radio program called This I Believe. As a fiction writer, I really don’t like to formulate what I believe because, like a quantum phenomenon, it varies from day to day, and anyway there’s a sort of bad luck attached to expressing yourself too clearly. On this radio program I conceded that ruling out natural theology does leave too much of humanity and human experience behind. I suppose even a hardened Barthian might cling to at least one piece of natural theology, Christ’s saying, ‘By their fruits shall ye know them’—that so much of what we construe as virtue and heroism seems to come from faith. But to make faith into an abstract scientific proposition is to please no one, least of all the believers. There’s no intellectual exertion in accepting it. Faith is like being in love. As Barth put it, God is reached by the shortest ladder, not by the longest ladder. Barth’s constant point was that it is God’s movement that bridges the distance, not human effort.”

And why should God make that movement? Why should he have created a universe at all? I remembered Updike saying somewhere that God may have brought the world into being out of spiritual fatigue—that reality was a product of “divine acedia.” What, I asked him, could this possibly mean?

“Did I say that? God created the world out of boredom? Well, Aquinas said that God made the world ‘in play.’ In play. In a playful spirit he made the world. That, to me, seems closer to the truth.”

He was silent again for a moment, then continued. “Some scientists who are believers, like Freeman Dyson, have actually tackled the ultimate end of the universe. They’ve tried to describe a universe where entropy is almost total and individual particles are separated by distances that are greater than the dimensions of the present observable universe … an unthinkably dreary and pointless vacuum. I admire their scientific imagination, but I just can’t make myself go there. And a space like that is the space in which God existed and nothing else. Could God then have suffered boredom to the point that he made the universe? That makes reality seem almost a piece of light verse.”

What a lovely conceit! Reality is not a “blot on nothingness,” as Updike’s character Henry Bech had once, in a bilious moment, decided. It is a piece of light verse.

I told Updike how much I had enjoyed the chat. He said he had been almost out of breath at the beginning because he had just come in from playing kickball with his grandchildren. “I find when I play kickball, which I did with ease most of my life, that at seventy-five it’s a definite strain,” he said, laughing. “You listen to your heart beating and hear your own rasping lungs. It’s a good way to keep in touch with what stage of life you’re at.”

A few months later, Updike was diagnosed with lung cancer. Within a year he was dead.

Adapted from Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt. Copyright © 2012 by Jim Holt. With the permission of the Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company Inc. 

7 thoughts on “John Updike Saves the Universe (sorta)

  1. Reine

    Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, David. I know you threw these theologies up here to suck me out of my mucky hole. I kept expecting to see Paul, Astonishment-is-the-Root-of-Philosophy, Tillich weaving himself through here in rhythm with the universe, "We can speak without voice to the trees and the clouds and the waves of the sea. Without words they respond through the rustling of leaves and the moving of clouds and the murmuring of the sea." Isn't that gorgeous. That's why I went to div school.

  2. Sarah W

    "Aquinas said that God made the world β€˜in play.’ In play. In a playful spirit he made the world. That, to me, seems closer to the truth.”

    I want this to be the truth. If it is, it only means we have to get out of our own way to be uplifted.

    Merry happy, David.

  3. David Corbett

    Reine: That is beautiful. Thanks for sharing it. It expresses the heart of my sense of the divine (and I'm glad I lured you out of the mucky — happy holidays, my dear. I've missed you.).

    As the Psalm says, "God, the joy of my youth." What is the joy of youth but astonishment. perhaps we're simply trying to recover that overwhelming childlike joy, and the universe is truly indifferent. But that astonishment can feed the courage and love so necessary to live well, and meaningfully, with both courage and kindness.

    Sarah: I'm not sure anyone who's ever been to a pediatric cancer ward can echo that "created in play" line for long. But I don't think that's the point. Yes, there is evil and sorrow and terrible suffering. But there is also playfulness and joy and love. The latter become precious precisely because the former are real and inescapable. That returns a sense of both mystery and tragedy to our lives, which often gets drowned out by the constant trivialization of life in a commercial society.

    But we can't help but get in our own way. We're mortal and vain and by nature misguided. That's where humility and acceptance and forgiveness come into play. Sometime earlier this year I wrote that in every story the hero is trying to be at least a little braver, wiser, more loving. So should we. That's the heroism required of life. How or why the universe is the way it is may as well be irrelevant. The question is how do we live, and the answer lies in this moment, the next, and the one after that.

  4. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Thank you for this, David. God, I love Updike. I was literally destroyed (not literally) when he died, because of all my literary heroes he's the one I most wanted to meet. And I never met him. I love his Bech series, especially, probably because they are so fun. I miss reading him. I'll get back to him after I've finished reading every single mystery-thriller published in 2012. Give me another month or so.

  5. Shizuka

    I didn't know John Updike was so joyful.
    And that's the first time I've ever heard anyone call Bath comforting.

    Thank you for bellowing.
    I like listening. Sometimes responding.
    And sometimes feeling slightly confused.

    Happy soon-to-be New Year!

  6. David Corbett


    I'm still overwhelmed by your reading burden for the judge gig. There's a special place in heaven for you. Maybe Updike will be there!

    Shizuka: First, I'm tickled by your typo: "that's the first time I've ever heard anyone call Bath comforting"

    I often find a good bath comforting. πŸ™‚

    Not only was Barth as comforting a stunner, what about Kierkegaard "the consoler"?

    We're so glad to have you here, Shizuka. I always look forward to your comments.

Comments are closed.