Updike on the Universe
A conversation with the novelist about the mystery of existence.
Photograph by Mandel Ngan/Getty Images.
Also in Slate: Ron Rosenbaum admires Jim Holt’s pursuit of true nothingness.
The following article is adapted from Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist?, out now from W.W. Norton.
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”:
ASS = 1 / ANGST
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.
Jim Holt is a longtime contributor to The New Yorker—where he has written on string theory, time, infinity, numbers, truth, and bullshit, among other subjects—and the author of Stop Me If You’ve Heard This. He is also a frequent contributor to the New York Times. He lives in Greenwich Village, New York City.