Jim Holt’s Conversation With John Updike About the Mystery of Existence

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July 23 2012 2:49 PM

Updike on the Universe

A conversation with the novelist about the mystery of existence.

John Updike.
John Updike had his own thoughts on somethingness versus nothingness

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.

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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.

“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.

Also in Slate: Ron Rosenbaum admires Jim Holt’s pursuit of true nothingness.

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.

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