Thursday, 7 November 2019

No 92 - The nature of John Updike

I recently read half a review of the work of the late American writer John Updike, and gave up in some disgust. A usually perceptive critic seemed to think that delivering up a welter of uninhibited four-letter words served as a way of revealing the misogynistic underbelly of Updike’s hyper-polished prose. This isn’t the first time Updike has been attacked for an habitually clinical depiction of sex, taken to mean that he fails to understand women – a perception that possibly cost him the Nobel Prize. He did win many other awards, but it still remains a mystery to me that this extraordinary writer, once dubbed America’s Dickens, never got the Big One, even if one objects to a certain cool cynicism of vision. This sort of thing didn’t prevent the 2019 Nobel committee choosing Peter Handke, whose politics sound abominable, or prevent a number of previous committees choosing men who wrote like angels but in real life treated their women like dirt.  

Two things here. The first is that Updike does indeed describe sex and the minutiae of women’s bodies with crystalline accuracy – the same unflinching, character-revealing and comprehensive gaze he brings to bear on the interior of a car, or the contents of a garage. He picks out things which (I presume) most men do register in their lovers’ secret recesses, but don’t go so far as to delineate them in richly, at times comically, metaphorical prose. I’m not sure what Updike’s feminist objectors would prefer: romanticised stereotype, the glutinous clumsiness of the Fifty Shades variety, or the coy avoidance of a Jane Austen? Not only feminists have had issues: David Foster Wallace, while claiming to admire Updike’s craft, objected to the ageing protagonist of Toward the End of Time, Updike’s solitary futuristic novel, paying exaggerated attention to the state of his genitals. On re-reading the novel, I think it’s Wallace who exaggerates, making me wonder what his problem might have been. I think I am safe in saying many if not most men pay a good deal of necessary attention to their goolies, ageing or not, even if unlike Updike they don’t talk about it much. In short, Updike is as forensically observant of male anatomical quirks as of female, suggesting he is driven by something other than a covert desire to demean women. Indeed, I’d suggest almost the opposite. I also recently re-read Rabbit is Rich, one of four novels concerning car salesman Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, and was struck afresh by what an appalling human being he is – and there is no way that Updike isn’t perfectly deliberate in this. 

So here’s the second thing. Because in story after story Updike portrays his men as complexly flawed, often downright stupid and gauche in their relationships, and only borderline sympathetic, it has become too easy to collapse the characters into the writer, and to judge Updike as being equally impoverished in his understanding. On the contrary: I suspect that Updike is placing that myopic masculinity at the very centre of the American cultural crisis that he portrayed life-long in such analytic, fascinated, still-half-loving detail.  Behind this lurks the gnarly and perennial question about how far knowledge of a writer’s life should affect one’s judgement of the art, and vice versa.

But all this is beside my main point here. Revisiting other of Updike’s works, marvelling at the consistency of their deft and intricate quality (excepting The Coup, aberrantly set in Africa and a truly awful book), it’s something else altogether that has struck me. Updike’s settings are predominantly urban and suburban, and he can hardly be called an ‘ecological’ writer – yet I’ve become aware of many telling instances in which the natural and animal worlds insert themselves into the narratives. At times this seems almost unthinking: Nature is just there, like flowers in the gardens, part of the enveloping intimate detail Updike excels at – but almost the more telling for its apparent unconsciousness. Here’s an illuminating little passage from Seek My Face, a 2002 novel decidedly about art, not nature:

The ‘sixties liberated her from lipstick and those frizzing ‘forties and ‘fifties perms as well as from girdles and garters; she let her hair grow long and flat down her back, bundling it into a quick ponytail to paint or do housework, she had all sorts of artful clips and hinged round combs, tortoiseshell, and ivory before endangered elephants became an issue.

Not only does this, with extraordinary economy, capture his artist-protagonist’s life as refracted through a cultural history of hairstyles; it also alludes to a history of animal life and an economy of exploitation: so common is it that we almost forget that a “ponytail” is equine mimicry, that “tortoiseshell” is originally more than the colour of a cat, or even more allusively that girdles were once made with whalebone. In this one brief mention of elephants, a wider cultural shift of attitude towards the wild and trade in animal parts becomes integral to his character’s biography.

It would, of course, be a mistake to think that Updike ever included a word or image unthinkingly: he is way too precise. That his scattered evocations of the natural – the peonies outside the window, the woods beyond the fence – are one with some serious consideration of human-natural relations, is indicated by this long passage from Villages (2004).

While Owen shaves ... he hears the mockingbird, mounted on its favourite perch at the tip of the tallest cedar, deliver a thrilling long scolding about something or other, some minor, chronic procedural matter. All these local levels of Nature – the birds, the insects, the flowers, the furtive fauna of chipmunks and woodchucks scuttling in and out of their holes as if a shotgun might blast them the next instant – have their own network of concerns and communications; the human world to them is merely a marginal flurry, an inscrutable static, an intermittent interference rarely lethal and bearing no perceived relation to the organic bounty (the garbage, the gardens) that the human species brings to Nature’s table. They snub us, Owen thinks. We should be gods to them, but they lack our capacity for worship – for foresight and the terrors and convoluted mental grovelling that foresight brings with it, including the invention of an afterlife. Animals do not distinguish between us and the other beasts, or between us and the rocks and trees, each with its pungence and relevance to the struggle for existence. The earth offers haven to scorpions and woodchucks and quintillions of ants; the stars guide the Canada geese and arctic terns, the barn swallows and monarch butterflies on their immense annual migrations. We are mere dots beneath their wings, our cities foul and barren interruptions in the discourse of predator and prey. No, not interruptions, for many species accept our cities as habitats, not just the rats in the cellar and the bats in the attic, but the hawks and pigeons on the skyscraper ledges and now the deer brazenly, helplessly stalking through suburban back yards, both pets and pests.

It’s undeniable that the writer has thought through the question of humans’ embeddedness in Nature – whether or not Owen is ventriloquising Updike, and whether or not one agrees with this view. A religious person, for example, would not: and indeed Owen grapples with this issue again, late in the novel and late in his life:

We feel made for a better world, and the fault is ours that this is not Eden. ... [F]ear and loathing can be explained as, like pain, a survival device selected and refined by Darwinian evolution. Because we fear death, we try harder to live. As long as our genes get through, Nature doesn’t care how we suffer.

We are, in this perspective, no more significant than insects swirled about in the cauldron of an insensate cosmos. Even once-ecstatic sex, in the jaded elderly reminiscing of the ironically-named Hope, protagonist of Seek My Face, is reduced to “Bug-behavior, the repulsive intricacy of insect genitals and strategies, strategies in which the death of the individual is quite casually folded. Poking, biting, squirting, dying.” The equally elderly narrator of Toward the End of Time echoes her:

There was no God, each detail of [my] rusting, moldering cellar made clear, just Nature, which would consume my life as carelessly and relentlessly as it would a dung-beetle corpse in a compost pile. Dust to dust: each hammer stroke seemed dulled by cosmic desolation...

In another mood or mode, however, this very brevity can bring about a brief but meaningful rapture:

I was an insignificant insect rapturously enrolled, for these brief bright instants of my life, in a churning, shining, birthing, singing, dying cosmic excess. From the quasars to the rainbow shimmer on my dragonfly wings, everything was an extravagance engraved upon the obsidian surface of an infrangible, eternal darkness.

The cosmos may be unfeeling, but nor, in the main, do humans care how Nature suffers. The thoughtless side-effects of human rubbish, mechanisation, and predatory exploitation infects everything. These undercurrents really surface in Toward the End of Time which, as I mentioned, is set in the future – 2020 to be precise. A sort of cataclysm has occurred, though its nature is left vague: there has been a huge war, which has, among other effects, wiped out the Siberian tigers, left the American midwest a radioactive dustbowl, and “an electronic infrastructure had been one of the first casualties of urban catastrophe and global underpopulation”. It is the culmination of the industrial toxicity underpinning the often pleasant but ultimately brittle suburban American life that Updike chose as his lifelong artistic patch. There are now little self-perpetuating robots, breeding in the trash-heaps, secretive and voracious, but surviving humans carry on life rather as before (it’s very different from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). The first-person narrator, Ben Turnbull, drawing toward the end of his own time, lives only somewhat more isolated than his suburban predecessor characters – enough however to be more than usually aware of the resurgence of wild nature and the flux of seasons. The first section is entitled “The Deer”: the insouciant animal raids the garden dahlias and poops on the lawn, much to his wife Gloria’s anguish. She wants to kill it. Ben is more sympathetic, paradoxically because he thinks “Rapacity, competition, desperation, death to other living things [are] the forces that make the world go around.”  A deep apocalyptic sense has the odd effect of making one feel both more precious and aware, and also more futile: “Alas, time’s arrow points one way, toward an entropy when all seas will have broken down all rocks and there is not a whisper, a sub-atomic stir, of surge.” The novel’s final section, “The Dahlia”, closes with several pages, quite cosmologically technical, contemplating that ultimate condition of entropy, of the galaxies collapsing in on our “scorched planet”, from which all life will have long vanished, or been swallowed by a red star. But Ben, like all of us, is numbed by the aeons involved, by the impossibility of  comprehending the disappearance of time itself.

My own mind quails. The blue shift is tens of billions of years from heating the interstellar space by so much as a degree Fahrenheit. I am safe in my nest of local conditions, on my hilltop in sight of the still-unevaporated ocean. Nevertheless, I am uneasy. All the vegetation in my view is gray, leafless. The sea has no colour; its uniformity of surface, scarcely rippled, offers the very image of entropy. The firmament is heavy, a mere webbing of lambent mortar between giant clouds as shapeless and motionless as paving stones. Plagues stalk the scabs of land, perpetuated by microorganisms that understand only annihilation; and nations, too, all illusions of gloire and civilizing mission hopelessly decayed, compete like animals in a cage where food for only half of them is supplied. The very short view alone is bearable.

That myopia is, perhaps, the core dilemma, both the saving and the destruction, of the human consciousness. It is all, to be sure, profoundly unsettling, yet so clear-eyed it is beautiful. The measured and delicate prose is itself the very antithesis of entropy. Updike, I think, no matter how materialist and ultimately bleak he seems, was attentively in love with all the foibles of American life, and implicitly, unflinchingly, constantly asked the only question that matters: How do we achieve a meaningful life in the face of oblivion?


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Sunday, 3 November 2019

No 91 - Owls in some southern African poems

A few years ago friends and I turned our car along a road near Beaufort West. It was dawn, a cold Karoo light. Something pale squatted in the middle of the road; a Barn owl. It just sat and looked into our headlights, then even when we turned them off. Not right. Nor did it move much when I approached; dazed, it had surely been hit by a vehicle.  Wary of talons and beak, I got a jersey over it, and scooped it up, hissing. I carried it away from the road into the scrub, and found a sheltered spot, and carefully unfolded the jersey. But the owl just keeled over slowly, and in a moment it was dead. Those extraordinary eyes closed; the feathers of its white breast as delicate as cirrus cloud. I laid it down, to be returned in time to the elements of which it was built.

The encounter seemed iconic of so much of what we humans are inflicting on the wild with our insensate machines. Not just one life taken, but a whole segment of an ecosystem disrupted and deprived. Like wolves or sharks, owls are apex predators, and their removal from a system has disproportionate cascade effects. My own little home locale would surely suffer more rodents and snakes were it not for the Wood owls who drift through the nights and call-and-answer with querying hoots.

According to birders’ bible Roberts, our subcontinent hosts a round dozen species of owl, ranging from the great ‘horned’ eagle owls to the tiny Scops owls no taller than the length of your hand. In their nocturnal discreetness, with their sometimes unearthly calls, it’s little wonder they’ve attracted superstitious awe in many cultures across the world. (Remember Shakespeare alluding in Julius Caesar to the forbidding sign of an owl flying in daylight?) No less so in southern African peoples, amongst some of whom the owl is regarded with fear, if not outright hostility. An owl alighting on a rooftop is often regarded as the harbinger of a death in the family, and some conservationists have deplored what they perceive as the consequent slaughtering of owls. Matthew Zylstra, however, is probably right in arguing that it’s more complex than that: attitudes within any given society are highly variable, and the killing of such animals, though technically at times taboo, results as much from the modern erosion of traditional reverence as from the implementation of ‘superstitious’ fear. 

South Africa’s premier eco-poet, Douglas Livingstone, touches on something of this in an early translation of Shona poet Noel Kashaya’s poem, “Owl”:

When the children are all asleep, all light
extinguished, he starts to wheel
the world: this son-in-law of darkness.

With silent senses, his eyes bambara
groundnuts in a hollow stone, he knows
everything he sees, despite the darkness. [...]

No doubt it’s that eerie silence, punctuated by an unnerving screech or drum-like grunt, and the preternatural ability to navigate and hunt in darkness, that has prompted humans’ unsettled sense that the owl may be wiser than they are, privy to magical knowledge.

Oddly, I’ve found relatively few southern African poems centred on owls, though there may be many more passing mentions, such as this one from a stanza by unfairly-neglected Zimbabwean poet Rowland Moloney (from “Maleme”):

A shooting star zips over the hillcrest,
Trailing smoke. Leopard coughs, owl perceives,
Night snake slides into the leaves.
The prows of kopjes forge through seas of grass.

The owl is always there, penetrating us with those fierce, astonished eyes.  It’s indeed the eyes that transfix another Zimbabwe-resident poet, Noel Brettell, confronting him with himself, his own vulnerabilities and inadvertent cruelty. His poem “Wind and an Eagle-Owl” begins with the poet-speaker riding out into the hills in the wake of a stormy night’s quarrel with his wife, nature itself reflecting his mood, only to make a shocking discovery:

Crippled and craven, the plovers scattered crying
On the shouldering air, peevish, lamentable:
And in a fence, the great bird trapped and dying
With splintered scapulae spreadeagled there.
You luckless fellow of our night of wind,
Who through the breathing solitudes had hunted,
And blindly struck, like us, pinned
And broken on the barbs that we had blunted.

The poet searches for “a stick to kill you with”, and encounters only a terrible hatred in the owl’s “wildwood eyes”.

Though the imagery is viscerally immediate, Brettell’s owl is in a sense subordinated to the marital spat, becoming a symbol of it – unlike, say, Douglas Livingstone’s famous poem “Gentling a Wildcat”, which is wholly about the speaker’s relationship with the dying animal and its fundamental nature. The impulse to utilise the owl as symbolic of an inner emotional life also governs Peter Strauss’s lovely poem, “The Owl and the Moon”, from his 1999 volume of the same title.  The “insomniac” speaker strolls out into the garden, when

                                                an owl
Up in the righthand row of trees
Hears me, and hoots like a bicycle pump,
Protesting – his warning
Quite unmistakeably pointed my way.

Such singling out!
Such ominousness! I should be afraid.

This mythic dread does not quite persist in the “warm” evening, though, and the presence of the owl fades from the poem, as the speaker mulls over his life, feeling an obscure need to “confess” (to what we are not told, though “Venus” might have something to do with it). At any rate, the speaker concludes that his particular demons “are not of the dark”. The poem concludes with a kind of gentle mysteriousness:
By Marie-Lan Nguyen (User:Jastrow), 2009-02-28, CC BY 2.5,

This moon preserves recessions, reserves, profundities,
Secret darkness between the leaves. As if
A woodcutter were working there, the garden shouts and thunks
Like a pulse, like a heart in the ribcage –
An owl calls from the garden, the crickets cry:
My demons are not of the dark.

Not unrelated is the late Don Maclennan’s poem “The Owl of Minerva” – also the title poem of a complete collection (self-published in  2008; republished in the Collected Poems, PrintMatters, 2013).  The owl of Minerva or Athena, most famous from the tetradrachm image dating to the fifth century BC, was traditionally associated with wisdom and perspicacity; an owl flying over a battle formation was interpreted as Athena’s blessing. Maclennan prefaces the collection with a quotation from Hegel: “The Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk” – meaning, it seems, that we understand things only on the cusp of their disappearance. More revealingly, a second epigraph, by Philip Caputo, reads: “Anyone who does not acknowledge the darkness in his nature will succumb to it.” Accordingly, the poem “The Owl of Minerva” is, characteristically, more about the recognition of our own pretensions and limitations than about either the owl or Minerva.

The signs of his life are
a white mound of excrement
below the tree
of fur and tiny bones,
and gentle, warning hoots
in the gathering dusk.

You cannot see
his predatory journeys
through the dark
to fill his maw with mice
and other lesser creatures,
only the chalky evidence
that something was alive
that thought its tiny consciousness
would last for ever.

Similarly, Wendy Woodward’s poem “Parallel worlds”, from her collection Love, Hades & Other Animals (Protea, 2008), draws on both the mythic and the natural cycles of predation, consumption, and defecation – the influence of the natural sciences making itself evident. In the poem, the poet-speaker, on her way to work, has been listening to Ted Hughes’ vigorous animal poems, then encountering two unexpected “avatars” of his unflinching vision: firstly a disconsolate feral kitten, secondly “a  spotted eagle owl, vigilant”:

The owl and I acknowledge each other
but the small cat muses on,
transfixed, apparently, by the terminal moraines
of the barren garden

After my meeting
the cat has gone from the quad
and the hills and plains of his wet desert

The owl, supreme, has marked the wall
with painterly excrement
white against the liver-dark bricks

If the owl has not already eaten the kitten, it seems only a matter of time...

Easily the most thorough-going use of the owl in southern African poetry is Michèle Betty’s recent volume, Metaphysical Balm (Dryad Press). The bulk of the poems are present-tense brief narratives, incident reports if you like, from the episodic ‘biography’ of a generalised, symbolically-laden “Owl”; the poems bear titles like “Owl’s birthright”, “The baptism of Owl”, “Owl confronts a crisis”, and “Owl’s alchemy”. That this is partly modelled on Ted Hughes’ volume of poems, Crow, is indicated by at least two poems, “Owl encounters Crow” and “Owl and Crow converse”. Betty is clearly offering a riposte of sorts to Hughes’ ugly, bloodied bird-character which, in that first encounter, sends Owl fleeing “in trepidation”.  But in the next two poems, Owl frees herself, or is freed by a “mystical creature” – Owl becomes a re-mythologised vector for addressing “spiritual longing”, for finding a “New Brain”, or Light itself. Betty draws on both modern neurological science and the “legion of old souls” embodied in numerous ancient traditions, from Athena to the Mayans to the Biblical, amplified by literary allusions from Hopkins to Zarathustra. These stories overlap and cross-fertilise, until one can, in a “utopian exhale”, find a kind of acceptance. The poem of that title reads:

Across the expanse
of a twilight sky,
a Sickle Moon
and the Evening Star,
Owl discerns mist
collecting resplendent
in humid air,
weightless as the down
feathers of her youth,
dispersing enigmatically
to settle in solitude,
refracted and reflected,
in puffs and pockets,
on each and every
shadow touched.

Owl becomes, in this view, a kind of embodiment of our kindlier, more spiritual natures. If only those of us who, intentionally or inadvertently, destroy owls or their habitats, would listen more closely.

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