Sunday, February 01, 2009

Eros Run Amok: John Updike's Stories

John Updike has been one of my favorite writers since college, when I first read “A&P,” a short story that may be singlehandedly responsible for me own desire to write short stories. He died on Tuesday at the age of 72, but had been writing and creating and conducting interviews up until late Fall. He was nothing if not prolific. But almost all of his work was autobiographical in some way. He actually was married to the daughter of a Unitarian minister, the Rev. Leslie Pennington. Like the fictional marriage of Jerry and Ruth, or his other famous couple the Maples, John and Mary’s marriage suffered infidelities and dissolved after 20 years and four children. He remarried, but according to associates, never overcame bitter resentments toward his first wife, whom he described as an artistic, Unitarian hippie.

In many ways, Mary Pennington was the opposite of Updike: he the over-pampered son of rural Pennsylvanians, whose mother expected perfection and goaded him to be a success, the stuttering, asthmatic, psoriasis-tortured introvert who chose writing to avoid people; she, the daughter of Unitarians, a free-spirited, artistic, unconventional, non-believer who challenged all his assumptions and made him profoundly uncomfortable. She, through the characters who represented her, came to symbolize one of the central tensions in his fiction, between faith and doubt.

In a story called "Marching Through Boston," Updike describes the day that Joan & Richard go on a Civil Rights march. She had been to Selma, and upon her return, he notices that she has changed: "He had never known her like this… her posture was improving, her figure filling out, her skin growing lustrous… he distrusted this raw burst of beauty." Richard finds the march barely tolerable, and develops a fever, tells Joan that King is corny and forced. He notes that he "lacked the faculty of believing in people generically. Whereas his wife, a minister’s daughter, lived by abstractions." He contracts while she expands into this universal love.
What’s all this got to do with eros?

Eros means many things, but it is usually understood as romantic, idyllic, erotic love. It can be contrasted with philia (shared interest), agape/caritas (unconditional love), and storge (familiarity-family).

Most of us know by now that romantic love is not all it’s cracked up to be. But I need to be reminded regularly that love is not, as Scott Peck famously said, a feeling. Love is an activity. Love is work. Love is sustained effort. Love is a lifetime endeavor. What better time than Valentines’ month, based entirely upon the myth of romantic love, for me to become reacquainted with that important knowledge?

Harville Hendrix is one of the most effective teachers on relationships that we have today. He has used Jungian theory and his own extensive work with couples to write bestsellers and teach individuals and healers about love.

Hendrix says, of this idea of romantic love:
Chances are that the people you are drawn to and admire possess qualities that you long for or that were dismissed and disdained in your home…. You feel more complete through the association. This is your “missing self”. (But) while we choose partners who possess the positive traits we have buried, we also pick partners with our own disowned negative traits. This can be called the Denied Self. This explains how what we once adored about each other is now the source of our complaints! The projection of our disowned traits onto our partner becomes the core of the power struggle in our relationships.

I am going to go out on a limb and guess that John Updike never really did the work that was required to reconcile this vast and almost universal difficulty. If his characters and what we know of his own story are any indication, he simply engaged in infidelity and then cutoff through divorce. As Hendrix poignantly pints out: “They say that breaking up is hard to do, but that’s wrong. It’s easy to walk away before the going gets tough, to find another dreamboat-- until the ship starts to sink again . It’s waking up that’s hard to do."