Joe Moran is a reader in cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University. His most recent books are Queuing for Beginners: The Story of Daily Life from Breakfast to Bedtime (2007) and On Roads: A Hidden History (2009). Alongside his academic research, he writes regularly for British newspapers, mainly the Guardian and the Financial Times. He also blogs at Joe Moran's Blog and tweets at @joemoransblog. In this post Joe discusses John Updike's 1989 autobiography, Self-Consciousness: Memoirs.
Joe Moran on Self-Consciousness: Memoirs by John Updike
John Updike's autobiography, Self-Consciousness, is not a chronological narrative but a series of six themed essays - on his Pennsylvania hometown of Shillington, his chronic psoriasis, his intermittent stammer, his unpopular support for the Vietnam War, his family ancestry, and his reflections on death and the possibility of an afterlife. The essayistic nature of the book allows Updike to make suggestive connections between disparate areas of his life, with a digressive, easy style which rarely strays into the floridity that can make his novels too dense and unwieldy for my tastes.
The opening chapter of the book, 'A Soft Spring Night in Shillington', finds the present-day author on Shillington's Pennsylvania Avenue on a spring evening with time to spare, and then wandering aimlessly around its streets 'on Proust's dizzying stilts of time', reminiscing to the reader about incidents from his boyhood. Shillington also brings the narrative full circle, as at the end of the book Updike returns alone to the old family farmhouse to visit his elderly and ailing mother. In a long passage written in the present tense, Updike sits late at night in the spare room, listening to his mother's breathing as she sleeps next door, and reflecting on his life. This last, unforgettable chapter, 'On Being a Self Forever', is an extended reflection on what Updike calls 'the frangibility and provisionality of the self'. He links the individualistic, competitive streak in his personality to his discovery of the self as conditional and mortal: his horrified realization that life is 'a futile misadventure, a leap out of the dark and back' and that there is thus 'something intrinsically and individually vital which must be defended against the claims even of virtue'.
One of the connecting themes in the book - and hence the title - is Updike's collection of chronic ailments, anxieties and neuroses. The most serious of these, discussed in discrete chapters, are psoriasis and stuttering, but there are others: emphysema, bronchial asthma, hay fever, arachnophobia, a tendency to choke, dental problems and more nebulous feelings of being 'smothered and confined, misunderstood and put-upon'.
Updike's notion of the self, which he has also explored in his non-fictional writings on authors such as Søren Kierkegaard, Miguel de Unamuno and existential theologians like Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, essentially amounts to a fear and trembling at the individual's unbearable situatedness. 'Billions of consciousnesses silt history full, and every one of them the centre of the universe,' he writes. 'What can we do in the face of this unthinkable truth but scream or take refuge in God?' This is one of the many memorable phrases in the book that have stuck in my mind since I first read it nearly 20 years ago.
Another is the famous passage at the end of the book, in which Updike refers to the ways in which fame threatens the ability of authors to write, by encouraging them to assume the role of self-conscious public performer:
Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face. As soon as one is aware of being "somebody," to be watched and listened to with extra interest, input ceases, and the performer goes blind and deaf in his overanimation... Self-importance is a thickened, occluding form of self-consciousness. The binge, the fling, the trip - all attempt to shake the film and get back under the dining-room table, with a child's beautiful clear eyes.
It is interesting that Updike here describes celebrity as a kind of unwanted extra skin - the phrase 'a mask that eats into the face' could easily suggest psoriasis, which manifests itself as a series of itchy, scaly patches on the layers of the skin. As with celebrity, psoriasis produces an unhealthy degree of self-contemplation, since the sufferer is 'forced to the mirror again and again; it compels narcissism, if we can suppose a Narcissus who did not like what he saw'. Like a public self, however, psoriasis is only skin-deep: the pain in his forehead from actinic damage (caused by radiation treatment for his condition), for instance, reminds Updike that 'my public, marketable self... the book-autographing, anxious-to-please me... feels like another skin and hurts also'.
I always liked the public image that Updike built for himself as the jobbing author of the Massachusetts suburbs: the dustjacket photographs which show him in homely smalltown settings, standing in front of clapboard houses or raking leaves on to a back garden fire, or the magazine profiles which picture him playing volleyball or tossing a hip into his golf swing. In Self-Consciousness you discover the complex motives behind the construction of this image without the persona ever being entirely dispelled. It is one of the least known of Updike's works, certainly in the UK, and deserves to be more widely read.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]