- Updike's New Versions of Myth in America
"Our brains are no longer conditioned for reverence and awe."—John Updike (Self-Consciousness 216)
"We need the little clicks and sighs of a sustaining otherness. We need the gods."
In his recently published memoirs, Self-Consciousness, John Updike makes these two statements without any hint of contradiction. The first says that the modern brain (the American brain in particular) is no longer responsive to the old mythic process, whereas the second statement affirms the permanent human need for some kind of mythic sustenance. The tension that grows out of this paradox controls much of Updike's fictional and poetic effort. It has also created some of the contradictory statements in the criticism. In discussing individual works various critics have proposed that Updike intends "to rewrite myth and narrative in the twentieth century," or that he suggests "some possibilities for filling the void left by [End Page 25] demythologizing and secularization," or that Updike's mock heroes are "caught between the need for a mythical ideal and a twentieth century commitment to reality," or that the mock heroes express the tension between dream and actuality typically in "the sporting myth."1 Certainly Updike's expansive definition of "religion" (as the antidote to consciousness in the form of private systems, fetishisms of politics or popular culture, sexual rituals, and even the "mythologization of the beloved") would seem to require us to reexamine his fictional intentions in the uses of myth (Self-Consciousness 226-227). We also need to gauge Updike's tone more accurately to determine whether we can see the mythic elements and the realistic details as a continuum rather than as opposites, as complementary aspects of his problematic manipulation of myth.
Perhaps the difficulties in interpreting Updike are partly definitional in this case. A major source of confusion is produced by the word "myth" itself. As Eric Gould points out, the term is "so encyclopedic . . . that it means everything or nothing" (5). Gould emphasizes that we need not be limited by an assumption that the modern world has lost the mythic sensibility ("mythicity is no less modern than it is ancient") because human beings are still searching for answers to the same questions about being and nothingness which were asked in the past (12-14). Although Gould's point is a valid one, it does not emphasize enough the quality of the materials used to respond mythically to the present situation. Our popular culture has evolved into a new stage of myth-making that is unlike past stages, although it still contains fragments of them. As a result, the common term "parallel," so misused in myth criticism, is not really a satisfactory way of describing some contemporary manipulations of myth such as Updike's. The term suggests that these manipulations can be placed within the tradition of such modernist writers as James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, and William Faulkner (or within the critical theories represented by Northrop Frye), who drew heavily on the resources of myth for ironic or tragic parallels. Although it is still possible to see some of Updike's fiction as continuing in the modernist mythic mode (as we can obviously see in The Centaur), to do so means to lose the point that Updike, as a contemporary writer, revises and departs from that tradition. When he uses old myths as parallels, he maintains much more nakedly than before the sense of incongruity in applying old structures in the present context. His intention, therefore, is totally parodistic—a mode "which marks the exhaustion of any prefigurative theme" (Ziolkowski 360).2 And, in his creation of new American myths [End Page 26] out of ordinary elements in the American landscape (his dominant mode), Updike insists on the desultory nature of these new myths as bizarre, unsatisfying inventions of a blinded, almost soulless self.
If the self in America is "a precarious and luxurious invention quite different from the constantly shared and submerged self of a primitive tribesman," and if "God and the self are of the same substance," it follows, paradoxically, that whatever God or other...