Self-Consciousness: Memoirs (1989), by John Updike


Memoirs are art-works, the good ones powerful, fascinating in their variety, hard to write, and written generally in either an understated, middle or rhetorical style. A Moveable Feast is understated; Speak, Memory shows the middle style; Self-Consciousness is rhetorical.

Self-Consciousness, if superior, is in a powerful but now weakening tradition of memoirs: it especially dramatizes and beautifies Coming of Age and the decisive experiences forming an interior adult life. It is primarily about the inside, not the outside.

Here self-consciousness, that consuming and often painful sense that one is being seen by others as blemished, ugly, awkward, foolish or having some other shortcoming, is turned by Updike into a theme of self-prevalence. He writes and lives successfully out of his self-conscious childhood and schoolboy years in Shillington, Pennsylvania, in the 1930s and 1940s; his years battling psoriasis; his stuttering and its public betrayals of him; his quickly spoken unease among the more demonstrative opponents of the Vietnam war whom he thought largely neurotic owing to problems with mom and dad–it included heatedly, in outspoken rejoinder, a rueful sympathy for LBJ and the insistent bringing up of Viet Cong torture and assassination of village leaders–which alienated him in his circles; his asthma; and other episodes. He writes to his grandsons and reflects on faith and the idea of eternal life.

Just about everyone who has commented on Updike’s writing, to include those who do not like him, praise his prose as among the best ever and standard-setting for our time. Here he is in Self-Consciousness, an adult returned years later on a warm evening to stroll about the Pennsylvania town of his boyhood, Shillington:

“This side of Lancaster Avenue–retaining walls, cement steps, iron railings, double porches, business placards–felt to be part of my father’s territory, adult territory, though I walked it every day. Here, up a number of steps, was a tailor’s shop run by a hunchbacked dwarf, Shorty Wartluft, who like my father was active in the Lutheran church and with whom he always had things to say. The narrow place had smelled of steam, and scorch, and the counter was extraordinarily low, for Shorty’s convenience; now it was still a tailor’s shop, though some of the adjacent businesses–hair styling, television repair–were unheard of when I daily walked along here. Denny’s Hair Styling, here at the corner of South Miller Street, had been by Bohn’s Oyster House, called “Boonie’s”; one entered by a side door, and there were round oilcloth-covered tables in a long dim room muskily smelling of seashells and cigar smoke, with a kind of fish store at the back where on Sundays of exceptional festivity we used to buy a pint of shucked Chesapeake oysters and carry them home in a cardboard carton cleverly fitted with a handle of bent wire. Across Miller, beyond stout cement walls and the only deep front lawn in the vicinity, Doc Rotherel had received patients in the front rooms of an impressive house whose stucco was full of sharp small stones like the salt grains stuck into pretzels. The doctor, who had supervised my birth, was a heavy, slow, pink-lidded man, with a slippery lower lip; he carried with him on his dark clothes the medicinal smell of his office, where the black-cushioned waiting room furniture produced, sat on, a sound like his own weary sighs. When he came to pay me the bedside visits that my fragility or fever sometimes warranted, he unlatched a black five-sided bag and revealed phials of colored pills aligned in tiers like little cork-headed people in a grandstand.”

As you can sense, Updike, like many memoirists, especially those in our day as well as just yesterday, and especially in America, dramatizes in the above passage (and in many others of great vividness and euphony) the formation of his personality. Essentially: How was his psychology shaped? Answer: it was shaped in the flood of Experience rendered in beautiful detail. Writ large: it was the drama of growing up and adventuring in the New World, the world of Myself in the Present on the Open Road (the Mississippi, Route 66, the lesser-traveled path, etc) sailing and drifting and loafing away into the Present of Inventing New Selves, that adventure as an intense confession of the Subjective, the New World sensibility.

Here is the Yankee aftermath of Freud, Proust, Joyce, those explorers of The Inner Life. And now such exploration on its most fertile ground, the New World, the Life of the Moment in which, as Huck Finn says, “I don’t take no stock in dead people.” Which among various meanings, signifies a flight from traditions and an isolation in the new forests, plains, mountains, from sea to shining sea.

I think, therefore I am, morphed to I am conscious, wherefore I explore.

Of Self-Consciousness, Updike says: “(I have tried) to treat this life, this massive datum which happens to be mine, as a specimen life, representative in its odd uniqueness of all the oddly unique lives in this world.” Updike will be our Stand-In.

Although Updike is one of the great writers in the realist tradition, nothing much happens in Self-Consciousness in the way of a Pilgrim’s Progress, a Samurai’s adventures, a sleuth’s solutions, a memoirist’s education in the great world of people, movements, events, outcomes. There is no interest in shaping the world. Updike is not a man of action. And so, despite its beautifully concrete style, you can almost say that in Self-Consciousness there occurs little external to the psyche, little in the dance of nations, little in the ebb and flow of conquests, little invoking science fact let alone science fiction, little of the rampant tales of technology. Again, the interest, typical of New World memoirs, is finally interior.

What does such literature do for us? Here, taken at random, are a couple of informal comments about Self-Consciousness posted by readers on Amazon:

Reader One: “This is a beautiful book. From its extraordinary opening, as Updike returns to his childhood home, to its lucid and moving discourse “On Being a Self Forever,” this book stands as one of Updike’s most brilliant achievements. The memoir is structured, not as a chronological narrative of his life, but as a series of meditations on phases of his experience where Updike’s search for the core of his own identity keeps criss-crossing with his search for a settled sense of meaning in the modern world. The writing is subtle, ironic, self-deprecating, utterly honest and luminous. The book itself is best seen, I think, as a worthy successor to a long line of works beginning, perhaps, with Wordsworth’s The Prelude while it echoes the confessional voices of Augustine, on the one hand, and Robert Lowell on the other.”

Reader Two: “John Updike is arguably, with Saul Bellow, the greatest of living authors writing in English. This volume exemplifies his strengths. His evocation of growing up in middle-America is often quite beautiful. Yet this book is not a memoir in the conventional sense of a chronological account, but more a series of scenes and reflections from a full and satisfying life. Updike’s moving account of his struggle with psoriasis and his marital difficulties is personal without degenerating into the narcissism of so much second-rate autobiography….”

These two comments are highly representative. Peering into them, you find the assumption that it is enough to evoke “growing up in middle-America” and to write “a series of meditations on phases of…experience.” The inward memoir. (And of course, there is the undertone of curiosity about celebs [Updike: “I have a minor celebrity”].)

But our times are calling ever more loudly for a different kind of literature, a new kind of adventure novel, a radically outward-looking memoir. We face the apocalyptic threat of nuclear weapons, together with perilous prospects of climate change, fears of the possibility of a global financial downturn, concerns about pandemics. Perhaps the greatest service today of Self-Consciousness is to dramatize its own growing irrelevance.

In a large and intensifying sense, you see that such historical crises must interrupt the Inward Journey, awaken us from dreams of ourselves.

You sense, too, that the long, deep exploration of the Self has been a Romantic dive in which we are running out of oxygen. Perhaps a new spirit of the times is the view of us as primates, creatures whose behavior may be explainable through natural selection. This is not complimentary, but neither is it promising for the kind of Romanticism of the Interior displayed in Self-Consciousness and the traditional such books. Meanwhile, Freud increasingly is identified as not a scientist, not even close to one (though he may be, as some have said, an odd literary critic). Proust seems increasingly unreadable–there is a growing impatience, a sense that he is “churning butter.” Joyce is after all and ever a sort of grandiose impressionist of the inner life, not someone who has elucidated it.

In sum: our current crises, unprecedented in scope of threat, may be growing in our consciousnesses, expanding in our awarenesses, and bringing the realization that we must act out of our still-mysterious psychology, stressing not the rich inner experience and its unanswered questions so much as the external action required to serve survival.

In essence: Do we have time now to churn butter?

Is human prevalence in close doubt? Probably the single greatest pessimistic drama about our chances of resolving the great crises of our times is Ian McEwan’s novel, Solar (reviewed elsewhere in this blog), preeminently required reading for these days. McEwan is far beyond the world of Self-Consciousness and is present and very much accounted for in our time of the need for the dramatization of the imperative to act in the outside world to preclude catastrophe. He doesn’t imagine we will do so successfully, that we will prevail. He is too cynical about Homo sapiens, a creature he sees as doomed to self-extinction owing to its natural selection from which it is programed (destined, if you will) to destroy itself and its achievements.

Moving away from the beautiful and accomplished Self-Consciousness and its grand ilk, and countering the angry despair in Solar, perhaps we can say that the new forms of  discourse must do at least these two things: create compelling imaginary experiences of the unprecedented perils of these times, experiences intense enough to change consciousnesses and command action; and return us to a focus on the outside world of history–the people and ideas and developments on the exterior.

It will be an immense challenge.

My sense is that the times are ready and that coursing time is impervious to our crises.

Link to review of Solar: