Sunday, April 13, 2008

Updike and Emerson, Pt. 2

In my last post, I argued that (a) both Updike and Emerson tend to be victims of the P.C. Age in academia; and that (b) the former has a certain understanding of and affection for the latter. In this post, I will point out similarities to Emerson's thought in Updike's most famous and most well-read book, 1961's Rabbit, Run.

I've read Rabbit, Run more times than any other book, beginning my senior year of college, although I've never been assigned the novel in a class. I didn't assign it as my Freshman Comp II class's novel, either--my students did not by and large respond positively to "A&P" (a dagger through my heart!), and I didn't want to have to defend the graphic sex in the novel, even if the sex in Rabbit, Run pales in comparison to nearly every other Updike novel. I've written two class papers on the novel--one comparing Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom to Mr. Wheelock in Dorothy Parker's "Such a Pretty Little Picture" and one tracing the history of the criticism of the novel, from the early reviews that treated Rabbit as an existential hero to more recent criticism that treats him or his author as a terrible human being.

That's one of the major debates swimming around Rabbit, Run--are we supposed to admire or condemn Rabbit Angstrom? He abandons his wife and child, not so much to find a better life as because he's just bored. His decisions wreak havoc on his family; they destroy almost everything stable in the novel, but Rabbit doesn't seem to mind. And then when he decides to return to his wife, he wreaks his mistress' life, too. Is this just the price to pay for freedom? Or is Updike, the semi-orthodox Christian, giving us an object lesson of something to avoid?

I take the viewpoint that Updike condemns his most famous protagonist, however gently he does it. There's really nothing special about Harry; he works as a salesman in all four of the novels, and while he seems to have some talent for it, that speaks against rather than for his specialness. In Rabbit, Run, he is an emblem of the alienation of the lower-class male; with nothing to distinguish his pathetic life from the pathetic lives of those around him, he must convince himself he is special by clinging to basically four things: sex, food, gardening, and basketball. (I won't go into detail on most of these here.)

His reasoning for the flight he takes away from his wife sounds distinctly Emersonian. Emerson famously takes Socrates' command to "Know Thyself" and expands it to
Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. ("Self Reliance." Essays and Lectures. Library of America, 1983.) 260.
Updike suggests this passage in Rabbit, Run; Harry receives his flight recommendation from The Mickey Mouse Club, where an adult Mousketeer named Jimmie conflates "Know Thyself" with "Be Thyself":
Know Thyself, a wise old Greek once said. Know Thyself. Now what does this mean, boys and girls? It means, be what you are. Don't try to be Sally or Johnny or Fred next door; be yourself. God doesn't want a tree to be a waterfall, or a flower to be a stone. God gives to each one of us a special talent . . . And He gives to each of us the special talents to become these things, provided we work to develop them. We must work, boys and girls. So: Know Thyself. Learn to understand your talents, and then work to develop them. (Fawcett, 1996. 10).
Rabbit's spiritual advice, then, comes from Emerson by way of Walt Disney.

But Rabbit--never a great thinker--ignores the rest of Emerson's catalogue in formulating his non-plan for escape. In this way, he is a typical reader of Emerson, disgarding a 40-year career and focusing entirely on "Self-Reliance." Emerson's philosophy is not, after all, quite so simple as that essay makes it out to be. Whereas he claims there that he will follow his own impulses and that "if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil" (262), he elsewhere admonishes his readers to do the right thing, even if the right thing is not their natural impulse: "Let a man keep the law,--any law,--and his way will be strown with satisfactions" ("Prudence" 360). It seems that you can and should trust yourself only once you've committed yourself to the spiritual laws of the universe and to Emerson's famous Oversoul, that part of the Divine that fills all of us. Freedom, for Emerson as for Kierkegaard, is twinned with responsibility, because
A man cannot speak but he judges himself. With his will, or against his will, he draws his portrait to the eye of his companions by every word. Every opinion reacts on him who utters it. ("Compensation" 294)
I suggest that for Emerson, trusting oneself is ultimately the same thing as trusting society, providing that society consists of self-actualized individuals who are aware of their connection to one another through the Oversoul.

And so Harry Angstrom is not an emblem of Emersonian self-realization or even of self-trust. He trusts himself, but for all the wrong reasons; he trusts himself in the face of all evidence to the contrary. As another character tells him, "you worship nothing except your own worst instincts" (115). Even after he wrecks the lives of nearly everyone around him, he can't see that his compass is out of line, and the novel ends with him running off into the sunset yet again. This running strikes me as distinctly non-Emersonian in and of itself; it is the opposite of taking a bold stand on one's beliefs; it is pure cowardice.

Now, as I think that the New Yorker piece suggests that Updike was aware of the range of Emerson's material and was not interesting in pinning him down to the simplistic evaluation typical of lay readers, it cannot be a mistake that Harry's philosophy sounds like but is not Emerson's. When I first read the novel, I assumed it was a critique of Emerson, and maybe it is; maybe Updike didn't read the rest of Emerson's catalogue until he wrote that piece in 2003; or maybe it, like Pierre, it's a critique of a certain aspect of Emerson's philosophy. But since I love Updike and I'm beginning to love Emerson, I choose to believe that among other things, Rabbit, Run is a critique of misreadings of Emerson, an object lesson drawn from "Compensation" and "Prudence" rather than from "Self-Reliance."

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