Thursday, May 28, 2009

On Adultery

Newly married and just home from my honeymoon, I made the questionable decision to devote my time to John Updike’s A Month of Sundays. All of Updike’s books—at least all of the ones I’ve read—deal more or less explicitly with adultery, but this one goes far even for him. It was hard for me to read; when I was in the middle of it, I had the irrational thought that I’d made a mistake in getting married and that it was doomed to fail. I kissed my wife after I’d finished the book and thrown it across the room.

Then I started reading Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology. Tillich’s theology, of course, doesn’t have much if anything to say about adultery, but he was himself a well-known philanderer who purportedly slept with another woman on his wedding night. Coming home from his funeral, his wife, Hannah, opened his desk, only to find a motherload of pornography and love letters from other women. (I suppose she got even with him, writing From Time to Time a few years after his death and giving her side of the very dirty story.)

I knew this going in to Tillich, and in fact a few years I wrote a song that began:
When they found the porn in Tillich’s closet,
The angels wouldn’t tell his wife.
So Hannah had to guess
‘Cos Paul would not confess
The god-honest fabric of his life.
(I wooed my wife by playing her this song, incidentally, and she still refers to Tillich as “that porn guy”—a dubious honor for a man whom many consider the greatest theologian of the 20th century.)

I got the story wrong, though—my halfhearted internet research suggests that not only was Hannah Tillich fully aware of her husband’s infidelity, she engaged in her own, seducing her husband’s graduate assistant and trying unsuccessfully to become a lesbian. History is obviously not as black and white as moralists like me would like to make it.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about maybe the worst thing a newlywed can think about: adultery. Tillich may have redefined Christianity in such a way as to make it unrecognizable to evangelicals (it’s still up in the air as to whether or not he believed in a personal God—or in God as anything beyond metaphor), but he was still a theologian, and we expect certain behavior from our theologians, expect them to be better than the rest of us.

Updike, for his part, is the most theologically fixated of all the major 20th-century novelists (even more so, I’d argue, than Walker Percy or Flannery O’Connor); he claims, for example, that he fashioned his early characters as “object lessons from Kierkegaard and Barth,” and A Month of Sundays and Roger’s Version deal with a minister and a theologian, respectively, and feature more technical theology than most of the books I read for Sunday School as a child. This is a man obsessed with God—and sex. And not just any sex—sex that’s almost exclusively with someone else’s wife.

I’ve always struggled with this aspect of Updike’s work. There’s no easy moral in his fiction, the way there is in O’Connor’s (and to some extent, even in Percy’s)—his much-vaunted forgiveness and affection for all of his characters keeps him from condemning any of them, and even when (spoiler alert) Rabbit Angstrom blames his wife for his infant daughter’s death (that was at least 50 percent his fault) and runs away from the funeral, you never get the idea that Updike blames him, exactly. Updike doesn’t blame anyone.

His easy forgiveness reaches an apex in A Month of Sundays, the story of Reverend Tom Marshfield, a Midwestern minister who sleeps with his choir director and many other women and is forced into “retreat” at a motel in the southwest. The book was published in 1975, less than a year after the dissolution of his first marriage. Did Updike cheat on his wife? Almost certainly, although he’s pretty sly when he talks about it in his memoirs, Self-Consciousness, saying only that he “fell in love with other men’s wives.”

My question, then, while I was reading A Month of Sundays, is the degree to which we can equate Updike with Tom Marshfield. It’s a dangerous prospect, I know, reading an author’s characters as a stand-in for their creator, but to some extent it’s unavoidable. Marshfield resembles Updike in many respects—his obsession with God and sex, his Barthianism, etc., etc. They’re even the same age, Marshfield being “born” only a few weeks after his creator.

If Marshfield’s views really represent Updike’s, then Updike must become nearly as much of a problem in an ethical/moral sense as Paul Tillich. For example, he glosses Christ’s encounter with the woman caught in adultery in an exceedingly strange way:
Adultery, my friends, is our inherent condition: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”
But who that has eyes to see cannot so lust? Was not the First Divine Commandment received by human ears, “Be fruitful, and multiply”? Adultery is not a choice to be avoided; it is a circumstance to be embraced. Thus I construe these texts.
Disturbing indeed—and the reader with even a minimal grasp of theology is likely to scream into the pages of his book that Marshfield is a complete idiot, using human failure as an excuse for his own license, no matter who it might hurt. Of course, it gets worse—not only is adultery a fact of life, somehow unavoidable, it also becomes a sort of sacrament:
The adulterous man and woman arrive at the place of their tryst stripped of all the false uniforms society has assigned them; they come on no recommendation but their own, possess no credentials but those God has bestowed, that is, insatiable egos and workable genitals. They meet in love, for love, with love; they tremble in a glory that is unpolluted by the wisdom of this world; they are, truly, children of light.
This is a common theme among Updike heroes. Rabbit Angstrom, for example, nearly always feels this way about sex (especially in the first novel in the Rabbit tetralogy, before he loses his joie de vivre altogether, trading it for reactionary politics, money, and eventually the overeating that will kill him). But the difference between Rabbit Angstrom and Tom Marshfield is instructive; whereas Rabbit, Run is set up as a sort of anti-On the Road, glorifying marital fidelity by showing the destructive effects of its opposite, Marshfield seems to enjoy the destruction and amorality that follows in the wake of his numerous affairs.

It’s foolish to look to Updike for morality plays, particularly post-Couples Updike—our author is just not interested in providing that sort of thing. What you normally get instead is a heavy theological either/or: Who’s the better Christian? Marshfield’s father, who believes the liberal Christian pieties of the 19th century and lives a more-or-less clean life; or Marshfield, who believes theologically what evangelicals would call the right things, but lives an immoral life that he justifies by the thinnest of pretexts? (We’ll get a similar scenario, albeit a more complicated one, in 1986’s Roger’s Version.) As he says, “What interests us is not the good but the godly. Not living well but living forever.”

This is a false dichotomy, of course—it’s possible to embrace the incarnation and to recognize that one’s salvation comes from grace and not one’s actions without surrendering oneself to hedonism, and I’m certain Updike is aware of this. Nor, without the biographical proof to justify it, am I comfortable making the assertion that Updike cheated on his wives as many times as Rabbit or Marshfield (etc., etc., etc.) without feeling an appropriate amount of guilt for it. But his unwillingness to present answers and his nearly pathological fixation upon adultery is starting to irk me.

To wit: As the novel progresses, Marshfield begins to regret his actions, begins to see the terrible havoc he’s wreaked upon his family and his church. I became excited reading these sections: Is Updike finally taking an ethical stand? I thought so, especially when Marshfield notes that “I am preparing for some leap. The backwards version of the leap that brought me here?” So, it seems, he’s ready to take a leap back into orthodox Christian interpretations of morality.

And then, in the novel’s final few pages, he attempts to seduce the owner of the retreat at which he is stationed, Mrs. Prynne, who has been reading this journal all along. And it works. The final page of the novel is one of Updike’s gross and graphic sex scenes. Again Updike leaves us with no moral judgment, with the world turned completely upside-down. And the worst part is: I think we’re supposed to read this as a happy ending.

This time, as I mentioned, it was more than I can take. Whether it's because this novel is actually worse than the others or because I'm a newlywed, I do not know, but I threw the novel across the room, and I'm unlikely to pick it up again any time soon.


Joel said...

I don't know much about these particular authors (though I've read Rabbit, Run), but this post is quite interesting. I think that any of us who is married (especially newly married) and morally serious about staying faithful but yet often comes across interesting, sympathetic characters who prove themselves adulterous or free-wheeling...we feel very guarded/protective yet somewhat anxious about our own vows and ability to carry them out in the face of temptation and biological impulses. Personally, I think it's healthier to read through and wrestle with these feelings and ideas than to ignore them or simply try to never think about these issues.

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

I think the extra layers of complexity in the affairs in Roger's Version makes that one a harder read for me. I don't know what it says about me that I can handle adultery and prayers to Saint Onan but have more trouble when he adds in near-incest, simultaneous double-affairs, and affairs-on-second-spouses-with-neices; but since I read Month of Sundays directly after Roger's Version, it didn't shake me up as badly.