Thursday, September 24, 2009

Esther's Version

Last time I wrote on John Updike’s Roger’s Version (please note the warning at the top of that page), I went somewhat outside the field of my own expertise and talked about the homosocial undercurrent that runs all through the novel. I returned to the book again this week while studying for my comprehensive exams, and this time through I focused much more on the theological parts of the novel than the sexual parts.

All for the best. I love Updike, probably more than I love any other author, but I hate his sex scenes—truly, viscerally hate them. They’re almost always unnecessary (though my last post gets to some of the reasons they might be present in Roger’s Version), and as the author aged, they just made him seem like a dirty old man. It was not for nothing that he won the Lifetime Achievement Bad Sex award.

So let’s ignore the sex scenes and focus on the theological debate. Roger’s Version presents us essentially with two versions of Christianity. In one corner, we have Roger, a professor of divinity who loves Karl Barth even more than he loves fantasizing about his wife sleeping with other men but who has completely lost his faith, at least as far as the reader can tell. And in the other corner, we have Dale Kohler, a graduate student in computer science who sets out to prove God’s existence via computer.

We are set up to trust Roger and to distrust Dale—after all, this is Roger’s version; he narrates the novel, and the only time we’re privy to Dale’s thoughts is when Roger imagines them. We know that Updike followed Barth on theological matters, and so when Roger quotes The Word of God and the Word of Man and says things like this—

If [God] is omnipotent, I would think it within His powers to keep hiding. And I’m not sure it isn’t a bit heretical of you to toss the fact of God in with a lot of other facts. Even Aquinas, I think, didn’t postulate a God Who could be hauled kicking and screaming out from some laboratory closet, over behind the blackboard—

we are inclined to believe him. Dale, meanwhile, is annoying in his fundamentalism and his tunnel-visioned zeal; however much he knows about science, we are inclined to believe him an arrogant fool.

But as you get to know him more, you start to realize how perceptive he is in his analysis of Roger, who uses God’s unknowability as an excuse to do anything he wants to do, including (spoiler alert) sleeping with his niece late in the novel. (His moral sense, like that of so many Updike protagonists, is nonexistent; he refers to his incest/adultery as “a small secret to protect.”) So Dale is exactly right when he tells Roger that

You don’t want God to break through. People in general don’t want that. They just want to grub along being human, and dirty, and sly, and amusing, and having their weekends with Michelob, and God to stay put in the churches if they ever decide to drop by, and maybe pull them out in the end, down that tunnel of light all these [near death experiences] talk about.

What we have in Roger’s Version, then, are two competing versions of nonbelief. Roger recognizes that the whole Christian enterprise is built on faith, but while he memorizes everything about Christendom, he doesn’t seem to have much faith at all. Dale, on the other hand, belies his own claims at faith when he attempts to remove the need for faith, proving God like a mathematical theorem. Both of these are unsatisfactory.

The odd twist in the novel is that Dale himself becomes an object of faith about midway through. Roger’s wife, Esther, cues us into the move when she says that “Dale sounds like a rather touching young man,” a declaration which Roger is quick to inform us comes “on no evidence.” That Roger imagines Esther sleeping with Dale does give us a limited explanation for the inclusion of the sex scenes (though it doesn’t explain why they have to be so disgusting): These fantasies are neither psychosis nor prophecy; they are something concrete for Roger to put his faith in.

As my Salinger post hints, however, faith qua faith is not the issue; it must be properly directed to be helpful or meaningful in any real way. Thus, any religious leanings Roger’s fantasies about Dale and Esther reveal are tainted with the stench of Karl Barth’s Towers of Babel, false paths to a false God. These fantasies thus reveal Roger’s lack of faith in the Christian God even more clearly. All he has to trust in is sex, and not even his own sex: sex he may be completely fabricating between his wife and his worst enemy.

Again, the novel’s ending appears to confirm Roger’s theology at the expense of Dale’s. At a cocktail party, Dale talks with Myron Kriegman, a snide and fast-talking atheist who causes the young man to lose his faith nearly completely. Roger’s brand of fideism has seemingly been proven right—his faith, however mediocre and lukewarm, is safe from the proofs of materialism and the meanness of the world. It’s an ugly picture of faith for many evangelicals. Given the choice of being lukewarm and secure like Roger or being fervent but precarious like Dale, a lot of people would gladly choose the latter.

There may be a third way, though. In the novel’s final scene, Esther—who has shown absolutely no interest in religion heretofore—tells her husband she is going to go to church. Her reason is that she wishes to annoy her husband, but this is obviously a dodge. I have the feeling Updike is slyly offering us a third way at the end of the book, but I can’t figure out what exactly it is, what kind of faith is viable for him at the end of the 20th century. Is there a via media between her husband’s cold fideism and her (possible) lover’s hot rationalism? I may have to read the book a fourth time to answer that question.

No comments: