Introduction

What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Interesting Emendations: John Updike's "Museums and Women"


What is the meaning of “unsearchability” in John Updike’s great short story “Museums and Women”? And why did he delete it from the version of the story that appears in his 2003 collection The Early Stories 1953 – 1975? In the original “Museums and Women,” published in The New Yorker, November 18, 1967, Updike wrote:

What we seek in museums is the opposite of what we seek in churches – the consoling sense of previous visitation. In museums, rather, we seek the untouched, the never-before-discovered; and it is their final unsearchability that leads us to hope, and return.

The same passage occurs in the version of the story included in Updike’s 1972 collection Museums and Women. But the version in The Early Stories is different. It reads as follows:

What we seek in museums is the opposite of what we seek in churches – the consoling sense of previous visitation. In museums, rather, we seek the unvisited, the never-before-discovered.

Note the deletion of “untouched” and “it is their final unsearchability that leads us to hope and return.”

The original story mentions “unsearchability” again in the following passage:

My woman, fully searched, and my museum, fully possessed; for this translucent interval – like the instant of translucence that shows in a wave between its peaking and its curling under – I had come to the limits of unsearchability. From this beautiful boundary I could imagine no retreat.

This passage is also found in the Museums and Women version of the story. However, in The Early Stories version, it’s changed to the following:

My woman, fully searched, and my museum, fully possessed; for this translucent interval – like the instant of translucence that shows in a wave between its peaking and its curling under – I had come to a limit. From this beautiful boundary I could imagine no retreat.

The words “the limits of unsearchability” are changed to simply “a limit.” What accounts for these changes? It could be that Updike reconsidered the logic of following “My woman fully searched” with “I had come to the limits of unsearchability.” You’d think that if the woman is fully searched, it would be the limits of searchability that’s arrived at, not unsearchability. But if it’s just a matter of tightening the logic, why change “untouched” to “unvisited”? And why delete “hope and return”? Why does Updike associate “hope and return” with “unsearchability,” but not with “the never-before-discovered”? I think what Updike is really talking about here is adultery. In The Early Stories, “Museums and Women” is included in the section titled “The Two Iseults.” Denis de Rougemont, in his classic Love in the Western World (1956), says, “There is one great European myth of adultery – the Romance of Tristan and Iseult.” Updike reviewed de Rougemont’s 1963 essay collection Love Declared (The New Yorker, August 24, 1963; included in Updike’s 1965 collection Assorted Prose), in the course of which he says:

Love as we experience it is love for the Unattainable Lady, the Iseult who is “ever a stranger, the very essence of what is strange in woman and of all that is eternally fugitive, vanishing, and almost hostile in a fellow-being, that which indeed incites to pursuit, and rouses in the heart of a man who has fallen prey to the myth an avidity for possession so much more delightful than possession itself. She is the woman-from-whom-one-is-parted; to possess her is to lose her.”

The quotation in the above passage is from Love in the Western World. Unattainable and unsearchable are similar states. Seeking the untouched, the unvisited is akin to pursuing “the woman-from-whom-one-is-parted,” the “never-before-discovered.” The “instant of translucence,” the “beautiful boundary” is analogous to that moment when the Unattainable Lady (the “untouched,” “unsearchable,” “unvisited” woman) rouses “in the heart of a man who has fallen prey to the myth an avidity for possession so much more delightful than possession itself.” Maybe my interpretation is too acute. But in support of it, I point out that, according to the Index of Titles at the back of The Early Stories, Updike wrote “Museums and Women” in 1962, around the time Love in the Western World was much on his mind. In the Foreword to Assorted Prose, Updike says, in respect of de Rougemont's analysis in Love in the Western World, “His overriding thesis seems increasingly beautiful and pertinent.” So why did Updike drop “unsearchability” from his final version of “Museums and Women”? I think it was to make his use of the Iseult legend a shade subtler.

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