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, October 26, 2012

Love in John Updike's "Couples"

David Foster Wallace, in his “Certainly The End Of Something Or Other, One Would Sort Of Have To Think” (Consider the Lobster, 2006), writes that Rabbit Angstrom, Dick Maple, Piet Hanema, and Henry Bech, among other John Updike protagonists, “never really love anybody – and, though always heterosexual to the point of satyriasis, they especially don’t love women.” I can’t comment on the accuracy of this remark as it relates to Angstrom, Maple, and Bech because I’m not sufficiently familiar with them. But with regard to Couples's Piet Hanema, who I feel I know reasonably well, I submit that Wallace is wrong. Wallace doesn’t say what he means by “love.” In a footnote appended to the above “satyriasis” quote, he says, “Unless, of course, you consider delivering long encomiums to a woman’s ‘sacred several-lipped gateway’ or saying things like ‘It is true, the sight of her plump lips obediently distended around my swollen member, her eyelids lowered demurely, afflicts me with religious peace’ to mean the same as loving.” No, that’s not my idea of love, and I don’t think it is Updike’s either. Updike subscribed to an intensely romantic notion of love, as represented by the legend of Tristan and Iseult, in which, as he says in his pivotal essay “More Love in the Western World” (The New Yorker, August 24, 1963; Assorted Prose, 1965), “passion-love feeds upon denial.” In this piece, he refers to Denis de Rougemont’s Love in the Western World (1956) as follows:

Unlike most accretions of learning and intelligence, Love in the Western World has the unity of an idea, an idea carried through a thousand details but ultimately single and simple, an idea that, however surprising its route of arrival, strikes home. 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 a 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.”

In Couples, Piet Hanema’s Iseult is Foxy Whitman. Consider, for example, the scene in which Piet is in bed with his wife, Angela. She’s asleep, but he’s “horribly awake.” Updike writes:

Angela obliviously stirred, faintly moaned. Piet got out of bed and went downstairs for a glass of milk. Whenever he was most lovesick for Foxy, that summer, he would go to the refrigerator, the cool pale box full of illuminated food, and feed something to the void within. He leaned his cheek against the machine’s cold cheek and thought of her voice, its southern shadows, its playful dryness, its musical remembrance of his genitals. He spelled her name with the magnetized alphabet the girls played with on the tall blank door. FOXY. PIET L VES FOXY. He scrambled the letters and traveled to bed again through a house whose familiar furniture and wallpaper were runes charged with malevolent magic. Beside Angela, he thought that if he were beside Foxy he could fall asleep on broken glass. Insomnia a failure of alignment.  

That is love – romantic love straight out of Tristan and Iseult, as channeled by John Updike. And near the novel’s end, after Piet and Foxy have reunited, there’s Updike’s clinching observation: “he was not tempted to touch her in this house they had so often violated; her presence as she breezed from room to room felt ghostly, impervious; and already they had lost that prerogative of lovers which claims all places as theirs.” The Unattainable Lady has become attained, and since “passion-love feeds upon denial,” the “prerogative of lovers which claims all places as theirs” has been lost. But implicit in this is that there was passion-love to lose. David Foster Wallace’s claim that Piet Hanema doesn’t love women overlooks this vital implication.   

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