26 July 2007

John Updike

Just fifteen entries ago, July 11, I discussed a passage from a book of Updike's SEEK MY FACE. That book was a fictionalization of the history of modernist art.

Today, I'd like to bring another of Updike's recent novels to your attention. This is VILLAGES (2004). Again, it is on one level a fictionalization of some recent history -- in this case, the development of computing. The protagonist, Owen McKenzie, grew up in rural Pennsylvania through the era of the Second World War, studied electrical engineering at MIT, and co-founded a computer-servicing firm in the pre-Apollo era.

At the suggestion of his partner, Ed Mervine, the two men set up shop in rural Connecticut -- to the north and west of New Haven. They each make a modest fortune before the style of computer off of which they thrive becomes obsolete as Silicon Valley, California, rises to dominance.

That's the narrative arc. But in this novel, as in SEEK MY FACE, Updike is also concerned with the visual arts, and with contrasting ideas about them. He sets one scene in the living room of a neighboring couple in that Connecticut village -- the husband of that couple is an illustrator for the mass-market magazines -- framed samples of his work from POST and COLLIER's and REDBOOK grace the "cracked plaster walls" of the Morrissey home. But we've arrived at 1968, and the magazine world is shifting away from the sort of work Ian Morrissey has to offer -- nonfiction outsells fiction, and nonfiction is illustrated by photographers.

Ian is understandably cranky about this, and he blames computer nerds like Owen for the disappearance of his market. This spirited tirade is part of the result:

"But you, O. dear boy, you know better. You have a soul, or had one once. Let me put it this way -- you know something's missing, and still you've signed up, a good soldier for Moloch. Whatever you call it. Industry. The defense establishment. Defense, death, pollution, and mass-produced crap for the crappy masses."

I'll give only a bit of Owen's reply, for the flavor of the exchange.

"Some would say, incidentally, that the women's magazines you do your illustrations for are good soldiers for Moloch, selling cosmetics and tampons and dishwashers and sexy underwear and whatever else women can be persuaded they want. It's the Devil's bargain, Ian -- medicine and electricity and rocket science in exchange for an empty Heaven."

It's a perfect 1968 conversation. C.P. Snow's expression for the rift between the humanities and the sciences, "the two cultures," -- first coined by Snow in 1959 -- had taken this long to become common coin, and such self-conscious bantering of representatives of the two might I imagine have been heard in such a living room. Updike takes the ideas of his characters seriously, yet all the time they remain characters, defined by time place and plot -- not mouthpieces.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.