It was something of a surprise to read last night of John Updike’s death on Tuesday. Updike was a mere 76, practically a youngster these days, and I’d heard no rumors that he was sick. He was though, with cancer. Thirty years ago my high school English teacher (a huge fan of Updike’s, he fought the rural-minded, easily-shocked local school board to let him teach Updike in his advanced class – and won) said that Updike would never really die because he was the type whose ghost would be an unrelenting nag.
That was uncharitable and probably not true. From what I’ve heard (living in Massachusetts, you hear about Updike all the time, it’s in the air, like carbon from outdoor barbecues in the South), he was a charming, funny man, and from what I’ve read he seems to have had an almost comic eye for silliness and the small, savory defeats that make up our smaller, less savory days.
Wherein lies the problem, of course. Updike was a maddening writer. A real wordsmith, it often didn’t seem to matter to him what he was writing about, only that he was writing. “I would write ads for deodorants or labels for catsup bottles, if I had to,” he told The Paris Review in 1967, and it too often seemed that that was precisely what he was doing. His poetry in particular (but his prose was infected with it, too) suffered (imo, of course) from a focus on matters so inconsequential that it was almost as if Updike was challenging himself to find a way to take meaningless trivia and make it sound as if it were of lasting and even global significance. Needless to say, he failed. Odes to storm windows notwithstanding, banality is banality no matter how much you weigh it down with pretty words.
Not much I can say about this except that as you watch you might want to remember that these are the people making our Middle East policy.
Mark Gisleson, our favorite angry Wegian, is back blogging again, this time not as an aggregator (though there will doubtless be miles of links, Mark being Mark) but writing like Hunter Thompson on his less stoned days. Viz:
It started with the Star Tribune but now it’s spread to the New York Times and Washington Post. I look at their newspapers but increasingly I find that I don’t care what they’re writing about. The more important the story, the more likely it is that the editors have inserted lies or maybe the reporter(s) never wrote the real story in the first place. The narrative being shared by the mass media is gaseous with greasy uninformed speculation and the gristle of inferred wrongdoing. Most expensive inauguration ever? or simply the first time security costs were included?
All I know is that Obama will do what Obama will do, and rank speculation with all its accompanying media snitstorms won’t impact this President.
It’s a better, more fiery world with Mark afflicting the comfortable and as razor-sharp as he is these days, I’m glad he’s more or less on my side. Or I’m on his. Or whatever.
You’ll find him at the new Norwegianity. (On the sidebar under “WordPress Blogs”.)
Andrew Wyeth was the first real artist I found for myself. I had Michaelangelo, DaVinci, Rafael, and the like thrust on me either at school or at home (my father disliked art but thought a “rounded education” meant I ought at least to be able to recognize a renowned masterpiece when I saw one) but Wyeth I found for myself when an English teacher made a passing reference to “Christina’s World” as a painting done by an artist who lived part of the year in Maine. I lived in New Hampshire, as un- if not anti-artistic a state as exists. Mississippi thinks more of artists than New Hampshire and Maine where they were considered flakes, bums, drug addicts, and wastrels dodging a decent day’s work. The idea that one of these despised ones had actually chosen to live surrounded by the people who despised him was fascinating. I went to the local library and looked him up.
There was a full-color, two-page repro of “Christina’s World” in an art book and I spread it in front of me on the empty library table and stared at it for a long time. I think I must have been expecting a Norman Rockwell-ish sentimentality but there was nothing sentimental about Christina. A cripple, she made her way around her run-down farm and dilapidated house by pulling herself along with her hands, her useless legs dragging behind her.
She was 55 at the time, an aging recluse who stubbornly refused any kind of aid, glorying in her pain and privation as if it somehow proved her worth. The picture Wyeth painted was generally considered to show her courage, determination, and independence. It doesn’t really, at least it doesn’t show those things any more than it shows her overweaning pride, her satisfaction in playing victim, or her vicious puritanical streak. All it shows is, as the picture title says, her world – as much of her hardscrabble farm as her strong if scrawny arms could get her across and then back to her house again in a single day.
It is – and was then – an extraordinary picture to me precisely because it looked unflinchingly at Christine yet made no judgments about her or her world except for the most important one: how limited they were. Christine’s world was the world of her farm, a world to which she was content to be chained, modern contrivances like wheelchairs be damned. It is the bleak, restricted world of people who live bleak and restricted lives and don’t see any point to changing them. Many assumed Wyeth admired them, but if so why aren’t they fleshed out, their joys lit next door to their fears, their hopes as much a part of the picture as their despair?
All 155 passengers were rescued from the US Airways jet that crashed into the Hudson. What the media has failed completely to mention is that the rescuers were all union members. For instance:
Sullenberger is a former national committee member and the former safety chairman for the Airline Pilots Association and now represented by US Airline Pilots Association. He–and his union–have fought to ensure pilots get the kind of safety training to pull off what he did yesterday.
Studs Terkel complained for years that while every newspaper had a Business Section, a Lifestyle Section, and a Travel Section, none – NONE – had a Labor Section. In fact, most newspapers, magazines, and electronic news shows ignore Labor until somebody gets caught with their hand in the till or some employer shafts his emloyees so badly they go on strike. Even in the latter case, the papers and news shows (teevee, as usual, is the worst offender this way) usually approach strikes as demands for money, rarely bothering to go into other issues – workplace safety, job security, health insurance – that make up the background to most job actions.
And then we wonder why unions have such a lousy reputation. But of course the corporate media doesn’t under-report unions because it’s biased against Labor.
No, no, it can’t be that.