Tag Archives: John Updike

Coenesthesia of Art


All remarks as to the ways and means by which experiences arise or are brought about are technical, but critical remarks are about the values of experiences and the reasons for regarding them as valuable, or not valuable (23). – I.A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism

The book Principles of Literary Criticism was mentioned in The Story of Ain’t and for some reason, I felt I had to read it. Published in 1924, Richards seems to use perspectives in psychology to try to understand the value of the arts and outline principles with which to appreciate and critique them.

The basis of morality, as Shelley insisted, is laid not by preachers but by poets. Bad taste and crude responses are not mere flaws in an otherwise admirable person. They are actually a root evil from which other defects flow. No life can be excellent in which the elementary responses are disorganised and confused (62).

I came across Andrew Wyeth’s study for his painting Black Velvet the other day in the book Writers on Artists. The writer was John Updike and the focus of his essay was (mostly) on his complaining of the titillating speculation and hype surrounding the relationship between Wyeth and his long time model Helga Testorf (Black Velvet is one of the so-named “Helga Series”). I sent a picture of the finished painting via facebook to my daughter because she loves this series of works (I couldn’t find the above study online, for this post I scanned the image from the book). My oldest son commented on it, “that’s creepy.”

The two pillars upon which a theory of criticism must rest are an account of value and an account of communication. We do not sufficiently realise how great a part of our experience takes the form it does, because we are social beings and accustomed to communication from infancy (25).

I looked at the painting as it must have appeared to him, a woman lying corpse-like, almost being swallowed by a rich black background against which her hair, individually limned with golden light, glimmered intoxicatingly.

There is no kind of mental activity in which memory does not intervene (106).

But it was exactly her pose that had resonated with me. I told him: never mind the obvious reference to Manet’s Olympia, or the beautiful lines and (in the painting) the use of lights and darks – it is her pose! That it happens to be the exact position that I sleep in fascinates me, (as my children have, even a friend once checked to see if I was alive when we once shared a bed, I was so persistent in my odd, still repose).

Tragedy – is still the form under which the mind may most clearly and freely contemplate the human situation, its issues unclouded, its possibilities revealed (69).

The hands over her chest, wanting to cover her heart, her crossed limp feet, head turned away- it is evocative of a vulnerability, a melancholy and…becalmed spirit that so overwhelms. Quite the opposite of Olympia’s pointed command and assurance.

We rarely change our tastes, we rather find them changed (198).

My son’s two word reaction made me organise my thoughts about my own judgments. What made me stare at it, feel and think so deeply? For Richards, that is the very key – organising the chaos of our thoughts as a direct function of critique. Yes we all have thoughts and/or feelings, but it is the making sense of them and the communication of them with which the artist intuits and the viewer aspires to illume meaningful existence.

To put it briefly the best life is that in which as much as possible of our possible personalities is engaged. And of two personalities that one is the better in which there is more which can be engaged without confusion. We all know people of unusually wide and varied possibilities who pay for their width in disorder, and we know others who pay for their order with narrowness (288).

It doesn’t matter that my son and I had different reactions, only that we have an organized and expansive sense of ourselves with which to understand our reactions – because we always react. Literature and the arts engage sense and sensibility, order and organic harmony, through which we discover we are more than all that we see, hear and read. We are more than all this.


*title from Chapter XIII, Emotion and Coenesthesia:  In alluding to the coenesthesia we came very near to giving an account of emotion as an ingredient of consciousness (98). […]  As a rule a process of extraordinary complexity takes place between perceiving the situation and finding a mode of meeting it. This complicated process contributes the rest of its peculiar flavour to an emotional experience (102).


this + this = this + 2

Rabbit doesn’t want to tell him anything. The more he tells, the more he loses.
– John Updike,  Rabbit, Run

DSCI0013The question I am always interested in, and often even ask is, “What are you reading?” But what I really want to know is, “Why?” I worry that there might be a taint of accusation or judgment in the asking. But I mean it quite straightforwardly – how does one come to a book?

Lately, my reading has been influenced by others, combined with the order of the library of congress system. When I enter the red zone of the stacks in my library job to return a random book,  I can hear the catcalls of the surrounding volumes- “Hey Baby, check me out…” And I do. I hate to be rude.

Rabbit, Run was one such book. I have read a lot about John Updike, but never actually read any of his books. I always suspected I would not like them.

He sees in the dark she is frightened; her big black shape has that pocket in it, that his instinct feels like a tongue probing a pulled tooth. The air tells him he must be motionless; for no reason he wants to laugh. Her fear and his inner knowledge are so incongruous; he knows there is no harm in him. (75)

Initially I didn’t think I would relate to Rabbit, I am long past the particular stupidity of youth, that ridiculous time of life when you are suppose to make life-long decisions without having any concept of the time frame. Now more experienced, the stupidities at least take on the profundity of mortality. Still,  something in Rabbit’s brutal moments of truth and sweetness kept me reading. And then there were passages of writer-ly genius from Updike that  did for me what I always hope reading will – he made me stop reading, and think. It is that translation from the order of all the facts of the story into meaning that I really enjoy.

I have been watching a lecture by Buckminster Fuller. I love his ideas. He describes the comprehensive metaphysical universe as “the aggregate of all of humanity  consciously apprehended in communicative experience.” That’s a sentence that gives some serious pause. He is also very charming, adding an irrepressible hehe on the end of nearly all of his sentences. Framing his ideas in math and physics, the synergy of all of his “generalized principles” is wonderful.

The “this + this = this + 2” is what makes us human. It is the meaning that our limitless minds quite miraculously glean. As Rabbit flees from one experience to another, from one girl to another, the depressing physics is exposed. His immaturity and internal disconnect leaves his love in the behavioral stage. He doesn’t know what his love is. We only know how it behaves. It mysteriously comes and goes, he’s barely pierced by it when it flees. The physics of our lives, as Buckminster explains, is the path of least resistance. Rabbit thoughtlessly runs towards his missing center by whatever path is easiest at any given moment.

Rabbit leaves his old home depressed, with a feeling of his heart having slumped off center. (229)

But then. I stop reading and think. Is it possible that this idea explains the meaning behind all of our decisions and actions? I have made some pretty painful decisions in the last couple of years, but if I look at them in terms of the path of least resistance…well yes. What may look like a path of ridiculous hurdles and mountains of Everest proportions, is a water slide compared to the alternatives.

The path of least resistance either exposes the depth of feeling that makes it the easier route, or it reveals the shallowness of feeling: proving the path unworthy of being blazed. I have discovered that, for me, any path is fundamentally easier than one that is littered with the hidden landmines  of qualifiers and suppression. We can’t really know what anyone else finds more or less resistfull, but if we understand that that is the force that guides us, then we can begin to ask the why- why is this less resisting?

Rabbit never asks why it is easier for him to run. The results are tragic.

This childish mystery – the mystery of “any place,” prelude to the ultimate, “Why am I me?” – starts panic in his heart. (283)

The truth is there is nothing childish about it.  Just stop, and think. See what your chosen path reveals.

I find that our whole education system around the world is organized on the basis of the little child being ignorant. Assuming the little child is born, is going to have to be taught, in a sense is empty waiting for information to be given by the grown ups. And so, the little child demonstrates time and again an interest in the whole universe. The child is very enthusiastic about the planetarium. The little child asks the most beautiful questions abut the total universe, continually embarrassing the grown-ups who have become very specialized and can’t answer the great comprehensive questions. We find the child then, with his propensity to comprehend totality- willing to be synergetic. Yet our education is to say – never mind about that universe, come in here and I’m going to give you and A and a B and a C…  – Buckminster Fuller