Updike's 'This I Believe' Essay

John Updike won two Pulitzer Prizes for his series of novels. He was also a noted poet and essayist, as well as a critic of literature and fine art. In 2005, Updike contributed to This I Believe. In his essay, he writes about the art of fiction, politics and religion.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

We'll end this hour with the words of John Updike in his own voice. In April of 2005, Updike wrote an essay for our series "This I Believe." He composed his thoughts in three parts, first the art of fiction, followed by his thoughts on politics, and then faith. Here's John Updike reading his essay.

Mr. JOHN UPDIKE (Author): A person believes various things at various times, even on the same day. At the age of 73, I seem most instinctively to believe in the human value of creative writing, whether in the form of verse or fiction, as a mode of truth-telling, self-expression, and homage to the twin miracles of creation and consciousness. The special value of these indirect methods of communication as opposed to the value of factual reporting and analysis is one of precision. Oddly enough, the story or poem brings us closer to the actual texture and intricacy of experience.

In fiction, imaginary people become realer to us than any named celebrity glimpsed in a series of rumored events, whose causes and subtler ramifications must remain in the dark. An invented figure like Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary emerges fully into the light of understanding, which brings with it identification, sympathy, and pity. I find in my own writing that only fiction and rarely a poem fully tests me to the limits of what I know and what I feel. In composing even such a frank and simple account as this profession of belief, I must fight against the sensation that I am simplifying and exploiting my own voice.

I also believe, instinctively, if not very cogently, in the American political experiment, which I take to be, at bottom, a matter of trusting the citizens to know their own minds and best interests. "To govern with the consent of the governed": this spells the ideal. And though the implementation will inevitably be approximate and debatable, and though a totalitarian or technocratic government can obtain some swift successes, in the end, only a democracy can enlist a people's energies on a sustained and renewable basis. To guarantee the individual maximum freedom within a social frame of minimal laws ensures - if not happiness - its hopeful pursuit.

Cosmically, I seem to be of two minds. The power of materialist science to explain everything from the behavior of the galaxies to that of molecules, atoms, and their sub-microscopic components seems to be inarguable and the principal glory of the modern mind. On the other hand, the reality of subjective sensations, desires, and may we even say illusions composes the basic substance of our existence, and religion alone, in its many forms, attempts to address, organize, and placate these. I believe, then, that religious faith will continue to be an essential part of being human, as it has been for me.

NORRIS: Writer John Updike from our series "This I Believe" in 2005. John Updike died today of lung cancer. He was 76 years old.

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Testing the Limits of What I Know and Feel

A person believes various things at various times, even on the same day. At the age of 73, I seem most instinctively to believe in the human value of creative writing, whether in the form of verse or fiction, as a mode of truth-telling, self-expression and homage to the twin miracles of creation and consciousness. The special value of these indirect methods of communication — as opposed to the value of factual reporting and analysis — is one of precision. Oddly enough, the story or poem brings us closer to the actual texture and intricacy of experience.

Novelist John Updike
Nubar Alexanian

John Updike won two Pulitzer Prizes for his series of novels chronicling the life and death of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. He is also a noted poet and essayist, as well as a critic of literature and fine art. Updike grew up in rural Pennsylvania and now lives in Massachusetts.

In fiction, imaginary people become realer to us than any named celebrity glimpsed in a series of rumored events, whose causes and subtler ramifications must remain in the dark. An invented figure like Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary emerges fully into the light of understanding, which brings with it identification, sympathy and pity. I find in my own writing that only fiction — and rarely, a poem — fully tests me to the kind of limits of what I know and what I feel. In composing even such a frank and simple account as this profession of belief, I must fight against the sensation that I am simplifying and exploiting my own voice.

I also believe, instinctively, if not very cogently, in the American political experiment, which I take to be, at bottom, a matter of trusting the citizens to know their own minds and best interests. "To govern with the consent of the governed": this spells the ideal. And though the implementation will inevitably be approximate and debatable, and though totalitarianism or technocratic government can obtain some swift successes, in the end, only a democracy can enlist a people's energies on a sustained and renewable basis. To guarantee the individual maximum freedom within a social frame of minimal laws ensures — if not happiness — its hopeful pursuit.

Cosmically, I seem to be of two minds. The power of materialist science to explain everything — from the behavior of the galaxies to that of molecules, atoms and their sub-microscopic components — seems to be inarguable and the principal glory of the modern mind. On the other hand, the reality of subjective sensations, desires and — may we even say — illusions, composes the basic substance of our existence, and religion alone, in its many forms, attempts to address, organize and placate these. I believe, then, that religious faith will continue to be an essential part of being human, as it has been for me.

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