In catching up on my Commonweal reading (as I’ve admitted before, how far behind I am in reading the periodicals I subscribe to is a good barometer of how frequently I’m getting – or not getting – to the gym, since I tend to read them on the elliptical machine), I was reading a piece by Rand Richard Cooper on John Updike.
Talking about Updike’s influence on him, Cooper writes that “being influenced by Updike involved more than imitating his prose style. We immerse ourselves in a writer’s fictions; and over time, through a mysterious osmosis, these narratives become a part of ourselves.” As I read Cooper’s examples of the Updike characters or incidents that informed his own understanding of himself, I was reminded of my college days.
For me it was Joyce. I had given up Catholicism by the time I finished high school and my overwhelming vision of myself during my early days at Georgetown (yes, I had given up Catholicism, but I still attended a Jesuit school), was Stephen Dedalus. Specifically, Stephen Dedalus at the end of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. As I walked around the campus, with what I imagine now must have been a serious and ernest, yet uninvolved-with-the-mundane-that-surrounded-me, expression on my face (at least I’m sure that was what I was trying to achieve), the words that ran through my mind were Stephen’s:
I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use, silence, exile, and cunning.
I was young then, as was Stephen at the end of Portrait, and I’ve learned much since then that has taught me the limitations of the attitude with which I walked those campus paths so many years ago. But that doesn’t change the truth of Cooper’s observations. The best writers do have an uncanny ability to offer us a helpful lens through which to see our perceptions and emotions. And we owe them a debt of gratitude for that.