In a review of Adam Begley’s Updike, William Deresiewicz finds that writer’s short story, “Pigeon Feathers,” offers telling insight into his religious beliefs. In the story, the character David is asked by his mother to kill the pigeons roosting in their barn, which gives him “the sensation of a creator.” How Deresiewicz describes what happens next:
It is when he’s burying these creatures that he has his epiphany. He has never seen a bird up close before. “Across the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers played idle designs of color, no two alike, designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture, with a joy that hung level in the air above and behind him.” Now he knows “that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.”
The story is a credo at once theological and artistic.
David finds God by emulating him. He creates. That he creates by killing— the story’s brazen moral scandal—only draws him nearer to his model, for He does the same, as Piet in Couples understands. The more important point lies in the way in which he kills: carefully, cleverly, with a patience both of seeing and of skill. It takes no wit to recognize a third, implied creator, intermediate between the other two. The boy creates the birds; the artist creates the boy; the deity creates them all. “Controlled rapture” is a precise description of the state in which the patterns of Updike’s own work, here and elsewhere, have been so evidently crafted. The joy hangs level everywhere around us.
This is the argument from design, and it is also an argument for design. Updike believed in art as imitation, a tracing of the wonders God has put in pigeons and in Davids. “Pigeon Feathers” tells us that people do not matter, not even to themselves, unless they have immortal souls. Elsewhere Updike makes a corollary statement about fiction. Without souls, he asks, “are mundane lives worth writing about?” Art becomes a form of affirmation. Updike didn’t want a better world, he only wanted this one, forever. He may not have thought that everything was holy—he wasn’t pious or sentimental—but he thought that it was beautiful, to use the language of art, and he certainly thought, to use the language of Genesis, that it was good. And men and women (their sins included)—they were very good.
Recent Dish on Updike’s faith here.
(Photo by Partha S. Sahana)