Something and Nothingness: The Fiction of John Updike & John Fowles

Something and Nothingness: The Fiction of John Updike & John Fowles

Something and Nothingness: The Fiction of John Updike & John Fowles

Something and Nothingness: The Fiction of John Updike & John Fowles


John Neary shows that the theological dichotomy of via negativa (which posits the authentic experience of God as absence, darkness, silence) and via affirmativa (which emphasizes presence, images, and the sounds of the earth) is an overlooked key to examining and comparing the works of John Fowles and John Updike.

Drawing on his extensive knowledge of both Christian and secular existentialism within the modern theology of Barth and Levinas and the contemporary critical theory of Derrida and J. Hillis Miller, Neary demonstrates the ultimate affinity of these authors who at first appear such opposites. He makes clear that Fowles's postmodernist, metafictional experiments reflect the stark existentialism of Camus and Sartre while Updike's social realism recalls Kierkegaard's empirical faith in a generous God within a kind of Christian deconstructionism.

Neary's perception of uncanny similarities between the two authors- whose respective careers are marked by a series of novels that structurally and thematically parallel each other- and the authors' shared long-term interest in existentialism and theology support both his critical comparison and his argument that neither author is "philosophically more sophisticated nor aesthetically more daring."


In their attempts to capture a valid vision of human existence, writers of English-language fiction have tended to waver between literary versions of what theologians call the via negativa and the via affirmativa. Although the act of writing in itself may seem to assert the possibility of saying something about something, it is more than ever true in this age of postmodernist deconstructing that many writers -- and, according to some, the only self-conscious and compelling ones -- are akin to the religious followers of the via negativa in the way they use language: breaking it down, and hence pointing toward the unspeakable, the darkness behind being. But other writers, who are included in what is clumsily called the realistic tradition, follow an affirmative way; they are more interested in capturing existence, in using language not to deconstruct but precisely to construct a world of things. Sometimes such writers are unselfconscious, concerned only with photographing phenomena without ever considering whether these pheonomena have any value or even reality; but others, the great creators of substantial worlds, see things, content, and imagery as a positive revelation -- about some substantive human nature or even cosmic order.

In the theology of spirituality, the two viae, the negative and the affirmative, are ways specifically of approaching God. The via negativa is the way of the "apophatic" mystical tradition, which asserts that nothing, no thing, can approximate the divine, who is beyond all thingness; the "kataphatic" tradition, on the other hand, which embraces the via affirmativa, "uses terms from our own experience to describe God and his qualities" (Kesich 254). But these two mystical traditions do not just have differing notions of God; their theologies lead to differing orientations toward the world, toward the human imagination, and toward language, which make them emblematic of the two literary viae that I wish to introduce. In his book Christian Mysticism, Harvey S. J. Egan, explains that the via negativa leads to a stripping away of attention . . .

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