January 13, 2018

"[I want] to treat this life, this massive datum which happens to be mine, as a specimen life, representative in its odd uniqueness of all the oddly unique lives in this world."

"A mode of impersonal egoism was my aim: an attempt to touch honestly upon the central veins, with a scientific dispassion and curiosity," wrote John Updike in "Self-Consciousness: Memoirs," which I put in my Kindle in December (for reasons described in this post).

The quote in the post title came up in an interview with Terry Gross that I was just reading:
The behaviors you have to be comfortable with as the host of Fresh Air are behaviors that would be considered antisocial in almost every other context. Do you have to be weird to be the kind of interviewer you are?
You don’t have to be weird. I think what you have to do is really believe, as I do, that the interview serves a function.

What’s the function?
I like to quote John Updike on this. In his memoir, Self-Consciousness, which I really love, he said he wanted to use his life as “a specimen life, representative in its odd uniqueness of all the oddly unique lives in this world.” That’s kind of how I see interviews. When you’re talking to an artist, you can get insight into the sensibility that created his or her art and into the life that shaped that sensibility. I love making those connections. I think we all feel very alone. I don’t mean that we don’t have friends or lovers but that deep at our core we all have loneliness.
I wonder, is this the same usage of "specimen" as in Walt Whitman's "Specimen Days." I've to admit that I'd always compartmentalized that title with the knowledge that Whitman served as a nurse in the Civil War and therefore thought of "specimen" as a urine sample! But that can't be right!

From "Specimen Days":
I suppose I publish... from that eternal tendency to perpetuate and preserve which is behind all Nature, authors included; second, to symbolize two or three specimen interiors, personal and other, out of the myriads of my time, the middle range of the Nineteenth century in the New World; a strange, unloosen'd, wondrous time....

You ask for items, details of my early life—of genealogy and parentage, particularly of the women of my ancestry, and of its far-back Netherlands stock on the maternal side—of the region where I was born and raised, and my mother and father before me, and theirs before them—with a word about Brooklyn and New York cities, the times I lived there as lad and young man. You say you want to get at these details mainly as the go-befores and embryons of "Leaves of Grass." Very good; you shall have at least some specimens of them all.....
Though not about urine samples, this is not the same usage of "specimen" as Updike's. Whitman was saying this book has some samples of what has been in his life, but Updike was saying I am writing based on the idea that my life is an example of all lives.

12 comments:

traditionalguy said...

Whitman is a stable genius type and a master comunicator. Updike is a navel gazing egotist. You can see the difference in the openness and scope with which Whitman courageously communicates to us compared to the narrow assumption by Updyke that his life is all there is or ever will be.

David said...

19th Century (and before) adventurers and explorers were great collectors of specimens. Darwin was an example. Columbus brought native Americans back to Europe for display. American pioneers and soldiers brought natives back to Washington for display (and reeducation.) Etc. The word was very familiar and nonurinary at the time.

Fernandistein said...

"[I want] to treat this life, this massive datum which happens to be mine, as a specimen life, representative in its odd uniqueness of all the oddly unique lives in this world."
"A mode of impersonal egoism was my aim: an attempt to touch honestly upon the central veins, with a scientific dispassion and curiosity," wrote John Updike


Ostentatious words for very trivial ideas.

pacwest said...

We are all prisoners of solitary confinement.

Luke Lea said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Luke Lea said...

"Updike is a navel gazing egotist. You can see the difference in the openness and scope with which Whitman courageously communicates to us compared to the narrow assumption by Updike that his life is all there is or ever will be."

That would be true if all Updike had ever written was Self-Consciousness: Memoirs but the reality is that he wrote over a dozen novels whose main characters were very different from him, beginning with The Poorhouse Fair about his grandfather, The Centaur about his father, and continuing with the four Rabbit books, The Coup about an African black man, The Witches of Eastwick about women and told from a woman's point of view, S, also from a woman's point of view, Terrorist, from a young half-Muslim American's point of view—presaging Obama's Dreams from My Father! — and several others. There is much autobiographical material in many of his novels, no doubt, especially when dealing with the themes of adultery and divorce, but he has a range of characters similar to Shakespeare's and a talent to match (in my personal opinion) even if he did write a couple of clunkers.

Etienne said...

"...you can get insight into the sensibility that created his or her art ..."

This guy certainly is deaf to all the gender-identity social-engineering politics.

OK, OK, too much coffee...

Quaestor said...

Well, if Quaestor was the kind of person with the OED always at hand he'd research the etymology and conclude that an accurate paraphrase of Whitman's title would be "Observed Days" based on the Latin root speciƍ — observe, watch.

Following that to Updike, we have an observed life.

Richard Dillman said...

Somehow this involves the subtle use of the synecdoche trope and it attendant microcosm, macrocosm patterns. Whitman tried to
create a cosmos from particulars. He collected experiences and images. Dicknson and Thoreau were masters of the microcosm.
Walden Pond is a microcosm for all nature.

Ralph L said...

Meade probably thought of a specimen plant as I did.

Somehow I missed (or don't remember) Whitman in HS but got an Updike novel. Rising tide of mediocrity.

Biotrekker said...

In biology, a specimen is an archetypal, representative sample of a species or type. In landscaping, you often plant a "specimen" tree. This is usually meant to be an impressive plant of some kind - a focus of the landscape/garden. Updike is suggesting that humans are different in that we are each a specimen of humanity, but we are also so unique.

JohnW said...

Concerning the word "foreign":

Based on my travels and vague recollections, I believe the word "foreign" originated with Arabs/Muslims and meant Frank, as in the French or Europeans in general. It may have dated from the Crusades or earlier.

You find this word in SE Asia: the Thai word for foreigner is "farang" and the Malaysian is "ferengi". Arab traders that opened the sea routes to the Spice Islands brought the word with them.

Since Ann enjoys etymology I thought this might be of interest.