Is literary representation an act of transubstantiation?

Here are some thought-provoking remarks from Louis Mendand’s New Yorker essay, “Imitation of Life,” on John Updike’s cultural project:

“Ulysses” begins with a mock celebration of the Eucharist—and so, in fact, does “In Search of Lost Time,” a cookie dipped in a cup of tea. The idea is that literary representation is an act of transubstantiation. Literature pulls the real up out of the realm of temporality and insignificance and remakes it into a form that will never decay and never die. There is nothing doctrinally religious about this conception of the literary act. It is at the heart of modernism. “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance,” Henry James wrote to H. G. Wells. That’s what Updike believed.


The most persistent and mindlessly recycled criticism of Updike’s work is that he was infatuated with his own style, that he over-described everything to no purpose—that, as several critics put it, he had “nothing to say.” But Updike wasn’t merely showing off with his style. He wasn’t, as all those critics were essentially implying, masturbating. He was transubstantiating.

There was nothing secret about this. He explained what he was up to many times. “The Old Testament God repeatedly says he wants praise, and I translate that to mean that the world wants describing,” he once explained to an interviewer. In the preface to the collected Rabbit novels, “Rabbit Angstrom,” he talks about “the religious faith that a useful truth will be imprinted by a perfect artistic submission.” “The world is the host,” he has a character say in one of his short stories; “it must be chewed.” Writing for Updike was chewing. You can dismiss this conception of the literary vocation as pious or old-fashioned, but, if you do, you are dismissing Joyce and much of literary modernism.

Question: If you are a Christian, do you think literary representation is an act of transubstantiation? Should verbal art be compared to the Eucharist?


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