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In the beauty of the lilies

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 15 December 2014


John Updike's Lilies was published in 1996, three years after the siege of the compound of an Adventist sect in Waco Texas. It is the story of four generations beginning in 1910 with the reverent Clarence Wilmot, minister of the Fourth Presbyterian Church in an industrial town on the East coast of America and ending with the death of his great grandson Clark in the destruction by fire of the headquarters of a Christian sect modelled on the events at Waco.

We read that Clarence "felt the last particle of faith leave him" at the same time that Mary Pickford fainted on a film set in New York. The linkage of these two events signal ongoing references to the film industry throughout the novel. This loss of faith came about after Clarence had read the anti-theologians of the nineteenth century, initially to arm himself against their arguments, but eventually to be persuaded by them that God did not exist.

In those student days, hungry for knowledge and fearless in his youthful sense of God's protection close at hand, he plunged into the chilly Baltic sea of Higher Criticism – all those Germans, Semler and Eichhorn, Bauer and Wellhausen, who dared to pick up the Sacred Book without reverence…There was a tide behind these books in mad Nietzsche and sickly Darwin and boil-plagued Marx.

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The universe changed with his change of mind about God.

Life's sounds all rang with a curious lightness and flatness as if a resonating base beneath them had been removed. They told Clarence Wilmot what he had long suspected, that the universe was utterly indifferent to his states of mind and as empty of divine content as a corroded kettle.

His resignation from the ministry robbed his family of social standing and economic security. He became a salesman for the Popular Dictionary that, like Diderot's initial attempt, sought to provide all knowledge to the owner. The irony is that Clarence joins those French Philosophes who championed reason and facts as the answer to the human state. On meeting a woman who had worked for the family on his rounds he tries, unsuccessfully, to convince her that owning all these volumes was a waste of time and money. He has been convinced of the Enlightenment rejection of God but knows also that reason and facts are insufficient.

Clarence has three children who must live in the shadow of their father's loss of faith. The daughter Ester uses her body to seduce married men in her place of work and succeeds in breaking up one home and marrying the husband. Of sex, he tells her father: Everybody's playing around, nobody gives a damn. Nobody cares. Jared, the oldest son reduces life to a simple axiom "pussy takes and money gives." He lives a life on the edge of criminality and is always on the brink of becoming rich. Walter the second son is confused and tentative. Life in the shadow of his father's loss of faith robs him of any confidence and he takes a job as a postman. He is so cautious that he refuses promotion to postmaster when the time comes. Nevertheless he forms a stable and loving home with a woman that all have rejected because of her withered foot. Walter clings to the known.

Walter and his wife Alma have a daughter Essie who carries most of the rest of the narrative. She, like her aunt, is a creature of the body and she becomes a model in New York and an actress in Los Angeles. On her first photo shoot we read:

Essie made love to the camera. She looked into the glass hole of its lens, tinged with lavender, and thought of heaps of dollar bills, and of all the lovely clothes those dollar bills could buy. She thought of a white Cadillac with the top down.

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She will do what it takes, sexually, to smooth her way and becomes obsessed with her looks and her career. Early unstable marriages come and go but she becomes pregnant by a script writer and gives birth to a son, Clarke. It is he who, fatherless and essentially motherless, drug addled, a failure in Hollywood, who joins the cult and dies in the fire.

Thus while his great grandfather loses a highly intellectualised faith, Clark succumbs to a wild eyed bible quoting zealot who impregnates as many women in the cult that he can.

All of the characters love the movies. Indeed Updike gives us a potted history of American movie making. It is obvious that the movies become, to a large extend, a window on reality and that in doing so they displace the key role of the Church of mediating reality. The narratives of Scripture are replaced by those of Bogart and Bacall. As Clark moves towards his death he sees reality as a movie running in his head.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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