A note to readers: This essay is both longer and more formal than pretty much everything that will follow it on this blog. (I promise.) But I spent a good part of the past year poring over Marilynne Robinson’s work as part of a reading group with two minister friends of mine, and I told myself I’d surely be damned if I didn’t express the product of those labors somewhere. (My friends agreed.) So here it is.
With seven books in 31 years, Marilynne Robinson is far from our most prolific writer—but she is certainly one of our most serious. Popularly under-appreciated but critically acclaimed, Robinson projects unflagging seriousness both in her personal manner and in the moral and intellectual content of her three novels and four non-fiction collections.
Not for her the thrill of death-defying action or rat-a-tat plot lines to keep beach and airport readers turning the page. Her most prominent novel—the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead—consists of a 247-page letter written from a dying 76-year-old retired pastor to his 6-year-old son in the small Iowa town of the book’s title. Full of wry observations on Calvinist and Barthian theology, history and family relationships, Gilead is not so much a place where things happen as a state of mind or a way of watching, where the everyday things that do happen are transformed, in Robinson’s hands, into a poetry of eloquent and studied reflection. It also happens to be one of the most absorbing novels of this or any era.
In all her work, Robinson embraces the central words that have long animated the literary and religious landscapes. God. Sin. Love. Soul. Mind. Person. She writes acutely of guilt and grace, intention and confusion.
And perhaps most prominently: paying attention.
A sublime poetic sensibility in her novels gives way to dogged, highly nuanced, and decidedly left-brained polemics against religion-dismissing atheists and other targets in her essay collections. The result is a body of work perhaps unmatched in its combination of character study, poetic reflection, and intellectual rigor.
The poetry spills out in snippets of wonder from various characters who obey the Zen dictate to be wholly present in the moment, underlaid with a Robinsonian dictate to do so with all one’s heart and senses loving and even devouring the world. Witness this rapturous scene from her first novel, Housekeeping:
She felt the hair lifted from her neck by a swift watery wind, and she saw the trees fill with wind and heard their trunks creak like masts. She burrowed her hand under a potato plant and felt gingerly for the new potatoes in their dry net of roots, smooth as eggs. She put them in her apron and walked back to her house thinking, What have I seen, what have I seen. The earth and the sky and the garden, not as they always are….
Contrast that luminous tone with the tortured inner life of Jack, a preacher’s son struggling to find psychological and spiritual rest in Home, a sequel to Gilead that brings the earlier novel’s minor characters into full relief. In a few penetrating lines, Robinson paints a portrait of a forever-troubled soul:
It seemed he was attentive to strategies of evasion and places of concealment, never to the skills of the ordinary, dutiful choring that made up most of every life, and was so much the worth and the pride of that life, by local reckoning…He was never one to laugh when you hoped he would, when other people would.
Robinson told an interviewer what she was attempting in creating Jack:
I wanted very much (to create) a character whom it would be very painful for people to be able to dismiss, with the assumption being that if one could not dismiss him, there would be no reason to believe that God would want to dismiss him, either.
Even the theology that she so honors in her three essay collections tends, in her words, “to forget the beauty and strangeness of the individual soul, that is, of the world perceived in the course of a human life, of the mind as it exists in time.”
This lovely phrase, “the strangeness of the individual soul,” is testified to again and again in her fictional characters, whom she turns over as one would a prism, espying them scene upon scene in ever-new, unrepeatable refractions of insight and light. Sylvie, the tenuous and distracted aunt of Housekeeping, comes to take care of her two nieces orphaned by suicide. She is described this way by her niece Ruth:
“It was cold today,” she would murmur, her face turned to the blue window, and her eyes as wide and mild as the eyes of a blind woman. Her hands would caress each other in a slow gesture of warming. Bones, bones, I thought, in a fine sheath of flesh like Sunday gloves. Her hands were long, and her throat long and her cheeks lank. I wondered if she could be warmed and nourished. If I were to take hold of those bone hands, could I squeeze warmth into them?
This revelation of character in a passage weighted with physicality shows Robinson at her most tender and insightful. We reveal ourselves, we humans do, in our hands, our necks, our nervously furrowed brows, all of them speaking volumes and exposing semi-secrets about which we ourselves are only dimly aware. “You never do know the actual nature even of your own experience. Or perhaps it has no fixed and certain nature,” says John Ames in Gilead. Robinson explores that nature by bringing her characters to life denuded, exposed, reflecting endless layers of complexity and contradiction. And unlike many modern writers, she does so with a charity that has both inexhaustible wonder and forgiveness at its core.
Stories, both sacred and secular, have their roots in the “little civilization” that Rev. Ames notes exists in each of us. Robinson uses what she perceives as a disrespect (or at least disregard) for that civilization as the jumping-off point for scathing critiques of science in her three essay collections. (Her other nonfiction work and first book, Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State and Nuclear Pollution, suggests its specific content in its title.)
The peculiarly human desire for some kind of cosmic attribution—“Who and what made me and all that surrounds me, and what am I to make of it?”—gives rise to both religion and art, Robinson argues, and she takes pains throughout her work to point out that those two enterprises have always been joined at the hip. Unfortunately, as old, literalist conceptions of God have died, the treasure trove of stories that are the lifeblood of religion have been caught in a crossfire. Scientists, practicing their own form of fundamentalism, deride these stories as false and therefore worthless, while religious fundamentalists man the barricades in asserting their objective truth. Both lose a vast, ever-renewable forest for the trees dotting their narrow turf.
The modern fable is that science exposed religion as a delusion and more or less supplanted it. But science cannot serve in the place of religion because it cannot generate an ethics or a morality. It can give us no reason to prefer a child to a dog, or to choose honorable poverty over fraudulent wealth.
In The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, Robinson takes aim at scientific reductionism, calling it out as a “parascience” that explains away human consciousness and its inherent and irrepressible religious longing:
She elaborates upon the limited scope of science in When I Was a Child I Read Books:
. . . there is no moment in which, no perspective from which, science as science can regard human life and say that there is a beautiful, terrible, mystery in it all, a great pathos. Art, music and religion tell us that.
In pursuing its appointed tasks of revealing the mysteries of observable phenomena, science has been allowed to overreach, Robinson argues. Atheist evolutionary biologists denigrate and purportedly explain away the mysteries of the human mind, including the imaginative apparatus that has always undergirded artistic and religious expression. They employ the random firing of neurons to explain away the wonder of human consciousness. In Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness From the Modern Myth of the Self, Robinson defends language and metaphor, even in the context of evolutionary biology:
If “mind” and “soul” are not entities in their own right, they are at least terms that have been found useful for describing aspects of the expression and self-experience of our very complex nervous system.
Later in the same book, she adds a dollop of her characteristically sly humor in making the case for why religion still matters in a post-modern world:
Religion is indisputably a central factor in any account of the character and workings of the human mind. Does religion manifest a capacity for deep insight, or an extraordinary proneness to delusion? Both.
Robinson tangles with Darwinists not because she dismisses the basic premises of evolution, but because she rejects any application of it that would reduce the human project to one of securing ceaseless competitive advantage.
While she celebrates all that science has revealed about the dazzling panorama of the physical cosmos, she laments that it has dismissed or even ridiculed an equally dazzling inner landscape of watchful thinking, reflecting, and emoting.
One of the more disturbing outgrowths of this reductionism is the curious modern marriage of unfettered Darwinian capitalism and conservative Christianity. The offspring of this marriage seem to either ignore or rationalize Christianity’s origins in the story of a penniless Jewish carpenter who preached the near impossibility of rich people attaining salvation—and the moral imperative of giving the shirt off your back to the poor.
Capitalism oriented toward private interests has become the dominant ideology of our time and a kind of quasi-religion, she laments in her most recent collection, When I Was a Child I Read Books:
Suddenly, anything public is “socialism,” therefore a deviancy, inevitably second-rate, and a corruption of, so to speak, the public virtue.
In a newfound age of austerity, this populist aversion to “socialism” permits “the onus of fiscal peril to be shifted onto the dependent and the vulnerable.” Witness the severe budget cuts contemplated to such social safety net programs as Medicare and food stamps, while elaborate rationales for sustaining or even furthering tax cuts for the wealthy continue to dominate much of our political discourse. In The Death of Adam, Robinson writes:
We have forgotten that democracy was intended as a corrective to the disasters visited upon humanity by the elites of one kind and another…When our great auto industry nearly collapsed, an elite of designers and marketing experts were surely to blame. But the thousands thrown out of work by their errors were seen as the real problem.
Charity, she reminds us, is at the very root of Genesis, though notably, it is “a burden under which people never stopped chafing—witness this unfathomably rich country now contriving new means daily to impoverish the poor among us.”
Ripping into Darwinists who “to this day watch for murder in baboon colonies” in an attempt to “desacralize humankind by making it appropriately the prey of unmitigated struggle,” Robinson offers an alternative, far more elevated vision such as this, from the pen of John Ames in Gilead:
I saw a bubble float past my window, fat and wobbly and ripening toward that dragonfly blue they turn just before they burst. So I looked down at the yard and there you were, you and your mother, blowing bubbles at the cat, such a barrage of them that the poor beast was beside herself at the glut of opportunity. She was actually leaping in the air, our insouciant Soapy! Some of the bubbles drifted up through the branches, even above the trees. You two were too intent on the cat to see the celestial consequences of your worldly endeavors. They were very lovely. Your mother is wearing her blue dress and you are wearing your red shirt and you were kneeling on the ground together with Soapy between and that effulgence of bubbles rising, and so much laughter. Ah, this life, this world.
No baboon could experience or at least have developed a language to observe and express the sense of wonder evident in this passage, and which is at once so elemental and transformative of human consciousness. “Genesis tries to describe human exceptionalism, and Darwinism tries to discount it,” she observes.
In this discounting, science loses the preciousness not of the dazzling panorama of the physical cosmos it has done so much to reveal to our benefit, but of the equally dazzling inner landscape of the thinking, reflecting, self-conscious and creative human being. Robinson’s finger points always to the felt, moment-to-moment experience that seems to compel us to tilt our head back and roar relentlessly at the stars. In so doing, we express the kind of yearning that it is art and religion’s particular privilege to address with the bountiful tools of imagination and charity that Marilynne Robinson has employed to such great and lasting effect in her life’s work.