“How did you end up here, Marilynne? What happened? Was it libraries?”
In 2015, President Obama sought out the novelist Marilynne Robinson, the author of the acclaimed Gilead trilogy, for a wide-ranging conversation. They spoke with the ease and deft mutual flattery of friends, touching on democracy and education, their Midwestern roots and love of literature. Obama’s question lay at the crux of their discussion. Robinson grew up sheltered, in Sandpoint, Idaho, he noted, with every incentive to parochialism. What awakened her fierce interest in the world, and her sense of obligation to it? What shapes the kind of person who declares, as Robinson does, “democracy is my aesthetics and my ethics and more or less my religion”?
Robinson takes up the question herself in “What Are We Doing Here?” a new collection of essays on various dry and honorable points of civics and theology. But, as she writes, “nothing human beings do or make is ever simply itself.” This book has another, more complicated story to tell. It’s an intellectual autobiography — a starchy, ardent and, on occasion, surprisingly personal account of what it means to be the custodian of one’s conscience in a world saturated with orthodoxies.
In other words, it’s a passionate treatment of one of Robinson’s longtime preoccupations. A dying reverend instructs his young son in “Gilead,” her 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel: “The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I’m saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own, not, so to speak, the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment.”
To call these essays demanding does not do them justice. Robinson’s great hero, the Puritan preacher and philosopher Jonathan Edwards, said we should never permit a thought that we wouldn’t indulge on our deathbeds. With few exceptions, this collection meets that (insane) standard; it’s high-minded to the hilt, and rigorous, too. I was wheezing at the end of every chapter. I was also moved, exasperated, put to sleep more than once and undone by it. It’s a dense, eccentric book of profound and generous gifts.
The achievement of Robinson’s novels has been how elegantly she folds questions of faith, ethics and eschatology into fiction, and presents them to us as human dramas, in language bright and bare as bone. She has been compared to the Dutch masters for her sense of silence and light, for the quality of patient attention that gilds the most modest moments. But she also has a gift for wit and metaphor that turns the ordinary on its head.
In nonfiction, Robinson approaches her quarry directly, with frank combativeness (or ranting, as her critics have it). She worried about this once: “My writing has perhaps taken too much of the stain of my anger,” she wrote in “Mother Country,” her 1989 study of nuclear pollution. No more. She opens the new collection telling us: “I am too old to mince words.”
She is democratic in her censure, flaying the left for its “slick, unreflecting cynicism,” the right for its “unembarrassed enthusiasm for self-interest.” She upbraids the religious for their fear and willful dismissal of science; scientists for their juvenile understanding and dismissal of faith.
But back to the original question. How did Robinson end up here — with an orientation so open to the world that it feels less cosmopolitan than cosmic? Was it libraries?
Mostly. Robinson came to the habit of self-scrutiny early. As a child, her teachers told her, “You have to live with your mind your whole life”; they taught her the value of building it, making it worthy. It was, she has said, the most important lesson she ever received. She kept at it, following the publication of “Housekeeping,” with one of the more interesting silences in American letters. She published no new fiction for 24 years, devoting herself instead to deep study of Marx, Darwin and the history of political thought.
In many ways, “What Are We Doing Here?” is a response to those years of study, a repudiation of Marx and Darwin, of powerful ideologies of any stripe that simplify the world. “Our ways of understanding the world now, our systems and ideologies, have an authority for us that leads us to think of them as exhaustive accounts of reality rather than, at best, as instruments of understanding suited to particular uses,” she writes. No argument here. But when she says that ideologies are to be avoided because they come with conclusions baked into them, I begin to fidget. This sounds an awful lot like some of Robinson’s own nonfiction. For a book that so espouses the virtue of mind interrogating mind, there’s not much evidence of it in this book. Her arguments unspool neatly, like silk off a spindle, because they are frequently arguments she has made before.
When Robinson warns against historical amnesia, her regular readers will know exactly where she’s heading: to the Puritans — caricatured as “cankered souls” but actually “the most progressive population on earth through the 19th century at least.” I was very persuaded by the case she makes for their importance. I was even more persuaded by it when I first encountered it in her 1998 essay collection, “The Death of Adam.”
Most of the essays in this new book were delivered as speeches, and some repetition is inevitable. But so too is our desire for more — for the refinement of her ideas instead of the rehashing — especially since the final essay, which takes an unexpectedly personal turn, delivers like no other.
“Slander” is the story of Robinson’s strained relationship with her mother. “With a little difficulty we finally reached an accommodation, an adult friendship,” she writes. “Then she started watching Fox News.” Her mother and her fellow retirees began to share “salacious dread over coffee cake,” fretting over the rumored “war against Christmas.” “My mother lived out the end of her fortunate life in a state of bitterness and panic, never having had the slightest brush with any experience that would confirm her in these emotions, except, of course, Fox News,” Robinson writes. The essay brings all the abstractions home, makes real and painful the cost of ceding an independence of mind. It’s composed in a rare register: mourning and fury counterpoised by humor and a refusal of despair.
Robinson tells us that old scholars would speak of being “ravished” by a text. “I think they were held to their work by a degree of fascination, of sober delight, that we can no longer imagine,” she writes. She’s wrong. I know exactly what she means.
“What Are We Doing Here?”
by Marilynne Robinson;
Farrar, Straus & Giroux ($27)