Ornery Brilliance

Marilynne Robinson, What Are We Doing Here? Essays

Little, Brown, 336pp, £18.99, ISBN 9780349010465

reviewed by Neil Griffiths

Marilynne Robinson’s great gift to the novel is characters of goodness, kindness, grace. Her gift to the essay is moral rigour, mental toughness, self-reliance; she seldom relies on the words of other writers, and you will look in vain for a footnote. In the end, she is just too damned serious to resort to quoting Wittgenstein at the first opportunity. There is also something austere in her sentence-making, her argumentation. As King James’ Bible might say, it is sufficient unto itself.

Her new collection, What Are We Doing Here?, mostly taken from lectures given at universities around the world, focuses on concerns that readers of her earlier work will find familiar: the unobtainability of certain aspects of knowledge, the current state of the humanities in American universities, and a re-examination of certain periods in history where she believes that the truth has been supplanted by narratives that claim freedom and progress, but where more often those qualities of life were curtailed. She is particularly strong on the negative mis-readings of the English Revolution, the Puritans on both sides of the Atlantic, and the theologian Jonathan Edwards. Closer to our time, her demolition of Winston Churchill’s post-War strategy is impressive for its concision and persuasiveness.

Much of what Robinson writes about has been a locus of intellectual attention since the Enlightenment, without, it must be said, reaching much consensus. We still don’t really know whether human beings tilt to the rational or the irrational; whether the pursuit of pure reason will liberate or damn us, or the jettisoning of the spiritual as so much nonsense will in fact deprive us of aspects of life we cherish. Spend ten minutes on YouTube, and it becomes obvious science and faith are still wholly opposed forces in much our public debate. But as a strong reader of modern science (she rightly uses the indeterminacy of quantum physics and the mystery of dark matter as both a literal description of physical reality and as a metaphor) and a liberal Christian, Robinson is well-placed to the two magisteria side by side. But she won’t permit one or the other the claim of a totalising force. It should go without saying that she is as tough on religious stupidity as she is on scientific arrogance. In ‘The Divine’ she refutes the logical fallacy that different religious narratives are some kind of proof of religion’s foolishness and self-deception, a favourite canard of the New Atheists:

‘The controversy between science and religion comes down to a familiar question: Is there a God? That is, is there an intentional power expressed in the existence of things? If the character of this power were to be modified by the name and the traditions surrounding any particular deity, this would not change either the question or the answer, nor would the metaphysical implications of the answer be fundamentally different either way.’

She is equally scathing of the reduction of what gives life meaning as a fitness adaption. In ‘The Sacred, The Human’ she is clear: ‘These days we are believed by many to be locked into a perpetual cost-benefit analysis, unconsciously guided by a calculus of self-interest somehow negotiated at the level of the genome.’ One senses she doesn’t know where to begin with her frustration with religion. To be a liberal, thinking Christian in the US doesn’t bear thinking about.

In many ways, Robinson is an old-fashion Christian humanist. In the title essay, ‘What are we doing here?’ she couldn’t be clearer about her view of what constitutes human flourishing:

‘Then how to recover the animating spirit of humanism? For one thing, it would help if we reclaimed, or simply borrowed, conceptual language that would allow us to acknowledge that some things are so brilliant they can be understood only as virtuosic acts of mind, thought in the pure enjoyment of itself, whether in the making of a poem or a scientific discovery, or just learning something it feels unaccountably good to know.’

It is only these days of instant polarisation that a Christian humanist seems a contradiction, but Robinson knows what is necessary, if not sufficient, to understand what it is to be human: ‘I suppose I always find myself writing theologically because only theology supports an ultimate coherency that can embrace equally the true, the tentative and the flawed, as reality itself embraces them – which is only to say that we, our erring kind, are as intrinsic a part of reality as mice and moonlight.’

Her beef with the modern world’s demand on the academy is wholly secular. The universities are increasingly required to demonstrate they are producing useful people. The question, of course, is ‘useful’ to what end? Conservative thinker Michael Oakeshott made the distinction between societies that are founded as civic associations and those that are founded as enterprise associations. Wasn’t it Tony Blair’s New Labour that coined the term UK PLC? Society is not a business. Unless we make it so. The university in Iowa where Robinson has taught for 30 years makes the case. Founded in the middle of the 19th century, it was no afterthought once farms and commerce had been set up and running. It was no side-show demanded by a lazy elite. Neither was it suddenly required because modern skill sets were needed – a technology college for training workers. Education was regarded as an intrinsic to a new society – a life of the mind was as essential as a life working the land.

Robison tends to save sentiment for her novels, but there is something almost unbearably poignant in ‘A Proof, a Test, an Instruction’. Written for The Nation in 2016, it is about President Barack Obama. It is simplifying to an unforgivable degree to say it is like a loving letter from mother to son, in this case proud mother to exceptional son, but as well as many other things, it is that. The United States is a complex, often unpleasant and dishonest nation, but it remains a country that for historical, political and philosophical reasons, delivers up from time to time old-fashioned messengers of moral greatness. If Obama embodies Abraham Lincoln’s struggle to unite deeply opposing forces with dignity, hope and a surfeit of patience, then Marilynne Robinson gives us a clue to her great literary precursor – a man who lived down the street to Lincoln. In ‘Our Public Conversation’ she confesses: ‘Well, democracy is my aesthetics and my ethics and more or less my religion.’

In this collection, Robinson writes about many ideas seemingly more elevated than democracy, but given the current moral and political crisis at the heart of the American Presidency, a bit of good old Whitmanesque democratic spirit, embedded as it is in the limitless belief in humankind and its flourishing, is much needed.