Marilynne Robinson and the Case for Fiction

Posted on | June 13, 2010 | 2 Comments where is the best place to play craps online

You wouldn’t know it from the unmatched empathy of her fiction, but Marilynne Robinson has a sharp tongue.  In her non-fiction writing, she has consistently turned an acerbic eye upon the poverties of our contemporary life of the mind.  In her latest, Absence of Mind, Robinson issues her most direct attack yet.  Originally as part of a lecture series on “religion in the light of science and philosophy,” Absence of Mind is a small book packed with thoughts.  It’s impossible to do justice to the potency of her claims, but put briefly, Robinson argues “that the mind as felt experience has been excluded from important fields of modern thought.”  Her book is a call to mindfulness—of time, of place, of history and the richness of human experience, and most significantly, of the contingency and limits of our own claims to knowledge.

Robinson doesn’t need to name names—though she does—for us to know which body of literature she speaks of.  Her particular axe to grind is with that genre of populist evolutionary science and psychology that has come to dominate the best-seller lists in recent years, “parascience” as she terms it.  She doesn’t argue against science as such—that would be suicide—but against the complacency of its rhetoric.  Dawkins and Co. have taken liberties with their explanations that collapse under the slightest scrutiny.  The trouble is that we never take the time to scrutinize them.  Darwinism is, in certain circles, the religion of our times, and it proceeds with the sort of intellectual entitlement that is at best lazy and at worst wrong: top casino games

Steven Pinker says, “Religion is a desperate measure that people resort to when the stakes are high and they have exhausted the usual techniques for the causation of success.”  Then a little farther on he lists the “imponderables” that lie behind the human tendency toward religion and also philosophy.  These imponderables are consciousness in the sense of sentience or subjective experience, the self, free will, conceptual meaning, knowledge, and morality…How odd that these “imponderables” should be just the kind of thing humankind has pondered endlessly.

My high-school self was firmly in the Pinker camp.  (One particularly rigorous proof involved asking God to move a coffee cup across a table.  Upon its failure to levitate, I considered my point made.  Thus spake Amelia Atlas?)  Robinson’s strength here is that she eschews camps altogether.  Despite her own religiousness, she doesn’t write from the vantage of religion as we have come to think of it. winpalace im banking

In fact, what I most admire about Robinson is the way religion informs, but does not dictate, the terms of her writing.  I could quote endlessly, so forceful is her logic here. One doesn’t need to share her faith to sympathize with her claim that so “long as the human mind exists to impose itself on reality, as it has already does so profoundly, what it is and what we are must remain an open question.”  Without saying as much, Absence of Mind makes a case for literature as much as for religion, for metaphysics, for any of those instruments of the mind that dwell in the so-called “imponderables.”  Her accusations against the “parascientists” include not only failure of the imagination but also, in some instances, moral negligence.  In an extended treatment of the legend of Phineas Gage—the railway worker made famous for getting an iron rod lodged in his skull, oft-cited as evidence that the frontal lobe controls emotions—Robinson charges that these studies neglect other aspects of Gage’s personhood.  So Gage stopped behaving reasonably.  The same, Robinson notes, could be said of Captain Ahab: “So perhaps Melville meant to propose that the organ of veneration was located in the leg.”  Her portrait of Gage restores, in three short pages, a sense of him in the fullness of his life and context.  In other words, she tells a story.

I used to think that, as a fiction-writer, Marilynne Robinson stood outside of time; her novels seemed born of an otherworldly sensibility, animated by forces beyond those familiar from my own every-day life.  Now I see that it’s just the opposite.  More than any other novelist I can think of, Robinson is deeply aware of time—not in the narcissistic sense of its ravages upon the self, but in the historical sense.  Unlike Pinker and his ilk, she recognizes the limits and contingency of her own mind while also reveling in the mystery of its unanswered questions.  I’m not myself religious, but I side with Nick Hornby: Robinson gives me a sense of how religion might bestow this kind of depth of thought.  But then, so might fiction, and I’d rather read Housekeeping than the Bible.

Comments

2 Responses to “Marilynne Robinson and the Case for Fiction”

  1. JMM
    June 18th, 2010 @ 9:49 am

    Really? Housekeeping over the Bible? I have a lot of friends who are Housekeeping fanatics, but I couldn’t get more than 30 pages into the thing. It feels like it’s constantly pointing to itself and crying out, “I’m so lapidary, and so spare…look at me! I’m just what qualifies as exceptional literary fiction today, in the rustic American vein!” It makes me ill. I’m a Gilead man, myself. virtual fusion bingo

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  2. herrick
    December 9th, 2010 @ 12:55 pm

    @ JMM
    I do agree with you, and wonder why it is that this book is so highly acclaimed. This book is totally hoity-toity. There are countless lines in here that make me cringe. The flatness of the characters and predictable (non-eventful) storyline just makes me want to throw this down the lake.