Not even half way through January and a major and lasting regret, not having read Marilynne Robinson before now. Until last spring I’d never read anything by her. Then, after reading The God Delusion and suspecting that it was something that would be much discussed I read a number of reviews to see what Richard Dawkins’ defenders and detractors would have to say. Robinson’s in Harpers was the best of all of them, an essay on the book and its background, the best essay I’ve read in many years. After repeated readings of the essay and as much as could be found online I began reading her books this month, Mother Country, The Death of Adam and her novel Gilead so far. It leaves me wondering why she isn’t renowned as one of the major intellectual presences of the past quarter century.
I will get to The Death of Adam in the near future. Her essay on Darwinism is likely to be especially topical in a year when the Republicans will almost certainly try to use biblical fundamentalism as thy have to succeed in the past decade. But like all her writing, you haven’t read it if you’ve only read it twice. Beneath a beautiful surface that is too honest to beguile there is depth that runs down to the bedrock. Against the fashion of contemporary journalism, Robinson reads what she comments on and she reads what those things were based in before she opines.
Mother Country is a lengthy investigation into how apparently civilized, liberal, Britain, really England, could, for decades, run a processing plant for nuclear waste and pump some of the worst toxins known into the Irish and North Seas. Though the book is really about the consequences of centuries of callous, genteel hatred and use of the poor and the spiritual corrosion that no one in that Blakean hell can escape Robinson doesn’t merely use the Sellafield plant as a taking off point to come up with yet another social, economic or psychological theory explaining it all. This isn’t an intellectual exercise, none of her writing is merely done to occupy the minds of intellectuals or to get someone another useless degree by commenting on it. Her purpose is to change things and things haven’t changed yet. Though the book is nineteen years old it is more topical than most of what you will read in the press this week.
The recent decline in national self-esteem has led many Americans to invest their emotions offshore, in what they take to be a favorable climate, among solvent institutions. In imagination they have escaped ruin, growing rich as their neighbors grew poor. These people do not want to hear bad news.
But there is a real world, that is really dying, and we had better thnk about that. My greatest hope, which is a very slender one is that we will at last find the courage to make ourselves rational and morally autonomous adults, secure enough in the faith that life is good and to be preserved, to recognize the grosser forms of evil and name them and to confront them. Who will do it for us? E. P. Thompson? Greenpeace? The Duke of Edinburgh? The Washington Post? We have to walk away from this road show, consult with our souls, and find the courage, in ourselves, to see, and perceive, and hear and understand.
More than one of my heroes is in the list of those exposed in this book. Her purpose isn’t to spare feelings, not when the crime is as great as dumping toxins into the sea, destroying the very basis of life itself, killing large numbers of people in the process.
The reason that Robinson isn’t better known is because she isn’t merely a revolutionary thinker, her program takes us right out of the printed schedule. The change she proposes isn’t merely exchanging capitalism for Marxism, not merely exchanging one system of mining the life of the planet to produce wealth for another, more efficient one. If I am reading her thinking correctly, and it is some of the deepest writing being produced today, nothing short of placing life over the accumulation of wealth is what is asked. Taking people out of equations of production, value and exchange and regarding them and the environment they depend on as the basic non-negotiable fact, outside of commerce and economic-social-scientific alibis.
Note: One thing about the novel, Gilead, that disturbed me when first reading it, was the very end. The dying father hopes for his son, who is intended to read what the father is writing when he’s an adult, that he has been “useful”. At first I mistook this for exactly the kind of commercial view of humanity that is one of the foundations of our most serious evils. But context is everything, it is clearly not what is meant. Usefulness is not limited to the concept of exchange of value, something in which a person should never figure as a mere variable. A person can choose to use their strength to do what is good for other people and for the world in general. People can remove themselves from the dismal, economic, view of life as the shuffling and accumulation of material commodities and actions taken as commodities, services rendered.
But don’t expect that you will get the praise of society for doing that, not if you tell the truth while you’re doing it. It got this book banned in Britain where the libel laws, in line with best traditions of the British legal system, are rigged against telling the truth.
I don’t think that I’m pushing my on priorities onto Marilynne Robinson when I say that this seems to me to be a major focus of her brilliant writing. I haven’t had more of my thinking changed in as short a time since adolescence.