The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $26.00, 304 pp.
Is there a more chastening figure in contemporary American letters than Marilynne Robinson? Is there anyone else who seems, by her small but distinguished oeuvre, to call into question our literary predilections—for Franzonian cultural diagnostics, for confessional self-help, for vast, historical, double-hanky weepers? Or, more generally, is there a writer whose very presence—her unironic devotion to Christianity, her almost creepy level of calm, her spiritual maturity, her belief—undermines our own hectic cultural preoccupations—with Twitter icons, racist presidential candidates, our daily NASDAQ of microaggressions? Perhaps the only person who offers the same level of rebuke to contemporary life is Cormac McCarthy, a kind of grumpy, nihilistic older brother. Together they stand like Easter Island statues, implacable in the bleak gulf stream of our culture.
Which isn’t to say Robinson isn’t any fun. After publishing the almost universally heralded Housekeeping in 1980 and then becoming something of a modern day Harper Lee, she returned to fiction, like a woken giant, with Gilead in 2004. Since then she has published two more novels in her Gilead trilogy, and they each contain her unassuming, uncondescending sense of magnanimous patience. Reading these novels is not unlike receiving a type of spiritual hug, offered even to the unbelieving.
Her newest book, the collection of essays The Givenness of Things, continues her spiritual exploration even more overtly. It contains a loose series of arguments, with each essay (save one) titled a single word, e.g., “Humanism,” “Grace,” “Value,” “Experience,” “Metaphysics.” If you were in a cheeky mood, you might think Robinson was offering us a parody of future Jonathan Franzen novel titles. But no, these essays really do delve into their various abstractions, albeit in amoebically morphing ways, so that you look up, 100 pages in, not completely sure how many essays you’ve completed. There is a sameness in tone, in focus, and in rhetoric throughout, which gives the book a pleasing continuity, on the one hand, and also a kind of numbing sameness.
Rather than the book having one broad thesis or each essay having its own individual thesis, the book contains different centers of attention that it returns to again and again, like anthills of intellectual activity scattered across a lawn. These can be summarized: The Puritans in general, and John Calvin in particular, are not who you think they are. Mainline contemporary Christianity has repudiated its own history to its detriment. Reasonableness, as a human attitude, and irreconcilable complexity, as a constant state of existence, are no longer prized. Neuroscience, positivism, new atheism, contemporary evangelicalism, and behavioral anything are today’s roving fundamentalisms of the American mind. Add to these topics the now underappreciated wonder of the American university system. If this sounds like a grab-bag of random cultural gunpowder in a crude list form, it feels more coherent within the confines of Robinson’s writing.
The following long quotation is one where Robinson’s approach seems to work at its best:
This is why it seems important to me to remember the special popular origins of the movement that became the English Reformation, and the Reformation in general. Indeed, the intellectual genealogy of the movement is straightforward—Professor John Wycliffe of Oxford was read by Professor Jan Hus of Prague, who in turn was read by Professor Martin Luther of Wittenberg, whose work exerted enormous influence on William Tyndale. And it deeply influenced the brilliant young humanist scholar John Calvin, who would echo the psalmist and anticipate Hamlet in his praise of ‘the manifold agility of the soul, which enables it to take a survey of heaven and earth; to join the past and the present; to retain the memory of things heard long ago; to conceive of whatever it chooses by the help of imagination; its ingenuity also in the invention of such admirable arts.’ He is describing the universal and defining mysteries of human consciousness, which he says are ‘certain proofs of the divinity in man.’
The argument could be made that we are now living among the relics or even the ruins of the Reformation. One relic is a continuing attachment to the Bible that is culturally particular to America, even in the absence of any great impulse to honor the Promethean work of the Reformers by reading it. A ruin may be the respect for one another as minds and consciences that is encoded in the First Amendment to the Constitution and institutionalized in the traditionally widespread teaching of the liberal arts, the disciplines that celebrate human thought and creativity as values in their own right and as ends in themselves. The fine colleges founded in the Middle West when it was still very much a frontier—Oberlin, Grinnell, Knox, and so many others—offered demanding curricula from the beginning, assuming that the young men and women who found themselves on the prairie would want to be educated to the highest standards. Rather than tuition, the colleges required all their students to do the chores necessary to the functioning of these little academic outposts, to make logic and classical history available to the figurative—or literal—Ploughman on equal terms with anyone.
. . . If I seem to have strayed from my subject, it is only to make the point that forgetting the character of the Reformation, that is, the passion for disseminating as broadly as possible the best of civilization as the humanist tradition understood it, and at the same time honoring and embracing the beauty of the shared culture of everyday life, has allowed us to come near forgetting why we developed excellent public libraries, schools, and museums.
She’s making a political statement—defending the history of American education—but she’s doing it with a wide lens, skewed by the peculiar roux of her own enthusiasms. Above all she wants to show how the through-line of American democracy, buried underneath our current antagonisms, is the Protestant Reformation.
But unfortunately these panoramic moments of deep reading and gentle argumentation are fleeting. Furthermore, much of the book feels circular; she makes many of the same points again and again. She’s not redundant, exactly. It’s just that though each essay begins as a discrete unit, it quickly becomes borderless up against its neighbors. You can’t help feeling slightly confused about which essay defended American land grant colleges and which one condemned concealed weapons.
Right as I was finishing reading this book, a long interview between Robison and President Obama was published in two parts in The New York Review of Books. It’s a fascinating conversation, mainly for the fact that it even took place. Obama obviously admires Robinson, who received the National Humanities Medal in 2012, and Robinson herself seems to enjoy the President’s company. They are, in a way, sympathetic spirits. The most fascinating aspect of the talk is that it’s essentially Obama interviewing Robinson the entire time, and one can hear, in the President’s slow, painstaking articulation in front of a revered elder, the novelist he briefly thought of becoming before turning to politics. But what’s most relevant for the book under review is how Robinson admits that it’s a compilation of talks she’s given around the country. She says that she gives many lectures and that once she has enough for a book, she collects them. To which news we might say, big deal. How many acclaimed writers have published a book of occasional pieces and lectures as the years grow short and the speaking calendar grows long? All of them, if they live to be so lucky. But this little discovery unlocked a reason why I found the book so unsatisfactory; it’s that it’s not a good book qua book. There’s a reason that none of the arguments feel fleshed out, that the same topics keep coming up repeatedly, that there’s some missing exposition or context or raison d’être for each essay. Many of these faults would be alleviated, somewhat, by Robinson standing there at the podium, talking away.
So while I’m pleased by the book’s existence and agree with much of what Robinson says—Marilynne Robinson 2016!—I’m hardly persuaded by any of it. There’s no sweat released here toward convincing anyone. It’s mostly calm assertion. And since the book also doesn’t feature any kind of anecdotes, except for one brief mention of Robinson sitting on her porch, there’s very little of Robinson in these essays. This is in marked contrast to all the other essay collections that have come out recently, which are personal bordering on confessional—an ongoing sociology of the self. But with no confessional grit to cling to, no narrative curves to steer, and no firm didacticism to stare down, the essays are like pleasant deprivation chambers of lucid prose and gentle thought. It’s pleasant but it’s boring.
And that’s a shame, because Robinson, as a literary figure, is a welcome tonic: slowly prolific, religious but tolerant, scholarly but unpretentious. If she isn’t exactly presidential material, she should at least be appointed a cabinet position. If nothing else, the presidential candidates should have to debate the religious implications of one of her essays, because though I don’t know enough religion to determine whether she’s theologically correct, I do think that she is close to the ideal contemporary Christian, and ideal because she is so uncontemporary. Her constant theological concerns are humbling, her approach soothing. But by the end of the book, I wished she’d taught me more and soothed me less.
Contributing editor Barrett Hathcock is the author of The Portable Son, a collection of stories. He lives in Jackson, Mississippi.
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