Unhip: Ways of Reading the Essays of Marilynne Robinson

by Daniel Davis Wood

Marilynne Robinson, What Are We Doing Here?

Marilynne Robinson,
What Are We Doing Here?
Virago. £18.99.
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1. Zadie Smith

Just a few weeks ago, when Zadie Smith published her essay collection Feel Free, reviewers were quick to praise the book for its energetic style, its variety of subjects, and its contemporaneity. “Smith’s latest book is impressively wide-ranging”, wrote Michael Schaub at NPR, making remarks typical of many responses to Feel Free. Covering a breadth of topics including “Brexit and Key & Peele, J.G. Ballard and Jay-Z, Billie Holiday and Justin Bieber”, Smith, according to Schaub, emerges as a vibrant, voracious critic with a multitude of interests: “she does it all without the kind of knowing wink that some cultural observers can’t resist; if she believes there’s a clear-cut dichotomy between so-called ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, she doesn’t let on.” “[T]he collection spans climate change, conceptual art… and the little-known Viennese writer Mela Hartwig,” Tom Gatti concurred in the New Statesman, and, echoing Schaub’s judgment of Feel Free, Gatti likewise found that “Smith shines brightest” in “the pieces on pop culture”. In The Guardian, Alex Clark praised Smith’s writing on Schopenhauer, Tupac, and the Wu-Tang Clan; in The Observer, Tim Adams praised her essays on Ella Fitzgerald and Prince, and, like Schaub, he praised the collection as a whole for being so “wide-ranging”. Feel Free was rapturously received by reviewers because it is so distinctly hip: because it takes its readers to many different places and because so many of those places are very much a part of the urgent now.

In comparison, when Marilynne Robinson published her new essay collection a couple of weeks after Smith, reviewers were more reserved and their praise was conspicuously muted. The collection is called What Are We Doing Here? and, like Robinson’s previous books of essays, it roams across territory dear to her heart: Christian theology, American liberal arts education, civic responsibility, neuroscience, quantum physics. In the New York Times, Parul Sehgal described its contents as “dry and honorable”, “starchy, ardent and, on occasion, surprisingly personal”, “high-minded to the hilt, and rigorous, too.” “I was wheezing at the end of every chapter”, she wrote. “I was also moved, exasperated, put to sleep more than once and undone by it.” In The Guardian, Dinah Birch had a similar reaction: Robinson’s essays are “uncompromising”, “acerbic”, and “a call to seriousness”, but they are also “removed from the provocative strangeness of her novels.” While they “amply reward the reader’s attention”, Birch concluded, “their principal appeal lies in what they can tell us about the astonishing power of [Robinson’s] fiction”. In light of the praise doled out to Feel Free, it’s difficult to shake the sense that the critical responses to these two books have been worked out according to some rather simple equations. An energetic style, a variety of subjects, and contemporaneity are the markers of an enthralling collection of essays. As for a scholarly or sermonising style, a limited range of topics and themes, and a recurrent attraction to overlooked events and figures from the dark corridors of history: dull, dull, dull — or, more to the point, unhip.

But this reaction to What Are We Doing Here? can’t have taken Robinson by surprise. After all, in ‘Our Public Conversation’, one of the essays in the new book, Robinson glances over previous coverage of her reputation and finds it operating on the same calculations:

Recently I read a brief overview of myself and my work, an article on the Internet. It said that if someone were bioengineered to personify unhipness, the result would be Marilynne Robinson. The writer listed the qualities that have earned me this distinction — I am in my seventies, I was born in Idaho, I live in Iowa, I teach in a public university, and I am a self-professed Calvinist. Ah, well. I will only grow older, I am happy in Iowa, my religion is my religion. That I was born in Idaho will be true forever.

“So,” Robinson concludes, “I can put aside any slightest, unacknowledged thought of satisfying the standards of hipness.”

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2. J.M. Coetzee

The Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded to writers in recognition of their entire body of work, not for a single book, although for onlookers there’s a temptation to view the book that precedes conferral of the prize as a work of sufficient merit to seal the deal. In October 2003, the Swedish Academy nominated J.M. Coetzee as a Nobel Laureate. Scarcely a month beforehand, Coetzee had published his beguiling novel Elizabeth Costello. So beguiling is the novel, in fact, that many reviewers at the time didn’t regard it as really a novel at all. “Elizabeth Costello doesn’t call itself a novel”, wrote Hermione Lee, “but ‘Eight Lessons’, with a postscript. Some of the lessons have been published before, two of them as the slim volume, The Lives of Animals. In that book, an Australian novelist called Elizabeth Costello is visiting her son and his wife at an American university, where she gives two lectures.” Elizabeth Costello reprints those two lectures, enclosing them in some very bare-bones narrative architecture and placing them alongside several other pieces of similar structure and tenor: discourses on ethics, love, the problem of evil. For Lee, the result turned out to be a “fragmentary and inconclusive book, more like a collection of propositions about belief”, and her view was echoed by Adam Mars-Jones in a spectacular takedown which judged Coetzee “hamstrung by the hybrid status of his inventions”. More significantly, Mars-Jones added, “when an acclaimed novelist offers his public a book with an invented protagonist which seems more like a series of essays or lectures than an actual work of fiction”, the writer has crossed a line and his readers “are entitled to feel cheated”.

To be fair, a good number of reviewers didn’t feel especially cheated by Elizabeth Costello (James Wood, Janet Maslin, David Lodge) and I’d have to count myself among them. What I find captivating about the book — and I count it among the three or four best of Coetzee’s body of work — is the way in which it manifests a conventional ideal of the novel without adhering to the ideal form of the novel. If, by virtue of cultural conventions, the ideal of the novel involves the presentation of a character whose behaviour and/or disposition changes in some way over time, then Elizabeth Costello arguably honours it. But if, again by virtue of cultural conventions, the ideal form of the novel involves tracking a character’s changes via a narrative that establishes causal connections between events relating to the character, then Elizabeth Costello snubs it.

Coetzee’s protagonist, an esteemed Australian novelist turned public intellectual, attends a variety of dry academic events — lectures, informal discussions — and delivers her thoughts on a handful of weighty topics. But the title and the structure of the book jointly encourage readers to trace the continuity of the speaking subject through these otherwise disjointed parts, a subject whose identity obtains greater depth from one ‘lesson’ to the next even as it maintains coherence. Depth: Elizabeth Costello’s behaviour and disposition are made known to readers by way of expressions of her thoughts on various issues. Coherence: although the issues she discourses upon are indeed varied, the discoursing person is the same one in each instance, not changing her identity but revealing new dimensions to it and allowing it to evolve as time passes by. It seems to me, too, that Elizabeth Costello even wants to challenge its readers to see it as a novel in this particular sense, toying with these particular issues of characterisation. Indeed, in its longest and most celebrated section, ‘At the Gate’, the protagonist is challenged to see herself in a similar way, to defend the depth and coherence of her own sense of self across a length of time so great that it extends beyond her death.

At any rate, if a good novel is unwilling to leave readers feeling “cheated” out of the conventional pleasures of a narrative, and if a good collection of essays is characterised these days by its energy, variety, and contemporaneity, then Elizabeth Costello seems bound to disappoint anyone who approaches the book as either of those two things.

What makes Elizabeth Costello so distinctive, for me, is the way it satisfies certain novelistic ends — a narrative that explores the interior life of a character and charts her development over time — by adopting largely essayistic means. Reading the book this way effectively requires reading with split vision, paying attention to a text that creates meaning on two distinct, bifurcated scales. You have to keep your eyes on its micro-level qualities, registering the granular details of Costello’s swerving thoughts, but you also have to view them with an eye towards their macro-level import, picking up on their suggestions of precipitating events and the ways in which they slowly change over the course of a lifetime, in response to lived experience, so as to implicitly demarcate different stages in the development of a contemplative mind. Reading Elizabeth Costello as this sort of novel means relinquishing expectations of the momentary pleasures that novels conventionally offer — scene-setting and scene-cutting, and the associated pleasures of dramatic tension and variations in narrative pace — while still seeking out, through unconventional channels, the pleasures that novels tend to deliver on the whole.

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3. Susan Sontag

If it’s the case that Marilynne Robinson’s essays are tame or dull by comparison to the essays of a writer like Zadie Smith, what would they look like if we were to read them by taking our cues from Elizabeth Costello? With the recent publication of What Are We Doing Here?, Robinson now has five collections of essays to her name. The first four are, in order, The Death of Adam (1998), Absence of Mind (2010), When I Was a Child I Read Books (2012), and The Givenness of Things (2015). In the aggregate, these collections read not unlike the collected ‘lessons’ of Elizabeth Costello — they are made of much the same stuff, lectures and public addresses, scholarly notes and anecdotes, usually revolving around questions of ethics and attempts at defining large abstractions — albeit in greater volume, produced over a longer period of time. How do they appear when approached as a novel in the mould of Coetzee’s?

I don’t mean for this question of form to be a flippant one, or merely a spur for a thought experiment. I think it begs consideration in light of Robinson’s increasingly intriguing position in contemporary American letters. Robinson remains best-known as a novelist, as the author of Housekeeping (1980) and the trilogy of novels set in the small town of Gilead, Iowa: Gilead (2004), Home (2008), and Lila (2015). But because she is much more prolific as an essayist, and to some extent because her novels have such a constrained, parochial setting, Robinson has arrived at a place similar to that of the great novelist-essayists before her, particularly Joan Didion and Susan Sontag. In the end, will she be remembered more for her novels than for her essays or vice-versa? Which of the two forms accommodates her greatest achievements? It’s plainly unfair to ask these questions of a writer, but they’re bound to arise wherever formal distinctions exist and they’re far from easily settled. Sontag, for instance, longed to be remembered more for her novels than for the essays that remain her most highly-regarded and influential work. The same is apparently true for Didion, but perhaps to a lesser extent. What of Marilynne Robinson?

Actually, I have to dodge the question, or at least blur the boundaries between the two forms. I don’t mean to suggest that Robinson’s beautiful, essayistic novels ought to be read as essays plain and simple; I mean to say that, more and more, her essays strike me as piecemeal texts collectively comprising her greatest novel. Without denying the fine-tuned artistry of Housekeeping and the Gilead trilogy, the essays in totality acquire a formidable, epic scope within which Robinson orchestrates a multilayered philosophical drama that plays out across continents and over the course of several centuries. At the same time, the essays possess an even more powerfully singular focus than the novels do, since every last one of them is filtered through the same ‘I’ as all of the others — arising as an expression of its consciousness and referring back to it. One by one they coalesce into an overarching work of exceptionally intricate, ornate design, which I find more impressive, more awe-inspiring, than all of Robinson’s novels combined.

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4. Robinson’s Epic Essays

The narrative of Robinson’s essays “reach[es] back to the twelfth century at least”, as she writes in What Are We Doing Here?, although it comes into full flower at a later point in history, in early days of the Renaissance. That was when European theologians with questing intellects and idiosyncratic moral compasses felt the first stirrings of the reformist impulses that would animate Protestantism. These theologians meditated deeply on the nature of existence — on its human, divine, and worldly dimensions — and felt an imperative to advance egalitarianism, defying the authorities of the Catholic Church to enable common people to access not only the Scriptures in vernacular translation, but also theology as a broader body of thought. In the process, as Robinson sees it, they imbued Protestantism in general with an anti-authoritarian, democratic ethic which has since come to rest at the heart of American civic life.

This ethic is characterised by a reflexive opposition to assumed or hereditary authority, with faith in the extraordinary, even boundless capabilities of ordinary individuals when empowered and given adequate support. Consequently, for Robinson, it went on to inform the social conduct and institutions of the Puritans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, religious dissidents “who did not accept the legitimacy, or in any case the claims of exclusive legitimacy, of the newly created Church of England”. The same ethic then provided an impetus for the anti-monarchical rebellion that sparked the English Civil War, gave substance to the ideals (if not always the conduct) of the Cromwellian Protectorate, and finally survived the Restoration by taking root outside Europe in “[t]he stream of Puritanism that landed in New England and flourished there”. The words quoted here come from the essay ‘Old Souls, New World’, and the next paragraph of that essay is key to pinpointing what Robinson identifies as the bridge between the Renaissance and the present day:

The stream of Puritanism that landed in New England and flourished there, and was greatly supplemented by the arrival of refugees fleeing the consequences of the collapse of the revolutionary government [ie. the Protectorate] and the restoration of the monarchy in England, had a highly characteristic intellectual culture. Its theological stronghold was Cambridge University. It was based on the paramount authority of Scripture, [which the Puritans] understood as an ancient text in three ancient languages, counting Aramaic. Their clergy were trained in these languages as well as in Latin, so that they would be competent interpreters of a text that was never definitively rendered in any translation. … There was a great, treasured difficulty at the center of Puritan culture that enlisted them in the study of history, of antiquity in general, and of the natural sciences, which by their lights gave insight into the nature of God as Creator and as Presence. … Let us say that their early culture in America assumed the appropriateness of educating the general population ambitiously.

Radiating outwards from Cambridge University, this “highly characteristic intellectual culture” of the Puritans spread across the North American colonies and, later, the United States of America, as settler colonialism pushed the frontier ever further westward. So, then, flash forward to the nineteenth century, which Robinson visits in ‘What Are We Doing Here?’:

The United States is in many ways a grand experiment. Let us take Iowa as an example. What would early nineteenth-century settlers on the open prairie do first? Well, one of the first things they did was found a university, which is now about one hundred seventy years old. Agriculture became, as it remains, the basis of the state economy. How did the university develop in response to this small, agrarian population? It became, as it remains, a thriving and innovative center for the arts — theatre, music, painting, and, of course, creative writing. The medical school and the professional schools are fine, as well. The sciences are very strong. But the arts are the signature of the place and have been for generations. Let us say that these old Iowans did not invest their resources and their youth as wisely as they might have. Or let us say that, the world lying open to them, they had the profound satisfaction of doing what they wanted to do, at a cost to themselves in mercenary terms, with immeasurable returns in humanist terms.

Humanism is, for Robinson, the greatest good, the ultimate end of a life whose necessary foundation is productive labour, and it is also absolutely inseparable from serious theology. Robinson’s religious view of humanism thus lends itself to at least a defence, if not a practice, of the liberal arts: the arts and humanities, after all, are an expression of human potential, of the plenitude of the human imagination, and are thereby an implicit indication of the nature and values of a superior being. Insofar as theology aims to understand the divine through the observable world, the arts and humanities are evidence of the capabilities of the creatures at the pinnacle of everything created by divine power: “a powerful testimony to human capacities, human grandeur, the divine in the human”.

In turn, the arts and humanities are visible proof of the good of the anti-authoritarian, democratic ethic of Puritanism, and the historical development of their institutional study makes it possible to draw a line from, say, Martin Luther scribbling out his ninety-five theses to John Calvin translating the Geneva Bible, to the Protestant texts circulating amongst the Puritans of antebellum England, to the founding of Cambridge University by the Puritans of New England, and on to the replication of the Cambridge ethos in the liberal arts colleges that are today scattered in plenty across the United States. “[T]here is a splendor inherent in human beings that is thwarted and hidden by deprivation of the means to express it, even to realize it in oneself,” Robinson writes in ‘The American Scholar Now’. “The celebration of learning made visible in its spread into the [American] territories and the new-made states must have taken some part of its character from the revelation of human gifts it brought with it.”

Robinson goes further, of course. First she charts the ways in which many prominent liberal arts colleges, invested with this ethic, played instrumental roles in the abolition of slavery and the advancement of rights for women and African Americans. Then she laments the extent to which the colleges, improbable bastions of Renaissance humanism, have turned their own energies against themselves, partly under duress and partly of their own accord. The duress has come from the rise of neoliberal economics and its fetishisation of efficiency, which is to say the elimination of public expenditure on all things as frivolous as the arts and humanities. “There has been a fundamental shift in American consciousness,” Robinson continues in ‘The American Scholar Now’:

The Citizen has become the Taxpayer. In consequence of this shift, public assets are now public burdens. … While the Citizen can entertain aspirations for the society as a whole and take pride in its achievements, the Taxpayer, as presently imagined, simply does not want to pay taxes. The societal consequences of this aversion — failing infrastructure, for example — are to be preferred to any inroad on his or her monetary fiefdom, large or small.

Public support for the arts and humanities, including support for public educational institutions that take them as objects of study and foster their development, amount to merely another “inroad”, and its degradation has contributed to the decline in the prestige of the humanistic disciplines in public and private institutions alike. Robinson considers this to be an especially egregious road to travel down because the United States flourished in unparalleled ways — culturally, politically, and economically — throughout the very period during which public support for the arts and humanities was in the ascendant. “A great irony is at work in our historical moment,” she writes in ‘What Are We Doing Here?’. “We are being encouraged to abandon our most distinctive heritage — in the name of self-preservation.”

But, as above, the liberal arts colleges have also acted on their own to turn their energies against themselves, and indeed by way of their own success. Having facilitated “generations of great freedom” and “the vast elaboration of resources for learning in every field”, they have inadvertently cleared the way for the hard sciences to displace the cultural primacy of the arts and humanities, and in the process to downplay the significance of human experience in assembling a rational, empirically based account of the world we find ourselves in. Particularly troublesome for Robinson is the scientific tendency to offer a grossly reductive explanation of the operations of the human mind alongside an explanation of the cosmos that does not acknowledge the exceptionalism of human existence within it. She decries the “persisting impatience with the energy and originality of the mind”, as she writes in ‘What Are We Doing Here?’, because “some things are so brilliant they can only be understood as virtuosic acts of mind, thought in the pure enjoyment of itself, whether in making a poem or a scientific discovery, or just learning something it feels unaccountably good to know.” As for the denial of human exceptionalism, Robinson has this to say in ‘Theology for This Moment’:

No other species than ours could be called earnest. This is our response to special difficulties that attend our singular nature. We are unique in the effort we spend on the problems of defining our purposes and then accomplishing them, as the materials we put into them — facts, thought, words — slip and change while we work. No other species could be called ambitious, determined to reshape the world beyond the modest sufficiency that satisfies the niche-finding and nest-building generality of creatures. Error could be thought of as an extravagance parsimonious nature denies to migratory butterflies but lavishes on us unstintingly. Out of this indeterminacy, this great latitude, and within it, we construct our minds and our civilizations. These are all things to be marveled at, certainly.

There is a persistent tendency in modern thought to deny the anomalous character of the human presence in the world. No other creature could aspire to contriving a scheme that would reconcile itself fully to a present understanding of nature, especially one clever enough to be continuously changing its understanding of nature. We are never more unique than in our long struggle to deny our exceptionalism. Though it seems very unscientific to ignore logical contradictions, for example, these attempts to reason away the capacity to reason, this effort is commonly called science and is deferred to as science by much of society, including stewards of its religious culture. By my lights this is altogether a phenomenon of that freedom to err that I have mentioned, a gravitationless space where ideas propagate and elaborate themselves free of the disciplines of reason properly so called.

Where, then, is one to find resistance to the forces degrading the arts and humanities, corroding the liberal arts colleges from within and without, and denying the anti-authoritarian, democratic ethic that Robinson so reveres? Resistance is to be found in the consciousness of the speaking ‘I’, of course, and in the consciousnesses of those towards whom she is sympathetic. “Step back and consider”, Robinson writes in ‘What Are We Doing Here?’, “that, more or less hidden from sight, uniquely on this tiny planet there was a cache of old books and scrolls, testimonies to human thought, that when opened, opened the universe to us — six hundred years on, of course, which is not a heartbeat in cosmic time. An amazing tale, certainly.” Certainly, yes, and it’s a tale in which Robinson implicates herself as thoroughly as she populates it with characters befitting its atmosphere of arcana: obscure Renaissance translators and pamphleteers, lonely Puritan scholars and teachers, solitary playwrights and poets giving voice to some sense of the numinous deep within themselves.

I use the word ‘characters’ in a fairly literal sense here, because often enough Robinson partakes of the techniques of fiction and imagines her way into the consciousnesses of historical personages who play important roles in her overarching narrative. In The Givenness of Things, for instance, she envisions John Calvin in his private study, “pausing once again over the nuances and ambiguities of a Hebrew word as if his time and his patience and his strength were all inexhaustible”, and she finds herself “touched by how respectful he is, phrase by phrase and verb by verb, of the text of Scripture”. In ‘What Are We Doing Here?’, she extends her sympathies to Renaissance printers “who defied the threat of hair-raising punishments to publish unlicensed work, which others risked hair-raising penalties to own or to read”. Other characters are not quite so faceless, so anonymous: some, including Calvin, Shakespeare, Emerson, Whitman, Tocqueville, and the English Puritan John Flavel, are more fleshed out, more the beneficiaries of detailed speculations on their inner lives. Altogether, they bring life and motion to Robinson’s narrative tableaux, darting onstage and off again, sometimes occupying the centre of her attention, sometimes flitting around the edges, but always, crucially, incarnating the energies of the humanism that Robinson admires and transmitting those energies to Robinson herself across otherwise insurmountable distances in space and time.

Through Robinson’s construction of these characters, and her in-text reflections on their significance to her overarching narrative, the tale as a whole loops back onto its source and returns its focus to the singular mind of the woman who has written it. This isn’t to say that readers are able to watch the narrative unfold in a linear or logical sequence, or with clear and specific connections drawn between its various parts. Any individual essay will reveal or burnish only one or two facets of the bigger picture, and not even any one book of essays will refer to every aspect of the whole. One must read all of the essays as fragmentary pieces of this larger vision, assembling the narrative line by line, like a collage of events rather than a causal chain — or, better, like a vast tapestry whose interweaving threads extend from an essay in one book to other essays in other volumes. But then, too, even in reading all of the essays, one won’t find Robinson giving an essayistic treatment to anything outside her overarching narrative: no contemporary book reviews, no hot takes on cultural trends, just the same limited array of concerns returned to again and again, the recurrent consideration of the narrative threads already established and the ongoing elaboration of their pattern into new complexities of design.

Of Elizabeth Costello, I noted that Coetzee structures the novel so as to create meaning on two distinct, bifurcated scales: its sentences reside on the micro-level meaning of the protagonist’s thoughts, but they also point towards the macro-level meaning of precipitating events and her responses to lived experience. Robinson’s essays create meaning in the same way, on the same two scales, but the disjuncture between the two scales is far greater. Their micro-level meanings dwell on the influence of single words on the overall shape of her thoughts, or the effects of varying shades of significance in an expression translated from another tongue. Their macro-level meanings incorporate scientific findings from the farthest reaches of outer space, the most mysterious depths of human genetics, and the limits of quantum physics and our knowledge of the constituent properties of the universe.

That Robinson purposefully and explicitly reconciles these two scales through the unifying force of her own consciousness is something that Elizabeth Costello restrains herself from doing, but the effect of this reconciliation on the overall scope of the essays is profound. It allows them to be at once personal and impersonal, intimate and expansive, spirited embodiments of humanism and coolly constructed works of rhetorical art. They are, altogether, the closest thing I can imagine to a deeply felt intellectual memoir that is also, equally and simultaneously, a history of European theology over the last millennium and an American national narrative whose panoramic proportions rival those of Moby-Dick. What Robinson’s essays are certainly not is hip, but then, so what? To say they’re unhip is simply to say that they’re not of the moment, not of the urgent now. For some readers, I fear, this means that they’re throwbacks to a bygone era, chamber pieces by an abstruse intellectual enamoured of the distant past. But as I read over them now, once again in the aggregate, I’m always struck by the forward thinking on display, their cumulative bid for an artistic posterity. When you take them out of the frame of reference that presents them as part of the same species as Feel Free, they become something other than what they look like beside many contemporary essays — something larger and grander, more ambitious and demanding, and, I think, more rewarding and much more likely to endure.

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Daniel Davis Wood is based in Birmingham, England. His debut novel, Blood and Bone, was published in 2014 and won the Viva La Novella Prize in his native Australia. He is also the author of a monograph, Frontier Justice in the Novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Cormac McCarthy, and the novella Unspeakable. He is currently at work on a new novel. He blogs at Infinite Patience and tweets @DanielDavisWood.