Marilynne Robinson and Hymns to the Miracle of Existence
Her fiction occupies an odd space, resuscitating the nerve-endings of our souls.
"It seems we never do have quite enough rain," John Ames muses. The narrator of Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead is not bemoaning the parched town as much as he is relishing its showers. Reflecting on an ordinary Sunday, he writes: "It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life. All it needs from you is that you take care not to trample on it."
Marilynne Robinson is just such a rain—warm and rare—on the literary terra of contemporary fiction and nonfiction. Even more, she has tilled a plot where deep, lyrical Christian reflection teems. Her output comes from both below and above, from the dust of humanity and the grace of divinity. She is a dream-catcher of sorts, stationing each work between the ordinary and sacred, weaving sinews of sentences that capture the lovely and true.
Marilynne Robinson was born on November 26, 1943 in Sandpoint, Idaho, a small town for whose intellectual and spiritual piquancy Robinson has expressed gratitude. After moving east to attend Brown (at the time it was the women's Pembroke College), she returned west and earned her Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 1977. Three years later, she published her first novel, Housekeeping, and is now the author of seven works of fiction and nonfiction, all of which shine a bright beam on something it seems much of contemporary thought has ignored: the soul.
"Modern discourse is not really comfortable with the word 'soul,' and in my opinion the loss of the word has been disabling, not only to religion but to literature and political thought, and to every human pursuit," Robinson writes in her newest work, When I Was A Child I Read Books: Essays (scheduled for release in April 2012). "The soul, the masterpiece of creation, is more or less reduced to a token of signifying cosmic acceptance or rejection, having little or nothing to do with that miraculous thing, the felt experience of life, except insofar as life offers distractions or temptations."
Housekeeping, in one sense, rescues the dislocated soul. It is the vulnerable story of Ruth and Lucille, two sisters whose lives, hemmed by tragedy, grow and shift in the care of various guardians—first their grandmother, then two great-aunts, and finally their eccentric, train-hopping Aunt Sylvie. In exquisite terms, Ruth narrates her own metamorphosis, a patient and passive waiting for selfhood, a slow acquaintance with her soul.
In an interview, Robinson once described the soul this way: "There is a very primary self, a companion self one answers to, intimate and aloof, keeper of loyalties, bearer of loneliness and sorrow, faithful despite neglect and offence, more passionate lover of everything one loves, the unaccountable presence of joy in quiet and solitude. Soul is one name for this self within the self, which I believe is a universal human possession." This definition adds more weight to Ruth's observation in Housekeeping: "The sorrow is that every soul is put out of house." That is the tragedy each character must reckon with, the nagging sense of displacement.
Upon release, Housekeeping was hailed as a masterpiece. It was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, won the PEN/Hemingway Award, and, if that wasn't enough, made Time's "All-TIME 100 Novels published since 1923" and The Guardian's "100 greatest novels of all time." Robinson, however, accomplished something even more notable than the receipt of a few literary prizes; she had jostled the sleeping American soul. "It's as if, in writing it, she broke through the ordinary human condition with all its dissatisfactions, and achieved a kind of transfiguration," Anatole Broyard wrote in The New York Times. Not bad for a first book.
If Housekeeping reasserted the soul, Robinson's next novel, Gilead, succeeds by marvelling at it. Published more than two decades after Housekeeping, Gilead is an epistolary account written by the elderly Reverend John Ames to his young son during the final year of his life. Composed as an assortment of informal letters, Gilead not only captures the voice of a 76-year-old pastor, but harnesses the sacramental within the mundane. "Ordinary things have always seemed numinous to me," Robinson admitted in an interview, and she has projected this sense of awe onto her dear Reverend. Each observation—whether about theology, a son's freckles, a wife's dress, a candle flame, a poem, or a box of cracker jacks—echoes like a hymn to the miracle of existence. "The moon looks wonderful in this warm evening light, just as a candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning," Ames reflects. "Light within light. It seems like a metaphor for something . . . It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence." Robinson creates a refrain within the ordinary and a chorus amidst the plain particles of being. Life is fresh and new.
Gilead is as much a work of art as it is of theology, in the best sense. To borrow Robinson's definition from The Death of Adam, "Great theology is always a kind of giant and intricate poetry, like epic or saga." In the novel, John Ames encounters some of the simple beauties of Christianity. "Love is holy because it is like grace—the worthiness of its object never matters," he observes. Or, he reflects, "Grace is the great gift. So to be forgiven is only half the gift. The other half is that we also can forgive, restore, and liberate, and therefore we can feel the will of God enacted through us, which is the great restoration of ourselves to ourselves."
When the quiet and unusual novel won the Pulitzer Prize, Robinson seemed to have established a somewhat unexpected voice in contemporary writing. As she noted in one of her new essays, "lacking the terms of religion, essential things cannot be said," and so through Gilead's narrator, a pastor, she not only had access to the language of love, truth, and awe, but used this language to full effect.
Robinson's words have a spiritual force that's very rare in contemporary fiction—what Ames means when he refers to 'grace as a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials,'" James Wood wrote in his New York Times review of Gilead. "In ordinary, secular fiction, a writer who 'takes things down to essentials' is reducing language to increase the amount of secular meaning (or sometimes, alas, to decrease it). When Robinson reduces her language, it's because secular meaning has exhausted itself and is being renovated by religious meaning."
In 2008, just four years later, Robinson published a companion novel to Gilead. Home is a dialogue-driven narrative structured around the same circumstances of Gilead but told from the perspective of the Boughton household, the dear friends of the Ames. Focusing on Jack, the estranged son of Robert Boughton, and his younger 38-year-old sister Glory, who lives at home with the ailing man, Home mirrors the episodes of Gilead but stands alone in its undertaking. While staying true to Robinson's interest in the human soul, Home doesn't rescue or marvel so much as it considers its own unease. The narrator reflects:
In destitution, even of feeling or purpose, a human being is more hauntingly human and vulnerable to kindness because there is the sense that things should be otherwise, and then the thought of what is wanting and what alleviation would be, and how the soul could be put at ease, restored. At home. But the soul finds its own home if it ever has a home at all.
Inspired by the parable of the Prodigal Son, particularly with what happened where it ends—"What does it mean to come home?" the narrator asks—the novel wrestles with the inability to give and receive love, with the fallen-ness of humans, and with our homesickness. But because it is about love, it still finds hope. "It's about the fact that love is not earned and love is not felt in anyone at their will, because they have made some calculation of someone's worth," Robinson said in an interview. "That's one of Jesus' most radical parables because it completely overturns all notions of deserving, all notions of how you are scoring relative to other people in life."
If Robinson's fiction begins to resuscitate the nerve-endings of our souls, her nonfiction is an attempt to broaden the modern discussion. In the 24 years between Housekeeping and Gilead, Robinson was not silent. She wrote essays for Harper's, The Paris Review, and The New York Times Book Review, and in 1989, published Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution. Mother Country was not the hushed fiction work Housekeeping had been. It was a forceful exposé on the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant in Great Britain that took nuclear waste from throughout Europe, extracted plutonium, and then discarded the waste into the ocean and atmosphere. The situation was so grave that sheep nearby were radioactive and cases of leukemia skyrocketed, and yet, to Robinson's shock, not only was no one doing anything about the catastrophe, but it seemed no one, especially Americans, even knew about it. Robinson set out to change that.
But Mother Country isn't only about Sellafield. It is about the history of a country that could continue to allow such an offense. In typical form, Robinson isn't just concerned with the problem but seeks out its source—tracing it all the way back to the 1349 Ordinance of Labourers under Edward III—and tries to make sense of how Britain's cultural and economic values have been shaped. Reading much like a confrontation, Robinson concludes that those who entered into the bargain of Sellafield "have sold—for employment, or for some notion of national interest—the well-being of their descendants, which was never theirs to sell, and in the short or medium term, the well-being of the descendants of every mote of life that stirs on the face of the earth." Mother Country is probably Robinson's least-read work, but as of 2008, she declared it her favourite: "If I could only have written one book, that would have been the book." It might be a surprising choice until considered within the context of her career.
Robinson is a humanist in the way she describes Calvin's humanism in her preface to John Calvin: Steward of God's Covenant:
[Calvin's] humanism is expressed precisely in his understanding of the teaching of Genesis, that humankind is made in the image of God, the likeness being "that glory of God which peculiarly shines forth in human nature, where the mind, the will, and all the senses, represent the Divine order." . . . [He] places this incandescent divinity—it is the glory of God that "shines forth from human nature"—at the very center of individual experience and presence. And this sacredness is an attribute not of saints only, nor of Christians only, but is inherent and also manifest in all human beings as such.
Robinson's non-fiction, then, flows from the same place as her fiction: the soul. "It is not unusual now to hear religion and humanism spoken of as if they were opposed, even antagonistic," Robinson writes in The Death of Adam. "But humanism clearly rested on the idea that people have souls, and they have certain obligations to them, and certain pleasures in them."
As a Christian humanist, then, one might say that two forces animate Robinson's work: a love for humanity and a love for the physical world. So when Robinson returned from a trip to England after being exposed to the horrors of Sellafield, she promptly took action. "If I had not written that book, I would not have been able to live with myself," she said. "I would have felt that I was doing what we are all doing, which dooms the world."
Her next book, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, published in 1998, builds off of her own re-education that started with Mother Country, and raises questions about "the way our intellectual life, in the narrowest and also the widest sense, has been lived and is being lived now." Hailed by The New Yorker as "theologically tense and verbally lush," the essays cover a range of subjects from Darwinism, family, and abolitionism to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Calvin, and John Calvin again. Challenging not only some assumptions Americans have easily accepted, but also the habits that have allowed them to persist, Death of Adam finds Robinson arguing for a return to primary sources and modelling an example of charitable, rigorous discourse.
Consistent with Robinson's humanism is her parallel love of science. She reads perhaps as much scientific literature as theology, and devoted an entire work to her two passions in her next book, Absence of Mind. Never one to fit within categories—"I don't like categories like religious and not religious. As soon as religion draws a line around itself it becomes falsified"—Robinson's argument toes neither the typical scientific nor Christian lines of thought, and the result is electrifying: to "encourage an imagination of humankind large enough to acknowledge some small fragment of the mystery we are."
Robinson's newest work, When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays, exhibits the same themes that have characterized three decades of work while bringing new figures, such as Johann Friedrich Oberlin, and new topics, such as imagination, community, and cosmology, into consideration. But in this round of provocative thinking, Robinson seems preoccupied with the necessity of Christian love, a conviction long-informed by art, theology, science, and of course, her emphasis on the soul.
One of Robinson's favourite factoids is that "there are more neurons in the human brain than there are stars in the Milky Way," making the brain "the most complex object known in the universe." For Robinson, this discovery— which only adds mystery and astonishment to the "nexus of self, so uniquely elegant and capable," that she calls the soul—underscores the imperative of love. "If we are to consider the heavens," she asks, "how much more are we to consider the magnificent energies of consciousness that makes whomever we pass on the street a far grander marvel than our galaxy?"
Energized by awe, Robinson also naturally reveals a heightened sense of sorrow regarding those who bear Christ's name. "We do not deal with one another as soul to soul, and the churches are as answerable for this as anyone," she mourns. Christians are fearful. They do not love each other, much less enemies. And so, not shying away from rebukes, Robinson challenges Christians to return to Christ's example, return to the primary source of the Bible, and return to love and humility.
Marilynne Robinson is now sixty-eight years old. She still teaches at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she has been for over twenty years. She is a living tribute to the vigour that the spiritual can and should have within art and discourse. And in a time when the soul seems to be withering, her works breathe a much-needed vitality into our being. Modern discourse all too often tries "to fit a tight and awkward carapace of definition over humankind, and trim the living creature to fit the dead shell." But Robinson, thankfully, does not. The space that her writing occupies is as odd and luminous as a new cosmology for the newness, the breadth, and the unfolding harmonies found within the details of her thought. In turn, she has provided a revitalizing voice, a humble insistence on the fullness of life as we experience it, rather than the myriad ways we diminish it. We could stand a few more like her. The terrain of prose can always use more rain. But like John Ames, we can at least be grateful to catch her sentences on our tongues like raindrops, feeling the silent and invisible life of this world.