The Givenness of Things: Essays
by marilynne robinson
farrar, straus and giroux, 304 pages, $26
Why is it that the most graceful writer of our day, who offers such a beautiful defense of charity and intellectual humility in her novels, is so often flippant and uncharitable in her essays? If Marilynne Robinson so habitually “violates her own poetics,” as Paul Seaton has put it, is she misunderstanding her vision, or are we?
In her latest collection of essays, The Givenness of Things, Robinson views the culture as being corroded by two complementary forces. In one essay, she refers to these elusively as “cynicism” and “vulgarism.” In the other essays, it becomes clear that by “cynicism” she means chiefly scientism, and by “vulgarism” she means conservatism. Each is a rejection of “reverence toward humankind”: “One teaches us helplessness in the face of the abuses and atavisms the other encourages us to embrace.”
Whereas scientism only comes under fire as an ideology, Robinson directs particular ire at conservatives themselves. She refers to support for the death penalty as the product of “reptilian memory.” She mentions “a regional faction”—Tea Partiers?—that will deprive Americans of help “no matter how disgusted I and my kind may be.” She argues that defenses of the Second Amendment are really a reaction to the “tendency of others to act on their freedoms of speech, press, and assembly, and especially of religion, in ways and degrees these arms-bearing folk find irksome.” She says she cannot help but see these movements in “a satanically negative light,” and that “divine judgment might be brought down on the United States for grinding the faces of the poor.”
Robinson aptly notes that “Those who hate Fox News are as persuaded by its representation of the country as are its truest devotees.” It is one of many warnings in the book filled with unintended irony: She also bemoans declinist readings of American history and us-versus-them thinking.
The trouble here is not that Robinson is wrong—she isn’t, entirely—but that her arguments display the very vices she imputes to her opponents. As she herself lucidly explains, arguments from psychology, particularly of the frightened-caveman variety, are post-hoc and dehumanizing. More to the point, these diagnoses persuade no one, and aren’t intended to. Even the Fox viewer with the lowest-dragging knuckles has reasons to believe what he does, and while it would seem churlish to wonder whether Robinson has ever had an actual conversation about politics with a conservative—or, heaven help us, picked up a copy of National Review or Commentary or National Affairs—she offers a convincing imitation of having studiously avoided it.
There are notable formal and thematic similarities between Robinson’s essays, particularly those in The Givenness of Things, and her masterpiece novel Gilead. Both are digressive, homiletic, and largely unstructured. Both expound in general terms on culture, often in response to remarks overheard from strangers in public, or to popular articles, usually unspecified. Both are addressed to audiences on an unequal footing: Gilead is composed of letters to the narrator’s young son, who is not meant to read them until after his father has died; most of the essays in Givenness were first delivered as lectures, and their antagonists are usually unnamed. Both books warn that the deepest questions about our condition are so mysterious that we are wiser not to venture answers to them at all; both venture answers anyway.
These approaches succeed so well as fiction in part because the voice of Gilead’s John Ames is so diffident, striving to love and worship even as he is constantly aware of his own failures. But while Robinson’s power is still on display in Givenness—even her most slapdash work demands reading, and in many places this book is astonishing—in the lectures, her high literary style feels like an excuse for intellectual evasion. No essayist of comparable stature makes such habitual use of the passive voice, or so regularly fails to offer evidence or specifics of the various broad trends she asserts as self-evident. Robinson is carrying on a conversation with the ether.
One interpretation is that Robinson, like Ames and the rest of us, simply fails to live up to her own lofty standard. Another is that the standard itself is incomplete. In her novels, Robinson’s ethical vision begins from an aesthetic of encounter—with the ineffable beauty of ordinary creation, which ought to move us to humility; with the mysterious depths of others, which ought to move us to charity. But is this really how experience works?
“It is hard to know where to begin objecting to an agenda set by factions and interests whose conceptual universe is so alien,” Robinson confesses at one point in Givenness. This is an unmistakable echo of Gilead, in which she writes that “in every important way we are such secrets from each other,” that there are “inviolable, intraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.” Robinson seems at least this distant from her political foes, whom she nevertheless is determined to engage in battle.
Does love require that we never take a human life, or that we may if it is the only way to defend a life? Whose plan for federal spending evinces the truer reverence for mankind: Paul Ryan’s or Bernie Sanders’s? Robinson’s aesthetic is so gorgeously rendered, her mandates so stark, as to regard these as petty details, their disputation a kabuki show carried out to excuse us from our spiritual failures. But if her vision is true, then these questions she scoffs at are only doubled in urgency. Love may be the silent work of the wonk’s spreadsheet, charity the dutiful citation.
Ari Schulman is a senior editor of the New Atlantis.