Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Marilynne Robinson, _The Death of Adam_

   FOR A FEW years, Marilynne Robinson and Jorie Graham must have been colleagues at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.  And how did they get along, do you suppose?
   The subtitle of Robinson's collection is "Essays on Modern Thought."  So, what does she think of modern thought?  Not much, it turns out.  "I am sure I would risk offending if I were to say outright that modern thought is a failed project.  Still, clearly it partakes as much of error as the worst thinking it has displaced" (p. 69).
   Robinson dislikes that Darwin and Nietzsche and Freud, for instance, routinely get a great deal of respect and credit as founders of modern thought even though, if we take the trouble to read them, we find a lot of their ideas are definitely daft, and even though, when we trace out the effects of their historical influence, we come across much that is cruel, evil, unjust.
   She also dislikes that older thought -- religion, for instance, more particularly Christianity, and especially particularly the theology of John Calvin -- routinely gets dismissed as unenlightened and neurotic and without intellectual interest by people who never bothered to try to understand it, or gets dismissed as cruel, benighted, and oppressive in its influence on events by people unaware of the roles religious people have taken in, say, the abolition of slavery or German resistance against the Nazis ("Dietrich Bonhoeffer," "McGuffey and the Abolitionists").
   Well, more power to her.  Her discussion of Calvin -- rather cleverly camouflaged in an essay titled "Marguerite de Navarre" -- is a dazzling revelation if all you know of Calvin is "TULIP" and Balzac's historical novels -- such was the state of my knowledge before reading her essay.
   She seems awfully peeved for a lot of the book, though -- testy, impatient, even a bit defensive.  I wonder if this an effect of being a believer who necessarily spends lots of time around extremely well-educated people, secular-progressive-academic-vegetarian-recycling sorts of people, who tend to be unbelievers.  Most citizens of the US are believers and not at all embarrassed about it -- but in a college town like Iowa City, you would be encountering big clumps of the sort of people who read the neo-atheist apologias of Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and such, or at least read the reviews of these books and get reconfirmed in the idea that religion is bosh for bozos.  Frequent encounters with such folks seem to lie behind such testy testimonials as "Puritans and Prigs" and "The Tyranny of Petty Coercion," where Robinson gives those who think believers are dim-witted a good poke in the eye.  So to speak.
   I wish she had given fewer pokes  in the eye and more of the lyrical and moving, as in the beautiful, powerful essay"Psalm Eight," or even just more of the historical insight of "Marguerite de Navarre."  Oh well.

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