The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 20 No. 1 (Spring 2018)

We’re Here, That’s All

What Are We Doing Here?

Marilynne Robinson

New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2018

(Volume 20 | Issue 1)

In her essays, Marilynne Robinson writes in a prophetic voice—which is to say, with a sense of moral urgency backed by a lofty certainty. To some, this can be annoying, and whenever a new volume of Robinson’s essays appears, a common complaint is that they lack charity toward those with whom she disagrees. As a novelist, the assumption seems to go, she really ought to be a nicer sort of a person. (Which even-tempered novelists provide the basis for this belief is a puzzle beyond my ability to answer.)

But we also are living in prophetic times, or at least times when people would like a prophet to explain what’s going on. So given that we are now in the mood, what do we make of what she’s saying now? In her preface to this book, her fifth collection of essays, Robinson positions herself as someone who understands the dilemma we are facing today, even if she cannot fix it.

The trouble, as she sees it, is that Americans have accepted a story about America that has stripped the country of its moral resources and heritage. Both conservatives and liberals understand America as a country driven primarily by capitalism and self-interest. Such a historical self-understanding undercuts the impulse to reform—why try to improve what was rotten from the start?—while legitimizing greed. “It is shocking,” Robinson writes, “how defenseless the protections of the environment, of the poor, and even of the rights of voters have been shown to be.… No one defends these things as American, because the Left no more than the Right thinks of them as among our core values.” Surely, Robinson thinks, there are ways to take pride in America’s legacy without lapsing into jingoism.

To the extent that What Are We Doing Here? provides a corrective, however, it’s largely by accident. Any guiding principle behind these essays is, for the most part, an after-the-fact concoction. And while most of the best essays in this volume do represent Robinson’s ongoing attempt to rescue America’s heritage, specifically its Puritan heritage, the collection as a whole feels somewhat underworked, even a little phoned-in.

Robinson is ill at ease when it comes to what could be described as “apologetics”—essays in which she’s trying to argue for the more abstract priorities that guide her work. When she tries her hand at it, the essays become an exercise in pointing first at one thing, then another. In one such essay, “Grace and Beauty,” she lets drop some interesting observations about her own writing, but the larger essay veers from one scientific metaphor to another in a way that is not easy to follow. Even if you are inclined to accept the formulation with which she opens the essay and which she intends to make “intelligible”—that “beauty disciplines”—you’re unlikely to leave the piece with a clear understanding of why.

Still, when great writers stumble—and Robinson, regardless of the merits of this particular collection, certainly fits that bill—there’s usually something to be learned about what their virtues are, and why we appreciate, or even need, their work. There is, when read in that fashion, a telling moment in “Grace and Beauty.” Robinson is discussing how to create literary character:

What is the specific absence that I feel when I miss someone? The most estimable person on earth could not fill the place left empty by a dear friend, even if it is never clear at all why that friend should matter so much. What is the abstract, the ghost, that persists in the mind, meaning him or her and no one else?

To insist that this detail, not any detail, matters, that things happened just this way and not some other way, with these words and not other words—this is the instinct that informs Robinson’s best essays, as well as her fiction. When she writes about John Calvin or the American Puritans or—as she does rather frequently in this collection—Oliver Cromwell, Robinson’s unwavering insistence is that we go back to things people said and did instead of relying on their subsequent reputation or appointed place in intellectual history. Finding the ghost, as she puts it, is key.

But while Robinson can demonstrate—as she has, powerfully, many times—what you can receive if you are willing to submit yourself to detail and to history, she can’t argue for doing it at all. Her lofty certainty and moral tone can work only in a context in which certain things are assumed—for instance, that truth matters over narrative, and that details matter over a general picture. But why you should insist on the particular and peculiar ghost of the person you are looking for, and not simply settle for the substitute that works well enough, isn’t a question Robinson can answer.

In not knowing how to argue for the truth, Robinson is hardly alone. Why it matters that the truth is the truth is a question that, as it turns out, most of us don’t know how to answer. Why does it matter what really happened? Political inquiries into the truth seem to be aimed at generating confusion rather than clarity, and even when they are settled—let’s say, because a birth certificate is produced—they never really seem to go away. Vague gestures toward a time when there was some manner of social moral consensus don’t satisfy, since they are ultimately about what’s practical more than what’s true. After all, we could all have a shared moral language and consensus that was perfectly false yet could satisfy us as a social framework. The truth has the potential to be as disruptive as falsehood, and often is. Allowing people to drift into their own private realities is not such a glowing success, either. “We report, you decide” has given rise to plenty of deciding among opinions, but precious little reporting.

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the final essay in this collection, “Slander,” is aimed at Fox News. Her relationship with her mother, she writes, was dismantled by Fox:

Toward the end of her life, my mother began to be tormented by anxieties and regrets. I, her daughter, a self-professed liberal, was one of those who had ruined America. I would go to hell for it, too, a fact she considered both regrettable and just.… A mother less Fox-saturated might have taken satisfaction from degrees and prizes, but to her they were proof that I was in league with a sinister Other; they were enhancements of a prominence I could only misuse.

Robinson doesn’t dwell exclusively on her troubled relationship with her mother, however. She also points out that her mother ended her days in a state of fear and distress that was related to nothing she had experienced in her own life but only to what she’d seen on TV.

When she speaks publicly, Robinson finds that other Christians ask her if she’s afraid to be a Christian, a question that, she says, “truly, deeply gives me the creeps.” Who told them to be afraid, after all? From whence does this embattled feeling come? But Robinson can only direct her argument against this fear to other Christians. Within the moral framework of Christianity, she can make her case—as she does—against spreading false fear, and it’s convincing, though perhaps only because I am one of those already convinced. And to read her writing is to take some relief from a moral force that does not feel the need to argue for itself.

But how to draw the map that will get into the hands of someone who is not persuaded that the truth is necessary, that falsehood is wrong even if it’s expedient—that’s beyond her. Robinson seems to think that a need for truth can be cultivated through the study of history; it’s certainly where she seems to nurture it in herself. Maybe she’s right, and the only way to create respect for the truth in ourselves is to submit to the steady plodding of investigation, expectation, and fact among long-ago papers and books. Maybe the truth can’t be argued for, only experienced. Or maybe we are all stuck waiting for a different sort of prophet to arrive.

B.D. McClay is senior editor of The Hedgehog Review.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 20.1 (Spring 2018). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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