Marilynne Robinson is not amused. “We now live,” she writes at the outset of her new book of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224 pages, $26.00), “in a political environment characterized by wolfishness and filled with blather.” One of our political parties has descended into outright lunacy while the other responds to widespread financial calamity by proposing lower corporate tax rates. In that passage, Ms. Robinson invokes Walt Whitman, to remind us that the country has been here before, or at least found itself in circumstances equally dire, but also to confront the self-appointed defenders of “traditional values” with the actual spirit of our best traditions:
It is not unusual now to hear that we have lost our values, that we have lost our way. In the desperations of the moment, justified or not, certain among us have turned on our heritage, the country that has emerged out of generations of attention to public education, public health, public safety, access to suffrage, equality under law. It turns out, by their reckoning, that the country they call the greatest on earth has spent most of its history acting against its own (great) nature, and that the enhancements of life it has provided for the generality of its people, or to phrase it more democratically, that the people have provided for themselves, have made its citizens weak and dependent.
It is difficult not to quote Ms. Robinson at length, so finely calibrated are her sentences. Here, it’s a tonic to see a rhetoric of such righteous anger turned, for once, against those who believe it is virtuous to attempt to deprive their fellow citizens of aid and succor. She concludes this passage by wondering “how the greatest nation on earth maintains this exalted status while burdened with a population these patriots do not like or respect.” That it is left to one of our finest novelists to say this out loud—instead of, say, the president of the United States—is something worse than shameful.
Many of Ms. Robinson’s targets here are familiar from her previous, equally fascinating collections, 2005’s The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought and 2010’s Absence of Mind: the undergraduate drivel of neo-Darwinism and the “New Atheism”; the un-Christian tenor and determined ignorance of much contemporary American Protestantism; the condescension or overt hostility of educated liberals to religion. What is affirmed throughout is an abiding awe in the face of “the tantalizing not-yet-knowable and the haunting never-to-be-known,” and a sense that “we are blessed with the impossibility of arriving at a definition of America that is either exhaustive or final.”
Ms. Robinson is a liberal, tremendously well-read Calvinist, and Calvin’s liberality informs every essay in this book. (She demonstrates that if “Calvin’s liberality” strikes you as an oxymoron, you have not read Calvin.) Much deep good sense is directed against the pseudo-learning of contemporary liberal culture. The popular scientism of our day assumes that genes explain everything about our species. The impulses of compassion or generosity, we are told, are genetically coded; religious experience is associated with activity in specific regions of the brain. These facts are somehow taken to invalidate those impulses, that experience—as if the existence of the visual cortex proved that what we see isn’t real.
Ms. Robinson excels at dismantling such false oppositions. No educated person can harbor serious doubt that all life on earth evolved from a common ancestor; that we and the other apes are descended from a more recent common ancestor; and that natural selection plays an important role in evolution. This tells us precisely nothing about the truth of religion, no matter what fundamentalists of both the Christian and the atheistic stripe might believe. As Ms. Robinson writes in The Death of Adam, “Creationism is the best thing that could have happened to Darwinism, the caricature of religion that has seemed to justify Darwinist contempt for the whole of religion.” Everyone who has read a book by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett or Steven Pinker—today’s defenders of scientism—would do well to also read one by Marilynne Robinson.
In Ms. Robinson’s hands the Christian religion regains its wonder, becomes again the religion of Augustine and Aquinas, Jonathan Edwards and the Frenchman Jean Cauvin, because she wryly defamiliarizes Christianity. Often, as she does so, she defamiliarizes America too, “that guarded place,” as the poet D. A. Powell calls it:
In my Bible, Jesus does not say, “I was hungry and you fed me, though not in such a way as to interfere with free-market principles.” … And we now know, if we want to know, how free and how wise and how principled those markets were, to which—for the greater good, of course—we subordinated the practical concerns apparently so close to the heart of Christ, the feeding and clothing, the tending to the sick and respecting the humanity of the imprisoned. These good works, if they were assisted by means of governments, would make us like the French, they say. Whatever that means. I doubt that this notion is based on any actual knowledge of the French, but if it is, it certainly encourages me in the opinion that the secular have an excellent hope of heaven.
It would be remarkable if anyone besides Marilynne Robinson agreed with everything Marilynne Robinson has to say—it is one of her virtues that she says so much so forcefully. Our slaughter of the Indochinese and the Iraqis, our support for the military dictatorships of Central and South America, should present more of a challenge to Ms. Robinson’s American exceptionalism. And it’s not entirely convincing that Calvinism’s radical individualism is wholly unrelated to the contemporary political malice she rightly decries. Ms. Robinson is too brisk with Marx and Freud (that their worldviews are irreconcilable with each other, as she asserts in Absence of Mind, would be news to, inter alia, Marcuse, Lacan, Althusser, Deleuze and Žižek). And she comes up short on popular culture: Hank Williams sang of being so lonesome he could cry, not die—the pathos of the understatement is the point.
But these essays represent what Robinson calls “an archaeology of my own thinking, mainly to attempt an escape from assumptions that would embarrass me if I understood their origins.” This is what education is for, and this book is a tool for those who would be archaeologists of their own thinking.