marilynnerobinson   45

Sarah Leonard, "Graceland," Dissent Magazine
Marilynne Robinson's latest essay collection What Are We Doing Here? reveals the limits of her restrained metaphysics.
SarahLeonard  BookReview  LiteraryCriticism  2018Faves  MarilynneRobinson  Dissent 
january 2019 by briansholis
Parul Sehgal on Marilynne Robinson’s Essays, The New York Times
"Robinson takes up the question herself in “What Are We Doing Here?” a new collection of essays on various dry and honorable points of civics and theology. But, as she writes, “nothing human beings do or make is ever simply itself.” This book has another, more complicated story to tell. It’s an intellectual autobiography — a starchy, ardent and, on occasion, surprisingly personal account of what it means to be the custodian of one’s conscience in a world saturated with orthodoxies."
MarilynneRobinson  ParulSehgal  Calvinism  LiteraryCriticism  essays  BookReview  2018Faves 
january 2019 by briansholis
Year One; Rhetoric and Responsibility (Marilynne Robinson, New York Review of Books)
I know I risk seeming to focus on a marginal issue. That there is a risk is
an issue in itself. Americans lavish time and money on education. Why on
earth do we think of it as if it held a minor place in our society? It is
our single great credential, especially if it has prestige and exclusivity
associated with it. In other words, educated people have influence
disproportionate to their numbers. How is their important presence
reflected in politics and culture? Despite the vast number of our colleges,
and despite their differences in size, wealth, region, demographics, and
reputation, where the humanities are concerned the same things are taught
by the same methods everywhere, with very few exceptions. Obviously, it is
not possible to consider our competence in the skills of democracy, logic,
and argument, for example, without reference to the way we educate
ourselves. When we have grave public issues to debate,
post-deconstructionism is no help at all. This is not the case because only
an elite is fluent in it, but because no one is fluent in it. It is a
contrived language whose use is the only significant statement of which it
is capable. It is without nuance, eloquence, irony, and humor. Except in
the phrase “alternative facts,” I have scarcely heard an echo of it beyond
the academy.
Persuasive speech is an ancient art, practiced with distinction in American
public life since Washington, to our great benefit. The nature of the good
society is a philosophic question, debated by great minds over
centuries. For some reason, Americans are reluctant to speak of our
experiment with democracy as rooted in a tradition of thought and
aspiration stretching back to antiquity, though those Founders we invoke
from time to time were certainly aware that it is. Our history reflects the
fact that this question is never closed, that its terms evolve, as
Jefferson anticipated they would. The good society depends for its life on
insights into present circumstances and into present tendencies in the
culture, insights that arise out of honest and open discussion, that is, on
intellectually competent citizens, people capable of clarity and
attentiveness. Yet we have allowed our thinking to be conformed to the
model of ideology, which is the old enemy of ideas, as it is of plain
realism. The language of ideology has all its conclusions baked into it. It
is wholly unsuited to the life of an open and evolving society. Our higher
education has been in part responsible for our decline. If we have let
ourselves become inarticulate in the terms of our own, highly particular
civilization, to the point that we cannot sustain a democratic politics,
then it is more than time for our splendid universities to take a long look
at themselves.
MarilynneRobinson  Universities  Humanities 
november 2017 by mgubbins
How do novelists write about faith in a culture that's moving past it? | The Christian Century
It was (is) built on a shared assumption between writer and reader that a disposition of life around religion makes sense. Makes, in fact, such basic sense that the sense it makes can be left offstage and the author can concentrate on all the secondary human consequences of that sense, ramifying all over the place in lovely narrative patterns. But when that underlying assump­tion is removed, the village life of Christians stops being just another intelligibly villagey panorama and becomes mysterious. It dwindles into anthropology, to be explained as it goes; it becomes exotic, science-fictional, a zoo for the bizarre; it becomes a mode of story, often, whose point is to criticize, to indicate a confinement from which the characters could—should—break free.

Oddly, then, the further that Chris­tianity recedes from most people’s everyday experience, the less available be­comes the apparently most straightforward way of representing it. And the more important become the other ways in which the life of faith can take on fictive life.

However, as awareness of the Chris­tian nature of the culture’s materials dwindles, the third kind of fiction in my rapidly assembled and ad hoc taxonomy seems likely to become most important of all. The kind, that is, that can speak communicatively of faith to readers beyond the bounds of experienced familiarity with it, and beyond the bounds of conscious assent to it, because, rather than exploring the (social) relations of Christians with each other, or showing forth the theological patterning of experience, it takes as at least part of its subject the relationship of Christians with God. The kind that tries to realize, on the page, with the verbal tools of the novelist, the orientation to the world that results when somebody holds that, feels that, behaves as if the particular rooms they are in always have another unnumerated door or window, opening onto a different and overwhelming domain. The kind where the particular light of one morning is held to be a manifestation of a general light. The kind where part of the point of what is being carefully reported about everyday experience is that it faces onto something else. That something else, of course, not being a verbal fabric at all. Being made of the Word, that is, not of our vocabulary.
FrancisSpufford  Christianity  writing  MarilynneRobinson 
october 2017 by jbertsche
Marilynne Robinson on Finding the Right Word
I was very struck by something that I came across in my reading of Jonathan Edwards. I recall him quoting a writer who talks about how whatever we say lives on after us, that we continue to exist so long as any word we say exists in a living mind. And that there should be two judgments: one when we die, and one when the full impact of our lives has played itself out. That is, when every word that we’ve said, for good or ill, basically ceases to be active.

When we speak, we should ask ourselves: How will this ultimately play out? What will be the moral consequence of the fact that so many people have resorted to such crude, cruel language? We know it won’t be neutral. We know it won’t evaporate. It’ll be in people’s minds for generations.

Writing should always be exploratory. There shouldn’t be the assumption that you know ahead of time what you want to express. When you enter into the dance with language, you’ll begin to find that there’s something before, or behind, or more absolute than the thing you thought you wanted to express. And as you work, other kinds of meaning emerge than what you might have expected. It’s like wrestling with the angel: On the one hand you feel the constraints of what can be said, but on the other hand you feel the infinite potential. There’s nothing more interesting than language and the problem of trying to bend it to your will, which you can never quite do. You can only find what it contains, which is always a surprise.
MarilynneRobinson  writing 
september 2017 by jbertsche
Marilynne Robinson's vision for democracy: A review of Shannon L. Mariotti and Joseph H. Lane Jr.
The critics are not wrong. To the extent that her readers have sought in Robinson’s work a fully articulated alternative to ethnic nationalism, neoliberalism, or the Christian Right, they seek in vain. But Robinson has never claimed to offer such an alternative. Only the enthusiasm of her audience would indicate that she has one to offer, and only the parched landscape of modern thought could demand it of her.
august 2017 by isaacsmith
Christian Ethics | Submitted For Your Perusal
"I have mentioned the qualitative difference between Christianity as an ethic and Christianity as an identity. Christian ethics go steadfastly agains the grain of what we consider human nuture. The first will be last; to him who asks give; turn the other cheek; judge not. Identity, on the other hand, appeals to a constellation of the worst human impulses. It is worse than ordinary tribalism because it assumes a more virtuous us on one side, and on the other a them who are very doubtful indeed, who are, in fact a threat to all we hold dear." —Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things
marilynnerobinson  mattthomas  christianity  ethics  identity  2016  tribalism  humans  humannature  human 
august 2016 by robertogreco
The Wildness of Things | The Point Magazine
Lila inverts the problem Robinson posed in her essays, asking not what has gone wrong with her kind of Christianity, but what might make it a compelling spiritual home to someone in the first place?
marilynnerobinson  literature  christianity 
july 2016 by isaacsmith
Marilynne Robinson: on capitalism and "what we actually value" by Radio Open Source
"The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson talks about what we value and what we need and the basics of American society, pitted against a "weird ideologized form of capitalism"."
marilynnerobinson  via:taryn  capitalism  criticism  wealth  values  2015  history  ideology  neoliberalism  coldwar  society  profits  profit  art  science  business  empowerment  time  culture  hierarchy  prosperity  teaching  howweteach  monetization 
july 2015 by robertogreco
the inattention game - / current issue
The bigger problem with The World Beyond Your Head is that of an author trying to wring a social theory from a set of personal grievances, no matter how accurately he perceives what Marilynne Robinson called “the sadness so many of us feel at the heart of contemporary society.”

The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord’s work of anticapitalist critical theory that influenced the strikes and protests of May 1968, made many of the same arguments that Crawford does. In fact, the first sentence of Spectacle is like a summary of The World Beyond Your Head: “In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.”

Debord’s complaints about France were made in the service of a Marxist vision of social reorganization. Absent such a philosophical basis (which obviously need not be Marxism), Crawford’s disgust with representations becomes something much less generous, a disgust for the people who need representations most. It is often this way with elegies for attention to the physical world. The writers who demand that everyone live in the “real” are usually those who are already comfortable there. Consider the example of the woman who’s buried in her iPhone while she walks, and won’t make eye contact with Crawford. “A public space where people are not self-enclosed . . . may feel rich with possibility for spontaneous encounters,” he writes; such a situation “gives rise to a train of imaginings, often erotic.” This is dead accurate to certain moments in a straight man’s afternoon in the city. But a person could also be forgiven for seeking the reassurance of a phone when feeling overexposed on the street.

The beam of contempt is even more visible when it focuses on the slot players, who, despite Crawford’s wish to make them exemplary of the “autistic” strain of modern life, are more likely—visit any casino—to be old people without a ton of money, unluckily susceptible to a certain kind of addiction, exploited by a sophisticated technology. Even Crawford’s basic premise that “representations” are undesirable begins to buckle under scrutiny. An odd teenager in an uncomprehending suburb using Tumblr to find peers who don’t deride her seems unlikely to agree that the problem with America is the prevalence of images.

Reality can be the site of surreal amounts of cruelty, and to mock those who seek refuge from it can be a way of excusing oneself from the labor of improving it. Not everyone accepts the supremacy of the tangible. It’s indisputable that many people prefer screens to the company of humans, but it’s less clear that all of them do so for reasons of passivity and narcissism. The autistic come to mind as examples. Close attention to the social world reveals, in this way, its unlikeness to a starter motor or a short circuit—most problems don’t have universally self-evident solutions.

In the parable of the game preserve, Cheetos fell out of the sky and the lions got complacent and stopped hunting. It’s an offense to the hunter’s aesthetics. But from a zebra’s perspective? Let it rain."
jessebaron  matthewcrawford  2015  attention  physical  digital  guydebord  marilynnerobinson  sadness  society 
may 2015 by robertogreco
The Revelations of Marilynne Robinson
This June, as a grandfather clock rang the quarter-hour in her modest Iowa City living room, the American novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson, a woman of 70 who speaks in sentences that accumulate into polished paragraphs, made a confession: “I hate to say it, but I think a default posture of human beings is fear.” Perched on the edge of a sofa, hands loosely clasped, Robinson leaned forward as if breaking bad news to a gentle heart. “What it comes down to — and I think this has become prominent in our culture recently — is that fear is an excuse: ‘I would like to have done something, but of course I couldn’t.’ Fear is so opportunistic that people can call on it under the slightest provocations: ‘He looked at me funny.’ ”
nytimes  nytimesmag  marilynnerobinson  writing  writers  literature 
october 2014 by brendanmcfadden
Paris Review - The Art of Fiction No. 198, Marilynne Robinson
I don’t like categories like religious and not religious. As soon as religion draws a line around itself it becomes falsified. It seems to me that anything that is written compassionately and perceptively probably satisfies every definition of religious whether a writer intends it to be religious or not."

Ames says that in our everyday world there is “more beauty than our eyes can bear.” He’s living in America in the late 1950s. Would he say that today?

You have to have a certain detachment in order to see beauty for yourself rather than something that has been put in quotation marks to be understood as “beauty.” Think about Dutch painting, where sunlight is falling on a basin of water and a woman is standing there in the clothes that she would wear when she wakes up in the morning—that beauty is a casual glimpse of something very ordinary. Or a painting like Rembrandt’s Carcass of Beef, where a simple piece of meat caught his eye because there was something mysterious about it. You also get that in Edward Hopper: Look at the sunlight! or Look at the human being! These are instances of genius. Cultures cherish artists because they are people who can say, Look at that. And it’s not Versailles. It’s a brick wall with a ray of sunlight falling on it.

At the same time, there has always been a basic human tendency toward a dubious notion of beauty. Think about cultures that rarify themselves into courts in which people paint themselves with lead paint and get dumber by the day, or women have ribs removed to have their waists cinched tighter. There’s no question that we have our versions of that now. The most destructive thing we can do is act as though this is some sign of cultural, spiritual decay rather than humans just acting human, which is what we’re doing most of the time.

Ames believes that one of the benefits of religion is “it helps you concentrate. It gives you a good basic sense of what is being asked of you and also what you might as well ignore.” Is this something that your faith and religious practice has done for you?

Religion is a framing mechanism. It is a language of orientation that presents itself as a series of questions. It talks about the arc of life and the quality of experience in ways that I’ve found fruitful to think about. Religion has been profoundly effective in enlarging human imagination and expression. It’s only very recently that you couldn’t see how the high arts are intimately connected to religion.

Is this frame of religion something we’ve lost?

There was a time when people felt as if structure in most forms were a constraint and they attacked it, which in a culture is like an autoimmune problem: the organism is not allowing itself the conditions of its own existence. We’re cultural creatures and meaning doesn’t simply generate itself out of thin air; it’s sustained by a cultural framework. It’s like deciding how much more interesting it would be if you had no skeleton: you could just slide under the door.

How does science fit into this framework?

I read as much as I can of contemporary cosmology because reality itself is profoundly mysterious. Quantum theory and classical physics, for instance, are both lovely within their own limits and yet at present they cannot be reconciled with each other. If different systems don’t merge in a comprehensible way, that’s a flaw in our comprehension and not a flaw in one system or the other.

Are religion and science simply two systems that don’t merge?

The debate seems to be between a naive understanding of religion and a naive understanding of science. When people try to debunk religion, it seems to me they are referring to an eighteenth-century notion of what science is. I’m talking about Richard Dawkins here, who has a status that I can’t quite understand. He acts as if the physical world that is manifest to us describes reality exhaustively. On the other side, many of the people who articulate and form religious expression have not acted in good faith. The us-versus-them mentality is a terrible corruption of the whole culture.

You’ve written critically about Dawkins and the other New Atheists. Is it their disdain for religion and championing of pure science that troubles you?

No, I read as much pure science as I can take in. It’s a fact that their thinking does not feel scientific. The whole excitement of science is that it’s always pushing toward the discovery of something that it cannot account for or did not anticipate. The New Atheist types, like Dawkins, act as if science had revealed the world as a closed system. That simply is not what contemporary science is about. A lot of scientists are atheists, but they don’t talk about reality in the same way that Dawkins does. And they would not assume that there is a simple-as-that kind of response to everything in question. Certainly not on the grounds of anything that science has discovered in the last hundred years.

The science that I prefer tends toward cosmology, theories of quantum reality, things that are finer-textured than classical physics in terms of their powers of description. Science is amazing. On a mote of celestial dust, we have figured out how to look to the edge of our universe. I feel instructed by everything I have read. Science has a lot of the satisfactions for me that good theology has.

But doesn’t science address an objective notion of reality while religion addresses how we conceive of ourselves?

As an achievement, science is itself a spectacular argument for the singularity of human beings among all things that exist. It has a prestige that comes with unambiguous changes in people’s experience—space travel, immunizations. It has an authority that’s based on its demonstrable power. But in discussions of human beings it tends to compare downwards: we’re intelligent because hyenas are intelligent and we just took a few more leaps.

The first obligation of religion is to maintain the sense of the value of human beings. If you had to summarize the Old Testament, the summary would be: stop doing this to yourselves. But it is not in our nature to stop harming ourselves. We don’t behave consistently with our own dignity or with the dignity of other people. The Bible reiterates this endlessly.

Did you ever have a religious awakening?

No, a mystical experience would be wasted on me. Ordinary things have always seemed numinous to me. One Calvinist notion deeply implanted in me is that there are two sides to your encounter with the world. You don’t simply perceive something that is statically present, but in fact there is a visionary quality to all experience. It means something because it is addressed to you. This is the individualism that you find in Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. You can draw from perception the same way a mystic would draw from a vision.

How would one learn to see ordinary things this way?

It’s not an acquired skill. It’s a skill that we’re born with that we lose. We learn not to do it."

Does your faith ever conflict with your “regular life”?

When I’m teaching, sometimes issues come up. I might read a scene in a student’s story that seems—by my standards—pornographic. I don’t believe in exploiting or treating with disrespect even an imagined person. But at the same time, I realize that I can’t universalize my standards. In instances like that, I feel I have to hold my religious reaction at bay. It is important to let people live out their experience of the world without censorious interference, except in very extreme cases."

Most people know you as a novelist, but you spend a lot of your time writing nonfiction. What led you to start writing essays?

To change my own mind. I try to create a new vocabulary or terrain for myself, so that I open out—I always think of the Dutch claiming land from the sea—or open up something that would have been closed to me before. That’s the point and the pleasure of it. I continuously scrutinize my own thinking. I write something and think, How do I know that that’s true? If I wrote what I thought I knew from the outset, then I wouldn’t be learning anything new.

In this culture, essays are often written for the sake of writing the essay. Someone finds a quibble of potential interest and quibbles about it. This doesn’t mean the writer isn’t capable of doing something of greater interest, but we generate a lot of prose that’s not vital. The best essays come from the moment in which people really need to work something out."

People are frightened of themselves. It’s like Freud saying that the best thing is to have no sensation at all, as if we’re supposed to live painlessly and unconsciously in the world. I have a much different view. The ancients are right: the dear old human experience is a singular, difficult, shadowed, brilliant experience that does not resolve into being comfortable in the world. The valley of the shadow is part of that, and you are depriving yourself if you do not experience what humankind has experienced, including doubt and sorrow. We experience pain and difficulty as failure instead of saying, I will pass through this, everyone I have ever admired has passed through this, music has come out of this, literature has come out of it. We should think of our humanity as a privilege."

Faith always sounds like an act of will. Frankly, I don’t know what faith in God means. For me, the experience is much more a sense of God. Nothing could be more miraculous than the fact that we have a consciousness that makes the world intelligible to us and are moved by what is beautiful."
marilynnerobinson  religion  sarahfay  2008  science  structure  atheism  belief  christianity  richarddawkins  newatheists  ordinary  everyday  perception  vision  seeing  noticing  observing  dignity  grace  faith  standards  mindchanging  openmindedness  thinking  writing  howwewrite  humanism  interviews  beauty  ordinariness  mindchanges 
august 2014 by robertogreco
When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson – review | Books | The Observer
I picked up When I Was a Child… with a curiosity about Marilynne Robinson equal only to her disinclination to give anything away – in a homespun, ordinary, autobiographical sense – about herself. This book is not, as its title might suggest, a memoir. Nor is it about childhood. She says there is a difference – for a writer as well as for readers – between "knowing" a person and "knowing about" them, and the extraordinary experience of reading these idiosyncratic, high-minded theological essays is about the former. It is the equivalent of an uncommon library ticket, an admission to the subjects that most obsess her: the frail human enterprise, faith and its absence, mysteries that elude language.

"And she tells us, in passing, about a scientific experiment of her own. She was educated at a centre of behaviourist psychology where they "pestered" rats (in a maze-learning experiment) and attempted to "lure" them with Cheerios – her rat turned out not to be easy to bribe. It seems appropriate that her rat was a rebel for there is nothing Robinson likes less than facile conclusions about motivation. She deplores "so-called rational choice economics which assumes we will all find the shortest way to the reward". She has no truck with the selfish gene – if anything, she seems to think a selfless gene more likely. She asks why society is full of arrangements that "seem to inhibit or defeat self-interest?" Yet, at the same time, she is anti "austerity" as a policy (and is especially eloquent about its deleterious effects on American universities)."

"There is a subtle tension throughout the book between society and solitude. She describes poetry as "a highly respectable use of solitude", the writings of Edgar Allan Poe have an "almost hallucinatory loneliness", and, she reveals – wonderful detail – that, in Iowa, the word "lonesome" has positive connotations. Yet what makes this book is Robinson's belief in community, her feeling that "it is in the nature of people to do good to one another" (as well as to sin), and that the world is, to quote Louis MacNeice, "incorrigibly plural" (even if, for her, it has only one God). Robinson is adept at studying the small print and reading between the lines but she never forgets to look up at the stars."
marilynnerobinson  katekellaway  2012  community  lonesomeness  loneliness  solitude  economics  christianity 
august 2014 by robertogreco

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