Marilynne Robinson is afraid we are losing our “loyalty to democracy” in America, though her reasons for fearing this might (or might not) surprise you. Tribalism and austerity—a general lack of generosity—will kill America. Individuals are generous enough, she admits, but what is lacking is a generosity in our public discourse and public programs. This is the gist of her sometimes insightful, but too often frustratingly vague, collection of essays.
Robinson, a generally gifted novelist and essayist, is no kowtowing liberal. In her previous collections of essays, she has skewered the modern caricature of American Puritans as repressed and oppressive fundamentalist yokels, and she has often attempted to save John Calvin from uninformed and biased dismissal. She has joined many others in debunking that fanatical fundamentalism of the 20th and 21st centuries, philosophical materialism. And she has not-too-infrequently defended the Old Testament against charges of barbarism.
She does some of this here. In the first essay, Robinson takes on the “tedious, fruitless controversy” of science against religion. The idea, she writes, that the physical world, “as a distinct category,” is somehow “antithetical to the spiritual” is wrongly accepted as fact by scientists and the religious alike. She chides Christians for accepting this Manichean duality, but focuses mostly on scientists who worship at the altar of the scientific method. While science is “a great contributor to what is beautiful and also terrible in human existence,” Robinson writes, “there is no moment in which, no perspective from which, science as science can regard human life and say that there is a beautiful, terrible mystery in it all, a great pathos.”
In other essays, she defends Calvin’s Geneva against wrongheaded claims that it was an uncaring theocracy, and puts paid to the condescension and anti-Israel bias still too common in much modern biblical criticism. Yet most of the essays deal with America’s loss of community, charity, and greatness, and it is in these essays that Robinson’s penchant for the ignored fact and the counterintuitive argument (as well as her professed spirit of generosity) fails her.
First, there is “Imagination and Community,” an essay on the importance of education in developing the empathetic capacities of our students and the role of empathy in building a civil society. “I am persuaded,” she writes, “that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly.” She goes on to claim indirectly that the humanities are central in developing this capacity for empathy. This is neither a new nor uncommon statement for literary folks to make; I myself have presented this argument to my students—though I always point out that Seneca rejected the idea that studying the liberal arts necessarily leads to virtue. (At best, he said, “they prepare the soul for the reception of virtue.” He has a point. Are readers and artists, poets and philosophers, generally more empathetic, more virtuous, than uneducated migrant workers?)
Dismissing the catastrophic decline in students’ reading and writing skills over the past 20 years by complaining that all this talk about the “dumbing-down” of America is un-Christian, Robinson quips that the pressure put on educators to train efficient workers makes it sound like we actually “lost the Cold War.”
“I think,” she continues in a more serious tone, “we ought to reconsider the pressure, amounting sometimes to hostility, that has lately been brought to bear on our educational culture at every level, particularly in the humanities and the arts.” It must certainly be a law of modern discourse by now that whenever someone laments the lack of understanding exhibited by others, it is immediately followed by a statement that is at least a little pig-headed.
Then there are the essays on austerity and charity. In “Austerity as Ideology,” Robinson argues that conservatives have used the financial crisis—a crisis she blames on evil corporations alone—to unnecessarily cut school funding, break unions, further impoverish the already impoverished, derail Obamacare, and overturn “laws that protect air and water quality.” Why? Because, it seems, they are hard-nosed ideologues who have followed a single idea to its deluding conclusions: “Like paranoia,” she writes, referring to ideology in the context of a critique of conservative policy proposals, “it all makes perfect sense, once its assumptions are granted. Again, like paranoia, it gathers evidence opportunistically, and is utterly persuaded by it, fueling its own confidence, sometimes to the point of messianic certainty.” It seems strange to chalk up concern regarding our burgeoning national debt as delusional while we watch Greece, Italy, Cyprus, Portugal, and Spain enter what will be a generation-long economic crisis. But this is exactly what Robinson does.
In her essay on Calvin and American Puritans, she argues that Christians have a moral obligation to care for the poor and that charity was a central virtue for colonial Americans. Calvin often spoke and wrote of the Christian imperative to be liberal in generosity, and Robinson rightly notes that charity was an ideal of early American Puritans. We see this most famously in John Winthrop’s “A Modell of Christian Charity,” but also in the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties, which is distinguished from many penal codes of the time in not requiring the death penalty for theft. This is true, and it is a timely reminder in these difficult times.
What’s patently false, however—and which Robinson goes on to suggest—is that to stand against government programs for the poor is to stand against the poor themselves. Both Calvin and Edwards always spoke of the individual’s responsibility to take care of the poor: “[A]s every man knoweth the particular needs of his neighbors,” Calvin wrote, “so let him indevour to succor them.” Robinson quotes this very passage but ignores—opportunistically?—the underlying assumption in Calvin’s appeal. Nor does she note that Winthrop’s argument that Christians must exercise great liberality in giving, which is a form of worship, has no clear applicability in the context of a modern welfare system.
Robinson claims to “have probably had a broader experience of the American population than is usual.” I can only take her at her word, but either she has never met serious conservatives who espouse limited government precisely because they view it as a means of protecting liberty and nourishing human flourishing—or she chooses to ignore such ideas. Either way, the book suffers because of this, making it seem behind its time. Robinson notes rightly that “there is no inevitable conflict between individualism as an ideal and a very positive interest in the good of society.” Governments and laws are absolutely necessary. But if the past hundred years have taught us anything, it is that vague notions of the “positive interest in the good of society” have also been the linchpins of some of the worst acts of atrocity, and governments tend to use such vague notions to increase the unnecessary governmental curtailing of individual freedom just as surely as hedge fund managers cheat when incentivized to do so.
Politics has a way of humanizing great writers by revealing blind spots or flaws in their thinking that are not otherwise apparent. William Wordsworth was embarrassed by his early, somewhat naïve, support of the French Revolution, and John Ruskin gained a nice reputation as a crank because of his consuming interest in political economy in his later years, which sometimes overshadowed his artistic and critical accomplishments. More seriously, Ezra Pound’s reputation was sullied following his support of Mussolini. Nothing so grievous or wrongheaded is expressed in Robinson’s essays, but they nevertheless serve as examples of how difficult it is for novelists and poets to address political issues without losing something of their heightened status.
Micah Mattix is assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University.