Reviewed by Mary Helen Stefaniak
I first encountered Marilynne Robinson in 1983, at the beginning of her fame. Housekeeping had just won the 1982 Hemingway Foundation/PEN award for first fiction, and she had come to the Iowa Writer's Workshop, where she is now a member of the faculty, to read from her award-winning novel. I had read Housekeeping with awe. Seeing the author in person was an inspiration to me. I'd come to the Workshop with three small children and my husband -- I'll resist the temptation to say "in tow" -- straight from my ordinary life as a high school teacher in Milwaukee. Apart from having a lot of reading to catch up on, I felt marked by my apparent domesticity, my lack of writerly panache, even my age. (I was an ancient 31 at the time.) And now here came Marilynne Robinson, with her extraordinary first novel, apparently about my age or even a few years older, and nothing of the black turtleneck about her. She looked like an ordinary person.
She is not an ordinary person -- and I don't say that just because her second novel won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize and her third the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction. As her son James once said (in an interview with The Idaho Statesman), "our way of bonding is to discuss Theodor Adorno's critique of Christianity." Robinson is a kind of brilliance made of words -- a unique consciousness, an irreplaceable subjectivity (and a native of Idaho) -- visible in the ordinary world as a woman with a kind and intelligent face framed by thick hair, gray now, parted on the side and blunt cut above her shoulders. The only person I've ever met face to face whose individual subjectivity compares in its special kind of brilliance to hers is her colleague at the Workshop, James Alan McPherson. Put the two of them in a room together and you've got all the evidence you need to understand how misguided the modern myth of the self must be, if its scientific and parascientific methods require the "suppression of the testimony of individual consciousness."
This suppression, along with the poor light it casts on both science and religion, is the subject of Robinson's new book, which began as a series of Terry lectures she delivered at Yale. Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (Yale University Press, 2010) offers a critical look at evolutionary, neurological, psychoanalytical, and sociological models of human nature that have in common "an exclusion of the testimonies of culture and history," models that "refuse to acknowledge subjectivity." Robinson takes to task theories that "forget the beauty and strangeness of the individual soul, that is, of the world as perceived in the course of a human life, of the mind as it exists in time."
Among those whose writings about the mind and human nature she discusses at some length are Darwin and Freud and Auguste Comte, along with contemporary figures, including the entomologist (and novelist) E. O Wilson. Too often, Robinson says, she sees in such writings -- from the most credentialed to the least -- "a kind of parochialism that follows from a belief in science as a kind of magic, as if it existed apart from history and culture, rather than being, in objective truth and inevitability, their product."
I'm quoting here from the second of four chapters that comprise the book, my favorite, the one entitled "The Strange History of Altruism." In it, Robinson examines the way altruism -- compassion, love -- has been argued out of nature and relegated to religion and other "inventions" of human culture by the enormous growth and influence of what she calls "parascientific literature," for which she offers a definition worth quoting at length:
By this phrase I mean a robust, and surprisingly conventional, genre of social or political theory or anthropology that makes its case by proceeding, using the science of its moment, from a genesis of human nature in primordial life to a set of general conclusions about what our nature is and must be, together with the ethical, political, economic and/or philosophic implications to be drawn from these conclusions. Its author may or may not be a scientist himself. One of the characterizing traits of this large and burgeoning literature is its confidence that science has given us knowledge sufficient to allow us to answer certain essential questions about the nature of reality, if only by dismissing them. -- pp. 32-33
Robinson attributes "the sense of emptiness in the modern world" not to the decline of faith, nor to the advance of science -- she considers both religion and science to be poorly represented by the so-called modern debate between them -- but to "the exclusion of the felt life of the mind from the accounts of reality proposed by the oddly authoritative and deeply influential parascientific literature… and from the varieties of thought and art that reflect the influence of these accounts."
Works she assigns to the genre range from the recent contributions of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett to the writings of Sigmund Freud, whose work she calls "by far the greatest and most interesting contribution to parascientific thought and literature ever made." Freud gets his own chapter in Absence of Mind. Robinson sees his determination to universalize the psyche as a poignant response to the threatening spirit of his age: his theory opposes a growing faith in "the importance of racial, cultural, and national difference," an ideology that will lead, in his lifetime, to the rise of fascism.
Robinson's discussion of Freud reminds us that scientific theories and hypotheses are not products of some ahistorical objectivity; they are ideas firmly bound to the culture and history in which they arise. Turning to thinkers who preceded Freud, she points out the shaky "parascientific reasoning" that led Malthus to his conclusions regarding human population growth and Darwin to describe The Descent of Man. It should not escape our notice that privilege and colonialism were well served by these theories that made the inevitability of suffering in the competition for limited resources into a scientific principle. As the author wryly puts it, their "contemporaries saw clearly enough what the implications must be for social policy, that the impulse to intervene in the suffering of the poor, an impulse that was under formidable control among them in any case, could, if acted upon, yield only greater suffering."
For all the weighty subject matter, Robinson's wry wit is evident throughout, whether she is detecting a "whiff of phrenology" in yet another neuroscientist's trotting out of poor Phineas Gage, the railroad worker whose upbeat personality underwent a change for the worse while he survived for thirteen years with a spike through his brain, or asking us to imagine "a row of schoolroom modernists hanging beside the schoolroom poets, Marx, Nietzsche, and Wellhausen beside Bryant, Longfellow, and Whittier" and then to notice the "marked similarity among them of pince-nez and cravat." Modern thought, it turns out, "has been modern for a very long time."
Her book points out what would be obvious to anyone unacquainted with the modern view that "we don't know our own minds," but that "certain well-qualified others do know them."
I have not done justice to Marilynne Robinson's Absence of Mind. I haven't mentioned her genial laceration of gene- (and cultural meme-) based explanations of human behavior, nor her very rational demonstration that a theory of mind that can only deal with the complexity of its subject by denying its reality is, by scientific standards, a pretty inadequate theory. I have hardly mentioned the modern debate between science and religion, in which, as her whole book demonstrates, neither science nor religion is adequately or even accurately represented.
Marilynne Robinson has written two previous works of formidable nonfiction (Mother Country and The Death of Adam). She will forgive me, I hope, for believing that, of the two great prose projects, fiction is the greater miracle. For me, her astonishing novels -- Housekeeping and Gilead and Home -- offer the most compelling argument for her premise in Absence of Mind. Works of fiction like hers are proof, quotable proof, to put it simply, of the reality of individual human subjectivity. They make "the felt life of the mind" real in the world. They offer a clear demonstration that, far from being marginalized or suppressed, "the testimony of individual consciousness" is, in fact, the surest path to a greater understanding of who we are, how we might have come to be, and where we go from here.
Mary Helen Sefaniak's latest novel, The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia (W.W. Norton, 2010) is an Indie Nextpick for September 2010. Her first novel, The Turk and My Mother (W.W. Norton, 2004), received the 2005 John Gardner Fiction Award and has been translated into several languages. Her work has appeared in many publications, including The Antioch Review, AGNI, Epoch, The Iowa Review, New Stories from the South (Algonquin Books), and A Different Plain: Contemporary Nebraska Fiction Writers (University of Nebraska Press, 2004). Self Storage and Other Stories received the Wisconsin Library Association's 1998 Banta Award, and a novella was shortlisted for the O. Henry Prize. She divides her time between Iowa City, where she and her husband live in a 150-year-old stagecoach inn they recently restored, and Omaha, where she teaches at Creighton University. Stefaniak is a contributing editor of Cerise Press. Visit www.maryhelenstefaniak.com
This review was originally published in Cerise Press.
Books mentioned in this post