Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Marilynne Robinson: God & Modern Life . . .

I read somewhere that Terry Gilmore mentioned how impressed by "Gillead"  by Marilyn Robinson he was; I went out and got her "Housekeeping" (then others) what a writer.   karlos

“ When Marilynne Robinson published her first novel, Housekeeping, in 1980, she was unknown in the literary world. But an early review in The New York Times ensured that the book would be noticed. “It’s as if, in writing it, she broke through the ordinary human condition with all its dissatisfactions, and achieved a kind of transfiguration,” wrote Anatole Broyard, with an enthusiasm and awe that was shared by many critics and readers. The book became a classic, and Robinson was hailed as one of the defining American writers of our time. Yet it would be more than twenty years before she wrote another novel.”  (Paris Review) 

Marilynne Robinson, God and Calvin

Andrew Brown: Some fruits of an interview with Marilynne Robinson

There are two remarkable things about Marilynne Robinson, who won the Orange Prize for fiction: she's a very good writer, and she's a very serious Christian. Her two most recent novels. Gilead and Home, have retold the story of the Prodigal Son from different viewpoints, set in a small town on the Iowa prairie in 1956. "Retelling" is not what you think when first you read them; then the overwhelming effect is of being told a story, and hearing a voice, for the very first time.

But both are, in fact, books about the workings of grace in human life, just as Brideshead was. But they are Calvinist, not Roman Catholic, and their pleasures are very much more humble; also, I think, more vivid. Towards the end of Gilead an old pastor talks about the world around him:

I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word "good" so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. There may have been a more wonderful first moment "when all the morning stars sang together and the sons of God shouted for joy" but for all I know to the contrary, they still do sing and shout and they certainly might well. Here on the prairie there is nothing to distract attention from the evening and the morning, nothing on the horizon to abbreviate or delay. Mountains would seem an impertinence from that point of view.

The link between joy and beauty and the apprehension of God is one which is very vivid in Robinson. I interviewed her last week in Geneva, as part of a Radio 3 programme I am presenting on Calvin (Smashing the Idols goes out on August 30); and she gave an extraordinary justification of Calvinist Christianity as making possible the modern novel.

"One of the things that has really struck me, reading Calvin," she said then, "is what a strong sense he has that the aesthetic is the signature of the divine. If someone in some sense lives a life that we can perceive as beautiful in its own way, that is something that suggests grace, even if by a strict moral standard ... they might seem to fail."

Now this is just about the opposite of the kind of rule-bound and wholly unforgiving religion which most people associate with Calvinism, but in her mind it was linked with predestination, in a most unexpected way. Because predestination implies God's untramelled freedom, he can choose to save those whom the world and its rules – even the church with its rules – might condemn. The prodigal in these two books, Jack Boughton, has done some very terrible things, and all through the book goes on hurting everyone who loves him. Yet it is almost impossible not to suffer with him.

I wanted very much, when I wrote the character of Jack, [to create] a character whom it would be very painful for people to be able to dismiss, with the assumption being that if one could not dismiss him, there would be no reason to believe that God would want to dismiss him, either.

This kind of explicitly theological perspective is vanishingly rare in modern novels. But she shouldn't for a moment be confused with the kind of cheesy wish-fulfilment marketed in "christian" bookshops. Grace, hope, and love break into her novels, but the veil always returns and the world appears again in its accustomed hopelessness. Sometimes the sadness is almost unendurable. I have sat on a commuter train weeping in public as I reread the end of Home.

Perhaps a serious recognition of the misery of the world is at the heart of her aesthetic purpose. Just before talking about the prairie, John Ames, the old pastor I quoted earlier, says this:

There are two occasions when the sacred beauty of Creation becomes dazzlingly apparent, and they occur together. One is when we feel our mortal insufficiency to the world, and the other is when we feel the world's mortal insufficiency to us. Augustine says the Lord loves each of us as an only child, and that has to be true. "He will wipe the tears from all faces." It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required.

What does matter, though, in a religious context, is that she wouldn't distinguish between the aesthetic and the theological purpose:

Calvin made the inner life fantastically interesting, because he asserts that it is the clearest model we have of the nature of God … You know, he says, "to find God, descend into yourself." We can know God because we share qualities that Calvin attributes to God … It's the brilliance of the mind, the brilliance of the senses and so on that is the great demonstration of the divinity of man.

Calvin, she says, when he translated psalm eight, did not write that man was little lower than the angels, but that he was only a little lower than God. Part of that was his iconoclasm, and his eagerness to sweep away all the mediaeval accretions that humanised the faith of the desert fathers; but much of the impulse also was to sweep away everything that separated man from God, so that we could stand as close to him as a separate nature allows. The novel, then, bringing the glory and the sadness of the world into our eyes until they're full to overflowing also bring God there.

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Non Fiction
  • The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998)
  • Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (2010)
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See also :

Marilynne Robinson, The Art of Fiction No. 198  Interviewed by Sarah Fay


Old Fitzroy - - Dreaming blues, karlos? said...

From an email:

Hi Karl
I liked what I read, I will look more into her [Marilynne Robinson]. You know one of the reasons I loved Kerouac is because I thought he was spiritual and that in all his books he goes in quest of IT! And it was in his imperfections and that of his friends that i found beautiful. I have a friend in this town who is a priest, actually at one time he was head of the Carmelite Order here in Australia. In the poem saints & deviants, it is in part a response to his email in which a Catholic Newspaper in America states that Kerouac was a conservative Catholic & deviant writing only about Jesus. What annoyed me was the 'deviant' bit. It seemed to disqualify him from any spiritual significance. I felt in it an implicit judgment. You know Oscar Wilde wrote 'De Profundis' about his time in jail. The first line says, 'where there is sorrow there is holy ground'. I've not read much of Wilde but I thought wow, even in prison God loves. And I know when I had several moments in 1988, a series of grace moments, I knew & know that I had serious flaws and yet I was given a gift. When I fell on hard times I did voluntary work at the Sacred Heart Mission in their soup kitchen. On my first day as I walked in I was overwhelmed by the humanity all around me. I was not separate from them....I was them & they me. I was the broken, hidden, tormented, beautiful soul that they all were. In short we were One. And the thing is I never prayed or was a good person, it came and still does regardless as if Grace has picked me out. Yet I continue to make mistakes, get angry, miserable, yet Grace follows me everywhere..................Ken

Old Fitzroy - - Dreaming blues, karlos? said...

as it did with Billy (Blue Bone) Jones