The Novelist as Anglerfish

Three cheers for predestination in Marilynne Robinson's The Givenness of Things



When I was a child I read poorly written Sunday-school books. They happened to be Catholic books because I read them in a Catholic Sunday school. My mother was a Congregationalist and she would have preferred I be reared to that austere faith, but she lacked the strength to battle the passionate alcoholics and living martyrs of my father’s side — Catholics to a man jack.

It was bad news for me but even worse for the nuns. There was hardly a moment when I wasn’t in their face, loaded with questions they weren’t answering: Why do humans have immortal souls and not animals? Why would God create people with free will if he knew ahead of time some of them would damn themselves to eternal agony? Was this some kind of self-loathing he was working out symbolically through us?

These were small-town nuns, not scholars, and so they brushed off all of my questions with, “It’s a holy mystery.”

Religious education, it was becoming clear, was to be a one-way street: no question or observation of mine would make a lick of difference. I was to absorb, sponge-like, all I was told, and then behave as instructed.

So I quit the church and became a reader of novels.

Novels don’t preach. They are dialectic. A character encounters a landscape, say on the shores of a frozen lake in the rural northwest. Add a second character, say her older sister. How do the two of them interact? What if they’re stranded on an island in the center of the lake with the light fading out of the sky and no way home? Here is life — in all its terror and mystery — on the human scale, left for humans to puzzle through. It is not a sin to speculate. It is not a sin to curse.

Novels, like the church, trade in mysteries, but good novels also dispense with dogma and cant. Their characters are not gods but humans, left to make sense of the world as best they can, with no access to answers. Any character in a novel who tells you they’ve found an answer is undercut by the fact that they’re a character in a novel. The whole enterprise of writing and reading such books opens a field of indeterminacy into which the reader can float his own ideas, in which characters, author, and reader work together to find a light through the dark.

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, for example tells the story of three generations of Calvinist pastors in a small Iowa town. The oldest is a social-justice revolutionary in the time of the Civil War — one of John Brown’s holy soldiers — who won’t stop at murder if that murder frees captive souls. His son is a pacifist. His grandson, the narrator, John Ames, simply tries to make sense of it all and can’t really do so.

This is a novel about faith, yes, but one written with deep humility. Housekeeping, Robinson’s first and most famous novel, is not a book about faith, but rather about the immensity of the world and our impermanence on its surface. These books are thoughtful pleasures because they fill us full of the world — the dark as well as the light — and leave us to impute meaning as we will. They trust us.

I’ve loved Robinson’s novels for years, but I opened The Givenness of Things, her latest collection of essays, and found myself on the receiving end of a stern religious talking-to. The subject matter was the same as Gilead‘s: faith, its difficulty, and the buried history of liberal American Christianity. But the voice was different, louder but lesser, clotted, rushing to say nine things at once and so saying little. Needless to say this is the last thing I expected.

Read It

RV_COTTER_ROBINSON_CO_001The Givenness of Things by Marilyn Robinson. Available now from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

All of the essays here — sermons, really — share a common aim: the belittling of the biological sciences (chiefly neurology and “Neo-Darwinism,” which she seems to believe ubiquitous but does not distinguish from regular Darwinism) and the elevation of the religious life. Yes, she’s proselytizing. Marilynne Robinson, creator of vivid, nuanced landscapes and the variously motivated characters who people them has somehow managed to reduce herself to a missionary with a pamphlet.

“I am content to place humankind at the center of Creation,” she writes in “Humanism,” the essay which opens the book, nicely echoing those nuns I’d had done with in the 1980s. Humans, you see, have souls, and animals don’t. It’s as simple as that. She attempts to critique the pretensions of neuroscientists and the neo-Darwinists via the mind-bending discoveries of 20th-century physics, but this is like critiquing chalk with the language of cheese. She wields reason and science like axes until the moment they stop serving her argument; then she drops them as if they seethed with infernal fire.

Because neuroscientists and neo-Darwinists can find no room for the soul (as John Calvin defined it), she can find no room for them:

Only the soul is ever claimed to be nonphysical, therefore immortal, therefore sacred and sanctifying as an aspect of human being. It is the self but stands apart from the self. It suffers injuries of a moral kind, when the self it is and is not lies or steals or murders, but it is untouched by the accidents that maim the self or kill it. Obviously this intuition — it is much richer and deeper than anything conveyed by the word “belief” — cannot be dispelled by proving the soul’s physicality, from which it is aloof by definition.

In the very sentence that preceded the above, she derided neuroscience for being “remarkable among sciences for its tendency to bypass hypothesis and even theory and go directly to assertion,” as though for all the world she herself wasn’t about to do just that, or to write, three pages later, again about Calvin’s conception of the soul, “This is no proof. Be that as it may.”

200 pages on, in a sermon that plays the same tune in a different key, she straight-facedly declares, “If it is reasonable to say the brain is meat, it is reasonable on the same grounds, the next time you look into a baby carriage, to compliment the mother on her lovely little piece of meat.” One wants to set the book down gently and back slowly away.

Robinson also talks politics in these pages and correctly identifies any number of problems with contemporary culture in her home country, but the ways in which she does so (us vs. them thinking, paranoia, mischaracterization) turn out to be the very kinds of thinking she wants to critique. Her relationship with “my particular saint, John Calvin” is so intimate that there seems to be little room for the reader: we feel indecent intruding upon them. Like any number of her political foes, she maintains not only that the Constitution of the United States is a Calvinist document, but that democracy itself has a certain Calvinist flavor. That Calvin himself did not personally invent the institution she admits, but it is a mean admission and a grudging one.

Marilynne Robinson won most of her readers and all of her notoriety as a novelist. And it is because of the strength and the beauty of her novels that anyone would publish, let alone read and seriously consider, the arguments she makes in her essays. Before opening The Givenness of Things I would never have compared her bright books of life to the tasty lure of an anglerfish, but I will read them more warily in the future. That’s a loss. •

John Cotter’s first novel Under the Small Lights appeared in 2010 from Miami University Press. A founding editor at the review site Open Letters Monthly, John’s published critical work in Sculpture, Bookforum, and The The Poetry Foundation. Say hi at John [at] JohnCotter [dot] net.


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  • In the past, I have had difficulty expressing this Dr-Jekyll-and-Ms-Hyde feeling I have about her writing, but this article precisely articulates my elation with the novels and deep unease with the essays. Of all sin-seething souls, Calvin, indeed.

  • Last month The Nation printed Marilynne Robinson’s “Humanism” essay as an excerpt from her forthcoming book. It struck me by its peculiar combination of superficiality and pretentiousness. Robinson is obviously not competent in any of the disciplines she attempts to pit against one another (John Cotter has the logistics of that attempt down pat!), but disguises her lack of technical familiarity by a shadow-language of generalities and vague allusions well suited to give the uninitiated the impression of getting to be privy to great and profound things. This stylistic smoke screen covers not only her use of the natural sciences, but of the humanities as well. It is nowhere more ludicrous in its effect, however, than in her account of what she takes to be neuroscience, whose acquaintance she appears to have made primarily through the gaudy images of the imagers and popular accounts of the claims of some of its more inveterate sensation mongers. Meanwhile, let readers beware of her intuitions, one of which she touts as being “much richer and deeper than anything conveyed by the word “belief””, until such a time when she can serve them up without the mealy-mouthed language that is hers in this essay.

  • I’m sorry you had such a bad experience with religious education. I have found the Catholic Church to be a home for real questioning, a home for the intellectually curious.

  • When I was a child I read poorly written Nature books. They happened to be scientific books because I read them in a public school. My mother was an academic scientist and she would have preferred I be reared to that austere discipline, but she lacked the strength to battle the passionate alcoholics and living martyrs of my father’s side — philosophers of science to a man jack.

    It was bad news for me but even worse for the teachers. There was hardly a moment when I wasn’t in their face, loaded with questions they weren’t answering: How does science prove the principle of induction? If science only searches for natural causes or explanations, then doesn’t it assume that’s all that exists, without first proving it? The laws of nature describe the way physical things work, but do they explain why they work the way they do?

    These were small-town teachers, not scholars, and so they brushed off all of my questions with, “But it’s Science…”

  • Long long ago philosopher Spinoza wrote “Men believe themselves to be free,simply because they are conscious of their actions and unconscious , of the causes whereby those actions are determined” Recent research in Neuroscience proved that we human are predestined by our unconscious mind, we have no freewill..How our unconscious mind developed? There are speculation no contract reason behind that.I give my example.When I was one and half year old,My mother was sick by TB was admitted in hospital I was playing on her body may be sucking her breast After examining her instructed my father to remove child from her My father was 25 years old and by nature very very scared alarmed he snatched abruptly me from my mother..I protested too much,very difficult for him to snatched me.I imagined that my father didn’t tolerated my ;love ,really speaking I want to reduced her pain my intention was pure one..This accidence my unconscious mind,in my later life I build up my entire life on that event.Each and every moment I spend to respond to that incident.I choose publication my carrier.Books is symbol of mother I loved wholeheartedly girls whose faces are same as my mother.In brief whole my life is shadow of my unconscious I confidentially say that man`s life in predesignated

  • All understandings of the world begin with assumptions and patterns of assumptions. As someone who has never been religious I found that the basic assumptions involved in religion are mostly based on assumptions with no verification exhibited beyond the established dogma of offered experts in the field and traditional literature. Science also begins with assumptions but that discipline requires observed validation to filter out assumptions that are unwarranted. Since current science is exceedingly complex and extensive it is generally impossible not to rely on experts in that field in multitudes of instances but scientific discipline contains within it always the possibility of devaluing presumed assumptions whereas religion in general does not. Therein lies the difficulty.

  • Having read Robinson’s earlier forays into non-fiction, I can only concur fully with the sentiments of this review. When she finds her inspiration in the writings of John Calvin, I admit I am staggered. I do have to admire the Protestant chutzpah of someone who not only undertakes a defense of Calvin but positively relishes the challenge: the very attempt is spellbinding; and if the thing could be done by anyone, she would be the person to do it. But we really cannot believe six impossible things before breakfast if one of them is that the milk of human kindness ran through the veins of John Calvin. That Robinson has singled out Calvin’s theology and its institutionalization in the Reformed Church for her personal allegiance is mysterious enough to me; but I am especially baffled, as a reader who finds much to praise in Robinson’s literary style, that she goes so far as to love Calvin’s prose style, which takes a doggedness of thought and expression to almost sublime levels in the service of a vision of unsurpassable moral and aesthetic ugliness. Calvin’s great contribution to Christian dogma, the ramping up of original sin into his conception of “total depravity” as the state of ordinary human nature unimproved by his theology, is a toxic idea abundantly productive of the kind of evil that he was himself only too willing to do — i.e., the judicial murder of his theological opponent Michael Servetus for daring to disagree with Calvin about the Trinity and infant baptism. Naturally no Calvinist is serious about the taint of total depravity in himself: it is merely that characteristic found in the enemies of Christ; and right on cue, it unleashes all the violence that is done so readily when the party of the good gives itself a blank check to correct the party of evil.

  • Really? I bamboozled those stupid nuns when I was a mere lad, then left their simplistic little faith in the dust. Does every single essay by a proud atheist HAVE to begin this way? Spare us. Please.

  • This is simply an ad hominem piece, and a lazy one at that. Like her or not, she thinks well and carefully and you have engaged none of her ideas at anything close to the depth at which she presents them. I doubt the “small-town nuns” of your childhood needed to be scholars to answer your questions — then or now.

  • This condescending review is clearly written deep within the rigidly conformist tradition that Robinson is critiquing, and now makes me want to pick up this set of essays.

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