At the University of Dallas, it is contentious to propose the addition of new books to our already extensive Core curriculum.
In light of this, I unabashedly propose the addition of a contemporary, liberal Protestant to every UD student’s reading list. The novels and essays of Marilynne Robinson are rewarding and pleasurable beyond measure.
Robinson abounds in prizes and awards that support this proposition. She is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Orange Prize for her novels “Gilead” and “Home.” She is famous for a conversation between herself and former President Obama that was published by The New York Review of Books.
Still, most UD students may need further convincing. After all, Aquinas never won any Pulitzers. Why should we care about a novelist who subscribes to Calvinism, let alone one who is living?
It may surprise students to learn that Robinson already has an audience at UD. This past fall, Professors Andrew Osborn and Kenneth Marchetti teamed up to offer a seminar devoted to Robinson’s works. The class read her novels and essays, meeting once a week to discuss the works in animated, free-wheeling conversations that were simultaneously attentive to detail and deeply personal. These sorts of conversations are what Robinson demands in her nonfiction and imagines in her fiction.
“Robinson is an original source scholar and artist,” Marchetti, a Ph.D. student at UD who has written his dissertation on Robinson, said. “She does what we champion at UD. She goes back to the great books and reads them well and tries to bring them into contemporary conversation, rehabilitating important notions and language, particularly about the mind and soul and self.
“So much of the fear and polarization that is happening in our contemporary politics and ethics can be ameliorated if we simply retrace our lost path and go back to Puritan sources and American sources, particularly of the 19th century.
“Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, Melville — these are important voices of our peculiar form of American democracy. Though they may not as artists give themselves to Puritan, Christian commitments, they were still informed by that rich, vibrant, celebratory humaneness, a true vision of the humanities.”
Robinson’s retracing of our lost path is clarified in her essays. These essays cover the horrors of nuclear pollution at Sellafield in England, the reductionism of modern scientific thought, and the profoundly misinterpreted legacy of Puritanism.
On Feb. 20, she published a new book, “What Are We Doing Here?” putting into print a collection of recently delivered lectures. These lectures, while reaffirming intellectual positions that appeared in earlier essays, employ a prophetic voice.
“[This voice sees] every closure as a new opening, every ending as a new beginning,”
Marchetti said. “For a book that so espouses the virtue of mind interrogating mind, there’s not much evidence of it in this book,” critic Parul Sehgal wrote in the New York Times. “Her arguments unspool neatly, like silk off a spindle, because they are frequently arguments she has made before.”
Consistency is apparently a detriment. Sehgal would have preferred to read essays that derided Puritans and decried religious sentiment. Sehgal describes Robinson’s scholarly
historical research as “dry and honorable points of civics and theology.” The truth is, to most, quite boring, or perhaps, to use Robinsonian language, ordinary.
These essays are not tired recapitulations but the highest articulations of an important American voice. In one speech, given at Harvard Memorial Church, Robinson defends the “divine,” invoking its transmission from Greco-Roman myth into early Christianity.
“If myth, or mythos, were really thought of as a higher, more complex articulation of truth that is in principle available to being restated in other terms, then there is nothing about it to embarrass or offend the rational mind,” Robinson said.
In another speech, given three days later, the setting is more academic, and her language is scholarly. She states the purpose of her lecture, a purpose that extends through the whole book.
“My interest here is in reauthorizing experience, felt reality, as one important testimony to the nature of reality itself,” Robinson said.
Expressing the same idea, Robinson adjusts for her setting. That her ideas are versatile is indicative of their inexhaustible value.
It is difficult to write off Robinson due to the sheer beauty of her prose.
“I have come to the conclusion that reality in its nature precludes nothing, that its operations might be taken to reflect God’s freedom on the one hand and his courtesy on the other — freedom to act outside the notion of possibility we abstract from the lawfulness of the world he gives us to inhabit and courtesy that makes the world in fact lawful, allowing us to be capable within the limits of given reality to build and plan, to see our intentions through to their effects, to pass through the strange, rich stages of mortal life,” Robinson writes in one lecture.
I only lament Robinson’s belief that this discussion is one “in which, so far as I know, I am the lone participant.” At UD, if not elsewhere, I imagine that she would find many willing participants.