The Complicated Comforts of Marilynne Robinson
Could One Writer Help Me Reckon with Personal and Political Upheaval?
I came to Marilynne Robinson’s work the way one might dash breathlessly into a church: seeking sanctuary. It was December 2017. My mother had been dead for a month, and Donald Trump was concluding his first, grotesque year as the President of the United States. Perhaps in consequence, the damp, Mid-Atlantic chill felt less ambivalent than in previous years—the air heaved and sagged against my shoulders like a sandbag dropped by some malicious, capricious giant. The holidays were similarly unmerciful: they clamored as if an army of coked-up drummer boys had “rum pum pum pummed” themselves into a frenzy and spat multi-chromatic glitter into my tired eyes.
“My Mom is dead, and my enemies are in power,” I occasionally recited, with peculiar, admittedly dramatic, satisfaction. The reference seemed at once absurd and comforting in its easy transference.
When both your country and your life have taken a soak in the shitter, it’s tempting—probably even common—to grasp for some form of structural transcendence: a deity, or a ritualistic practice. But I lack both framework and conviction. My father is Jewish, and proudly so, although he does not practice. My mother, raised Catholic, brought her three daughters into the fold, though eventually, all four of us stopped attending mass. When I was 13, the bishop presiding over my Confirmation ceremony railed against reproductive rights for the duration of his homily and, as I squirmed inside the sleek and unyielding pew, my skepticism quivered under his gaze like a seedling. As years passed, it took root, doubt’s branches reaching up my spine to blossom inside my brain and heart.
Accordingly, my own spiritual inclinations have long been tentative and unmoored—small, hopeful flames easily suppressed by pleasure in mouthy sacrilege and years of intellectual training that generally erred towards agnosticism, if not outright atheism. Apart from attending one—lovely—Unitarian vespers service, I have been disinclined to step into a house of worship. I can fathom faith’s solace the way I can appreciate the tranquility some find in calculus problems—in the abstract, and as an entirely alien domain. To stand and kneel among believers registered as queasy. I wanted an intermediary, someone who could demonstrate her faith in philosophical terms without demanding anything of me.
My husband, also disinclined towards organized religion, had recently read Robinson’s 2004 novel, Gilead. I witnessed him in the aftermath, tearful and enthralled, and thought that perhaps I had found my Virgil: a woman of faith to guide me through her theological web—and who could believe in my stead what I feared couldn’t possibly be true. That I would find my mother again. That she had not been obliterated by death. That our shattered country might stumble onto a path of progress, however slow and aching.
In little more than a week, I gulped down Gilead, and Housekeeping (1980) too. Like my husband, and so many of my well-read friends, I found both novels exquisite, even revelatory. And although I still hesitated to pick up a Bible, I basked in the religious conviction of Gilead’s Congregationalist minister, John Ames. He made no claims of certitude—that would have repelled me—and yet he, an elderly man with a failing heart, dwelled so confidently in the belief that death was a reunion. In the weeks before Mom’s death, I began to think of Heathcliff’s plea to his beloved Cathy after learning of her death: “Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!” Heathcliff is as brutal as John Ames is gentle, but his hyperbole resonates with my own. Don’t go where I can’t find you, Mom, I would silently beg. Keep close, at least sometimes—find a way.
Gilead could not entirely soothe my despondence: it couldn’t assure me that Mom was peeping into my apartment’s darkened windows, or directing her love-filled gaze at Dad while he slept. It couldn’t even convince me that her soul awaited mine in some obscure afterlife. But John Ames would have believed this to be the case, and somehow, that was enough for me.
Robinson’s fiction is nourishing, both in its aesthetics and in her characters’ poetic contemplations of what it means to live in the world. But after reading two of her novels, I hungered for a more explicit manifesto—the world according to Marilynne, as it were. Someone who could write prose so incandescent and gentle, whose comprehension of people was both generous and conceptually thorough—someone like that must understand how to live among ruins both personal and political. Someone like that might even deliver an agnostic like me.
If it’s not already clear, I ought to make it so: I have a nasty habit of asking too much of books. And this time, I had set my sights on one oeuvre in particular. I was forlorn and desperate, and I wanted Marilynne Robinson to tell me what to do.
As such, it struck me as serendipitous that What Are We Doing Here?, Robinson’s latest essay collection, would be released just as I was seeking out this answer. I eagerly waded through this repertoire of lectures, sermons, and essays, all delivered or published within the last couple of years. In “A Proof, a Test, an Instruction,” originally published in The Nation, Robinson contemplates Barack Obama’s singularity with exquisite and, given our current circumstances, heartbreaking delicacy. The book’s concluding essay, “Slander” excoriates Fox News so brilliantly that the network, bloviating and mendacious as it is, seems almost undeserving of such poignant condemnation. A number of the pieces were composed after the 2016 presidential election, and while Trump’s name is never mentioned, his specter looms throughout, invoked as a dangerous idiot.
As a grieving daughter, What Are We Doing Here? supplied me with the nourishing attention to beauty and grace that is everywhere present in Housekeeping and Gilead. “Let us face the truth,” she declares in “The Sacred, the Human,” “that human beings are astonishing creatures, each life so singular in its composition and so deeply akin to others that they are inexhaustibly the subject of every art.” If Robinson’s essay collection has a thesis, this is more or less it. Humans are both extraordinary and fundamentally exceptional; let us honor one another accordingly—let us, too, honor ourselves. This call for basic decency is all the more compelling because Robinson emphasizes, with unwavering confidence, that we are capable of it. She trusts us fully, whether or not we deserve it.
It should have been uplifting. If there was no template for surviving tragedy, there was at least the potential to emotionally recalibrate, to jolt myself into a more refined external awareness. My mother is gone, but this world that I have resented for enduring in her absence—it makes space for the both of us. “It seems the universe is a kind of foam,” Robinson writes in “Mind, Conscience, Soul,” “huge voids with filaments of conventional matter, galaxies, constellations, and so on surrounding them like the skin on bubbles.” I reveled in these assertions of unknowability; “dead” is a rickety placeholder for an unfathomed eternity.
And yet, it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t take solace in the vast obscurity of the universe when the world—the country—I knew had swelled into a brazen, broiling emergency.
Returning to Robinson’s thesis regarding humanity, I recalled Judith Butler’s famous verdict from Precarious Life: “Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something . . . One does not always stay intact.” Two statements, similar in structure, both of which imply humanity’s innate potency. And Robinson, I don’t think would necessarily disagree with Butler—I hope not, because the latter is a crucial corollary.
One of Robinson’s primary objectives in What Are We Doing Here? is to carefully refute the ways we—through science, psychology, critical theory—have underestimated ourselves so that we may better grasp our prodigious capabilities. But in this critical and terrifying moment, are we best served by reminders that we are good? Over half of the men in this country saw fit to support Donald Trump; 53 percent of white women voted for him too. And even white women who opposed him—white women like me—nonetheless failed our nation’s marginalized communities, or expected that they would “save us”. Robinson, of course, is also a progressive white woman, and in this context, the universality of her “we” registers as especially disquieting. While Butler also employs this unwieldy pronoun, her assessment of humanity is useful in its ambiguity. To “be undone” can suggest danger just as easily as pleasure: it reminds us that we are always bumping against one another, trading particles and tears, becoming new in each encounter—for good, or, often, for ill.
Robinson possesses one of the most splendid minds of her generation; by no means does she ignore humanity’s potential to do harm to one another. And yet, for the most part, these essays elide the fact of our vulnerability in the face of one another, and in particular the way the unequal way that vulnerability is distributed. Robinson does not ignore matters of diversity, per se, but her interpolations are murky; they seem to eschew an explicitly intersectional politics. In the titular essay (excerpted in the New York Review of Books), Robinson acknowledges that a white male perspective is enduringly privileged as default, but is “too aware of the ragged beast history has been to fret over the fact that its manners are not perfect yet.” One might say that it is Robinson’s luxury as a successful white woman not to agitate herself with identity politics, or to dismiss the theoretical structures that organize them. A book’s limitations do not necessarily render it unreadable, but again—when we read in the Age of Trump, it is hard to put the world in which we’re living entirely out of mind, especially when a book’s title calls out to it directly. If ever there were a time to consider, with painstaking analytical precision, what we are doing here, it is now.
So perhaps I should reconsider my earlier confession. For Robinson to resuscitate me after my year of sorrows, both shared and particular—that was a tall order. It’s time I learn that no book can heal me absolutely, even if I do, at some point, seek the wisdom of holy texts. But to ask that Robinson be more particular about her “we”—to acknowledge us as Americans who have let down the most vulnerable among us, and who must fight to regain our country’s dignity—that is not asking too much.
“In this critical and terrifying moment, are we best served by reminders that we are good?”
In the last pages of Gilead, John Ames writes to his son, “There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.” The line—gentle, love-filled—calls to mind my mother, two months before she died, responding to my tearful outburst that she deserved better, more.
“Now wait a minute,” she responded. Her quiet face turned to face mine, emollient eyes salving the pinpricks of my hot tears. “Think about the wonderful life I’ve had.”
A thousand thousand reasons, and among them the ones that brought my mother happiness until her early death. A thousand thousand reasons for me to continue, although she is gone. A thousand thousand reasons for every one of us to marvel at what this world is and could be, and to summon our most tender selves. They crack open my skull like a flowerpot, my head rushes with the thrill of capacious possibilities, each one of them sashaying upwards and out: bright, green tendrils—hopeful, creeping towards something like happiness.
But reasons are no surefire antidote to the doubt still crawling in the soil. My love of Robinson is urgent, yes, but nonetheless ambivalent; that will have to do. Robinson never presumes to be certain about everything that matters most to her, yet across her fiction and nonfiction, she wields a spiritual and humanist optimism. Where she has reached a conclusion, she is gracefully assured. My grief hankers after this serenity; my political solicitude recoils.
If Robinson’s nonfiction feels insufficient in the face of a political crisis, it’s because certitude seems foolhardy, and a bit smug. The agnosticism that plagues me in mourning strikes me as productive, even necessary in the political sphere. We do not have the luxury of always being sure, especially when we are a solitary voice within a purportedly democratic cacophony. To achieve anything worthwhile we must writhe and grapple like blind animals in a net, stumbling upon deliverance without the satisfaction of knowing it’s within our reach.
Still, too much fear and doubt becomes unwieldy: lately I’m not so much grappling as flailing my arms, with feet lodged in half-ossified mud. But my eyes are chasing flecks of light. They’re there, those roving glints, wild and skittish, but if I squint just right, they’ll illuminate the reasons to crawl towards something better. I’m willing to be optimistic about this much: Marilynne Robinson—certain of grace, certain, perhaps, of too many things—taught me how to look.