Marilynne Robinson's 'Absence of Mind,' reviewed by Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, May 27, 2010


The Dispelling of Inwardness From the Modern Myth of the Self

By Marilynne Robinson

Yale. 158 pp. $24

Marilynne Robinson is one of the most admired novelists of our time, even though she's only brought out three works of fiction: "Housekeeping," "Gilead" and "Home." The first won the Hemingway/PEN Award and has become a modern classic, the second received the Pulitzer Prize and the third was honored with the Orange Prize. All these novels focus, to a large extent, on depicting the intensely inward, spiritual life -- the interiority -- of their protagonists.

Robinson herself is a student of John Calvin and the American transcendentalists, a woman of deep Christian commitment. In the best sense, she's a religious writer, always returning to the most fundamental human concerns: What does it mean to be alive? What must we do to stay true to our deepest selves? How are we to live and die? These same themes reappear in the essays collected in 1998 as "The Death of Adam" and, in a more tangential way, in the pages of "Absence of Mind."

"Absence of Mind" derives from the Dwight Harrington Terry lectures on "religion, in the light of science and philosophy." As Robinson tells us in her introduction, her book aims to "examine one side in the venerable controversy called the conflict between science and religion." In particular, she wants to question the kind of authority claimed by certain modern scientists and to raise questions about the quality of their thinking. In her first chapter she focuses on what one might loosely call the sociobiologists, thinkers like E.O. Wilson, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who assert that our lives are ordered by overt or unconscious self-interest, that our minds are unreliable and constantly trick us, and that traditional religious belief is a primordial hold-over, certainly childish, sometimes deluded and generally embarrassing.

Robinson argues strenuously that such thinkers grossly simplify religious thought and testimony -- and they ooze condescension. "The characterization of religion by those who dismiss it tends to reduce it to a matter of bones and feathers and wishful thinking, a matter of rituals and social bonding and false etiologies and the fear of death, and this makes its persistence very annoying to them." She notes that these same crusading debunkers consistently portray those who dare to disagree with them as intellectually dishonest, as naifs who refuse to face facts.

In particular, Robinson says, these "parascientists" deliberately slight "the wealth of insight into human nature that might come from attending to the record humankind has left." At the very least, "an honest inquirer" into the nature of religion "might spend an afternoon listening to Bach or Palestrina, reading Sophocles or the Book of Job." We are not, she maintains, simply the instrument of selfish genes. Indeed, she suspects that the "modern malaise," our sense of emptiness and alienation, can be attributed not to the "death of God" but rather to the widely promulgated, and reductionist, view of the self as wholly biological.

Robinson assails Wilson and company most powerfully by accusing them of faulty, narrow-minded thinking. Take their frequent use of the story of Phineas Gage, the railway worker famous for surviving an accident in which a large iron rod was driven through his skull. Afterwards, according to contemporary accounts, his behavior changed dramatically and he was "fitful, irreverent, and grossly profane." For the parascientists, this proves that personality and character "are localized in a specific region of the brain," a fact, adds Robinson, "that, by their lights, somehow compromises the idea of individual character and undermines the notion that our amiable traits are intrinsic to our nature."

But Robinson asks us to actually think about Phineas Gage. How would you feel and react if you had had your upper jaw shattered, lost an eye and suffered severe disfigurement? Gage "was twenty-five at the time of the accident. Did he have dependents? Did he have hopes? These questions seem to me of more than novelistic interest in understanding the rage and confusion that emerged in him as he recovered." In the parascientific writings about Gage, she asserts, "there is no sense at all that he was a human being who thought and felt, a man with a singular and terrible fate." In essence, these scholars "participate in the absence of compassionate imagination, of benevolence, that they posit for their kind."

There's much more in this first talk than I've indicated, and these impassioned pages require and reward very close attention. "Absence of Mind" is a philosophical polemic, and its language is often abstract, the syntax convoluted, and the reasoning subtle. Matters grow only marginally simpler when Robinson turns to Freud's construction of the beleaguered self.

In effect, she says, Freud transforms all of reality into "an intolerable threat" requiring us to exercise stern control -- "the strict rationing of awareness" -- in order to endure it. Our psyches are, in the Freudian view, under constant siege, and our defense mechanisms are always on code red. In distinct contrast, many religious thinkers -- and all romantic poets -- offer accounts of the vitality, joy and fulfillment resulting from an intense engagement with reality, whether seen as God or nature.

"For the religious," Robinson writes in her last chapter, "Thinking Again," we may gain our truest sense of the soul's reality not from any argument but from our experience of "that haunting I who wakes us in the night wondering where time has gone, the I we waken to, sharply aware that we have been unfaithful to ourselves, that a life lived otherwise would have acknowledged a yearning more our own than any of the daylit motives whose behests we answer so diligently. Our religious traditions give us as the name of God two deeply mysterious words, one deeply mysterious utterance: I AM."

In the end, Robinson suggests "that the strangeness of reality consistently exceeds the expectations of science, and that the assumptions of science, however tried and rational, are very inclined to encourage false expectations." She reminds us that throughout history our most profound thinkers have been concerned with metaphysical questions and to call them insoluble or irrelevant, as do her antagonists, is no reason to dismiss the process of deep inquiry. After all, religion, philosophy and, not least, the arts are aspects of that exploration. At the very least, concludes Robinson, one should "encourage an imagination of humankind large enough to acknowledge some small fragment of the mystery we are."

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