That “Gilead,” Marilynne Robinson’s eloquent, meditative novel about a Congregationalist minister in Iowa, won the Pulitzer Prize back in 2005 astounded me and gave me hope. With her latest collection, “What Are We Doing Here?” Robinson has come through again, this time with essays on such unhip topics as God, faith and conscience that are so wide-ranging and fine they will remind you that we humans are so much grander than our politics.
“We are dangerous creatures, the enemies of our own happiness,” Robinson writes in the title essay. “But the only help we have ever found for this, the only melioration, is in mutual reverence.” These essays dissect current cultural weaknesses while celebrating humanity’s larger history and potential. “The best argument against human grandeur,” Robinson warns, “is the meagerness of our response to it.”
This collection is no meager response to human grandeur, but rather a celebration of it. Here Robinson debunks the historical myths and political tropes we fall prey to (that capitalism fuels America, for example, or that everything is reducible to a cost-benefit analysis, or that Puritans were pale-faced shamers). Such clichéd thinking, she suggests, only deepens our divisions and denigrates who we are.
In essays that challenge our current myopia, Robinson praises our past and our potential. She sheds light. She muses. She quotes great thinkers and poets. She marvels. There is always in these essays the sense of the divine behind every human encounter.
In “The American Scholar Now,” Robinson stresses the importance of the humanities while pillorying those moneyed interests that would question its usefulness. Those “faceless people with no certain qualifications,” she warns, have forgotten what the great champions of democracy (Emerson, Tocqueville) knew — namely, that “Poetry, eloquence, memory, the beauty of wit, the fires of imagination, the depth of thought” are essential to democracy. Our educational culture “emerged from a glorious sense of the possible,” she writes, and remains “an invitation to the young, who can and should make the world new.”
Here Robinson applauds what is good about humankind (she praises President Barack Obama for his poise and gentlemanly calm while under constant attack by “self-declared Christians”) and warns against what is evil (in a rueful essay about her mother’s final years spent in a Fox News-infused paranoia, she bemoans “the misuse of the human power of language” and its painful consequences.
“I am always writing about that broad area that lies between expert opinion and public assumption,” Robinson writes, which is a challenging place indeed. Not all the essays are easy. Her ruminations are meandering and deep — ideas river off, etymologies are explored, histories examined. The reader will do well to keep her paddle in the current, for it is well worth the ride.
Christine Brunkhorst is a Minneapolis writer and member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her work has also appeared in America Magazine and the Santa Clara Review.
What Are We Doing Here?
By: Marilynne Robinson.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 315 pages, $27.