History and Meaning

The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought by Marilynne Robinson

I know that some readers will share with me an ill-defined unease about modernity. Unfortunately, as we grow older, it becomes more difficult to decide whether our general mood of dissatisfaction with the zeitgeist is simply a nostalgic longing for a fondly remembered past—laudator temporis acti—or whether, indeed, things really have deteriorated. Is there some benchmark or set of values that can be used to measure the health of a civilisation such that we can ground our concern on something other than vague feelings? I doubt that any unambiguous analysis is available to us.

And so, those like me are condemned to wander on in uncertainty, all the while suffering the indignity of being labelled as doomsayers or anachronistic conservatives by acquaintances who are either too busy “getting and spending” to worry about these wider issues, or who are convinced that our progress is a sort of biological certainty underwritten by the secular revelation of neo-Darwinism—Have Genes Will Travel. And to be fair, they have some impressive evidence on their side. We in the West, at any rate, have never been healthier or wealthier. We live longer, suffer less, and have more leisure time, more freedom, and so on. A great number of us—perhaps the majority—simply follow what has been memorably called (by William James) “the gospel of relaxation”. And yet, there is an indefinable unease at the heart of it all.

There may be no knock-down argument to counter that peculiar mix of arrogance and optimism that characterises our age. But those who think as I do are not wholly without a defence, and now and again a commentator comes along whose analysis of modernity considerably strengthens our convictions. Such a person is Marilynne Robinson, a current American writer who is not well known in Australia. Her novel Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 and an earlier book, House-keeping, won a PEN/Hemingway Award in 1980.

But for my money, her most impressive early achievement was to write a controversial work of non-fiction about nuclear pollution in Britain which had the singular distinction of upsetting both the British government and Greenpeace at the same time. The latter organisation successfully applied to have the book banned in the UK. I have not read the book in question (The Mother Country) and, thus, cannot comment on the veracity of her claims. A review of the book in New Scientist passed her off as something of an uninformed ratbag. Still, when long-standing enemies combine in this way, I do start to wonder.

Whatever the case regarding The Mother Country, this present collection of essays is most definitely not from the pen of a ratbag. Her writing is scholarly, measured, and full of wise reflection on the human condition. Such is the scope of her interests, it is impossible to put her into one of those neat categories so beloved of the media pundits. She does not fit the mould of a radical environmentalist, a conservative or a progressive.

In some ways, her writing reminds me of the Australian philosopher David Stove. Like Stove, she is contrarian by nature and like him, she never relies on other people’s assessment of key texts from the past, preferring always to go back to the original source documents herself. But unlike Stove, Robinson’s analyses are clearly informed by a general background of Christian ideas, and her prose is not quite as direct and confronting. She is not, by any means, a religious writer in the normal sense of that word, but rather, one who recognises the historical importance of religion and what she calls “the old arts of civilization” (such as music, philosophy and art) as providers of meaning. These things, she insists, simply cannot be argued out of existence:

“If all that has happened on this planet is the fortuitous colonization of a damp stone by a chemical phenomenon we have called ‘life,’ then there is no case to be made for utility. If our myths and truths are only another exotic blossoming, the free play of possibility, then they are fully as real and as worthy of respect as anything else. Or if use or value in this demythologized context signifies the adaptation of a creature to its circumstances, however gratuitous they may be, then even the universal human predisposition to create and value myths must be assumed to be a form of adaptation, therefore true in the sense and in the degree that these myths make an effective response to some exigency of being.”

But it is her stance on history which I believe sets her apart from most other writers and makes this essay collection such an important read. Anyone who has followed recent exchanges in this country concerning the use and misuse of history (many of them in this magazine) will find her contributions to this debate enormously illuminating. In her introductory essay, she sets forward her general ideas concerning the interpretation of history:

“I propose that we look at the past again, because it matters, and because it has so often been dealt with badly … By definition it is all the evidence we have about ourselves, to the extent that it is recoverable and interpretable, so surely its complexities should be scrupulously preserved …
“If history has any meaning or value, as we must assume it does, given our tendency to reach back into the past (or what we assume to have been the past) to account for present problems, then it matters to get it right, insofar as we can …
“Think how much less stupefying the last fifty years might have been if people had actually read Marx. It seems to have been regarded as a species of disloyalty to acquaint oneself with the terms of that catastrophic argument that engrossed the world for so long, except by the people who called themselves Marxists. And they pioneered this strange practice, so prevalent now, of reading about a writer they did not read.”

Not surprisingly then, several of her essays deal with historical figures and the way they have been portrayed. Two of the essays concern the writings and the significance of John Calvin and of Calvinism in general. “People know to disapprove of him, though not precisely why they should … One does not read Calvin. One does not think of reading him.” So widespread is this opinion that Robinson had to provide a misleading title to her first essay on Calvin so as to get people to start reading. And so, Robinson goes back to the original writings (a prodigious quantity) to form her own opinion first hand. And what emerges is a picture quite different from the “accepted wisdom”. This latter, she notes, derives in part from the published work of Lord Acton and, of course, Weber’s The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

But the best essay in the book, by far, is her analysis of Darwinism. Like Stove, she has gone back to the original works, but unlike him, she is more concerned with the historical relationship between economics and Darwinism, not with the validity of various Darwinian or neo-Darwinian hypotheses. For her, the competition implied in Darwinism has a dark side:

“Primitive, sometimes called classical, economics has long lived symbiotically with Darwinism, which sprang from it. Darwinists have always claimed that they were simple scientists, pursuing truth even in the face of outrage and rejection, even at the cost of dispelling myths upon which weaker souls preferred to remain dependent. It seems fair to allow that Darwinism might have evolved long enough on its own to have become another species of thought than the one in which it had its origins, though nature provides no analogy for change of that kind. Yet we find the recrudescence of primitive economics occurring alongside a new prominence of Darwinism. We find them separately and together encouraging faith in the value of self-interest and raw competition. Furthermore, we find in them certain peculiar assumptions which are incompatible with their claims to being objective, freestanding systems. One is progressivism, which is implied everywhere in primitive economics, and denied everywhere in contemporary Darwinism.”

But more than this crude social Darwinism is involved. What is at stake, in her eyes, is the whole basis for the derivation of meaning in human life and the associated area of morality:

“Now that the mystery of motive is solved—there are only self-seeking and aggression, and the illusions that conceal them from us—there is no place left for the soul, or even the self. Moral behavior has little real meaning, and inwardness, in the traditional sense, is not necessary or possible. We use analysts and therapists to discover the content of our experience. Equivalent trauma is assumed to produce more or less equivalent manifestations in every case, so there is little use for the mind, the orderer and reconciler, the artist of the interior world. Whatever it has made will only be pulled apart. The old mystery of subjectivity is dispelled; individuality is a pointless complication of a very straightforward organic life. Our hypertrophic brain, that prodigal indulgence, that house of many mansions, with its stores, and competences, and all its deep terrors and very rich pleasures, which was so long believed to be the essence of our lives, and a claim on one another’s sympathy and courtesy and attention, is going the way of every part of collective life that was addressed to it—religion, art, dignity, graciousness, philosophy, ethics, politics, properly so called. It is a thing that bears reflecting upon, how much was destroyed, when modern thought declared the death of Adam.”

Even if the history of particular religious figures (as well as Calvin, there are essays on Bonhoeffer and on the American Abolitionists) or of Darwinism is not your cup of tea, the book is still worth reading because of Robinson’s sheer power of description and her prose style. Here by way of example are a couple of short extracts from the essay “Psalm Eight” which is really a reflection on the whole idea of religious belief:

“I can imagine myself that primal Easter, restive at my grandfather’s elbow, pushing my nickels and dimes of collection money into the tips of my gloves to make toad fingers, struggling with the urge to swing my legs, memorably forbidden to remove my hat, aware that I should not sigh. In those days boredom for me was a misery and a passion, and anticipation a pleasure so sharp I could not tell it from dread …
“So I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes. I think the concept of transcendence is based on a misreading of creation. With all respect to heaven, the scene of miracle is here, among us. The eternal as an idea is much less preposterous than time, and this very fact should seize our attention. In certain contexts the improbable is called the miraculous.”

There is an essay on family life, another titled “Facing Reality”, and an interesting essay on “wilderness”. The final essay, “The Tyranny of Petty Coercion”, deals with the intellectual and moral courage needed to maintain one’s own stance against the spirit of the age. Robinson describes herself as a liberal but then goes on to explain that her particular definition of this word means that her ideas are somewhat “on the nose”, even with presumptively like-minded people of today. For one thing, being a believing Christian is “not cool”—“there are little lectures about religion as a cheap cure for existential anxiety”. She finishes the essay, and the book with these three short but memorable sentences:

“A successful autocracy rests on the universal failure of individual courage. In a democracy, abdications of conscience are never trivial. They demoralise politics, debilitate candour, and disrupt thought.”

Here, her pen, in the manner of a “smart bomb”, homes in unerringly on the heart of the matter. It says all that needs to be said.

This book is not easy to locate in Australian bookshops. I purchased my copy from America. I did try to contact the Australian distributors of Picador Books, but without success. Larger libraries may stock it but my recommendation would be to buy your own copy. The larger internet booksellers certainly stock it.

Some books are merely worth reading, but others are worth keeping on your shelves to be savoured again and again. This is such a book. It is full of wise reflection set down in an eminently quotable style. It is an antidote to contemporary arrogance and that total abdication to fashion which characterises so much of what passes for “higher thinking” today. As Robinson says, it is a thing that bears reflecting upon, how much was destroyed, when modern thought declared the death of Adam.

B.J. Coman wrote on David Stove’s Darwinian Fairytales in the March issue.

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