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When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson
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Mar 27, 2012

really liked it

Anyone who has written three fine novels such as HOUSEKEEPING, GILEAD, and HOME gets my attention to see what she has to say in her non-fiction, This is a collection of ten essays about what Robinson knows best – American history and literature and their place in the functioning of American society.

In one of her better essays, “Imagination and Community” she deplores the “marketing of rancor” that debases our political conversation and comments, “I think it is reasonable to wonder whether democracy can survive in this atmosphere. Democracy in its essence and genius is imaginative love for and identification with a community with which, much of the time and in many ways, one may be in profound disagreement.”
This “disagreement” is evident in most of her essays.
One of her governing assumptions, she says, is that history is a dialectic between bad and worse, an opinion arrived at by looking at the history of European civilization from the 15th century. America has behaved no better than the rest of the world, but what particularly interests Robinson is the paradox of good intentions and bad outcomes. For Robinson, who says she is a Calvinist at heart, this can be explained by our “fallen state” and can only be modified by a good deal of humility.

Some areas of disagreement for Robinson are the tendency to overrationalize, to make reason our god, a god that too often lets us down. Such speculation leads to religious concerns on her part. She finds that our national imagination has reversed itself over the past century or so, to the extent that we tend to distrust outsiders, loners, as “dangerous or disabled.” Certainly, there may be reasons for this trend, but it leads to a perceived homogeneity as a goal, and one that in her opinion fails to enrich us as human beings. It’s here that her interest in Christianity becomes relevant. The obligation to charity and love of one’s neighbor at its best knows no limits.
For her it is only religious language that celebrates the “mystery of our existence”. The new popular atheism, and even science, is something in its dogmatic assertion that God exists, or doesn’t exist, to Robinson’s creative mind shuts off mystery, an openness to possibilities
She doesn’t claim that Thomas Jefferson was a religious man, but his language in the Declaration of Independence, strains toward this mystery of human experience. He writes that we are endowed with certain rights, “among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Not an exhaustive list, but one that points the way toward seeking our “well-being as we define it and determine for ourselves, the means by which it might be achieved.”

As individuals, then, we need to both love and respect our community and nation and realize that the best way to do this is through individual and critical study of the humanities, especially history. All too frequently, she contends, our schools and churches fail us – they fail to examine historical context and end by giving us oversimplification in all areas of life.

Robinson’s thought is dense and allusive, often difficult, but worthwhile. I think she could be considered a cultural contrarian. For any value that American society promotes today, there are always other sides to be examined. In the title essay, she mentionsher novel, HOUSEKEEPING, a strange evocation of childhood loneliness. From that may come something of value, but what it is, is for each individual to work out for himself, and that is what these essays point to. .

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