Marilynne Robinson’s Celebration of Humanity Is Brilliant but Incomplete
April 6, 2018
Insights from some of her heroes, like John Calvin and the Puritans, would help round out the picture.
Marilynne Robinson is in awe of humanity. “Properly speaking, we are the stuff of myth,” she enthuses in her fourth essay collection, What Are We Doing Here? Open the book to almost any page, and your eye will land on sentences like that. Human beings possess a “splendid dignity,” she says at one point. Our preserving literacy and practicing scholarship are “a spectacular demonstration of the capacities of the human mind,” she says at another.
The kind of creativity, intelligence, and eloquence that Robinson sees in her students in the MFA program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop are “pregnant evidence … of what is possible in us.” “Let us face the truth,” she writes in a sentence that might have served as an epigraph for the book as a whole, “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.” “After all,” she concludes, “we are very remarkable.”
At times this drumbeat can feel monotonous, which is almost inevitable in a collection like this, in which each chapter was originally delivered as a lecture at a different university, seminary, or church. (As someone who gives lectures myself, I know how easy it is to keep saying the same thing in different ways.) But then there are moments when Robinson expresses the thought so arrestingly and movingly that one has to stop reading and sit still in wonderment.
Consider this sentence: “Great pity and very great respect are owed to all those generations who lived and died before us, not least because they, through war and plague and famine, conferred a precious …