The Most Wonderful Thing

The Givenness of Thingsby Marilynne Robinson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 304p $26

Contemporary intellectuals typically distrust tradition, employ market analogies to make sense of the world and celebrate the continuous advance of technological innovation. Marilynne Robinson does none of these things. A Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and essayist, she is both straightforward and polite in refusing to follow what is trending. Robinson’s appeal is tied to her trademark dissent, though her ability to yield an endless series of penetrating insights certainly does her no harm. In this volume, Christology and the Second Amendment, Shakespeare and physics, the moral reverberations of forgiveness and the sallow state of public life today are all treated with a stunning aptitude that enables them to hang together coherently. These essays demonstrate why Robinson is likely the most capacious, if not also the most important, thinker in the United States today.

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Robinson’s debut novel, Housekeeping, won acclaim in 1981. Only after the 2005 appearance of Gilead, her second novel and the first in a series that includes Home and Lila, did she achieve literary stardom. In the meantime, she produced a still little known 1989 nonfiction work called Mother Country, on nuclear pollution in Britain, and The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, published in 1998, wherein she launched both a spirited critique of Americans’ casual capitulation to economic Darwinism and an ongoing campaign to refurbish the sullied reputation of the 16th-century Protestant reformer John Calvin. Between those works and the present one, The Givenness of Things: Essays, came two additional collections, each burnishing Robinson’s credentials as pleasantly idiosyncratic and unusually wise. Her characteristic style—unhurried and demanding of the reader’s attention—again pervades this volume.

Robinson devotees will encounter new ideas and perspectives in these essays, but they will not be surprised by the book’s overarching themes and concerns. A prominent recurring thread is, on the one hand, the exquisite achievements of the human mind and, on the other, the stubborn feebleness of that mind in its attempts to explain the cosmos. She pronounces “human brilliance, human depth, in all its variety” to be “very probably the most wonderful thing in the universe.” Yet she also insists on pointing out that we perceive only from within “the cocoon of our senses” and that even the most elegant insights of science are in no sense definitive, but ultimately “a pure artifact of the scale at which and the means by which we and our devices perceive.” Justly celebrated accomplishments aside, our species is equipped to produce only a “radically partial model of reality.”

Another running theme is the increasingly worrisome tendency of Americans to devalue the humanities in our rush to attain peaks of economic efficiency and technological prowess. Praising the boundless intellectual appetite of Renaissance humanists and the commitment of early Protestant thinkers to make knowledge accessible to the masses, she goes on to link these phenomena to the much later flowering of public universities and libraries in 19th-century America.

Thus she lays the groundwork for an extended argument, ranging over much of the book, about the relationship between a rich and lively intellectual life and a vital and robust public life, between liberal learning and healthy practices of community and democratic co-responsibility. “Contemporary America is a place full of fear,” she observes, and our political life is “as dysfunctional as it has been since just before the Civil War.” Given these circumstances, she carefully lays out a twofold contention that this state of affairs extends substantially from the fact that we “reduce ourselves and others into potential units of economic production” and that an immersion in the humanities can inspire us to respect ourselves and our neighbors (including undocumented ones) for what we and they are “in the largest sense,” well beyond utility.

Robinson has an acute and seemingly irrepressible theological sense, which leavens this volume. Her beautifully wrought essay on Shakespeare’s many “long scenes of gratuitous pardon,” for example, is every bit as much theology as literary criticism. Her meditation on fear in American society and its relationship to epidemic gun violence comes with the simple though arresting reminder that “fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” In a discussion of how Americans now view higher education as mere pre-professional training, she states: “I hope I will not sound eccentric when I say that God’s love for the world is something it is also useful to ponder.” In an essay called “Theology,” she writes: “Religions are expressions of the sound human intuition that there is something beyond being as we experience it in this life. What is often described as the transcendent might in some cases be the intuition of the actual.” Such lines only hint at Robinson’s rare theological depth.

Robinson turns 73 this year, and most of her publications have appeared only since her mid-50’s. I mention this because young intellectuals and writers are now tempted, even incentivized, to divulge every thought, however provisional or undigested. Robinson, toward whom no one can level a charge of superfluous thinking or self-expression, embodies a much needed, though admittedly old-fashioned, model of achieving complex, considered insight over a lifetime of careful reading and writing.

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