A Visit From Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson is at it again, having just published a new book of essays entitled When I Was A Child I Read Books. Before I write some commentary directly about the book (which I am still finishing), I thought I would describe my encounter with her back in October of 2011 when she came to Utah for the Utah Humanities Council Book Festival. This was not the first time we had met, but it was for me unprecedented access to her. Part of this included a public interview with her in Salt Lake. You can find a link to the interview here: http://www.utahhumanities.org/BookFestival.htm. And you can read about her career here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marilynne_Robinson.

If you are familiar with and admire her fiction, then you will not be surprised to hear that she is an extraordinarily thoughtful person. She is ready with a well crafted sentence, expressing her observations of the world with precision and grace. She is always gentle with her subjects and never seems to venture into slanderous dismissal of anyone. At the same time, she is not one to suffer fools gladly, which you will know if you are familiar with her sometimes fiery prose, but the fools she does not suffer are those of great pretense and influence in our society who make their living promulgating ignorance in the guise of being worldly-wise. Her piercing criticism is of ideas and lazy recycled thinking and feels less ad-hominem even if it is also at times tinged with sulphuric ire. Otherwise, she speaks softly, deftly, with reverence. But there is something mischievous too about her voice. She catches herself laughing at what she is saying so frequently that her voice almost seems to sing, moving along with a kind of lilt and skip. She laughs at herself and at the follies of others, not out of mockery, but almost as if laughter were the most appropriate way of registering the dignity of human experience. Humor seems important enough to her that when it is lacking in others, she almost seems dismayed. Hearing the laughter in her voice, you become aware of how much humor you may have missed in her fiction.

Her essays, on the other hand, are relentlessly morally serious, so much so that you almost feel as if it drains you just to sustain the attention they require as they move from one sentence to another. It is their beauty and their sheer potency of argument that propel the reader forward, and once you obtain the almost Buddhist-like focus that is needed to read her, you feel yourself enter into a world that is refreshingly rational and feel dismayed that such moral clarity and reasonableness should feel so utterly new. What is it, you ask yourself, in your education and your upbringing that failed so miserably in conveying such vital ideas? She is fond of saying that we are wrong about so much that we must come to expect that we are always misguided, as if thinking aright requires perpetually turning over the soils of accepted wisdom in order to help fertilize new insight. She goes so far as to suggest that this is the very model of the religious life—a life dedicated to rereading and rethinking, questioning what we thought we knew. While character reigns supreme in her hierarchy of values, you begin to suspect that a Christian’s character is as much shaped by action as it is by quality of thought. What is especially reassuring is that her own role as a lion’s voice in the debates about science and religion, the centrality of the humanities, and the dignity of the human condition seem evidence enough that self-scrutiny need not be debilitating to the clear formation and passionate expression of opinion.

It might have been my own fantasy, but she seemed rather enamored with Utah. I think she found common cause with a community that thrived at the intersection of serious religious commitment to service and commitment to learning. She feels a certain solidarity with the West, with the way in which the accomplishments of civilization—a public library, the seat of state government, or a church—can stand out against the outsize elements of open sky, towering mountains, and extensive vistas. She is, of course, well aware of the dangers posed by religious zealots, but she seems especially comfortable in a setting where the language of religion can be used openly and the merits of religious values can be debated in earnest. And she appreciates the Mormon sense of history that informs everyday life here. She was not so naïve as to imagine that we Utahns are having no troubles in rising to the challenges of building just and equitable communities in the middle of a hotbed of a sometimes callous conservatism and a reactionary and almost equally dogmatic secularism, but there was something about the distance of the place, its unique history, and its extraordinary beauty that reminded her of her own roots in upper-state Idaho and gave her reason for hope. And something too in the way people here flocked to hear her, laughing and nodding in recognition while listening transfixed to passages of her mesmerizing prose that she read aloud. People here identify strongly with the world she paints of intimate and tender feelings for life’s mystery and grandeur as well as of the awe and fortitude required in the face of life’s steep challenges.

I think she was particularly taken by the students she met at BYU. They struck her as earnest, studying with a shared purpose, bright-eyed, and intelligent beyond their years. During a question and answer session with aspiring young writers at BYU, she did, however, chide them for assuming that unless they could learn to keep their religious disposition under wraps it might somehow put them at a disadvantage as writers or as intellectuals. Instead, she urged them to be excellent and fully themselves, to trust in the gifts of language and reason born of appreciation for beauty in human experience. There is almost nothing that can’t be accomplished in writing, she insisted, with the right words, the right tone, the right notes.

I took her on a walk around Cecret Lake near Alta, along with my daughter Eliza and an old high school friend of Robinson’s who now lives in Orem. It was a nippy October day and there were still patches of yellowed aspen on the mountainsides. We walked slowly around the boardwalk and the pathway that encircles the small body of water at the foot of the surrounding mountains. I told her, with an attempt at ribbing humor, that her novel Housekeeping had ruined mountain lakes for me. She asked why. “The taste of human blood and hair,” I said, echoing a line from the novel that describes the lake of Fingerbone, years after a train wreck had buried bodies deep in its dark waters. Human history is everywhere now, even in the high reaches of the mountains, I explained. She laughed. And somehow she made the idea seem reassuring, maybe even holy.

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