Thanksgiving is behind us, but Covid isn’t. The holidays are approaching, and so, too, is a new President and his administration. This seems like a good time to get philosophical, especially when we’re all in various stages of recovery after our polarized election.
Marilynne Robinson—novelist, essayist, professor, and life-long student of history—is someone whose morality, intellect and strong religious faith have earned her the respect of both liberals and conservatives. She was a recent guest on “The Ezra Klein Show,” a podcast that discusses the politics of the day, among other timely topics. Ezra is what I’d call a ‘civilized’ interviewer. He’s well-versed in facts and has his opinions, but he welcomes different points of view and is quick to acknowledge the accomplishments of administrations and political figures with which he might otherwise disagree. There are no heated arguments; his interviews are thoughtful and illuminating.
As Ezra said when introducing Marilynne Robinson, “Her work is inextricably bound up with the most important issues of our time—race, religion, education, geography, and democracy.”
DEMOCRACY. Today Marilynne Robinson is 77 years-wise and revered on both sides of the Atlantic, but she grew up modestly in a tiny lumber town in Idaho. It was a time when education was valuable in its own right. “A tremendous privilege.” She went to a “minor” public high school, but she was taught Shakespeare and Latin and came to realize that with any work of literature, “the assumption is that a human life matters.” Our democracy, she says, comes very directly out of the assertion of human equality. Equality based on the sanctity of the individual person, each one of us having been created by God.
Democracy, in her own words:
“We have to keep our democracy alive because we are the culture that the world looks to, to see if democracy is possible.”
“If democracy works, that’s a moral achievement. That means you respect yourself and you extend that respect to other people.”
“We participate in democracy not just by dropping a ballot, but by being the kind of citizen that other people need to believe we are.”
“If you disrupt an orderly government, you bring disorder that will bring a disorderly government. There’s lots of history to that effect.”
Ms. Robinson has called Iowa City home for much of her adult life. Four years ago she retired from her teaching position at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop; she was on staff there, in 2005, when she received the Pulitzer Prize for her novel Gilead. Twenty-four years earlier, her first novel Housekeeping was a finalist for the Pulitzer. In between, she raised two sons, taught at several other universities here and abroad; wrote numerous non-fiction essays that were published in newspapers and magazines and as collections. Gilead spawned three additional novels: Home, Lila and this year’s Jack. (In the first of the four, we meet John Ames, a third generation Congregationalist minister nearing the end of his life, who is writing a letter to his young son about their family.) She continues to write essays and is a sought-after guest speaker at different institutions, including churches.
She has long studied history because it interests and informs her. She relies on primary texts, whenever they’re available, because “you realize how much has fallen out of history” the further away you get from that period in time. “The point of history,” she said, “is to make you aware of how human beings behave, how wide the margin is that civilized societies consider appropriate. But in fact there’s a tremendous amount of craziness of all kinds that is discoverable in history and contemporary societies.”
About the craziness in today’s politics and our great divide, she says:
“I think if you see another person as evil, you are effectively blinded. If we cannot assume that people arrive at the positions they hold in good faith, then we have no basis for reconciliation, for compromise, for consensus, all the things we lack right now.”
“If your resistance to people is non-negotiable, as their’s is to you, then we have already stepped out of the realm of what is possible to a democratic culture.”
The main problem, she thinks, is that we’ve lost trust with each other, and the only way to regain trust is to deserve it. “That requires real self-restraint.” And courtesy, generosity and scrutinizing our own ethical soundness, she says.
Back in high school, an English teacher gave her a piece of advice she’s used as a guiding principle: “You will live with your mind for the rest of your life, so make it a good companion.” She’s used her mind to ask herself the big questions, such as: If we’re so rich, why do we impoverish so many things? “I have a feeling now that we’re sailing along on the accomplishments of other generations, but we’re not adding much that’s positive and, in fact, we’re allowing things to decay or we’re corrupting things.”
For all the flaws in our society, Marilynne Robinson is awed by the preciousness of life. Over the years she’s told all her students that the human brain is the most complex object to exist in the universe. “We are profoundly complex. We are profoundly able. We don’t know what we are. Our course in life is to discover who we are and what we are.”
There’s much more wisdom in the podcast than I’ve reported here (to listen to all of it, look for the 10/14 podcast, #372), but I’ll conclude with her description of our democracy up until now, and why we need to keep it alive. They are words that gave me the good kind of chills:
“What it’s meant up to this point is a tremendous explosion of education throughout the culture, a vigorous press that you don’t find elsewhere, people who, at their best moments, remember that they are the government and are responsible for it. The potential for good in a democracy. The potential for making sure that the land is treated well and that the cities are respected and served and so on. That we can experience a kind of joy in the fact of our honoring one another in a way that distinguishes us.”