Marilynne Robinson on the Nature of Beauty, the Writer’s Life, and Much More

Cultures cherish artists because they are people who can say, Look at that. And it’s not Versailles. It’s a brick wall with a ray of sunlight falling on it.

– Marilynne Robinson, The Paris Review

To my mind, American novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson is one of the most interesting, intelligent, and insightful people around. Whether I fully agree with her or not, I always feel like the quality of my thought is elevated when I read her work. She’ll definitely be showing up more on this blog down the road.

In any case, I was recently reminded of a few memorable words of hers I once read about the role of artists and the nature of beauty. Naturally, I did some internet digging and managed to locate the original text I’d read excerpts from: a long interview she did with Sarah Fay in The Paris Review in 2008. Rereading it, I realized it was too good for me not to at least share a few of my own favorite excerpts. So here goes…

[Note: due to the weird formatting limitations on WordPress, there is no way to italicize in quoted text so I’ve simply capitalized those words that were italicized in the original source text.]

On the benefits of having a day job:

INTERVIEWER: Were you told that it would compromise your creative energies to teach creative writing?

ROBINSON: Yes, of course. But everything compromises your creative energies. Years ago I accepted a grant from the American Academy that was supposed to support me for five years without teaching. I lasted about a year and a half before I nearly went crazy. Teaching is a distraction and a burden, but it’s also an incredible stimulus. And a reprieve, in a way. When you’re trying to work on something and it’s not going anywhere, you can go to school and there’s a two-and-a-half-hour block of time in which you can accomplish something.

On the nature of beauty and the value of artists:

INTERVIEWER: [In your second novel, GILEAD, the protagonist John] Ames says that in our everyday world there is “more beauty than our eyes can bear.” He’s living in America in the late 1950s. Would he say that today?

ROBINSON: You have to have a certain detachment in order to see beauty for yourself rather than something that has been put in quotation marks to be understood as “beauty.” Think about Dutch painting, where sunlight is falling on a basin of water and a woman is standing there in the clothes that she would wear when she wakes up in the morning—that beauty is a casual glimpse of something very ordinary. Or a painting like Rembrandt’s CARCASS OF BEEF, where a simple piece of meat caught his eye because there was something mysterious about it. You also get that in Edward Hopper: Look at the sunlight! or Look at the human being! These are instances of genius. Cultures cherish artists because they are people who can say, Look at that. And it’s not Versailles. It’s a brick wall with a ray of sunlight falling on it.

At the same time, there has always been a basic human tendency toward a dubious notion of beauty. Think about cultures that rarify themselves into courts in which people paint themselves with lead paint and get dumber by the day, or women have ribs removed to have their waists cinched tighter. There’s no question that we have our versions of that now. The most destructive thing we can do is act as though this is some sign of cultural, spiritual decay rather than humans just acting human, which is what we’re doing most of the time.

On the role of religion in culture:

INTERVIEWER: [GILEAD’S protagonist John] Ames believes that one of the benefits of religion is “it helps you concentrate. It gives you a good basic sense of what is being asked of you and also what you might as well ignore.” Is this something that your faith and religious practice has done for you?

ROBINSON: Religion is a framing mechanism. It is a language of orientation that presents itself as a series of questions. It talks about the arc of life and the quality of experience in ways that I’ve found fruitful to think about. Religion has been profoundly effective in enlarging human imagination and expression. It’s only very recently that you couldn’t see how the high arts are intimately connected to religion.

INTERVIEWER: Is this frame of religion something we’ve lost?

ROBINSON: There was a time when people felt as if structure in most forms were a constraint and they attacked it, which in a culture is like an autoimmune problem: the organism is not allowing itself the conditions of its own existence. We’re cultural creatures and meaning doesn’t simply generate itself out of thin air; it’s sustained by a cultural framework. It’s like deciding how much more interesting it would be if you had no skeleton: you could just slide under the door.

On the relationship between science and religion:

INTERVIEWER: Are religion and science simply two systems that don’t merge?

ROBINSON: The debate seems to be between a naive understanding of religion and a naive understanding of science. When people try to debunk religion, it seems to me they are referring to an eighteenth-century notion of what science is. I’m talking about Richard Dawkins here, who has a status that I can’t quite understand. He acts as if the physical world that is manifest to us describes reality exhaustively. On the other side [of the debate], many of the people who articulate and form religious expression have not acted in good faith. …

INTERVIEWER: You’ve written critically about Dawkins and the other New Atheists. Is it their disdain for religion and championing of pure science that troubles you?

ROBINSON: No, I read as much pure science as I can take in. It’s a fact that their thinking does not feel scientific. The whole excitement of science is that it’s always pushing toward the discovery of something that it cannot account for or did not anticipate. The New Atheist types, like Dawkins, act as if science had revealed the world as a closed system. That simply is not what contemporary science is about. A lot of scientists are atheists, but they don’t talk about reality in the same way that Dawkins does. And they would not assume that there is a simple-as-that kind of response to everything in question. Certainly not on the grounds of anything that science has discovered in the last hundred years.

The science that I prefer tends toward cosmology, theories of quantum reality, things that are finer-textured than classical physics in terms of their powers of description. Science is amazing. On a mote of celestial dust, we have figured out how to look to the edge of our universe. I feel instructed by everything I have read. Science has a lot of the satisfactions for me that good theology has.

INTERVIEWER: But doesn’t science address an objective notion of reality while religion addresses how we conceive of ourselves?

ROBINSON: As an achievement, science is itself a spectacular argument for the singularity of human beings among all things that exist. It has a prestige that comes with unambiguous changes in people’s experience—space travel, immunizations. It has an authority that’s based on its demonstrable power. But in discussions of human beings it tends to compare downwards: we’re intelligent because hyenas are intelligent and we just took a few more leaps.

The first obligation of religion is to maintain the sense of the value of human beings. If you had to summarize the Old Testament, the summary would be: stop doing this to yourselves. But it is not in our nature to stop harming ourselves. We don’t behave consistently with our own dignity or with the dignity of other people. The Bible reiterates this endlessly.

On the spiritual quality of ordinary things:

INTERVIEWER: Did you ever have a religious awakening?

ROBINSON: No, a mystical experience would be wasted on me. Ordinary things have always seemed numinous to me. One Calvinist notion deeply implanted in me is that there are two sides to your encounter with the world. You don’t simply perceive something that is statically present, but in fact there is a visionary quality to all experience. It means something because it is addressed to YOU. This is the individualism that you find in Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. You can draw from perception the same way a mystic would draw from a vision.

INTERVIEWER: How would one learn to see ordinary things this way?

ROBINSON: It’s not an acquired skill. It’s a skill that we’re born with that we lose. We learn not to do it.

On the aesthetic pleasure of flawed characters (and people):

INTERVIEWER: Whereas [your second novel] GILEAD reads almost like a meditation—John Ames is writing it to his son—[your third novel] HOME has a different personality.

ROBINSON: So much of the novel is dialogue. I was really surprised. I kept thinking, I’ve got to stop doing this—it’s just one dialogue scene after another.

INTERVIEWER: Do you plot your novels?

ROBINSON: I really don’t. There was a frame, of course, for HOME, because it had to be symbiotic with GILEAD. Aside from that, no. I feel strongly that action is generated out of character. And I don’t give anything a higher priority than character. The one consistent thing among my novels is that there’s a character who stays in my mind. It’s a character with complexity that I want to know better.

INTERVIEWER: The focus of the novel is Jack, but it’s told from Glory’s point of view. Did you ever consider putting it in his point of view?

ROBINSON: Jack is thinking all the time—thinking too much—but I would lose Jack if I tried to get too close to him as a narrator. He’s alienated in a complicated way. Other people don’t find him comprehensible and he doesn’t find them comprehensible.

INTERVIEWER: Is it hard to write a “bad” character?

ROBINSON: Calvin says that God takes an aesthetic pleasure in people. There’s no reason to imagine that God would choose to surround himself into infinite time with people whose only distinction is that they fail to transgress. King David, for example, was up to a lot of no good. To think that only faultless people are worthwhile seems like an incredible exclusion of almost everything of deep value in the human saga. Sometimes I can’t believe the narrowness that has been attributed to God in terms of what he would approve and disapprove.

On her habits and challenges as a writer:

INTERVIEWER: Do you have any writing rituals, habits, or peculiarities?

ROBINSON: I dress like a bum. John Cheever would wear a suit and a hat and go down from his apartment to the basement of his building with an attaché case. But that’s not me. I like to be as forgetful of my own physical being as I can be.

INTERVIEWER: Does writing come easily to you?

ROBINSON: The difficulty of it cannot be overstated. But at its best, it involves a state of concentration that is a satisfying experience, no matter how difficult or frustrating. The sense of being focused like that is a marvelous feeling. It’s one of the reasons I’m so willing to seclude myself and am a little bit grouchy when I have to deal with the reasonable expectations of the world.

INTERVIEWER: Do you keep to a schedule?

ROBINSON: I really am incapable of discipline. I write when something makes a strong claim on me. When I don’t feel like writing, I absolutely don’t feel like writing. I tried that work ethic thing a couple of times—I can’t say I exhausted its possibilities—but if there’s not something on my mind that I really want to write about, I tend to write something that I hate. And that depresses me. I don’t want to look at it. I don’t want to live through the time it takes for it to go up the chimney. Maybe it’s a question of discipline, maybe temperament, who knows? I wish I could have made myself do more. I wouldn’t mind having written fifteen books.

On our poor sense of history and distaste for living with the uncomfortable:

INTERVIEWER: In your essay “Facing Reality,” from THE DEATH OF ADAM, you point out that many Americans have a poor sense of American history—or history in general.

ROBINSON: We archaize Abraham Lincoln—he’s somehow premodern—at the same time that we use Marx to epitomize modernity. Yet the two of them were engaged in the same conversation. The slave economy and the industrial economy were interlocked. Marx is considered modern because he describes an ongoing phenomenon, industrialism, which once again is starting to resemble slavery—child labor and so on. You take a course as a sophomore in college called Modern Western Civilization and you get Marx and Nietzsche, but you don’t get Lincoln. The fact that they were all wearing frock coats and stovepipe hats doesn’t register.

INTERVIEWER: You’ve also written that Americans tend to avoid contemplating larger issues. What is it that we’re afraid of?

ROBINSON: People are frightened of themselves. It’s like Freud saying that the best thing is to have no sensation at all, as if we’re supposed to live painlessly and unconsciously in the world. I have a much different view. The ancients are right: the dear old human experience is a singular, difficult, shadowed, brilliant experience that does not resolve into being comfortable in the world. The valley of the shadow is part of that, and you are depriving yourself if you do not experience what humankind has experienced, including doubt and sorrow. We experience pain and difficulty as failure instead of saying, I will pass through this, everyone I have ever admired has passed through this, music has come out of this, literature has come out of it. We should think of our humanity as a privilege.

On the danger of self-congratulation re: our dietary choices:

INTERVIEWER: In your essay “Puritans and Prigs,” you reevaluate the idea that a good diet enhances our quality of life. You point out that although fish is purported to be healthier, overfishing is destroying the equilibrium of the ocean: “The sea has been raided and ransacked to oblige our new scruple.”

ROBINSON: Europeans are one of the largest importers of fish and predatory fishing fleets are destroying the fish stock off of the west coast of Africa. As a result, the destruction of fishing villages has created a wave of migration from Africa into Europe. People say, Why do they go to France if they’re not happy there? Well, it’s better than starving.

INTERVIEWER: Do you eat fish?

ROBINSON: I’m generally a vegetarian of the ovo-lacto type, minus the ovo, yet I’m keenly aware of the fact that Hitler was a vegetarian. When he visited Mussolini in Italy he rejected the state dinner. He didn’t drink or smoke. I hold him up as an example of how an aversion virtue can be a negative sign.

On the privileged, “puritanical hedonism” of her life as a writer:

INTERVIEWER: You once said that you “proceed from the assumption that the distinctions available to us in this world are not arrayed between good and bad but between bad and worse.” Do you ever worry that you’re too pessimistic?

ROBINSON: I worry that I’m not pessimistic enough. My own life is full of profound satisfactions, and I’m distracted from the fact that the world is not in good shape. I cherish time, for instance, and for the most part I have control over my time, which is a marker of a very high standard of living as far as I’m concerned. At some point I created an artificial tropic for myself, where I could do exactly what I wanted to do and be rewarded for it. There’s a puritanical hedonism in my existence.

INTERVIEWER: Puritanical hedonism?

ROBINSON: I read books like THE IDEA OF THE HOLY: AN INQUIRY INTO THE NON RATIONAL FACTOR IN THE IDEA OF THE DIVINE. Oh, terrific. I’ve almost never done anything that I didn’t want to do. My life has been laid out to satisfy any aspiration of mine to the power of ten or a hundred. I can only make sense of my unaccountable good fortune by assuming that it means I am under special obligation to make good use of it.

INTERVIEWER: As opposed to always wanting more or something else?

ROBINSON: I don’t think I could want something else. For instance, I’m kind of a solitary. This would not satisfy everyone’s hopes, but for me it’s a lovely thing. I recognize the satisfactions of a more socially enmeshed existence than I cultivate, but I go days without hearing another human voice and never notice it. I never fear it. The only thing I fear is the intensity of my attachment to it. It’s a predisposition in my family. My brother is a solitary. My mother is a solitary. I grew up with the confidence that the greatest privilege was to be alone and have all the time you wanted. That was the cream of existence. I owe everything that I have done to the fact that I am very much at ease being alone. It’s a good predisposition in a writer. And books are good company. Nothing is more human than a book.

On the “arbitrariness” of being and the nature of faith:

INTERVIEWER: You’ve said that reading a footnote in Jonathan Edwards’s “The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended” changed your consciousness. What was the footnote?

ROBINSON: It’s not an attractive title for an essay, but in it he talks about the arbitrariness of “being” itself. He uses the metaphor of the reflected light of the moon, which we see as continuous light. Yet it is not intrinsic; it is continuously renewed as light. No physicist can tell you why things persist as they are, why one moment follows another. The reality we inhabit and treat like an old shoe is amazingly arbitrary.

INTERVIEWER: Does that arbitrariness include the supernatural?

ROBINSON: I’m not terribly persuaded by the word SUPERNATURAL. I don’t like the idea of the world as an encapsulated reality with intrusions made upon it selectively. The reality that we experience is part of the whole fabric of reality. To pretend that the universe is somewhere else doing something is really not true. We’re right in the middle of it. Utterly dependent on it, utterly defined by it. …

INTERVIEWER: Do you believe in an afterlife?

ROBINSON: I assume immortality, but religion doesn’t teach me to assume immortality. I assume immortality and this reinforces religion. But there’s a qualitative difference between actually confronting death and thinking about death in the abstract. By the grace of God, it has been an abstract concept to me up to this point.

INTERVIEWER: Is religion a way to feel comforted in the face of death?

ROBINSON: Faith always sounds like an act of will. Frankly, I don’t know what faith in God means. For me, the experience is much more a sense of God. Nothing could be more miraculous than the fact that we have a consciousness that makes the world intelligible to us and are moved by what is beautiful.

On getting over the need to travel:

INTERVIEWER: Do you feel like there’s something you’ve missed out on in life?

ROBINSON: There’s always something that I feel I’ve missed. I should travel more, for instance. I went to Paris last fall, which was a great departure for me. I flew Air India, which in itself was quite remarkable. I had a lovely time in France and I thought, I should do this more often. But then I come home and I think, I have all of this work to do. Look at all of these books I haven’t read. Frankly, you get to a certain point in your life where you can do unusual things with your mind. So then, I think, do them.

I hope to, Marilynne. I hope to. Much obliged.

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