Revelations of Marilyn Robinson


Marilyn Robinson’s new book, Lila, should arrive in my mailbox tomorrow.

In preparation, I’m re-reading Gilead.

Some folks forwarded me this NYT Magazine profile of her.

As with many profiles, it is an uncomfortable mix of adoration and insight. Profiles are very difficult to get right.

But I enjoyed reflecting on the revelations.


“A lot of people who actually believe in the sacredness of life, they write things that are horrible, desolating things,” Robinson said. “Because, for some reason, this deeper belief doesn’t turn the world. . . . It comes down to fear; the fear of making self-revelation of the seriousness of ‘I sense a sacredness in things.’’”

I understand the sentiment of this passage, but I’m not sure that I agree that desolation and sacredness are in-opposite to each other. Cormac McCarthy wrote both Blood Meridian, where desolation pushes out the sacred, but he also wrote The Road, where desolation gives way to the sacred. Denis Johnson’s Jesus Son is another example of desolation opening up into the sacred.

But, again, I understand her point. The aesthetics of desolation loom large in modern, Western literature. There is individual desolation (Camus, Kafka); societal desolation (Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Faulkner); more societal desolation (Updike, Bellow, Roth); cosmic desolation (McCarthy); and more societal desolation (Franzen).

At the very least, I could use some more individual desolation. I find much of societal desolation literature to be tedious, which is why I view Tender is the Night (individual desolation) as more interesting than The Great Gatsby (societal desolation), even if the latter is better written.

A photo of her granddaughter sits on the living-room mantle, adjoining a pop-up Christmas card from the Obama White House, where last year she received a National Humanities Medal. (In his remarks that day to the honorees, the president said: “Your writings have fundamentally changed me, . . . I think for the better. Marilynne, . . . I believe that.”)

I do not know if any individual author has changed me, for the better or for the worse. The process of reading literature has changed me. And the themes running through my favorite works have, collectively, contributed to the creation of the filters by which I perceive the world. But the aggregate effects of literature, for me, seem more pronounced than the impact of any individual author.

“People,” Robinson said, pausing before she defined that familiar word in original terms: “Brilliant creatures, who at a very high rate, predictably, are incomprehensible to each other. If what people want is to be formally in society, to have status, to have loving relationships, houseplants that don’t die, the failure rate is phenomenal. . . . Excellent people, well-meaning people, their lives do not yield what they hoped. You know? This doesn’t diminish, at all, the fact that their dignity is intact. But their grief . . .”

Brilliant as a species, relatively speaking, perhaps. But the failure rate speaks to our great inability to align our actions to our professed desires, or to really understand our desires, or to reconcile are far off visions of what we might be with the near term decisions that determine what we become.

We were positively encouraged to create for ourselves minds we would want to live with. I had teachers articulate that to me: ‘You have to live with your mind your whole life.’ You build your mind, so make it into something you want to live with. Nobody has ever said anything more valuable to me.”

I liked the phrase “you have to live with your mind your whole life” – to think about the mind in a third person sense, a cohabitant. But it speaks to a duality that I don’t quite believe in (in that I don’t think there’s anything about us that is outside the mind that can reach in and change the mind) but yet which in my day-to-day life, I subscribe to (I think in terms of “controlling” my mind).

If forced to give my own take, I might say: “You are your mind your whole life. Good luck. And buckle up.”

“There’s a certain kind of ontological discomfort that seasons thought,” Robinson said. “I have always been — always from childhood’s hour, as Poe would say — in the habit of feeling quite a stark difference between myself and the world I navigated. Which was any world I navigated. And then, at a certain point, I found out that that was a) very formative and b) probably an error, although it was that discomfort that made me feel like writing, the feeling of difference.

I’ve written a lot of fiction (in a previous life I was an aspiring novelist), and this was often why I wrote: an erroneous belief that I was starkly different, and out of that discomfort came fiction. That, and a desire to be eternally remembered, I suppose. A desire I no longer harbor.

“To the extent that I was ever an unhappy person, I was happy with my unhappiness.” Robinson laughed, big and deep … “Somebody who had read ‘Lila’ asked me, ‘Why do you write about the problem of loneliness?’ I said: ‘It’s not a problem. It’s a condition. It’s a passion of a kind. It’s not a problem. I think that people make it a problem by interpreting it that way.”

Save for moments of great despair, I can relate. At times, I don’t even know how to understand the question “are you happy?” Once the most vicious external impediments to life are removed, and some of the basic sources of meaning are added, we just unfold, I suppose. A better question than “are you happy?” is perhaps “do you have all that you need?” That is something that I can gauge. The amount of happiness that this delivers seems to be a side effect that will vary based on genetic dispositions. It is a secondary condition. To consider it a primary condition is perhaps my generation’s greatest mistake.

“We are, paradoxically, given everything I just said, dependent on other people for our self-definition. I look at you, I see comprehension or question. I’m continuously learning from you. Also, it’s ‘the image of God’ thing. Our essential encounter in the world is with the image of God. Which is always the other.”

Marilyn is very religious. I am not, though that has not kept me from deeply enjoying her writings, which are religious in nature. Admittedly, I would be shocked to learn there is a god. But, then again, I’d be shocked by any true answer to the question: why are we here?

2 thoughts on “Revelations of Marilyn Robinson

  1. ken bubp

    I’m intrigued by the fact that you’d “be shocked by any true answer to the question: why are we here?” For two reasons, I’m intrigued: 1. I read something you wrote recently about being in civil rights work almost all of your working life. Motivated by what? 2. What do you mean by “true”? Do you mean that there is no objective answer to the question? (Or something else?) Is that statement directly related to your substantive/deeply held doubt that there is a god?

    Perhaps this is a better conversation over a sazerac vs. in blog comments. Either way, thanks for the post. I’d read the Marilynne Robinson profile in NYTimes two days ago, but was not familiar with her before now. I just ordered her book of essays, actually, and then plan to move on to Gilead.

    1. nkingsl

      Hey Ken – sorry for delay… I guess by “true” if someone (some being?) was able to prove why we’re here / how universe came to be – that would blow my mind! As it would most people, I imagine. Right now, I’ve resigned myself to fact that I’ll probably never know…

      Sazerac sounds great :)


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