My loyal readers - do I have any other kind? - will recall that I've often praised the fiction and essays of Marilynne Robinson. I finally got a chance to hear Ms. Robinson speak, and to meet her, which was an honor along the lines of meeting Melville or Hawthorne or Tolstoy, though I believe she's a more consistently astonishing and sensible writer than any of those men.
She was just about as luminous, precise, and inspiring as I'd expected. She began by reading a section of her impossibly beautiful new novel Gilead, which reminded me once again of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's remark that if bad stories have made people ill, we need to tell good stories to make them well. Gilead is a good, transformative story in exactly that sense.
Previously, Ms. Robinson wrote what I believe to be the ultimate indictment of capitalist illogic in Mother Country: Britain, The Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution, a book which earned her the unusual distinction, for an anti-nuclear polemicist, of being sued by Greenpeace under British libel laws (they sought damages for "hurt feelings," and won).
In that book's introduction, she said something that suggested she felt obliged to give up fiction:
I am angry to the depths of my soul that the earth has been so injured while we were all bemused by supposed monuments of value and intellect, vaults of bogus cultural riches. I feel the worth of my own life diminished by the tedious years I have spent acquiring competence in the arcana of minor invention...the grief borne home to others while I and my kind have been thus occupied lies on my conscience like a crime.I'm in complete sympathy with this sentiment, and yet it's not quite correct, as Gilead proves. I know of no more powerful book on environmental problems than Mother Country, and no more clear-eyed exploration of their causes. But the very power and accuracy of the book - and the fact that it doesn't limit blame to expected, emotionally convenient villains - evoke a defensive response in some people, as do some of her essays. Gilead avoids this reaction, because it's a good story, instead of a good argument. In her nonfiction she talks about the ideals Americans have forgotten, and what is likely to become of us unless we remember them and make use of them; Gilead brings those ideals to radiant, unforgettable life, and is thus a far sturdier vehicle for their preservation and transmission. It's a celebration of attention and reflection, compassion and forgiveness, and "the strange exhilarations of our strange life on earth"; necessarily, it's also a repudiation of everything mean, petty, and stingy, and of every philosophy intended to excuse or ennoble meanness, pettiness, and stinginess. Given our current situation, that makes it a profoundly political book, and an almost unbearably touching one.
Ms. Robinson's work is, I think, intended as an antidote to what Simone Weil called "uprootedness." She's concerned with moving Americans towards a truer sense of their socially progressive heritage, largely by demolishing false histories (which, too often, were imposed by people opposed to that heritage) and revealing more accurate ones. Thus, in response to a tangentially related question from the audience, she described how the egalitarian ideals of 19th-century American religious progressivism - as exemplified by the abolitionists, and the fully integrated colleges they built throughout the Middle West - were trampled by the racialist pseudoscience of Agassiz and others, and were ultimately devalued or forgotten by their rightful 20th-century heirs. She suggested that we're in similar danger today, facing not merely the loss of rights that people suffered and died to win, which would be bad enough, but also the loss of our ability to comprehend and honor those traditions that made social engagement a moral duty, suffering and death notwithstanding.
As modern and usually secular progressives, we're expected to pass over ideas like Agassiz's quickly. We're happy to concede that social Darwinism was an unfortunate error, but not quite so happy to ponder what this error actually cost us as a nation, and what similarly drab and evil ideas might be costing us right now, not because they're true but because they offer us easy comforts, as well as "latitude responsible people do not have or desire." Ms. Robinson dwells on many such historical failures, and refuses to treat them as isolate events without ongoing repercussions (such as attempts to oppose one bad idea with another, ad nauseum). In The Death of Adam, she makes the radical claim that "everything always bears looking into"; in other words, if we don't assess our history carefully and critically, we don't really know who we are, which leads to dangerous misunderstandings of our present and our possibilities.
Despite my longwindedness here, I confess that I was absolutely tongue-tied while she signed my books. Finally, I blurted out that I felt about her books as she'd said she felt about Melville's (whose works, along with those of Thoreau and Emily Dickinson, she'd called a central, benign influence in her life). I was a bit incoherent, God knows...but amazingly enough, I didn't feel embarrassed about it, and I'm a person who's perpetually embarrassed. That's because I believe she understood that it was hard for me to say precisely because of how deeply I meant it.