Sunday, September 7, 2008

Readings: And Here's to You, Marilynne Robinson


I was pleased to find in the September 8, 2008 issue of The New Yorker Magazine, this review by James Wood of a new novel by Marilynne Robinson. I discovered and read Robinson's first two novels, Housekeeping and Gilead, prior to launching this blog. I subsequently also read with great pleasure a collection of her essays, entitled The Death of Adam.

Reviewer Wood seems to be less enthusiastic about Robinson's oeuvre than I am, but I encourage all bibliophiles to read the entire review and not just the lengthy excerpt below.

Robinson is a religious writer and a Calvinist. She pulls no punches in her exposition of the fallen nature of man as manifested in contemporary society, and the lukewarm approach taken to organized religion by many "mainstream" congregants. Wood, I believe, fairly states Robinson's positions in the following:

Robinson describes herself as a liberal Protestant believer and churchgoer, but her religious sensibility is really far more uncompromising and archaic than this allows. … In a way that many Americans, and certainly her liberal readers, would find palatable, her Protestantism seems born of a love of religious silence—the mystic, quietly at prayer in an unadorned place, indifferent to ecclesiastical mediation. But Robinson is illiberal and unfashionably fierce in her devotion to this Protestant tradition; she is voluble in defense of silence. She loathes the complacent idleness whereby contemporary Americans dismiss Puritanism and turn John Calvin, its great proponent, into an obscure, moralizing bigot: “We are forever drawing up indictments against the past, then refusing to let it testify in its own behalf—it is so very guilty, after all. Such attention as we give to it is usually vindictive and incurious and therefore incompetent.” We flinch from Puritanism because it placed sin at the center of life, but then, as she tartly reminds us, “Americans never think of themselves as sharing fully in the human condition, and therefore beset as all humankind is beset.” Calvin believed in our “total depravity,” our utter fallenness, but this was not necessarily a cruel condemnation. “The belief that we are all sinners gives us excellent grounds for forgiveness and self-forgiveness, and is kindlier than any expectation that we might be saints, even while it affirms the standards all of us fail to attain,” Robinson writes in her essay “Puritans and Prigs.” Nowadays, she argues, educated Americans are prigs, not Puritans, quick to pour judgment on anyone who fails to toe the right political line. Soft moralizing has replaced hard moralizing, but at least those old hard moralists admitted to being moralists.

Prigs, not Puritans. Ain't that a bitch? I'm pretty sure that all of this has something relevant to say about the current presidential election campaign, the role of religion in it, and perhaps even the anointing of Sarah Palin as a kind of political saint.

Robinson's new novel is entitled Home. It reintroduces and makes protagonists of characters from her previous and, in my estimation, great, novel Gilead. I look forward to the opportunity of reading it.

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