The joy of an episodic form is it can be appreciated multiple ways. You do not need to agree with every constituent part to enjoy the whole, and you do not need to enjoy the whole to find a constituent part you enjoy. In Marylinne Robinson’s new collection of essays What Are We Doing Here? there is enough strong opinion, challenging theology, and social interrogation to guarantee some disagreement. However, this does not stop the book from ultimately commanding respect for its long and deep engagement with the issues that shape both our society and ourselves.
Taken as a whole, the book is a wide-ranging interrogation with the present state of humanity. Robinson deals with hope, love, grace, beauty, education, and what it means to live. As Robinson writes of our modern economically organised lives: ‘is there any particular reason to debase human life in order to produce more, faster, without reference to the worth of the product or to the value of the things sacrificed to its manufacture? Wouldn’t most people, given an hour or two to reflect, consider this an intolerably trivial use to be put to, for them and their children? Life is brief and fragile, after all.’
However, no matter how desperate the situation may seem Robinson always has a hopeful refrain. As she says, ‘I know that one is expected to bemoan the present time, to say something about decline and the loss of values. O tempora! O mores! But I find a great deal to respect.’
This kind of hope forms a gentle and regular chorus that ultimately provides the book with a sense of quiet optimism. The topic of contention may change, but the conclusion rarely does. As we live currently we do not value our human ability. The systems in place are reductionist, placing in front of us an almost binary set of choices and outcomes. We need to understand: these systems are not natural and infinite. They are inventions of our own making, ways we employ to interpret and regulate the world around us. By remembering our nature as humans, and the possibilities we contain, we are able to alter our future, both individual and collective. Robinson argues back against our economically dominated way of living by advocating the humanities and the arts, they themselves threatened by the current system. ‘We need only allow the spread of learning to see the brilliant potential in human kind,’ Robinson says.
Individually Robinson’s essays are touching; personal; political; theological; and humorous, calling herself one of those mad liberals who put ‘a radical Kenyan Muslim in the White House.’ This, of course, referencing allegations aimed at her friend Barack Obama, a friendship that forms the basis for her essay ‘A Proof, A Test, An Instruction.’
In this essay Robinson goes against her own words that ‘Nostalgia falsifies’ by striking a nostalgic tone for the previous American administration. She writes of Obama, ‘To have been unfailingly dignified, gracious, competent, and humane under pressures is a very moving achievement, an endurance that is more than heroic.’ She continues ‘The president has done nothing more important than to stand against, above, the vulgar, mean-spirited noise that disheartens the public and alienates good people from politics, which is the one true, essential, and indispensable life of democracy.’ This unsubtle critique of the White House’s current incumbent will of course have its critics, and detractors will more likely see Robinson’s fondness as sycophancy. A criticism she seems to pre-emptively acknowledge saying ‘My respect for Barack Obama is vast and unshadowed.’ However, it is a particularly easy criticism to make given Robinson’s description of Obama as ‘gracious, poised, and intense in the face of concerns and demands I cannot imagine,’ as well as ‘a philosopher, perhaps a theologian.’
However, putting aside Robinson’s admiration for Obama, she does make what some would see as cogent points on the current state of politics in America. She writes ‘the word American encourages selective memory, and the Africans, Chinese, Polish, and Welsh are lost to the notion of a population always English speaking, always Western European.’ And in the same manner ‘Those who speak of the United States as great, formerly if not at present, must acknowledge that immigration has been concomitant with our greatest moments, wherever they wish to locate them.’ These are both points worth being reminded of, and both applicable to places other than the United States.
Robinson’s essays are enjoyable for both what they have to say as well as the way it is said. She makes arguments, not to convince, but simply to express her own thoughts. That is not to say they don’t convince, but rather, it is not their main purpose. Their purpose, it seems, is to display, in clear and precise prose, her thoughts on matters political, personal, and theological. In this manner they come through to the reader as gentle and nuanced conversations rather than opinionated bluster, which, currently at least, is refreshing.
By Alexander Douglas Bryan