Friday, 9 September 2016

Gilead and Marilynne Robinson

I'm a bit of a sucker for that sort of high end American intellectual life (think Frasier without the jokes) where everyone appears terribly mature and balanced and to have been brought up surrounded by old oak and nourished on good bourbon.

I'm currently about half way through Gilead, Marilynne Robinson's much praised novel about this wise old small town pastor reminiscing about his life. Everyone seems to like it, I like it, and I haven't finished it (so there is always the possibility of an alien abduction enlivening things a bit later on) but...

Robinson has been much praised for restoring a vision of how religion can survive (indeed, should survive) in modernity. I think it's probably fair to describe that vision as one of providing a space for critical reflection on the everyday. (The narration in Gilead is retrospective, changing nothing in the life, but adding depth and complexity as the everyday is reflected on and retold.) From reading Robinson's interviews and critical reviews of her work, that impression seems not far from her intention:

Psalm 122 is, you could say, the theme song of this vision, and it is a vision that prompts Robinson to a ferocious critique of the abstractions of ideology - including "austerity" as an imperative to save the world for capitalism. She offers a striking diagnosis of the corrupting effect of rationalism: rationalism as she defines it is the attempt to get the world to fit the theory; and because the world is never going to fit the theory, the end-product of rationalist strategies is always panic.
"Rationalism is the omnium-gatherum of resentment and foreboding", whereas reasonableness is interested in "things as they come". The economic crisis is, in this sense, the nemesis of one kind of rationalism, oblivious of the actual complexity of people's motivation.
Where do we find the reasonable rather than the rationalistic? Above all, in the various ways in which we are educated in "imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly"; in a broadly conceived, long-term commitment to building this kind of loving understanding - in fact, in what has often been called a "liberal education". [Rowan Williams here.]

Robinson: I do. That’s what I do. But it rationalizes my lecturing, too. But fear was very much—is on my mind, because I think that the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people.
You have to assume that basically people want to do the right thing. I think that you can look around society and see that basically people do the right thing. But when people begin to make these conspiracy theories and so on, that make it seem as if what is apparently good is in fact sinister, they never accept the argument that is made for a position that they don’t agree with—you know?

[Robinson in conversation with President Obama here]

Quite apart from my 'Frasier' fetish, I find this all very attractive on one level: reasonable people, thinking the best of each other, and trying to find and promote the good in small communities. Unfortunately, it just strikes me as profoundly unCatholic and only superficially human.

My reaction to this is perhaps not being helped by my currently reading Russell Kirk's Ancestral Shadows. Whilst sharing an affection for small town American life with Robinson, Kirk's vision is rather more likely to end up with an axe wielding revenant than with mature contentment. (And you could add Flannery O'Connor to that as well. Or Walker Percy's physically satisfied moderns who decide to chew their own limbs off rather than suffer the boredom of their secularised lives.) I suppose, unsurprisingly, that Robinson's vision of serious reasonableness is very hard to reconcile with the medieval and Catholic universe of demons and gnashing of teeth. Indeed, it is a reminder of just how much Robinson's Calvinism is essentially an anti-Catholicism, a reasonableness defined as being an escape from medieval superstition and hysteria.

Robinson's Calvinism covers up much of what it is to be human. Although I despise most of what has happened to popular culture since the 1950s, the search for ecstasy through sex n drugs n rock and roll is utterly human and a shadowy tribute to the human desire for a supernatural end. Gilead has little place for the burning ecstasy of the saints or of Jimi Hendrix.

It also has little place for the demonic or the ancestral shadow of original sin. Most serious Catholics I know tend to be very clear about their own unworthiness. They are usually very conscious about their need for the mercy of grace and how little they deserve it. Oddly, in view of Calvinism's debt to Augustine, there is much more of a sense in Catholicism of the essential imperfection of the Earthly City and our final home being with God, rather than with a good bourbon in front of PBS, natural goods though these undoubtedly are.

Perhaps the Robinsonian vision is the correct one. Perhaps we are all reasonable people, striving with good hearts towards a progressive future. I'm afraid I tend to see as well as goodness, the irruption of the lust for domination into all of human life, the dumb certainty that this small creature has it right, and that if only everyone else were as reasonable, everything would be fine. (And with a little, forceful encouragement, it will be.) At the centre of Robinson's Calvinism is the sermon and the self-reflective community:

What do you personally get out of going to church?
I have gone to the same church for more than 20 years. It is my village, so to speak. I see children come into the world and elders pass out of it, and I see lives unfold around me. That is a little part of it. Then I have occasion, rare in the world, to hear a good and learned man say something he takes to be true, to a congregation listening in good faith for whatever truth he has to offer. Finally, I think differently, otherwise, in that place than I do anywhere else. It is as if I can put the world and myself aside for an hour and hear and think more purely. [Here]

These are not bad things. But a Catholic goes to Church essentially to have something burst into a community from outside it  through the Mass. Hopkins' lines

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

whilst certainly celebrating the immanence of the divine also acknowledges its transcendence, its imposing externality (the martial echoes of 'charged'/'foil'; the violence of 'crushed' (emphasised by enjambment)/ 'rod'), its essential surprisingness.

Although much has been made of the way in which Robinson's vision of the importance of religion offers a contrast to secularising narratives, I'm not so sure. Everyone loves her. She wins prizes and Presidents woo her. The idea of religion as adding depth and shade to an already existing (secular) design is one we all already love. And a world tweaked thus would be less overtly hostile to some forms of religion. (We would all be in Church to hear a good and learned man say something.) But we would be deaf to grandeur and squalor, deaf to the way that religion roars of something else terrible.

Could Robinson's Congregationalism produce this?