Night Thoughts of a Baffled Humanist: Marilynne Robinson


Novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson seems as well grounded and as diligently penetrating as any cultural commentator right now. She’s courageous, unflinching and yet humble. We do well to heed her sober reflections and wisdom. I caught up with her long essay “Night Thoughts of a Baffled Humanist,” which was waiting patiently in my to-read pile, in the November 28, 2011 issue of The Nation.

I won’t do justice to her long and quite profound reflection but I do want to share some of it for your contemplation and, perhaps, spur to action.

She takes on the theme of a seemingly pervasive mentality of “austerity” and a recent kind of capitalism — shorn of most every sensibility but a severe economic rationalism.

“We have entered a period of rationalist purgation,” Robinson writes. “Rationalism and reason are antonyms: the first is fixed and incurious, the second, open and inductive. Rationalism is forever settling on one model of reality; reason tends toward an appraising of interesting things as they come.”

Robinson clearly comes down on the side of reason, and for engaging with things as they come, a humanist response to reading each situation’s apparent limits, but also its potential.

“Say that we are puffed warm breath in a very cold universe,” she poses metaphorically. “By this kind of reckoning we are either immeasurably significant, or were incalculably precious and interesting.  I tend toward the second view. Scarcity is said to create value, after all.”

But apparent economic scarcity need not choke off our humane instincts for the sake of “austerity.” Understand, Robinson is far from any sort of Pollyanna, as she’s proven in her wonderfully somber and elegiac domestic fiction Housekeeping, and Gilead, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and Home.

However she says belief in a bent toward “acting badly” has been taken to inhibit our potentiality for acting well, though why this should be true is not obvious.”

She recounts points in post-World War II history: Churchill’s “Iron Curtain speech,” which set the tone for chilling Cold War vigilance. Robinson notes that Stalin had a certain rationale for maintaining the Soviet empire, “that it was necessary for defense, is entirely analogous to Churchill’s rationale for maintaining a British Empire.”

Then of course, there’s America and The A-Bomb, and the ironic and troubling fact that “the American public learned about the atom bomb at the same moment the world learned about it.”

What price is national security? The question hung in the mushroom clouds over Japan and it hangs today.

“The dark ages may return, the Stone Age may return on the gleaming wings of science,” Churchill warned.

(Ah, technology. It remains deeply unsettling as we plunge headlong into a brave, inchoate and dynamic Cyber world. As a new blogger, I’m trying to embrace this medium for its fullest potential. But technology?) (Churchill memorial statue, right)

And then Robinson deftly segues to  the present, in Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels recent speech, in which he gravely noted “We face an enemy, lethal to liberty, and even more implacable than those America has defeated before … I refer, course, to the debts our nation has amassed for itself for decades of indulgence.”

Yet, Robinson counters that there is also the factor were also having indulged in — too long and costly wars, and having indulged in taking up the novel burdens of security that present circumstance requires” including the accumulation of nuclear sites.

She gradually carries us back to when both the Soviet Union and the United States proposed a way of life that is claimed to maximize human happiness “with all the problems the notion involves, you come the place where it would be tonic to hear that old phrase: “The greatest good for the greatest number.”

Our sense of grounding in such values is an unspoken assumption, carried from the 19th century, that great culture proved the health, worth and integrity of a civilization…”

“Yet it seems to me, on the darkest nights, and sometimes in the clear light of day, that we are losing the ethos that has sustained what is most to be valued in our civilization.

“This despite the fact that the United States is a society structured around any number of institutions that are not, under this definition, capitalist. Suddenly anything public is “socialist,” therefore a deviancy, inevitably second rate and a corruption of, so to speak, the public virtue.”

Where is the real autonomy, the means to think and act as judgment and conscience dictate?

“The old and characteristic American ways do not fit well with the word capitalist, as neo-capitalists would understand it. They would like nothing more ideological consensus, varying among states and regions, about how best to “promote the general welfare.”

“Market economics – another name for a set of theories and assumptions also called capitalism – shown itself very ready to devour what we hold dear, the list can be taken include culture, education, environment in the sciences, as well as the peace and well-being of her fellow citizen .”

“I know Americans are supposed to believe in competition. I think is wasteful and undignified in most cases.

“Remember education is associated with prosperity, so there’s every reason to assume our shortfall can be monetized and reduced prosperity for our children or grandchildren which will be an onerous burden of debt dooming the poor souls to future yet more Greek. The alternative is to let ourselves be – that is, to let ourselves be the reflective, productive creatures we are, unconstrained and on worst. Eliminate the overwhelming cost of phantom wars and fools errands, and humankind might begin to balance its books.

“After all, it’s only debts are to itself.”

Perhaps I have left this all under interpreted, as an academic might say. Too many “run-on quotes.” So be it. I apologize to the offended.

But not to those who find value here. Robinson has so much to say. And we have so much to learn. And so much to live for, as a people, as a society, together. Do we starve ourselves for a balanced budget, whatever that means? Or do we give ourselves succor and a genuine future for our children, which has to do with more than just money? The answer seems obvious. Let’s try to imagine the means.

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