“American culture,” writes Doris Lessing, “is enriched by having the whole range of Marilynne Robinson’s work.” Many readers—especially Christians who enjoy Robinson’s sympathetic depictions of Protestant life—agree. But what a range! She is the Orange Prize-winning author of novels like Housekeeping and Gilead. So what drives her to write essays on pollution, economics, Darwin, and now—in Absence of Mind: The Denial of Inwardness in the Modern Myth of the Self (Yale University Press)—the science of human consciousness?
Is there a Grand Unified Theory of Robinson, or is she simply too restless for one subject? I propose that the link between her fiction and her nonfiction exists—and you can find it, of all places, on the first page of John Calvin’s Institutes.
If this were any other magazine, I’m not sure anyone would still be reading. Calvin is known today for a work ethic he didn’t condone, a miserly economics he didn’t preach, and a Genevan reign of terror that, according to historians, he didn’t sponsor. But both sides of Robinson’s work attest to her love of Reformed Christianity, and both exemplify Calvin’s famous remark that knowledge of God and knowledge of oneself are inseparable.
On one side are her novels. These offer vivid, un-type-able characters, just as you’d expect—unless you remember how passé distinctive characterization was considered in 1980, when Robinson began publishing. The better writers of that period, arguing that characters are “just” words on a page, offered caricature, intentional vacuousness, or language games instead.
On the other side, her essays, no matter their overt topics, generally share a target: reductionist philosophies that try to erase inward, felt experience from the accounting of human life. Repeatedly and convincingly, she attacks ideas like “altruism is a trick played on us by our genes” or “consciousness is an aftereffect of our brain processes.” Absence of Mind extends this critique: Why, she asks, do certain scientists’ explanations of consciousness feel so wholly inadequate to what we actually experience as such? Robinson’s latest book is a worthy addition to a body of work that—leaving aside its unusually overt God-fixation—is most notable for its defense of humans.
About the Author
Phil Christman teaches English at the University of Michigan and attends St. Clare's Episcopal Church in Ann Arbor, Mich.