October 2, 2019


MARILYNNE ROBINSON'S POSTMODERN HUMANISM: a review of What Are We Doing Here?: Essays By Marilynne Robinson  (J. L. Wall, 9/30/19,  Modern Age)

In her critique of modernity, Robinson, an unabashed political liberal, begins to sound surprisingly--and sometimes stridently--conservative. Indeed, she seems to have affection for the word, provided that it can be redefined around the act of conservation. The purpose of the humanism  for which she argues is to "preserve as we can the heritage we have received and that we enlarge and enrich it for the sake of coming generations," a curatorial role that she once "assumed . . . was simply a thing civilizations did." Humans may be the creators of art, architecture, and all that goes into civilization, but as curators they are responsible for more than the works of their own hands--for that which is created, or, in one of Robinson's favorite words, given. Human dignity (what she later terms a "radical anthropocentricity") runs through this recognition of givenness. For Robinson, humans are created beings yet also distinguished from the rest of creation by the ability "to stand apart from what we are and consider ourselves."

Though Robinson is skeptical of the term postmodern and hardly a conservative in the commonplace sense of the term, her stance may be best understood in conversation with the late Peter Augustine Lawler, who spoke, alternately, of postmodern conservatism and conservative postmodernism. Lawler's postmodernism is not the postmodern art and theory of the academy. Such "attacks on our ability to perceive the truth and goodness of nature and human nature," he argued, are really "hypermodernism": the logical extreme of the belief that the modern individual is itself a construction. Taken to hypermodern extremes, the modern project moves away from the truly human, leaving us, in Robinson's view, "shadowed by gloom, nostalgia, anomie, deracination, loss of faith, dehumanization, atomization, secularization, and assorted other afflictions of the same general kind." Lawler preferred a more concise description: homelessness.

On both accounts, the modern individual is fully capable of asking the fundamental human question: What I am--are we--doing here? But pursuing this inquiry requires a language that does not exist. Following the lead of another novelist, Walker Percy, Lawler suggested that among the chief crises of the (post)modern person was being "deprived of the language to express the longings of a real human being" and, indeed, losing "even the language of the individual." Robinson likewise laments that "we have no language to express the scale of the experience we have."

That is not to say that we are at a loss for words. But what Robinson calls the "catechisms" of modern thought are of no use. Neither science, nor economics, nor the political right and left can tell us what we're doing here. They fail in this endeavor because "the modern West for generations [has tried] to move away from a vocabulary that is charged with its own intellectual and cultural history, the shift being understood as advancing thought from the pre-scientific to the scientific or from the religious to the secular." The project of Robinson's nonfiction, then, has become one of recovery-- of the history and reputation of the Puritans who are central to her worldview, and, increasingly, of a vocabulary that might enable us to ask the questions on which this line of inquiry depends. [...]

Even modernity, she insists, has not been able to escape reference to the divine in its talk of individuals. The psychological "self," Robinson writes, "looks to me like a rather robust survival of what was once called a soul." Our constrained vocabulary limits both modern inquiry and selfhood. The point--and the sticking point--of the language she believes we require is that it is necessarily theological, capable of representing "a very broad, unconditional reality, a givenness that in its fullness reflects divine intent." Alongside "the divine" and "dignity," it includes "wisdom, courage, generosity," givenness, conscience, grace, beauty, faith, hope, love, soul, and virtue. Only language grounded in and unashamed of these words can "create a conceptual space large enough to accommodate human dignity," capable, we might say, of replacing the language and ideology of the individual with that of the whole human being.

The word liberalism, too, takes on paramount importance for Robinson. In her previous collections, When I Was a Child I Read Books (2012) and The Givenness of Things (2014), she began an argument continued in this collection: that a liberalism defined by rights-based discourse almost inevitably leads to its individualist corruption. Robinson's preferred alternative stems from the early modern liberalism of English and American Puritans. Against the individualism of Lockean Virginians, she finds in John Winthrop's political vision "a society whose relations are based on charity, using the word in the biblical sense, meaning love." In other words, "he sees the bonds of society in mutual care and service." Robinson grounds her liberalism in an older, less frequently used definition. Perhaps liberality would be more apt here than liberalism, as, for her, this is the politics of generosity.

Even though the practical goals toward which Robinson believes this sense of liberalism must lead are largely indistinguishable from those favored by the modal American university professor, she nonetheless insists on distinguishing her liberalism from that of her political allies. In What Are We Doing Here? Robinson goes further than her usual critiques--of easy abandonment of generosity, eager dismissal of religion and the legacy of Puritanism--and challenges the American left on the level of ideology. "The Left does not understand the thinking of the Right because it is standing too close to have a clear view of it," she writes. According to the rigid, ideological thinking of both ends of the political spectrum, self-interest and human nature are synonyms: "everything that has happened in our history is to be understood in its essence as profit driven." In her castigations of Marxism, (social) Darwinism, scientism, and Freudianism, Robinson comes to sound, at moments, rather like the left's stereotype of a right-wing campus crank. These modern political ideologies "are themselves so starkly determinist, so determinist in every iteration, that this is arguably their point," she proclaims.

It may seem odd, as Robinson herself acknowledges, for a self-described Calvinist and believer in the predestined fate of human souls to rail against determinist anthropologies. Yet she doubles down, arguing that predestination affords more freedom and dignity than the modernist alternative. Once more, reference to Lawler may help to explain what's going on. For Lawler, the crisis--and contradiction--of modern life is that "the world created by modern individuals to make themselves at home turns out to have made human beings less at home than ever." The physical corruptibility of the human body, culminating, without variation, in death, produces this homelessness by refusing to submit to human control: the pursuit of happiness fails to conclude with its ultimate enjoyment. Postmodernism, rightly understood, calls on us to grow "at home with our homelessness"--and, in doing so, to find the freedom and dignity of the whole human being.

Of course, Locke agrees with Ms Robinson and Mr. Lawler, not with secular individualists--who like rights but loathe duties, especially since imposed by God.  Else the Founders would have ignored him altogether.

Posted by at October 2, 2019 11:22 AM