Marilynne Robinson is the author, most recently, of Lila, a novel, and The Givenness of Things: Essays. Her essay in this issue is drawn from her new book, What Are We Doing Here?, which will be published in February by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (November 2017)
I have been reading lately about the rise of humanism in Europe. The old scholars often described themselves as “ravished” by one of the books newly made available to them by the press, perhaps also by translation. Their lives were usually short, never comfortable. I think about what it would have been like to read by the light of an oil lamp, to write with a goose quill. It used to seem to me that an unimaginable self-discipline must account for their meticulous learnedness. I assumed that the rigors and austerities of their early training had made their discomforts too familiar to be noticed. Now increasingly I think they were held to their work by a degree of fascination, of sober delight, that we can no longer imagine.
Hillary Clinton has been attacked so many times that survival has made her overly cautious. You could wish for her to be brave, like Angela Merkel. But think of the hours Clinton has endured before congressional committees, getting grilled, being held to a higher standard, having to prove herself in interviews, while once again by comparison a white guy gets a free ride.
Robinson: What does freedom mean? I mean, really, the ideal of freedom if it doesn’t mean that we can find out what is in this completely unique being that each one of us is? And competition narrows that. It’s sort of like, you should not be studying this; you should be studying that, pouring your life down the siphon of economic utility.
The President: But doesn’t part of that depend on people having different definitions of success, and that we’ve narrowed what it means to be successful in a way that makes people very anxious? They don’t feel affirmed if they’re good at something that the society says isn’t that important or doesn’t reward.
The President: How do you think you ended up thinking about democracy, writing, faith the way you do? How did that experience of growing up in a pretty small place in Idaho, which might have led you in an entirely different direction—how did you end up here, Marilynne? What happened? Was it libraries?
Robinson: It was libraries, it was—people are so complicated. It’s like every new person is a completely new roll of the dice, right?
There are always real dangers in the world, sufficient to their day. Fearfulness obscures the distinction between real threat on one hand and on the other the terrors that beset those who see threat everywhere.
Edgar Allan Poe was and is a turbulence, an anomaly among the major American writers of his period, an anomaly to this day. He both amazed and antagonized his contemporaries, who could not dismiss him from the ﬁrst rank of writers, though many felt his work to be morally questionable and in dubious taste, and though he scourged them in print regularly in the course of producing a body of criticism that is sometimes ﬂatly vindictive and often brilliant.
The Trump problem is probably somewhat self-limiting, he and his ilk being so very strange. But there are older, deeper problems. A substantial part of the American public seems to have lost interest in ideas, therefore in substantive controversy. This worrisome depletion has affected the whole of society, universities included. In saying this, I am making a criticism of institutions I value profoundly, as I do the politics of democracy, more for their splendid potential than for their present influence.