Talking with Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson in conversation with The Nation

Marilynne Robinson

On October 17, 2014, Marilynne Robinson and the staff of The Nation had a conversation about writing, Calvinism, and her work, including her new novel, Lila. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation that appeared in the January 26, 2015 edition of The Nation.


The Nation: While reading your new novel, Lila, the other novel of yours that I kept thinking of was not Gilead, its narrative predecessor, but your first novel, Housekeeping, because its two main female characters, Ruthie and Sylvie (Ruthie’s aunt), are drifters whose hardscrabble lives seem to anticipate those of Lila and her guardian, Doll. Were you having a conversation with yourself about Sylvie and Ruthie while you were writing Lila?

Lila by Marilynne Robinson
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Marilynne Robinson: I have found that when you write a novel, a character never actually leaves you from that point on. It’s clearly true that Sylvie and Doll are sisters, are associated in terms of what is important to me about both of them. I’m very much drawn to the idea of an absolute self, someone who eludes social definitions. One of the things that bothers me is seeing people dismissed or trivialized on the basis of their not fitting into a favorable category, socially and so on. It’s very important for me to assert the sovereign self. I consider Lila to be, in her way, as much a theologian as John Ames [Lila’s husband] is. She’s just a natural theologian, as they would say.

TN: All of your novels are set in a time that makes them remote from the present, yet without turning them into historical novels: they are contemporary novels that are not set in a contemporary climate. Does this choice have anything to do with the kind of language you want to use when you write fiction? The language in your novels seems at once untouched by time and the times, yet remarkably attentive to the workings of time and the destructive workings of history.

MR: I like dealing with people whose vocabulary and worldview is less media–saturated than ours is. I think that there is an acceleration of a kind of slang shorthand that is very characteristic of our period but not especially beautiful. It is meant to be ephemeral, in a way that when you’re using language that you would consider “hip”—or whatever the present word would be—you are using it in the knowledge that in a year or two years, you would be embarrassed to use the same word. I like to use language that doesn’t have all these little signifiers around it, that seems to me more classic, in the sense of being unrecognizable in terms of a particular decade.

When I wrote Gilead, I was very aware that I wanted to make John Ames old enough, and to make his life occur early enough, so that I could give him an abolitionist ancestry—give him someone he would know who was in the abolitionist movement—and at the same time put him in the period when the civil-rights movement was becoming important. And that did establish the time frame for all these books [Gilead, Home, Lila] that are related to each other.

TN: It seems in some ways that you want your language to be as sovereign as your characters.

MR: Yes, “sovereign”—that’s a good word for all sorts of things.

TN: The language is very different and timeless in all the novels, and most so in Housekeeping, which reads like a prose poem as much as a novel. Had you made a deliberate choice to move away from the language of Housekeeping—and, if so, what was your thinking?

MR: It’s just voice-governed. When I think of a character like Lila, then I have to think of the kind of language that would be available to her. And the same with John Ames: he has his own little world of dialogue—
or large world, I should say. I don’t have much sense of myself as a writer apart from what I write. It’s the voice that’s in my mind that governs what I write.

TN: I know you occasionally give sermons at your church. I wondered, if you were to give a sermon this coming Sunday, what you would speak about?

MR: I don’t preach often. There was a time when my church had a minister who needed to be substituted for with fair frequency, and if nobody else was available, it was me. I would write a lecture, basically—I would lecture the congregation. They would listen patiently. It would all be over. That’s my career as a preacher.

The thing that bothers me is that we are too inclined to be passive, to have an induced passivity in our thinking, as if somebody else were responsible for the thinking. We try to find out who to line up behind, and then, invariably—I’m speaking of liberals, of course—we see that the choices that person is dealing with do not allow ideal solutions. And so we wash our hands of the project, and we strand some poor soul—
I will not mention Barack Obama—in the position of trying to stand up for values in the culture without the support of the people who, in their own minds, are the supporters of those values. They say, “Oh my goodness, he doesn’t make everything work perfectly.” But this is very characteristic. We do this—I’m talking about liberals: we put up heroes, we get disillusioned with them, and that excuses us from the responsibility even to think about the actual seriousness of the problems that they might in fact be facing. We’re having an extremely classic instance of that now.

TN: So it’s a pedestal one day and a stool the next?

MR: And we get some sort of moral satisfaction out of the act of abandonment. What is that? It’s so entrenched and so ingrained. Barack Obama came to Iowa [where Robinson lives] a great deal. It was very important to him. I think when his feelings are hurt, he comes to Iowa. In any case, I remember him saying to this world of cheering supporters that he would do this and that, and he would be able to because he had all this support. And I thought, in my long-in-the-world political mind: “You won’t have support. If you have trouble, you will be abandoned.” That’s how we are, and it’s an excruciating problem.

TN: This reminds me of the concept of “nonfailure” from your essay “Facing Reality” in The Death of Adam. That essay is an analysis of the culture of suspicion, which disallows imagination and confuses cynicism for intelligence.

MR: Right, and that is a great affliction of the culture now. Frankly, I don’t think there is anything stupider than cynicism; you might as well get a tattoo that says kick me. What are you doing but buying into what you have contempt for? How is that a decent use of your life?

I think this is somehow caught up in the education of culture. I deal with students who think that there is no other wisdom than cynicism. It doesn’t do anything but impoverish their minds. I’m very happy with the fact that I teach in a place [the University of Iowa] where people have a really fair chance of going on from the training that we give them to trying to actually occupy an influential place in the culture. We probably do that at a higher rate than anywhere except maybe Harvard Law. And—and—the students are induced to feel helpless. If they’re helpless, what about all the people who need help?

TN: You have written about Calvinism—that is, the nest of assumptions and clichés that I think most of us associate with the word, and also the real thing. I was curious to hear you say that “Calvinism” was one of the first words you thought of as misunderstood, and it’s not something that people discuss now as much as they did thirty, forty, sixty years ago.

MR: You don’t really hear it discussed. It’s used as a term of, you know,
I mean—

TN: Derogation.

MR: Derogation, right. Without any modification at all. The same as the word “Puritan.”

Calvin was a classic Renaissance humanist. I did a dissertation on Shakespeare, and I read a great deal of humanism in the period—and when you read Calvin, you know immediately what he’s doing. He starts out the Institutes of the Christian Religion by saying how spectacular a human person is, the fact that we can solve problems in our dreams—I think lots of people have that experience—and the huge potency of our imagination. His first proof of the soul is the fact that human beings want to know why the planets move; they want to know why the stars are assorted as they are. The scientific imagination of a human being is a proof of his soul.

If you take the Thomistic system, that has an objective order, in effect, that things fall into. Calvin has no objective system in that sense: he locates everything in the perceptions, in the imagination, in the mind, so that all experience is visionary and every person is an equally competent perceiver of the vision, of any vision given to him. But it’s not vision in the sense of illusion; it’s vision in the sense of perception—with understanding, of course. You can see that he goes directly into Romanticism, he goes directly into Transcendentalism. He’s profoundly egalitarian, on the early egalitarian assumption that was so important in this culture: that everyone is a visionary, in effect. That the area of the sacred is the area of human perception—God addressing experience to that perception—which creates, he says very explicitly, a holiness around the life of any person.

There are all these things in him that are very beautiful and, so far as I know, unique—and certainly a departure from any of the theology that was done in his time. You really do have to go back to Augustine to find anything to compare. The potency of education as a phenomenon in New England, for example, comes directly out of Calvinism. He believed in gender equality, in the sense that he said—you know that in the Thomistic system, women were made less in the image of God than men; women were imperfect men. And in Calvinism, he says everyone of course is an image of God—and specifically in the context of the equality of women—saying that the brilliance of the human face is the image of God.

He is extraordinarily humanistic. I don’t know—even among modern theologians, I think there’s no one to compare. To have lost him is a great loss, and I think that part of the rejection of Calvin came from the reaction against the Civil War, because the abolitionist movement was so much the project of Calvinist churches and institutions like Yale Divinity School and Amherst College and so on. And there was this great inversion brought about, so we’re supposed to think New England was the repressive society when the South held slaves. What is the logic of that? When women in New England, for example, had vastly greater civil rights than women in the South, who typically couldn’t inherit from their husbands when their husband died, who lost their children when their husband died to their husband’s oldest male relative. The difference of the liberalism of New England relative to virtually anywhere else in the Western world is just extraordinary. And it comes directly out of Calvinistic civilization.

TN: You don’t seem afraid of the word “liberal” in the way a lot of people are.

MR: That’s another thing that drives me crazy. You know, I go to a liberal church, in this lovely little village where all the people are liberal people, which means they are openhanded and large-minded. I would use the word “liberal” in that setting, and they’d very kindly tell me that word is no longer used. 
I would say to them, “What did we do that so stigmatized this word that it can no longer be used?” It’s a beautiful word. Sounds good when you say it. Has biblical origins. They could never tell me. They could just give me the information that one no longer uses it—and that was extremely effective. The whole history of liberalism as a movement was lost because the name was removed from the file. Do you know what that is? It’s cowardice: “I’m afraid to say a word that somebody else will react to badly.” How insidious that is! Unbelievable, to me.

I gave a sermon at a Unitarian church, and I used the word “liberal” in the title. 
I thought that here, if anywhere . . . But no, 
I got the same advice.

TN: What does the word mean to you, then?

MR: In England and Europe, the word “liberal” means almost what we might call “libertarian.” In the United States, it has another origin, a theological origin: “Open wide thy hand.”

What is it with us? Clever people, right? Why is it that we can’t understand that a word means one thing in one culture and something else in another? And I have seen this attempt to rationalize this British liberalism in terms that could be understood as American liberalism. British liberalism is just mercantilism; it has nothing to do with our traditions. One of the things that has corrupted our understanding of our own liberal tradition is the fact that we can’t make this distinction between British usage and American usage. You go to the London School of Economics to learn “liberal economics,” and it’s absolutely hair-raising—and makes the University of Chicago look like heaven on earth.

Related:

Listen to an audio recording of this conversation on The Nation‘s website.

Read an excerpt of Lila

Read an excerpt of When I Was a Child I Read Books

Marilynne Robinson is the author of the novels Lila, Home, Gilead (winner of the Pulitzer Prize), and Housekeeping, and four books of nonfiction, When I Was a Child I Read Books, Mother Country, The Death of Adam, and Absence of Mind. She teaches at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

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