A reflection upon Marilynne Robinson's The Givenness of Things
If we are to be blindsided by history, it will probably be the consequence not of unresolved disputes but of unexamined consensus.
The Givenness of Things,
This book of essays by Marilynne Robinson really challenged me this Lenten season. Over four sessions, on a Sunday, a group of us have been meeting at St Peter's Eastern Hill and focused on four different chapters.
In terms of Robinson’s social, political, intellectual and spiritual considerations, I resonate. Her words are firmly and morally premised on a love for humanity, which comes out of the Gospels. Her fresh expression, the confident, concise, subtle nature of her thought patterns, I have also delighted in.
Where I’m challenged is in the actual breadth of her knowledge. She seems to be as at home in the discourse of science as she is with politics or Calvinism. I feel as though in these Lenten sessions we have barely scraped the surface of her thinking, and I have felt a certain unease and quiet frustration with this. And yet, always Robinson’s at-homeness in these spheres admits to gaps in knowledge, and, at times her confession to being ‘grossly inadequate’. I take her words as genuine - she reminds us that she is not an historian, a scientist, a politician.
Robinson is well known as a fiction writer. In fiction and here, as an essayist, she is a person whose mind is alive to the contemporary shape of the world in a deeply Christian way. In these essays she is always opening up discussion - never shuts it down. She draws the reader in, only to draw the reader out. Her prose style acts in such a way that your mind has to wriggle through the paragraphs. The reader is not given the pleasure of straight sequential or logical thinking. It’s hard reading because Robinson has the knack of making the reader’s mind work: she often writes a series of statements, and it’s up to us to make the connections. Her real interest she says in the chapter on Value, the one I chose to lead and under discussion here, is in the ‘deep...tectonics that …produces the energy behind all these surface tremors and disruptions.’ Her interest is in being a witness to what is happening morally in our world today. Where do we need to worry, to caution, to call out those ideologies or modes of behaviour that can potentially pull the moral carpet up from under a nation’s feet?
Robinson covers a number of social and ethical themes in her work. However, each theme is often examined via a number of entrances. In Value she begins with reference to a nation on the brink of moral collapse: Germany in the Second World War. But the first two words of the essay are a name: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Most of the essay is preoccupied with forces that take a culture or nation into a downward moral spiral.
This collection of essays was published in 2015 (written probably the year before) but lines like this are unmistakeable in their reference: ‘There are old men now who spend their twilight using imponderable wealth to overwhelm the political system’; and again, ‘imagine how great a boost to the aging ego would come with taking a nation’s fate out of its own unworthy hands and shaping to one’s particular lights - which may not be, in fact, enlightened, even rational ….’. Her words are prophetic to contemporary America in 2017, as they are based on a much deeper malaise. That she did not open this chapter with the name of the leading perpetrator responsible for revealing the ‘deviancy of which a modern society is capable’ in 20th century Germany, but instead with someone who sought to see clearly and worked to have a nation remember that which it most valued, who was a ‘beautiful model of Christian behaviour over, against, and within a terrible moment in history’, immediately tells us where she herself is positioned. Bonhoeffer is a credible moral compass. Her words are predicated on the life of such a sentinel of Christian values in a world that finds itself flummoxing. Though she warns against being predictive about the best or the worst ‘propensities of a civilisation’ in the present moment, and cautions too against seeing ‘moral collapse as imminent, brought on by big government, or by departures from whichever construction of religion they consider sufficient to stay divine wrath…’ Robinson nevertheless acknowledges the very real ground for ‘anxiety about the future of the West and the world.’ For her, ‘no society at any time is immune to moral catastrophe.’
Though Marilynne Robinson begins this chapter on Value with reference to one of 20th century’s greatest heroes of the faith, she nonetheless concentrates most of her subsequent discussion on what does a world at risk of losing a core sense of its own moral value actually look like. She calls out other Mammons of history: the Fabians with ‘all the tedious little plots they spun to lower workers’ already wretched wages...’, the ‘early fascist movement Action Française’, the Poor Laws dating back to Edward VI. In order to understand ‘value’, which is often paraphrased as ‘that which people value’, we need not only to move into a deeper place concerning what this means, but know it through its periods of loss in human history. Even this act of atavism itself (the drawing upon history itself to further one’s own argument) is taken to task.
Psychologically too, there are Mammons who need to be dethroned. In our Western society there have been many times when ‘blaming the victim’ leads to the poor tending to blame themselves. And in today’s world ‘we have a new concept…the unworthy poor.’
As a creative writer, as well as essayist, she is compelled to use metaphor to illustrate what is happening in us during times in history when ‘bad old impulses’ due to ‘alarm or by tedium or simply at random’ will suddenly assert themselves. Whilst on the one hand acknowledging there is no such thing as a ‘reptilian brain’, she nonetheless falls back on this need to ‘describe’ such impulse before it can properly be ‘understood’. For her, how else can one begin to explain the resurgence of capital punishment in America as a means for deterrence. Likewise, where else does one begin in trying to explain the historical ‘catastrophe in Germany and Europe’ of their ‘conscious and thoroughgoing accommodation of all that was worst, corrupting science and philosophy to embrace notions like purity and authenticity and racial memory’? Likewise, too, how else to explain, but from the description of a reptilian brain, the ‘value’ a prominent English politician revealed on her last trip to the UK. In a discussion about a bell curve, he ascribed 15% of people at the bottom, and 2% at the top in terms of IQ. From this he concluded that ‘a considerable fraction of society … are not intellectually capable of anything better than poverty, so no point in trying to design policy around them.’
As we read this chapter, the vibrations of its title are like the slow gong of a brass bell asking us the same question again and again: what is that which we value? It is something that is knitted into our very fabric, individually and collectively, but what is it that can be eroded so subtly from us?
'Value' is something that informs and motivates action in all spheres of our lives: politics, art, economics. Especially today, economics. As with many other important attributes concerning what it means to live life fully under discussion in this book (grace, memory, givenness, theology, awakenness, humanism), although ‘value’ is vital, it is also complex and subject to ambiguity and corruption. But also, as with each other subject, there are qualities about ‘value’ that are essential. A quality Robinson values, though again has caused her great perplexity and confusion for seeing its erosion in America, is the attribute of generosity. ‘I had always thought that the one thing I could assume about my country is that it is very generous. Instinctively and reflexively generous … our saving grace was always generosity, material and, often, intellectual and spiritual.’ A ‘subcategory’ of this is the quality of rescuing, by means of skill, experience, and aid, people in a crisis.
Another attribute of ‘value’, and here she enters via the doors of economics, of pragmatism, is the ‘creative class.’ Brahms and Shakespeare wore livery to denote them as not being beggars or vagrants. Mozart dined with servants. Robinson highlights the ‘arbitrarily’ narrow definition, not only of economists, but of people’s notions of ‘value’ generally. Mozart, Brahms, Shakespeare are good for tourism. They generate income. Is this why we value them?
There is for Robinson a plutocracy, a materially privileged group that has no interest in meaning; they would have us believe income is all. But actually, what is of intrinsic value is what is given to us in the music, the literature, the art, the sacred sites, the feast days.
The Givenness of Things is a series of essays about that which brings meaning into a human life. In this chapter, Robinson works to show us that meaning is not found in materiality or power or economics for their own sake. What we value shows us what our meaning is. And what is of true value is thought and art, ‘with humanity itself as an object of reverence.’ If we revere money and power then we do so at our peril.
It is a figure like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who teaches us that we must live up to the challenges of our times; we must learn to see clearly, otherwise there will be more bitter lessons of history that await us.