What Are We Doing Here?

Marilynne Robinson and Paul Elie

In Conversation


Marilynne Robinson has plumbed the human spirit in her renowned novels, including Lila, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Gilead, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Robinson’s peerless prose and boundless humanity are on full display in her new essay collection What Are We Doing Here?, as she turns her incisive mind to our modern political climate and the mysteries of faith. Scott Esposito of the San Francisco Chronicle described her essays as “distinctly unlike anything else available in contemporary American Literature . . . Robinson goes after the biggest questions, and proves herself equal to the task.” To celebrate the book’s release, Robinson joined author and editor Paul Elie (The Life You Save May Be Your Own) at the 92Y to discuss the state of American society, her unlikely friendship with President Obama, her thoughts on Flannery O’Connor, and her forthcoming novel.

Paul Elie: When you were speaking a few moments ago you said you didn’t expect to have a career as an essayist. Yet here it is, with several books of essays alongside your novels. What has this role meant to you? Does the left hand know what the right hand is doing?

Marilynne Robinson: Well, I try to keep the left hand and right hand quite distinct, I really do. I mean, you can see that the kind of historical research I’ve done is the basis for things in my novels. Gilead refers to quite a few things that I found out studying abolitionism. There are things that are on my mind. I am very interested in reading history. Before I wrote Mother Country I spent years reading classical economics, which is not a sweet experience, believe me [laughs]. I’m interested myself in why it is—I’m always trying to make in my mind credible models or to find something in the past that accounts for what seems to me like a warp in present thinking. And then, when I ask myself an interesting question, I end up doing the research behind it, then I get an invitation to lecture, and then I have an audience to focus on in terms of how I develop the idea.

Elie: It seems you’ve quite deliberately chosen to be not a personal essayist but a public essayist and lecturer, speaking to a broad public about our common life. That’s all intentional on your part?

Robinson: It’s a matter of preference. I do find the civilization more interesting than I find myself—that’s just a fact.

Elie: I’m perplexed, because some of the things that you consider as the civilization in the book are not at all pleasant to consider. Time and again in the essays, I can feel you gnashing your teeth at this idea that Americans—modern people in particular—have done away with God and the qualities in ourselves that supposedly we shared with God, so that we’re strangers to ourselves. And we are in no way more exceptional than when we deny our own exceptional qualities. This doesn’t make you at all happy and yet you keep coming back to the idea—can you develop that idea a bit for the audience?

Robinson: There’s a sort of—to use a phrase I’ve already used—an intellectual culture that works away at these ideas about, There is no mind, forget the soul that vanished a long time ago, the brain is a piece of tissue that is sort of efficient by the standards of computer science. There is no such thing as actual generosity, everything is self-interested. And this is what we teach our young. I don’t really believe that people have ceased to be religious. I think they’ve ceased to be articulate on the subject of religion. There is a sort of receding from traditions that makes the songs you would sing a thousand times in your life, the psalms you would repeat a thousand times in your life—those things that incrementally create in people a vocabulary for the sublime, for the pure. People have backed away from that for whatever reasons, but across the religious traditions I would say. I think there is a lot of religious sensitivity that is inarticulate and should not be read as a rejection of religion.

Elie: One of the things that makes this quality of vexation with contemporary thought so powerful in your work is that it’s communicated right alongside a feeling of profound love and appreciation for the civilization that we have. Love and loss together—it’s right there on the first page of Gilead. Reverend Ames saying, “I told you the other night that I might be gone sometime soon.” And you can feel the love and the loss in that sentence. How did these things fit together for you—your love of our civilization and your sense of the loss of it?

There’s always the sense that something so wonderful is also at the same time so vulnerable.

Robinson: Insofar as I’ve read people who love civilizations, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Cicero, there’s always anxiety. There’s always the sense that something so wonderful is also at the same time so vulnerable. We need to do fault-finding, as it’s a necessary function of being citizens of a free country—but one of the things people do that sort of bothers me is to use the faults that you find in the civilization as a reason to detach from it or condemn it. What you should aspire to do, surely, is point it out in the way that you would point out a frightening symptom in someone you love.

Elie: The word that is so often used is cynicism, but I think the word that you found is better and more precise. It’s “aversion”—and we have now, you suggest, a whole tradition of aversion—things to which we are trained to be averse. Is that right?

Robinson: That’s very true. Whole huge gaps in history are simply the reflex of aversion: to a name, to a word that no one knows the origins of or the meaning of.

Elie: So we’re averse to American history, puritanism, goodness, the list goes on.

Robinson: Exactly, exactly. I’m a great fan of the Beechers. Harriet Beecher Stowe and that whole cloud of people around her. And whenever they’re written about, which is rarely enough, it’s the hope of proving something very negative about them. That’s always the reason. Some people really accomplished spectacular things in the course of their lives that can often have very painful consequences along with magnificent consequences. But we can’t learn from the fact that perhaps she became an alcoholic after the Civil War. That’s the kind of thing that you read. We can learn from the fact that she very generously set out to write a book that would accomplish a very great task of liberation that we should all be incredibly impressed by. And I’m not saying it’s the greatest book in the world, but it was a book that was very well designed to do exactly what she wanted it to do. It’s not to be forgotten.

Elie: The question that I don’t think you answered because I don’t think it’s answerable—but, that said, I’d like you to go in that direction—why this aversion? Why such negativity? Our country is so wealthy, there is grace abounding on every corner, and yet you ask, How or why out of so much have we made so little?

Robinson: Well, we’ve made strange things out of it and disappointingly blighted things in some cases. But it’s a phenomenon I don’t understand. I lived in France for a while and, of course, I had friends who were Americans. And they would do things like—we were walking through a parking garage with a Frenchman and this American man that was with me said, “We couldn’t have these in America, they would be full of dead bodies.” We are so poor in parking garages. I think we’ve all noticed that [laughter]. And I said, “Well, that’s not true.” And you get shushed like you’re making some embarrassing display of ultra-patriotism or something. I truly don’t understand that. That’s a phenomenon I see over and over and over again. And then there are things like, we have this horrible—and in my opinion highly solvable—problem of these shootings. Guns. Ban them. But this is true and this is something that we all grieve over. It’s a horrible weight on every sane person’s heart, but at the same time we do have a very low crime rate. And by, for example, British standards, we have a very low crime rate. We’ve had less crime—violent crime—than they have for decades. Now what is it about American consciousness that we can’t say that this terrible thing is true and this heartening thing is true? Why does the lean kind always eat the fat kind? Because if the point is to have a clear sense of what’s going on in the culture, then all quality information should be acknowledged, right? Which includes a steeply declined crime rate. I mean, people sit around feeling terrified as if everything is going into a great tailspin. There’s a tailspin element in what is happening but there is also a very reassuring, heightened stability in effect.

Now what is it about American consciousness that we can’t say that this terrible thing is true and this heartening thing is true?

Elie: Not so long ago, although it feels like a very long time, you were in conversation with President Obama, he said he was changed by knowing you and—he hopes—for the better. What did that experience mean for you?

Robinson: You know, frankly, I haven’t processed it yet. It’s the most astonishing single thing that ever happened to me in my life—there’s no question about that. I have a very, very deep respect for President Obama. It’s definitely gilding a lily to change him for the better. It’s just one of those things you don’t really expect—I mean, who would ever dream of such a thing? It was like part of my fantasy life. I would’ve been embarrassed to have the fantasy that the president was going to fly to Cedar Rapids [laughter].

Elie: And we’re laughing, but it’s easy to forget now because politics is just so coarse at this moment.

Robinson: Exactly.

Elie: You sat with him and then you wrote a piece—maybe the only piece in the new book that wasn’t a public lecture. It was written for the nation. And it was a celebration of Barack Obama as a virtuous American who was in touch with the deep currents that you celebrate throughout the book. And it’s striking to read because he wasn’t necessarily a popular president in the eyes of the readers of the nation at that moment—he had let us down on Guantanamo, he hadn’t done this, he hadn’t done that, he was instituting drone strikes. And yet there you were, reminding us really of how lucky we were and what it meant to have a good man in the White House.

Robinson: Yes. Well, I talked with some people considering themselves liberal—this is part of what sort of set me off as far as a preface is concerned. They had decided that they would not vote in the last midterm election, before he went out of office. And the reason for that was that they felt they should signal their disapproval of certain aspects of his career, his policies. Well, isn’t that wonderful. So we have a Republican landslide. Who can doubt at this point what that would mean? You know, I seldom use the word stupid [laughter]. But I think if I were Vladimir Putin, and I wanted to defeat liberal policies in the United States, I would send well-dressed people to chic parties and have them say, Well, I’m certainly not going to vote for him. They could destroy the Democratic Party in one election.

Elie: You know, The New York Times Book Review has that feature “Behind the Book,” and at the end of the piece the writer is asked to imagine a literary dinner party—four people. For a while, I had figured that my own dinner party would be you, James Baldwin, Bob Dylan, and Flannery O’Connor. And then I read of your aversion to O’Connor’s moral vision. Liking her prose and not liking her outlook. Can you explain what that aversion is?

Robinson: You know, I’ve had to sort of struggle with this. I find her fictional imagination cruel. And I do not find any compensatory impulses in the fiction that would dignify the characters whom she treats so badly. Part of the reason, I think, for my reaction to her, is that I have to un-teach her influence all the time. Do not make characters only so you can ridicule them. Do not make characters who will be your victims. I don’t think of another major writer besides her who does that, frankly. And when you see it being imitated year after year, the features of it become very starkly delineated.

Elie: And you had said in connection with Housekeeping that you named the character Ruth because it means “gentle,” and that that was really an aesthetic—that you were going to be gentle toward your characters, which is the opposite of what you see as O’Connor’s cruelty toward her characters.

Robinson: Yes.

Elie: And has that been true through your career? That you’ve then set out to be gentle to your characters in books after Housekeeping?

Robinson: I think yes. The word that comes to mind before gentle is actually “fair.” I mean, fiction is one of the places where you can actually do what is necessary in order to acknowledge the complexity of anything. And I think that being fair manifests, presents, as gentle.

Elie: And then is that an obligation that you feel in essays as well? Fairness as a kind of gentleness?

I never say, Don’t say what is true—I just say, Say all of what is true.

Robinson: Well, yes. I think to be fair is to understand that things have many sides. You can identify very strongly with American university culture at the same time that you wish that students were given the more nutritive aspects of the culture to internalize as a heritage and a way of life. I never say, Don’t say what is true—I just say, Say all of what is true. Do not censor things so that the more interesting or the more intriguing or humane parts are left out.

Elie: You mentioned that you’re soon going to be working on an essay or a lecture. Is there a moment in the future when you’ll turn back to fiction?

Robinson: Oh! Jonathan [Galassi] can tell you, I have a novel under contract.

Marilynne Robinson is the author of the novels Lila, Home, Gilead (winner of the Pulitzer Prize), and Housekeeping, and the nonfiction books The Givenness of Things, When I Was a Child I Read Books, Mother Country, The Death of Adam, and Absence of Mind. She lives in Iowa.

Paul Elie, for many years a senior editor with FSG, is now a senior fellow with Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. His first book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, received the PEN/Martha Albrand Prize and was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in 2003. He lives in New York City.

This event was recorded live at NYC’s 92nd Street Y on Tuesday, Februrary 20. Photo by Nancy Crampton.