By Marilynne Robinson
Reviewed by Drew Phillips
Writing Workshop Participant ’10
Yale University Press, 158 pp., $24.00
Marilynne Robinson’s first volume of nonfiction since The Death of Adam (2005) grew out of her 2009 Terry lectures at Yale. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her novel Gilead, Robinson here engages primary texts to write in depth about such subjects as Darwinism, Calvinism, and evolution, topics common in public discourse but seldom engaged with so much substance. A particular thorn in Robinson’s flesh is that people use terms like “Darwinism” to express opinions that would have been foreign to Darwin himself. She argues for a more open and mysterious definition of “mind” than is common in modern thought. Robinson claims that reducing “mind” to the functions of the brain is a wrongheaded result of modernity’s hold upon science. A self-proclaimed humanist and proponent of religion, Robinson draws on the works of Comte and William James to support her argument. She identifies Freud as her chief opponent, and points to his reactionary “science” as killing Comte’s scientific notion of altruism.
Robinson’s strength is her ability to place schools of thought and ideas in context; she creates a clear bridge to the present. For example, what are now considered reasons for disbelief–discrepancies in the gospels, and the fact that most ancient Mesopotamian civilizations have similar flood and creation stories, were for many centuries cause for the faithful to believe. Claiming that the present-day anti-religious agitators are “parascientific” Robinson argues for a pre-modern view of “mind,” one which makes room for the unknown and for the mystery of religious concepts. Much of the text comes across more as a critique of bad science than an argument for religion.
Despite Robinson’s intimate knowledge of the primary sources involved in this debate, I found myself wondering if she, a novelist, had the credentials to define good and bad science. Does a close reading of the paradigmatic scientific texts warrant an opinion by someone who is not a part of the field? Is she reinforcing the beliefs of the faithful or seeking an audience with scientists? That these questions arise is probably a further illustration of her point that professional science is embedded in parascience and that those who don’t speak the language are excluded. Robinson quotes philosopher John Seals remark that “there is no such thing as the scientific world. There is rather, just the world, and what we are trying to do is describe how it works and describe our situation in it.” To exclude religion, the premodern notion of self, and the virtue of altruism is shortsighted.
Absence of Mind is short but dense. Robinson’s prose is beautiful and heavy. When reading Gilead, a novel focusing on the life of a minister, this minister thought, “How does she write as if she’s been a preacher?” She possesses knowledge beyond what could have come from reading. In her fiction she creates realistic worlds. If science is the language that describes the known world, Robinson’s desire for it to be a more inclusive language keeps the Unknown always in mind.
Drew Phillips is Chaplain at Christian Activity Center in East St. Louis, Illinois. Drew attended the Collegeville Institute’s summer writing workshop Writing and the Pastoral Life in 2010.