The Givenness of Things: Essays
FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX, 304 PP.
Where she stands is never a question. Even the title of Marilynne Robinson’s new essay collection, The Givenness of Things, stakes out teleological ground. John Calvin, John Wycliffe, Jonathan Edwards (the preacher, not the other one), William Shakespeare: good. Neuroscientists, faddism, fear, the Earl of Oxford (Edward de Vere, the 17th—nineteen more go unremarked upon): bad. Imagine as substitutes for the colons in these last sentences an array of digressions, confessions, and meditations. The real pleasure in these essays is in the process, as egregious a cliché as any, but one I keep finding to be true (as with—recently, sadly, gnawingly—baking). So if there is no payoff, there is at least some pleasure.
Forgive me if this is kind of snippy. I’m feeling defensive. I may be the only person who has ever—even accidentally—listened to a full episode of NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! and doesn’t love Robinson’s work, up to and including the President of the United States. But as I wouldn’t enlist in the Italian Navy, so I have trouble taking moral direction from a writer without an apparent sense of humor. Set that aside, though. This is an essay collection, and I am compelled first to survey.
Contents: “Humanism,” “Reformation,” “Grace,” “Servanthood” “Givenness,” “Awakening,” “Decline,” “Fear,” “Proofs,” “Memory,” “Value,” “Metaphysics,” “Theology,” “Experience,” “Son of Adam, Son of Man,” “Limitation,” “Realism.”
The gist of this project, and the volume of thought that’s led to it, should be clear now. Robinson is a powerful thinker. These essays are more or less what they sound like. She ranges widely—theology, physics, historiography—but it is to Calvin, her “saint,” that she most frequently returns. A happy match, as Calvin was as rigorous a theologian as any we’ve had.
He is the focus of “Reformation,” which traces the movement’s course, its legacy in contemporary America, and the vernacularizing of the Bible. He appears again in “Grace,” which, in part, aims to correct impressions of Puritanism’s distaste for the arts. In “Servanthood,” she considers his relationship to Wycliffe, and his influence on the English, Shakespeare in particular. “Givenness” finds him in the context of Jonathan Edwards, a Calvinist himself, and, in “Fear,” in the midst of a sort of Richard Hofstadter meditation on American political impulses.
These summaries are the barest of sketches, and there’s much else besides. “Awakening” covers the “Great” American iterations of same, “Decline” the American love of fatalism, “Realism” our cynical bent, “Theology” theology, “Metaphysics” metaphysics. And there is also, despite this great breadth, despite the many things to recommend these essays (and I’m sure plenty of exhortations are in the pipeline even as I write this, so I’ll defer), something that, as I sit and think about The Givenness of Things, grates.
I suppose what I take issue with is the notion of earnestness. No writer working in America today seems to have so plush a mantle of it about their public figure. We are to take this book, to take all of Robinson’s books, as pure exegesis—no hint of the grease, the slight-of-hand of back-from-heaven hucksters or two-faced televangelists. And Robinson is not of that sorry bunch. But neither is she earnest in this fact-finding, record-straightening endeavor of hers. We get the suppression of Puritan texts by the censors of Charles II after the Restoration, but not the elimination of all news media but a state-run propaganda press under Oliver Cromwell. We get Calvin the saint, the theologian, the progenitor of the many admirable movements and modes of thought that have followed from his work. We don’t see Calvin the theocrat, nor the witch-burner, nor the dogmatist for whom the commandment against adultery was taken to extend to immodest dress.
Most jarring is a passage in “Memory,” in which Robinson dismisses the role of Christianity in Confederate justifications of slavery, contrasting it with the biblical denunciations issuing from abolitionists. “If there are southern equivalents of Henry Ward Beecher or Lydia Maria Child,” she writes, “I haven’t found them.” I have a distinct impression, given the obscurity of some of the texts she digs up elsewhere, that she wasn’t trying very hard. For the sake of brevity, let’s set aside entirely the destruction that Christian evangelism wrought on traditional cultures and religions of Africa, both there and among the slaves kidnapped to the Americas. Consider instead that the defense of slavery is the sole reason for the existence of the Southern Baptist Convention. Consider Frederick Dalcho, John Weems, Richard Furman, James Henry Hammond, Thornton Stringfellow, and, most prominently, James Henley Thornwell. Consider the volumes of newspaper editorials, speeches, and letters making explicit an entire constellation of pro-slavery apologetics. That we don’t remember them fondly, if we remember them at all, should be no surprise, but that they existed should not be one either.
Robinson, in her frequent critiques of the “New Atheists,” Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and so on (who will get little defense from me, by the way), takes to task (though these particular words are taken from an essay not included here) their “closed ontol- ogy.” It’s at the crux of her argument in “Humanism”—directed in that case at the contemporary state of neuroscience, though the point recurs throughout The Givenness of Things—this frustration with a scientific positivism that is so reductionist as to become, and be treated as, a metaphysic. This has been a thrust in her nonfiction for some time. For all the effort Robinson has put into skewering popular caricatures of Calvin and others, you’d think she’d be more careful. To go from the valleys to the peaks of her charity might give you vertigo. Plus, hers is an ontology as hermetic as any.
I’ll take, for the title alone, a couple of lines from “Proofs”: “The attributes of Wisdom are utter plenitude and perfect grace.” “Our very transience means that we partake of a reality infinitely greater than ourselves in the fact of our understanding.” Or here, from “Son of Adam, Son of Man”: “Existence is remarkable, actually incredible.” If this is not nonsense, I have been laboring under some potent misconceptions.
“I am drawn,” Robinson writes, “to Calvin’s description of this world as a theater, with the implication that a strong and particular intention is expressed in it, that its limits, its boundedness, are meant to let meaning be isolated out of the indecipherable weather of the universe at large.” The self as stagecraft. I don’t mean it to be pejorative, but there’s some mysticism in this conception of the world that borders on flippant. Wires and pulleys can work magic from a certain angle, but why that’s preferable to any other view I do not understand. My experiences are my own and I don’t deny them. To dress up the old cliché a bit, beauty needs only observation, not design. To be, in the most reductive formulation, a soft, wet, accidental machine is an idea Robinson detests. She would rather we were mimes, hands out, pressing on ether under the lights. But it’s the former, we’re told in The Givenness of Things, that does not take the human experience seriously.