New Transcendentalist

Illustration by A. Weisgerber for the Brothers Grimm, ca. 1900  |  Open Libraryvia 

Here is a book that has a lingering, and I suspect, lifelong effect: you feel elevated; then you feel free. I can only compare this to architecture, to a feeling sometimes experienced inside a great hall or cathedral, say, Grand Central Station or Notre Dame. These are the very things that Robinson, at heart a fiction writer (at heart a poet) writes about, namely, elevation of the human spirit and the freedom of that spirit in the course of a life, lived in a community, a house that we might call democracy.

This is also a book about writing, about the role of the writer, and the role of the critic in helping us to remember, to not forget, our potential as humans — to enlarge our vistas, to create space and freedom in our imaginations, to use our imagination to consider the other (person, race, religion, animal, vegetable, and mineral), and  to explore and honor our intuition. Robinson, the author of three novels, Housekeeping (1981), Gilead (2004), and Home (2008), but she has generously stepped outside that genre several times to write essays and criticism on being human, on faith, and other matters. I like to think of Robinson as a member of a merry band I call the New Transcendentalists, a group that builds on the luminous work of Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, Whitman, Melville, and others. The New Transcendentalists include, besides Robinson,  Wendell Berry, Thomas Merton, Mary Oliver, Rebecca Solnit, and others. I am sure that I have left names from both categories, New and Old, but the message is the same: belief in the human spirit and its capacity for community, generosity, and stewardship; in what Whitman called “radical uniqueness,” and in the vital connection to nature as a source of creativity and innovation. The effect is also the same: elevation, followed by freedom.

In her introduction to this collection of 10 essays, Robinson expresses urgency,  “We live,” she writes, “in a political environment characterized by wolfishness and filled with blather.” “What if we have ceased to aspire to Democracy, or even democracy? What if the words ‘Democracy’ and ‘America’ are severed, and no longer imply each other? It is not unusual now to hear that we have lost our values, that we have lost our way.” Robinson posits, no, she believes that religion has always informed Democracy, helped move it forward, inasmuch as religion “honors and liberates the sacred human person.” We have wandered away from our ability to even speak of or write about the human spirit without being ridiculed or marginalized — we no longer honor Whitman’s “radical uniqueness.” “Identity seems now to imply membership in a group, through ethnicity or affinity or religion or otherwise. Rather than acknowledging the miraculous privilege of existence as a conscious being…it has reference now to knowing one’s place, culturally and historically speaking.”

Robinson talks about a smallness, a lessening, a decrease in “the character of generosity and the largeness of spirit that has created and supported the best of our institutions and brought reform to the worst of them.” The source of this shrinking? “The economics of the moment” and its “corrosive influence, undermining everything it touches.” Elsewhere, Robinson likens this way of thinking to that of a rat in a maze, an economics that “assumes that we will find the shortest way to the reward.” In this world, talk of the soul, talk of beauty, elevation of the spirit is considered an affectation.

Writing, for Robinson, has come to mean exploring intuition, freedom, and this is how she teaches it at the University of Iowa. Her students come to her believing that they must write pyrotechnics in order to survive, that there is no place for them in today’s literature and she assures them otherwise. Literature as they have studied it provides meaning, provides a vision of something that goes beyond procreation, survival, acquisition. “Forget definition,” she tells them. “Forget assumption, watch. We inhabit, we are a part of, a reality for which explanation is much too poor and small. No physicist would dispute this.”

“When I write fiction, I suppose my attempt is to simulate the integrative work of a mind perceiving and reflecting, drawing upon culture, memory, conscience, belief or assumption, circumstance, fear, and desire — a mind shaping the moment of experience and response and then reshaping them both as narrative.” When a writer creates a character, she explains, it is important to distinguish between knowing about someone (important for plot) and actually knowing someone. When a reader knows a character, she can explore the world through his eyes. For Robinson, the word soul is a word she misses in common parlance, soul in the sense of self-awareness, an awareness that has its roots in perception. Perceiving the world through the eyes of a stranger or a character in a book is nothing less than expanding self-awareness to include the other, which is the first step on the path to imagining community. Community consists, she writes, “very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly ... I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.”

There are two questions about fiction that Robinson says she cannot answer: where it comes from and why we crave it. Of course, she does answer both questions in the course of this remarkable book. Fiction comes from the soul, from our remarkable ability to imagine the other and our desire to engage with the other, even help and nurture the other. We crave it because we crave this empathy and because we crave narrative, the other essential ingredient in fiction. We crave grand narratives, myths, because “narrative always implies cause and consequence. It creates paradigmatic structures around which experience can be ordered, and this certainly would account for the craving for it.”

Some of the most beautiful writing in this book is about the unknown, the “apophatic — reality that eludes words — dark matter, dark energy, the unexpressed dimensions proposed by string theory, the imponderable strangeness described by quantum theory.” Robinson weaves science and religion together in ways that defy disentanglement. They are both our best, our finest efforts at understanding who we are; they serve and support each other, filling in gaps, providing supporting evidence for each other’s grand theories. Writing helps us make inroads in the unknown by enlarging intuition — its scope and value as a vehicle for exploration. “we live on a little island of the articulable,” she writes, “which we tend to mistake for reality itself.” She writes of her admiration for Edgar Allen Poe, who pondered “the great void” in the mid-1800s and came up with a cosmology that in so many ways presages and anticipates modern physics’ explanation for the origins of the universe — namely, an explosion of an infinitesimal point, which would again explode. “He saw in the rhythm of it all,” she writes, “a great beating heart.”

In the title essay, “When I Was a Child,” Robinson describes her childhood, her reading habits and her first inklings that, as a child of the West (she grew up in Idaho), she spoke a slightly different language than those educated in the East. In the west, for example, “lonesome is a word with strongly positive connotations.”  Solitude was a gift, a opportunity to experience one’s “radical singularity, one’s greatest dignity and privilege. Understanding this permits one to understand the sacred poetry in strangeness, silence, and otherness. The vernacular form of this idea is the Western hero, the man of whom nothing can ever really be known.”

Robinson has an ax to grind with the insistence on male heroes, which she grinds swiftly and to a killing point, but what I find more interesting is her idea of the outsider as critic, visionary, rescuer, an avenger who loosens the chains of a society that would consign the individual to drudgery and conformity, to smallness. By encouraging “reverence for the text” and “an interest in its origins, and respect too for all its origins,” the critic reminds the reader and the writer of primary goal of all inquiry: to enlarge the human spirit. In this world, the world of Robinson’s childhood, “mourning, melancholy, regret, and loneliness were high sentiments.” “In modern culture,” she writes, “they are seen as pathologies — alienation and inauthenticity in Europe, maladjustment and depression in the United States.”

The fiction writer, the poet, remembers her grandparents’ farm and its passing, its eveningtime: “And then the cows came home and the wind came up and Venus burned through what little remained of the atmosphere and the dark and the emptiness stood over the old house like some unsought revelation.”

We cannot allow ourselves to be made small, writers and critics and scientists and artists must all remind us. Humans through the ages are too easily persuaded of anything. “Our ancestors seem to have been persuaded that they were souls and spirits. Very much in their society reinforced this ancient belief. Was it based on intuition? Superstition? Wishful thinking? Or the simple tendency of people to allow their culture to form their beliefs? Now there are those who reject the very idea that there is such a thing as a soul or a spirit. Is this denial based on their own experience? It seems that we must be continually reminded that, as Robinson writes, “We came from somewhere and we are tending somewhere, and the spectacle is glorious and portentous.”

This is not the message we receive every day, namely, that we are selfish, lost, mean and alone (not lonesome!) in an overpopulated world hell-bent on destroying itself. Robinson takes this apart and makes it again. And we will remake her ideas because they lend themselves to interpretation, not dogma.