Review: What Are We Doing Here?

So…US novelist Marilynne Robinson’s What Are We Doing Here? is not exactly my usual fare, but it is stimulating, fascinating and difficult, and I’m glad I picked it up (in the English-language section of a bookshop in Bologna, if you must know).

It’s a series of essays – most of them lecture transcripts – discussing the current direction of academic discourse and thought in the US. As the title implies, it’s in part an attempt to grapple with how America especially, and the West more generally, have got where we are today: increasingly polarised societies divided by received ideology. In doing so, it meanders through history, theology, aesthetics and philosophy.

It is nowhere near as diffuse as that makes it sound. Each essay is tightly argued – and densely argued too; this isn’t a book you can read with your attention elsewhere. Material is, necessarily, repeated and re-stated across the different essays, and so two main themes emerge as if organically. The first I don’t know enough to speak to: Robinson argues that the New England Puritans are consistently misrepresented in American thought, imagined as intolerant and joyless where, in fact, the historical record shows them to be much more tolerant than their contemporaries in England and other parts of nascent America. “These stigmas,” Robinson writes in “Old Thought, New World”, “have created dead zones in British and American historical thought” – which amount to gaps in how America perceives itself (the Puritans being important founders of America).

The second theme is the idea – the argument – that current academic and popular discourse, which favours orderly, rational accounts of the world, accounts based on Darwinistic theories of human behaviour and on what we can sense in the “physical strata” of reality, does not admit discussion of insensible concepts like justice, beauty, conscience; and so that this too creates “dead zones” in twenty-first-century Western thought, missing out as it does vast swathes of human experience. From “Old Souls, New World” again:

“…for some time now science has been fetching back strange reports about the radical apparent discontinuity between volatile reality at the subatomic level and the stolid lawfulness of reality at the scale of our experience…Reality as we know it now does not yield or legitimize a narrow or prejudicial vocabulary…We should instead be finding language that is capable, capacious and responsive.”

“Ideology has been a terrible mistake, theory another one,” she goes on to claim. Which is a strong claim, for a prominent novelist, thinker and teacher of writing. I’ve been going back and forth on whether I agree with it.

The first question we can ask, surely, is whether this is a fair representation of popular discourse – that is has a “narrow or prejudicial vocabulary”. It seems likely that one of the authors Robinson has squarely in her sights when she’s talking about a discourse that rationalises all the better human impulses as Darwinistic self-interest is biologist and New Atheist Richard Dawkins. And there is indeed something vaguely unsatisfactory about his anti-religion screed The God Delusion, in that it relies entirely on evidence and logic (alongside a nasty dollop of condescension and plain intolerance) to disprove something as intensely personal, emotional and subjective as religion. Religion and belief, I instinctively feel, is precisely not rational, so rationalism alone can rarely touch it. And so a logic-based discourse is not capacious enough to encompass the experience of religion, however much we think we’ve explained it in Darwinian terms.

In this failure of Western academic discourse to encompass personal, subjective human experience Robinson places the key to the failure of ideology and party politics. If we see each other only rationally, if we think of each other only as intelligent apes and lucky animals, we lose our sense of each other as, precisely, subjects; as Robinson puts it, we lose sight of the “sacredness” of every human being. (Ah, and doesn’t it prove something of Robinson’s point that I can’t not put those scare quotes there?) We start thinking of our own opinions as fully evidence-based, because that’s how we’ve articulated them to ourselves. We forget that others have different opinions that feel, to them, just as evidence-based, just as objectively true.

And so. Trump and Brexit.

But Dawkins is surely too obvious and too easy a target. What about Robinson’s claim about theory being a “terrible mistake” – a claim that I instinctively push back on? It seems clear from context that she’s partly thinking about theory in the context of literary study: “There is no writer, and so on.” Death of the author – trust the tale, not the teller – is a theory that’s been in vogue since the 70s; biographical criticism, nowadays, is old-fashioned and, in my (undergraduate and amateur) experience, usually a sign of lack of rigour.

My instinctive feeling about Robinson’s pushback against theory, in this specific and limited context which is all I have experience of, is that theory only becomes stultifying if you apply it inflexibly; if, precisely, you don’t allow your own subjectivity to colour it, to add to the vast conversation that is academia. Certainly I’ve read bad theory, and works that apply theory badly; works that thus can’t encompass the author’s full emotional experience of reading a text, because their theoretical frameworks explicitly exclude aspects of that experience. But I’ve also read works that apply theory constructively, creatively, and that read texts instinctually and satisfyingly as a result – even if we disagree with them, we can see that the author’s engaged emotionally as well as intellectually with what they’re interpreting.*

Actually, I think that last bit is key: engaging emotionally and intellectually with what you’re writing about. It’s something Dawkins doesn’t do: he considers the rational reasons why people believe, but doesn’t engage with the question emotionally. In other words, he’s trapped by his theoretical framework (in this case, Darwinism and narrow sense-based rationalism), not energised by it. It’s something that it’s all too easy not to do when we’re ranting about something – or, let’s be honest, someone – we don’t like; if we fail to engage emotionally and intellectually, we’re creating “dead zones” in our own self-accounting, the story we tell about ourselves. We are failing to see the complexity of the real, of human experience; we’re failing to see each other’s sacredness and exceptionalism.

I’ve got a feeling What Are We Doing Here? will probably reward many more readings. I might not agree with it in its entirety, but I do feel that it’s “capable, capacious and responsive”; that it calls us to engage with it emotionally and intellectually; that it invites us to revisit our habits of thought much more persuasively than The God Delusion does.

Which, thank all the gods whether real or imagined, I can finally take back to the library.


*I’m thinking of things like (to name just a few) Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic, which radically re-reads nineteenth-century fiction by women as a feminist tradition and corpus; Adam Roberts’ SFF reviews, which wear their theory lightly and often humorously but always revealingly; Erin Horakova’s essay “Freshly Remember’d: Kirk Drift”, which tracks fandom responses to Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk against what’s actually present in the text; even David Rudd’s Reading the Child in Children’s Literature, which aims to, if only partly succeeds at, put back some of the delight of children’s literature in our study of it. I’m well aware that some of these examples are not, in fact, American.

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