Marilynne Robinson’s latest essay collection What Are We Doing Here? reveals the limits of her restrained metaphysics.

Marilynne Robinson and Barack Obama meet in Des Moines, Iowa, September 14, 2015 (Pete Souza / White House)

What Are We Doing Here? Essays
by Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018, 336 pp.

Since Donald Trump’s election, a lot of Americans have become nostalgic for the country we used to be. Barack Obama is more popular than at any time since his first term. George W. Bush had gone from global laughing stock to elder statesman and has resurfaced to say of Trump: “this guy doesn’t know what it means to be president.” Figures like David Frum—the speechwriter who spent years putting lethal garbage into Bush’s mouth—have resurfaced in liberal spaces like MSNBC to offer an endless stream of commentary about the loss of democratic values. The indiscriminate nostalgia for anything pre-Trump suggests that it’s not just death and destruction that bothers everyone (Bush gave us plenty of that)—what rankles a lot of people is Trump’s bending of norms and his unrepentant tone.

Marilynne Robinson, Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist and author of the new essay collection What Are We Doing Here? is well-suited to this era. Robinson is best known for her fiction—four quietly beautiful novels about religion, family, suffering, and grace in small-town America—but as Robinson told Obama: “I give lectures at a fair rate, and then when I’ve given enough of them to make a book, I make a book.” Robinson is one of Obama’s favorite authors, and a great fan of his; they met in September 2015 to talk about literature and democracy in Des Moines, Iowa. It was a Norman Rockwell painting disguised as an interview:

Obama: The issue to me, Marilynne, is not so much that those virtues that you prize and that you care about and that are vital to our democracy aren’t there. They are there in Little League games, and—

Robinson: Emergency rooms.

Obama: —emergency rooms, and in school buildings. And people are treating each other the way you would want our democracy to cultivate. But there’s this huge gap.

They delved into favorite liberal topics like cable news, political polarization, and Iowa values. Robinson’s new book is very much in this vein. She offers a passionate defense of the humanities in the chapter “The American Scholar Now,” decrying a world in which intellectual and artistic treasures have no “value.” She notes that cable news is making us hate each other, and in one of the most compelling essays describes how her own mother was transformed by a late-life addiction to Fox News. Robinson abhors the “neo-Benthamite” character of twenty-first-century public life, in which competition and quantifiable value reign supreme.

Robinson’s conversation with Obama became more interesting when they talked about religion. Robinson is a serious Protestant and occasional preacher at her church, and all of her work features meditations on theology. When asked by Obama about the intersection of Christianity and democracy, she says simply: “I believe that people are images of God.” For her, “democracy is the logical, the inevitable consequence of this kind of religious humanism at its highest level.” In other words, religion is the sturdiest bulwark against a neo-Benthamite culture because it cannot be argued with, cannot be persuaded by anyone at the University of Chicago or Harvard Business School that humans beings are less than sacred.

In What Are We Doing Here? Robinson uses religion to criticize capitalism, and then uses it to undermine all grand social theories, especially those that might lead to upheaval. In a chapter called “The Sacred, The Human,” she writes that

the disciplines that treat of the human psyche are determinist as ever. These days we are believed by many to be locked into perpetual cost-benefit analysis, unconsciously guided by a calculus of self-interest somehow negotiated at the level of the genome. The, shall we say, biomechanics of all this are never described, of course. It has the apparent advantage, for its exponents, of marginalizing the mind, in fact anything that has ever been called the psyche, not to mention the soul. So did phrenology, eugenics, Marxianism, Freudianism, behaviorism. We have no capacity for meaningful choice, so they all tell us.

Who are the Marxists and psychoanalysts who’ve been telling her this? We never find out, because while Robinson does a lot of rhetorical hand waving, she never names the caricatured antagonists. Robinson is famously well-read, so she probably knows that the stories of Marxism and psychoanalysis involve big, interesting disputes over how much people can change themselves and the world around them. She probably also knows that it’s silly to throw major systems of thought in the same basket as phrenology. Against any human intellectual efforts, which must always fall short, she celebrates “complexity,” by which she means the irreducible complexity of human experience and of the world. She writes in an essay called “Grace and Beauty,” “My interest here is in reauthorizing experience, felt reality, as one important testimony to the nature of reality itself.” Then she goes on to denounce Freud again.

What’s so weird about this book is that she just doesn’t seem curious about anything but theology. In the past, she’s claimed to be fascinated by science, especially quantum physics, and argued that New Atheist crusaders like Richard Dawkins are ruining science’s reputation (I agree!). In this collection, it seems like secularism itself is the enemy. “So great is my respect for secular people that I wish they had a metaphysics worthy of them,” she writes. At least she takes pity on us, blinded as we are by science.

Robinson’s love for Obama drives the most uncritical essay in the collection. She’s not interested in Obama as a maker of policy—she’s interested in Obama as Christ. Here’s how she begins the chapter: “Let us say, as a thought experiment, that History and Providence conspired to create a president suited to twenty-first-century America.” Good lord. She continues, “He might unite in his own person the two races that are shorthand for difference and division within the society, and have deep personal bonds with both black and white” and by identifying with both “would bring as much humanity to this grievous old affliction as any one person could bring to it.” She goes on to describe how he was raised abroad, a young witness to the United States’ “unacknowledged empire.” The essay explores how someone who so represents this country could be considered “foreign” or “un-American” to so many. In denying him, she argues, we deny ourselves.

Robinson is right about Obama as a symbol. But she’s totally unable to deal with him as someone with power, and whose hands are therefore dirty as hell. “He has had little help from certain of his friends, who think it is becoming in them to express disillusionment, to condemn drone warfare or the encroachments of national security, never proposing better options than these painful choices, which, by comparison with others on offer, clearly spare lives,” she writes. “The president has done nothing more important than to stand against, above, the vulgar, mean-spirited noise that disheartens the public and alienates good people from politics, which is the one true, essential, and indispensable life of democracy.”

Whereas Obama, citing FDR’s (apocryphal) words to labor leader A. Philip Randolph, called on his supporters to “make me do it,” Robinson wants them to shut up and stop ruining democracy. Never mind that the Movement for Black Lives arose because having a black president hadn’t stopped the relentless murder of black people by the police. And never mind that American bombs have killed innocent people abroad in a decidedly un-Christlike fashion throughout Obama’s presidency—her confidence that these bombs save lives is peculiar, given immense controversy over what the Institute for Policy Studies has called Obama’s “kill for peace” program in countries like Pakistan. Or that Obama sent a number of unaccompanied immigrant children back to likely death long before Trump. These presidential activities seem to occur at the periphery of her consciousness—ugly things happen outside of the “life of democracy,” things that only “vulgar” people talk about.

Obama’s favorite Robinson character, from her fiction, is Reverend John Ames, the narrator and spiritual core of her Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, Gilead (2004). In his conversation with Robinson, Obama describes Ames as “gracious and courtly and a little bit confused about how to reconcile his faith with all the various travails that his family goes through.” Gilead is written entirely as a letter from the elderly Ames to his young son (by a young wife). The narrative stretches across a century of life in the town of Gilead, back to its founding as an abolitionist community that served as a station on the underground railroad. Early Gilead’s spiritual leader, Ames’s grandfather, was an ally and accomplice of John Brown and preached in a bloody shirt, holding a gun. After losing an eye in the Civil War, he returns a bit insane, still passionate about justice, and with a habit of giving away absolutely everything to those in need. His wife takes to hiding the grocery money in bags of flour and in the butter so they don’t starve. Eventually he abandons the family to preach itinerantly in Kansas. Sometime after the grandfather’s death, a black church is set on fire and the last black residents leave Gilead for good. Ames learns about his grandfather mostly through his father, who became a pacifist preacher in the same town, revolted by blood and guns in church.

Ames himself chose to stay in the town and preach after his older brother, beloved by the community, was sent off for an education and comes back secular. His brother urges him to see the world; he demurs, choosing to please his parents. Ames is appealing because he radiates stability, faith, routine, a true commitment to the place he lives. He also has a tender eye for the details of the town, from the spray of drops from a sprinkler in the sunshine to the drifting yellow leaves of fall settling into a river at low ebb.

Ames is put to the test when the prodigal son of his best friend, the town’s Presbyterian minister Reverend Boughton, returns home after years away and out of touch. The son, Jack Boughton, is plainly miserable, full of secrets, known in his youth for stealing and pulling cruel pranks, always standing a little apart from the family and torturing his godfather and namesake Reverend John Ames. In a later Robinson novel, Home, that covers much of the same time frame in Gilead but from Jack’s sister’s perspective, Robinson reveals that Jack is an alcoholic, wracked by self-loathing and suicidal depression. He reads Marx and W.E.B. Du Bois. Ames is unhappy to see Jack, and as he prepares for death, he is haunted by images of disreputable Jack replacing him beside his wife and son.

As it turns out, Jack has returned because racists have kicked him and his common-law wife, a black woman with whom he has a child, out of their home, and he has come back to Gilead to see if they would be safe. He seeks Ames’s advice. In the end, Ames tells Jack that since he will die soon, he couldn’t protect the couple in Gilead. But he blesses Jack, “this beloved son and brother and husband and father,” offering him the grace he can’t grant to himself. In her interview with Obama, Robinson notes that Iowa never had anti-miscegenation laws, and was known as a radical state, but “the felt experience of the culture was not aligned with the liberal tradition [of the] culture.” In Gilead, “Jack has every right to think he can come to Iowa, and yet what he finds makes him frightened even to raise the question.” In the end, he leaves without hope.

In Robinson’s novels, it seems to go this way: the radicals who try to change things—who hide John Brown and read Marx—are half-crazy, careless of their families. They end up alone. Beautiful though Gilead is, the hero is the pastor who stayed. For all his reading Marx, Jack can’t help anyone, even himself. God can see the complexity of even a fallen life and grant grace. Don’t look outside, says the book, but within and above.

Robinson is no fool—she knows that small-town life is also full of dissatisfaction. She reminds Obama that “local governments can be great systems of oppression,” and Glory, Jack’s sister, returns to the town only after a failed engagement and her father’s ill health compel her to do so. On television, Boughton and Jack watch civil rights demonstrations and fight when old Boughton says black people are pushing too fast. But over and over again, Robinson nudges our sympathy toward those whose ties to the community bind them fast, who care for their families, and look inside for peace. Radical change isn’t compatible with the sort of personality she finds beautiful and properly democratic: self-effacing, contemplative, rooted, poor, and honest. The violence is always present but just beyond the horizon—in the past, on television, in Pakistan. She doesn’t deal very directly with these things, perhaps because scrutinizing them challenges the idea of any good democracy to which we could easily return without confrontation and conflict.

I’ve thought a lot about Robinson’s perspective as we’ve been wracked by “civility” debates, which kicked off again after activists interrupted the DHS Secretary’s Mexican dinner in June. Disrupting routines and civility has been essential to moving the needle on government crimes, notably the forcible separations of immigrant families that drew national outrage in April this year. It’s taken people who are willing to discomfit powerful individuals instead of engaging in a civil dialogue with the Department of Homeland Security. It’s also taken people with systemic analyses that reduce complexity to workable theories of change. When I see people dogging administration heavyweights wherever they go, demanding that justice be done for migrants, and when I see protesters going to jail to protest police brutality, I know that I do have theories worthy of me and of them. They grasp that organized action is the only way that radical democracy can be fully realized, as Robinson claims to want. The way Robinson wishes us to act will never get us the America she wants, no matter how beautiful her renderings of neighborliness might be. I wish she had a metaphysics worthy of her.

Sarah Leonard is the executive editor of the Appeal and an editor-at-large at Dissent.