Marilynne Robinson: An enigmatic recluse who relishes a scrap

The Times

June 5, 2010


It must be obvious, Marilynne Robinson says, that her life has followed a “pretty eccentric course, going from one obsession to another”. Well, not immediately. The author is dressed neutrally, with a neat brown-grey bob, drinking coffee and toying with a dish of baklava in a small Greek café in the Astoria district of New York where one of her sons lives. She looks mousey, her conversation is peppered with feathery “hmms”, but do not be fooled. Her latest book, Absence of Mind, is a rigorous and un-eccentric collection of essays about the frailties and flaws of science and its vexed relationship with religion. The analysis encompasses Freud (who she thinks a “genius”, but in conversation with a culture that ill-served his writing), consciousness, metaphysics, the self and much else. As its sub-heading (“The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self”) implies, the book is dense: you need to know your positivism and Auguste Comte. “Science versus religion I consider to be a phoney war,” she says. “I don’t think there’s any natural antagonism between them.”

Robinson’s nonfiction is not as well known as her fiction, probably because Home, her third novel, won the Orange Prize last year. It won’t surprise readers of that book, or its predecessor Gilead (2004, which won the Pulitzer Prize), that Robinson is exercised about big themes such as faith, belief, family and forgiveness. In the characters of the Reverend Ames in Gilead, and his neighbour Reverend Boughton in Home, these themes thrummed alongside powerful character studies. She is a lecturer at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, famed for producing authors such as Michael Cunningham and Jane Smiley. Despite a relatively thin fictional output — there was a 24-year gap between Housekeeping, her first novel, and Gilead — Robinson has a devoted readership.

It is only relatively recently that science, with its fallacious imprimatur of certainty, has been perceived with such authority, she claims. “We can trace it to the French Revolution when anything that was connected to the Establishment, like the Church, was immediately discredited.” Before the 19th century, she notes, many, if not most, scien- tists were religious, most famously Newton. “I love science, I love religion,” Robinson says, “but when I see the way religion is represented by its defenders it is not what I would call religion. Religion now hangs by certain proofs and demonstrables — ‘This must be so because the text says so and must be taken literally’ — which no great religion can ever flourish by. The narrowing of the definition of religion is continuously increasing religion’s fragility. When we identify anything with its most extreme forms, we lose the gist of what made it so important to our culture.”

Robinson, 66, may be petite and preci- sely spoken, but she relishes a scrap: “My eternal project of reconstruction”, she calls her partiality to questioning orthodoxies. In taking on science she also relishes chal- lenging atheism’s torchbearer, Richard Dawkins, who she calls “a terrible defender of science”. She laughs. “His school of thought hasn’t absorbed modern physics to a surprising degree. They uphold the idea of matter versus antimatter as if physics hasn’t shown that both exist on a continuum indescribable to us. We’ve got to think again about our conception of material reality, it’s obviously a more subtle, rarefied thing than we thought.” Would she like to debate with Dawkins in public? “Of course, but I shy away from the overturning of chairs and tables. Who can shout louder is not a competition I wish to enter.”

The idea that science can explain everything is, Robinson says, “unbelievably simplistic”: the idea of multiple universes, for example, means that material reality could take on many forms. “I have to believe that science will tell us more and more but it is not working in an exhaustible field. It’s deficient. Take the human brain: it’s the most complex object in the Universe, yet we have no conception of how it works. Lit- tle lights light up for certain things, which may explain elements of it, but if you can’t fully explain the brain how can you claim to explain motivation, perception and how we construe reality?” Real scientists, she says, don’t assert that they, or science, can explain everything.

But surely science, rather than religion, offers scope for concrete explanation. Robinson shakes her head. “Why is there something rather than nothing? The physicist would say ‘it’ must linger in a state of matter rather than antimatter, but as a philosoph- ical question that doesn’t touch the sub- stance of it. Human beings are not content with essentially material descriptions of reality, they want to know the nature of reality — is there meaning in it? The fact that science may not detect meaning is a limitation of science, not a limitation of the possibility of meaning. Many scientists are doing beautiful things constituent with genius: questioning, doubting, being self-critical. I consider science to be one of the greatest monuments of civilisation, of human existence, but not everything that calls itself science is science. Not all ‘scientific argument’ includes falsifiability and experimental method. There is just a triumphalism of claiming to ‘know’ something.” If we accept that science is flaky, then what of religion, whose most vocal spokesmen are extremists and zealots? “Yes, elements of religion have been hijacked and other elements have thrown themselves off the cliff,” Robinson says. She is “religious in the classic sense” and belongs to the Presbyterian United Church of Christ. She goes to church every Sunday and preaches “very occasionally”. Her church has been ordaining women since 1853 and gays since the 1970s. She is frustrated that churches “tear themselves apart” over such issues and takes heart that time, and changing demographics, will bleed the poison from them.

Robinson was raised in rural Idaho, in a wilderness that is the only nonfictional part of Housekeeping, her 1980 debut novel. Robinson’s father worked in the lumber industry, her mother was a housewife. She has an older brother, David. “We had a lot of time to ourselves,” she recalls, “wandering around looking for lady’s slipper orchids and strawberries.” Her earliest memories are of her mother reading to her: Gulliver’s Travels; The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings; and Edward Lear, “which surely had a good impact”. Her mother thought she should play outside more, “but I can’t regret my choices: ‘contented’ and ‘isolated’ are synonymous for me,” she says.

David, who lectures in art history at the University of Virginia, was Robinson’s intellectual guide from the start. “He was a born pedagogue and I was his first student,” she says. He would read to her — the great dialogues of Plato, for example — “and it was the pure admiration of my brother that made me suffer through things that really were too difficult for me”. She tackled Moby-Dick, aged 9 — “I read it, it doesn’t mean I understood any of it,” she laughs — then Aristotle, but she would never accept defeat. Every book was a challenge, patiently read, and has remained with her. At Brown University, brother and sister would “walk around the town in rain and he would tell me his latest theories on art history. In art galleries he would expatiate on all the antiquities.” David bought her the collected works of Emily Dickinson and an anthology of American poetry and “wanted me to be a poet, which I was clearly not going to be”.

Robinson’s self-defined “eccentricity” — if it is that — is embodied by the “obsessions” borne from this life of omnivorous reading, study and interrogation. “I read books for a long time before I realised people were authors,” she laughs. “I never had the imagination to be a writer. I didn’t write Housekeeping with the intention of it being published.” A friend sent it to an agent who took it on. “I was surprised and pleased,” Robinson says. “It made me think I could be a writer, it wasn’t something I was going to do just for the pleasure of turning a phrase.” Housekeeping won a PEN/Hemingway award and was made into a film by Bill Forsyth, the director of Gregory’s Girl, “who understood it completely”.

After her PhD in English at the University of Washington, Robinson was a visiting professor at the University of Kent, Amherst, and the University of Massachusetts, before arriving in Iowa in 1989. During the 24-year fiction drought, she wrote nonfiction (including a book about Britain’s nuclear industry and a collection of essays, The Death of Adam). But what lay behind the lack of novels? “When I wrote Housekeeping, I wrote with a visual dialect that was only mine,” she says. “One of the things that horrifies me is the idea of reproducing cliché. I felt everything I wrote sounded too like me. I wanted to give myself another mind, to feel that I was thinking in my own right, by reading all those books that everyone acts like they’ve read.” Well, Robinson’s peers anyway: this intimidating-to-mere-mortals booklist included The Wealth of Nations, The Origin of Species, The Ascent of Man, Das Kapital, “and all kinds of French history and French literature”. “I couldn’t accept how they had been interpreted and it was like reading them afresh. Adam Smith is very different to read without the weight of his reputation, the same with Marx.” Gilead’s Reverend Ames “came” to her while she was in a guest house one Christmas, and she wrote the novel quickly. The characters “haunted” her so she let them live again in Home. Winning the Orange Prize was “glorious”.

Robinson is extremely private, but reveals that she and her husband divorced in 1989. “To a large extent it was down to my life changing, becoming a writer.” He was a writer as well, she says. “Who knows why that put pressure on us, but it did.” Her two sons, James and Joseph, are 40 and 35 and she has a two-year-old granddaughter, presently “discovering nouns”. In the early years she wrote while her sons were asleep. “They were surprised to find I had this other life. And,” she says, “when I am obsessed I really am obsessed, so solitude is a gift.” She will never write an autobiography. “Been there, done that,” she laughs. “In all candour I think it’s difficult to find the boundaries of one’s own self.”

Robinson especially loves Iowa, a state that has always been radical she says, ever since abolitionists settled there, building churches and colleges. She calls it part of the Middle West, rather than Midwest. “When I arrived I remember being told it had no history and so I researched it (and wrote about it in Gilead and Home) and discovered how wrong that was. It was also one of the first states to desegregate its schools and legalise gay marriage.” She feels no conflict between writing and teaching. The blue-chip Iowa course, which has 1,300 applicants for 25 places, isn’t graded (“These are writers in the process of development”) and her students have included the novelists Paul Harding (who won this year’s Pulitzer Prize), Nathan Englander and Adam Haslett. Robinson tells her students not to be scared of depression: “I think that writing predisposes you towards it,” she says. “It is a part of life, and the time when my thinking goes back behind my thoughts in a radical way. I always feel ‘Oh it’s over, I have no more language’ when it strikes, then at a certain point you discover you have other language, other ideas.”

Gilead and Home’s Reverend Ames and Reverend Boughton may “live” again, Robinson reveals, although she is not working on a novel. Next she will take on another obsession: the Old Testament, which, around 1850, she says, “took a very bad bounce when it came to interpretation”. The “hermeneutics of suspicion” dismantled large parts of it and she wants to analyse this “maimed document” (particularly Genesis) “as a literary structure with a multiplicity of voices and incompatible theologies”. She likes to champion the tough ones, I say, and she laughs. “I like taking on things that are misunderstood, to articulate my discontent and be analytical, it’s very satisfying. My work means being critical, risking disapprobation and, God knows, being most of the time unfashionable. I don’t want to be one more voice in the choir. If people want to confute me, then that’s part of the conversation. But generally it seems that public discourse has taken the worst possible turn. We’re condescending to each other because the assumption is that consumers are idiots who don’t want information or are impatient with complexity.”

What is her God, I ask as we demolish the last of the baklava. Robinson looks briefly stumped. “I can write about it, but that’s a big question. The term ‘God’ has a big reality for me but that’s not to say it has definition.” Is “it” a rock? “Yes, but that doesn’t mean I am not vulnerable to everything in the same way as other people.” She had no image of God when growing up.

“That never meant anything to me. I was too Protestant,” she laughs. “There are things that exceed language. God is one of those things, preeminently and utterly.”