“The Givenness of Things”: Marilynne Robinson’s Wide-Ranging Collection of Essays

Marilynne Robinson speaking at the Covenant Fine Arts Center during an interview at the 2012 Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College by User “Christian Scott Heinen Bell”, Wikipedia [Public Domain]

Marilynne Robinson (born 1943, FB: @MarilynneRobinson) is the only celebrity author in the world whom I have had the opportunity of looking at and listening to in reality. This happened back in November or December of 2013, when she was on a UK visit. I wouldn’t call her stern but there was a steely seriousness and confidence in her that made you want to think long and hard before raising any question, discussing any point related to her artistry or beliefs.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with her – she is an American writer and scholar, the recipient of a National Humanities Medal and Pulitzer Prize, among other accolades. She taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 1991 to 2016.

Marilynne Robinson has authored four novels: Housekeeping (1980), Gilead (2004), Home (2008) and Lila (2014) – known for their depictions of rural American life and faith (Calvinism). She has also written five books of non-fiction, the latest of which is the collection titled The Givenness of Things (2015).

The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson (2015, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Consisting of 17 essays and one conversation (with Barack Obama), this book explores a number of important topics – the Renaissance, the Reformation, the role of grace in the works of Shakespeare, the relationship between religion and politics in America, the limitations of neuroscience, the value of the humanities, the meaning of Being, the nature of space, time and causality, et cetera. Robinson’s elegant arguments come together to create a deeply personal yet historically conscious work of cultural criticism. Her style here, much like her fiction, remains unhurried and nuanced.

The Givenness of Things, ultimately, turned out to be of particular interest to me because of its emphasis on the need for the humanities. Robinson’s viewpoint, emerging out of a Biblically theistic context, holds the human person as a creature of singular value (despite its propensity for error). This value is most gloriously revealed in the generation of great thought and in the production of great art.

The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson (2015, Virago)

Robinson is resistant to and skeptical of those contemporary materialistic academic disciplines that dismiss the “self” or the “mind” as illusion, that deem an awareness of individuality as nothing more than a firing of chemicals in a purely physical brain. The denial of selfhood, she asserts, leads to the devaluation of the human person.

In our time – when people are unsure of the reality of the self – it is no wonder that the study of the humanities – of languages, music, philosophy, literature – is diminished and threatened. No longer in awe of the beauty and potentiality of the human mind, now we are, the writer observes:

less interested in equipping and refining thought, more interested in creating and mastering technologies that will yield measurable enhancements of material well-being – for those who create and master them, at least. Now we are less interested in the exploration of the glorious mind, more engrossed in the drama of staying ahead of whatever it is we think is pursuing us. Or perhaps we are just bent on evading the specter entropy. In any case, the spirit of the times is one of joyless urgency, many of us are preparing ourselves and our children, to be means to inscrutable ends that are utterly not our own. In such an environment, the humanities do seem to have little place. They are poor preparation for economic servitude. This spirit is not the consequence but the cause of our present state of affairs. We have as good grounds for exulting in human brilliance as any generation that has ever lived.

 

“In any case, the spirit of the times is one of joyless urgency…” (Photo: Pixabay)

 

Later, talking of the self and the soul, she points out that the “non-physicality” of a thing is no proof of its “non-existence” and that the proof of the human mind lies in the works it has produced over centuries – the very stuff of humanities, to which so many of our age have become indifferent, grown even contemptuous of – for its pursuit may not immediately result in large monetary benefit. Robinson celebrates the unique capacities of the mind as revealed in the humanities and interrogates certain tendencies of contemporary neuroscience in the following passage:

The old humanists took the works of the human mind – literature, music, philosophy, art, and languages – as proof of what the mind is and might be. Out of this has come the great aura of brilliance and exceptionalism around our species that neuroscience would dispel. If Shakespeare had undergone an MRI there is no reason to believe there would be any more evidence of extraordinary brilliance in him than there would be of a self or a soul. He left a formidable body of evidence that he was both brilliant and singular,…

 

Title page of the First Folio, 1623. Copper engraving of Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout, Wikipedia [Public Domain]
 

…but it has fallen under the rubric of Renaissance drama and is somehow not germane, perhaps because this places the mind so squarely at the center of the humanities. From the neuroscientific point of view, this only obscures the question. After all, where did our high sense of ourselves come from? From what we have done and what we do. And where is this awareness preserved and enhanced? In the arts and the humane disciplines. I am sure there are any number of neuroscientists who know and love Mozart better than I do, and who find his music uplifting. This inconsistency is for them to explain.

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