Marilynne Robinson’s new book, Lila, has been acclaimed by critics as “unflinching,” “an exquisite novel of spiritual redemption and love,” and “a book whose grandeur is found in its humility.”
This week, it was nominated for the National Book Award, the latest of a series of books she set in a fictional Iowa town that began with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, published in 2004. In addition to her fiction, Robinson is also an accomplished essayist, and on this week’s show, Bill talks with her about her fervent belief in the power of grace and faith and her devotion to democracy, which she fears “we are gravely in danger of losing.”
She tells Moyers, “Democracy has been meant to remove the artificial constraints, poverty is the huge artificial constraint on human thought and action. In this country, there have been attempts to moderate that entrapment and we’ve abandoned that.”
BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Rarely has a novel been so universally acclaimed as Marilynne Robinson’s “Lila”: “An unflinching book,” says “The New Yorker.” “An exquisite novel of spiritual redemption and love,” reports “The Washington Post.”
And that’s just for starters in this latest of her books examining the lives of a minister, his wife, their son and neighbors in a fictional town in Iowa. The first, “Gilead,” won Marilynne Robinson the Pulitzer Prize. “Home” followed. And now “Lila,” nominated just this week for the National Book Award, filled, as one reviewer wrote, “with quiet epiphanies.” Exactly what we’ve come to expect from Marilynne Robinson.
She has been described as a woman “who speaks in sentences that accumulate into polished paragraphs” with a mind that “skips the stones of a question across its ample surface.” And of course that’s how she writes, including her non-fiction work. In fact, it wasn’t her gifts as a novelist that first caught my attention. It was her essays, in such collections as “The Death of Adam,” “Absence of Mind” and “When I Was a Child I Read Books” Those drew me to the way she writes and thinks, and to her strong belief in the power of grace and faith, and her devotion to democracy, which she fears “we are gravely in danger of losing.”
Marilynne Robinson, welcome.
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: Thank you. It’s wonderful to be here.
BILL MOYERS: And congratulations for those reviews.
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: Well, thank you.
BILL MOYERS: I was particularly struck with one from “The New York Times” praising you for frankness about a “truly shocking subject: the damage to the human personality done by poverty, neglect and abandonment.” And I wondered, why should anyone be shocked to discover today what can happen to a young girl like Lila?
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: I was also struck by that. It seems, you know, when you, you know, read Dickens or something, I mean, the great subject really of the democratization of Western culture has been the abuse and entrapment of people on the basis of economics or class or whatever, who are capable of wonderful things, you know, and the fact that they are mistreated ought not to be shocking. They’re mistreated against the standard of what they’re capable of and what they are.
BILL MOYERS: Are we suffering some kind of loss of imagination that we cannot perceive the lived experience of other people?
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: I think it is true. And I think that it’s having effects all across the culture. Education, for example, which has very subtly turned toward making a good working class, however well-paid, rather than humanizing people’s experience, making them feel what it is to be a human being in the stream of history on this strange planet, you know?
BILL MOYERS: So what’s happened to imagination?
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: I think in a way, we’ve been talked out of it. But I think that there’s kind of a influence of crude scientism that—
BILL MOYERS: Crude scientism?
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: Crude scientism that has no way of articulating the fact of mind, the fact of imagination, the complexity of consciousness. And what they can’t articulate, they exclude as being not real, being illusory in some way. If you think that a human mind is a wonderful thing, there’s an infinite interest in cultivating it.
And if you think it’s simply someone who works more expensively than a worker in the third world, you know, you have no interest in people except to make them, you know, a part of the utilitarian system that produces for the sake of producing.
BILL MOYERS: That would explain, I think, why you wrote that “the broadest possible exercise of imagination is the thing most conducive to human health, individual and global.”
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: Yes. It’s impossible to achieve things like justice if you don’t have enough compassionate imagination for any other human being to understand that they deserve justice. That shorthand justice is not the thing at all. You know, what can I say, I mean, my deepest, I think, religious belief is that we are amongst souls and we have souls.
BILL MOYERS: We are among souls.
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: And that it is a kind, it’s a blasphemy. It’s not simply an ordinary offense to insult or to deprive another human being. I think that at our best, that has been the assumption we’ve proceeded from. And at our worst, it’s an assumption we don’t want to be bothered by.
BILL MOYERS: You once said that at one time, we talked soul to soul. When was that?
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: Well, you know, history is a ragged beast. You know, but it seems to me that in the great American writers, Whitman and Emerson and so on, there’s the assumption that something magnificent is going on, human consciousness. And the world in which human consciousness is set as the interpreter. This is as true as it ever was, you know?
I mean, there’s something miraculous about human beings. They are, they exist wildly in excess of any sort of survival model that could be posited for them. We’re not even very good at that. You know, we’re a great danger to ourselves all the time.
But if you create a sort of model, which is probably wrong itself, about animal behavior, and take that as an authoritative basis for describing human behavior, then you’ve simply excluded everything that we call human. You know, you’ve excluded imagination and art and, you know, the things that we have defined ourselves with over thousands of years.
BILL MOYERS: So what are you saying when you write that the soul is “the masterpiece of creation?”
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: Well, it’s, you know, I always tell my students this first off, I mean, but the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe. This is, science says this, you know?
But I think that if the most exquisite expression of cosmic reality is the human brain, the human mind, this is a thing to be acknowledged. This is a thing very much to be honored, to be felt as a privilege. You know, a universal privilege. What a sweet thing, you know?
BILL MOYERS: Are you using the soul as a metaphor for consciousness or, what do you mean by it?
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: Well, you know, here I am, plunging straight into my personal theology, but I do think that people really are too splendid to be contained in 70 years of life if they are lucky, you know? I think that there’s a sort of, you know, if there’s an economy, in reality, it would be, it’s an enormous extravagance that we are what we are.
And that, there’s something very excessive about human beings. They are brilliant beyond any imaginable use, you know? And, I mean, who knows if we live another hundred years what we will have done. If we just can, you know, refrain from violence a little bit. It’s amazing.
BILL MOYERS: You have often told your students, I understand through the years, forget definition. Forget assumptions. Watch. Watch what?
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: Well, you know, one of the problems that I come across with people’s writing is that they think that they can enumerate what are basically biographical or class traits. And then they think that they have captured a person, that because X and Y and Z are true, they must behave in a certain way, and so on, you know?
When, if you pay attention to people, you find out that they’re continuously original. They’re continuously generating, you know, a new possibility out of themselves. And I, you know, to the extent that they are permitted to, and to the extent that anyone is alert enough to realize this is happening.
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain the paradox not of wealth and poverty, but given what you think of human beings, our tolerance for it?
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: I’m, well, you know, I think it, wealth has been known to corrupt for a very long time. And people’s perspectives change as they move into spheres of relative advantage. And I think it’s often not so much that they’re indifferent to the poverty of other people, it’s that they can actually can be for all purposes, unaware of it, even if they read about it in the newspaper, you know?
I think it’s I mean, that is the kind of classic model of human civilization, where you have a tiny little population of privileged people and wretchedness as far as the eye can see. Democracy has been meant to remove the artificial constraints, poverty is the huge artificial constraint, on human thought and action and so on and our mutual perceptions.
And, you know, in this country, in various ways and degrees, there have been attempts to moderate that entrapment if, you know? And we’ve abandoned that, I think. That, you know, a lot of people politically and economically are persuaded that there’s some merit in this terrible division that’s settling in.
BILL MOYERS: What do you hear in our public language today, in contrast to what you once called the language of the character of generosity, the largeness of spirit. What are you hearing in our public language today?
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: Well, one thing that really bothers me and really upsets me is that a complex problem cannot be acknowledged as a complex problem. You know, the president makes, you know, a proposal, or establishes a policy. Nobody would say, well, this is good on one hand, but it’s problem from another point of view They attack it as being something, you know, something subversive or something, you know?
And the public should hear policies talked over as if among adults, you know? It would have this good effect, it would have this negative effect, we have to choose, you know? That never happens, it seems to me. People find the most ridiculously minor, most opportunistic points of attack, and the attack is all that matters
It is disgraceful that we have to watch people over and again descend to the level of meanness, which we see so often.
It seems sometimes as if political discourse is the cheapest intellectual environment that you can enter into. People have more dignity under most circumstances. They’re not pandering to anybody. I think that pandering has seduced a lot of public behavior, made people operate at levels that they would not really consider worth of themselves.
BILL MOYERS: I remember you once ask, who among us wishes that our hymns, our sermons, were dumber? But there are a lot of people who do.
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: Well, as far as the sermons and so on, I think that people who feel that certain things are associated with an elite feel that they effectively exclude, that they give signals to other people that they’re not welcome within the circle, or something like that, you know?
Which, when you consider that, you know, that William Tyndale’s Bible was written for the illiterate, you know, I mean, and it is perhaps the masterpiece of the English language. Or Luther’s Bible, you know, I mean, he would apparently hang out in marketplaces to hear how Germans spoke German, being so Latinate himself.
But to hear the melodies and to hear the nuances and depths of ordinary speech has been the most fruitful thing that we have done in this civilization in the last 500 years. We, you know, to respect people, to be attentive to them in a way that makes it so that you actually are using these metrics of culture, to re-express it in art or politics or whatever, you know? That’s what all the great people have done.
BILL MOYERS: You had this contradiction we were talking about earlier between the high sense of America that Walt Whitman articulated as something more than politics. It’s poetry and it’s prose and he captured that spirit of it. And then you see what we did to the indigenous, what we, the Europeans did to the indigenous people, the slaves, the freed slaves. I mean, when you and I were young, black men were still being lynched in this country.
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: Oh, I know.
BILL MOYERS: And children growing up in the Gilded Age, and even today, we have what you call, “a bracing and punitive severity toward the vulnerable among us.”
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: Well, if you read European history or British history, hanging people for stealing rabbits, you know, this kind, I mean, the, or people falling into poverty and then they’re put into these horrible workhouses where they basically starve to death. You know, if you really look at history, which we tend not to do, it is grotesque.
And what you see in the best reformist impulses in America is a moving away from history that was profoundly entrenched in western civilization. And, you know, certainly we never broke free of it. And certainly when we’re feeling atavistic, we relapse into what are these ancient models of cruelty and injustice. But what we do, I think, that is a mistake is we fail to value progressive change because it’s never perfect. It’s never absolute. We’re dragging this onerous history behind us. Ameliorative behavior is utterly to be valued.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve said in my favorite book that you’ve done, “When I Was a Child I Read Books,” you wrote that, “the language of public life has lost the character of generosity,” and that, “the largeness of spirit that has created and supported the best of our institutions and brought reform to the worst of them has been erased out of historical memory.”
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: That’s something that just is amazing to me. One of the ways that I got started writing the kind of history that I do is that I was trying to think of a moment in which people understood their situation and reacted to it appropriately, effectively. And that led me to the abolitionists, you know?
BILL MOYERS: The abolitionists?
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: Yes, exactly. Who were, you know, they were people that stepped out of privileged places in New England, lived on the open prairie in Kansas or wherever, you know, set up colleges to teach Greek to whoever might settle around them, you know, and so on. Incredibly, wonderful people.
I mean, beautiful writers, beautiful, you know, people that created these amazing little institutions like Oberlin and Grinnell and so on, that maintain the character somehow that was invested in them. You know, I mean, this sort of reverence for high learning and all, and I don’t, they were very effective. They turned things around.
People don’t realize that slavery was as entrenched in Western civilization as computers are now. You know? Every once in a while they make this amazing discovery, you know? I mean, there’s a book just out now about how mortgages were leveraged against slaves and so on.
Well, you know, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote about that, you know? That it was not a small thing that they accomplished. They overturned basically the economic order of contemporary America. And they are, abolitionist is treated as a bad word in many contexts, as if they were some, you know, you’d have to be some sort of frothing maniac to think that slavery should be abolished.
BILL MOYERS: And you make the case in, “When I Was a Child I Read Books,” you make the case that after generations of attention to public education, public health, public safety, access to suffrage and equality under the law, those values are now under siege.
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: They are. These voter identification things, you know, the whole public education, these attempts at reforming public education that seem to me to be designed to model people into a kind of productivity again, making them useful for other people’s purposes rather than making their education an end in itself. You know, I went, I’m a proud product of public education until college.
It was probably a very eccentric little establishment by most standards. But I was taught very optimistically in the sense that people always conveyed the idea that they were giving me something really of value, something that would make me richer no matter what I did, you know, in life.
That, you know, giving me my mind, you know? And I think that this is a spectacularly efficient model of education. I think that these assumptions that, you know, making everybody teach to a test, and so on, is valuable in some way. We’re just destroying what’s the best impulse, the most successful impulse in our educational system.
BILL MOYERS: So what’s happened to that old impulse you once described, that lay behind, and I’m quoting you, “the dissemination of information and learning, the will to ensure that the public will be competent to make the weightiest decisions and to conform society to its best sense of the possible…” What’s happened to that impulse?
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: I don’t know. I think that people, you know, it was, it’s always been a human temptation. But it has been an ethics and an ideology among us lately to say all that matters is money, basically, you know? I don’t think people believe that instinctively, or that they live their lives in those terms.
But I think a lot of people who find their way into prominent places in the culture are happy to proceed on that assumption. I mean, if you have a cable program that scares every little old lady in America by the standard of public support, maybe, you know, you can say you’ve accomplished something. They send you their social security checks, you know? It’s terrible to suggest that people proceed on such vulgar motives, but I frankly have to assume it’s true.
BILL MOYERS: You write a lot about fear lately.
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: About not your fear, but fear abroad in the land.
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: What’s the source of it?
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: I think that, I mean, it’s exciting to people.
BILL MOYERS: Fear?
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: Fear. Yes. I mean, look at the ways in which fear manifests itself. You know, this sort of anti-immigration feelings, you know, that people with these crazy weapons, people, you know, buying apocalyptic money, or freeze-dried apocalypse dinners and things like that. You know, I think that it makes a little narrative that makes you the hero in an imagined drama. It makes anybody else a potential threat. It’s like late-night TV or something, you know? And I think that it has been pushed on people, it’s used as a stimulus to make people watch cable network A rather than B and so on. And it’s become a kind of addiction, I think. There’s been this amazing reversal that the NRA is probably disproportionately responsible for.
BILL MOYERS: National Rifle Association?
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: Yes, exactly, that makes fear look like courage to so many people. You can’t drive your car if you don’t have a gun in the glove compartment? Well, what nonsense is that? You know, it’s not bold and brave to go around acting like you think everybody’s going to be some kind of threat to you. It’s psychotic really.
BILL MOYERS: What do you fear?
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: What do I fear? I mean, I fear for, there are things that I, you know, obviously I fear for democracy, for example. I don’t know. You know, the oddest thing happened. I became 70. And I realized that in order to be 70, you have to have had basically 69 years of really good fortune and that, you know, what I mean?
I don’t feel as though I can lose much. I don’t think I can lose much at this point. I’ve had a good life and a long life by world standards, you know. And this neutralizes many kinds of anxiety for me. If I can fail now, it will be a minor, minor event because I have such a short time to experience the fact of failure.
BILL MOYERS: Marilynne Robinson, thank you very much for being with me.
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: Great pleasure.
BILL MOYERS: That’s it for this week. I’m Bill Moyers, I’ll see you here next time.
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