Marilynne Robinson and What Are We Doing Here?

I try hard to keep up with Marilynne Robinson and her writing. The book that made me think the hardest in the last decade got me turned on to her. No, I am not a masochist, even though I do keep returning to Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self. She deftly drives right up the path where science and religion intermingle. Her Giliead trilogy is a remembrance of an austere midwest influenced by Protestantism and the dust bowl. With writing as sparse as Absence was rich, I was able to glimpse the breadth of her intellect. When I was a Child I Read Books is much more accessible, but a cautionary tale when we look at the direction of content being consumed today.

So when I saw her article on Humanism and thinking after the Enlightenment in the NY Review of Books, I was happy it was Sunday breakfast. An hour later, I came up for breath. What Are We Doing Here? looks at the control of information in the early days of publishing. With prose like “However, I am too aware of the ragged beast history has been to fret over the fact that its manners are not perfect yet. ” how can we resist getting that extra cup of coffee and listening to rain as we finish the long read. Taking the extra time is mirrored in her celebration of Liberal Arts. The meaning of liberal here is from libere, or free. Free to study, which has nothing to do with politics. Robinson:

It has given me an interesting life, allowing me all the time a novel requires and every resource for following the questions that arise as I work. I have enjoyed the company of young writers, and I have learned from them. I know that one is expected to bemoan the present time, to say something about decline and the loss of values. O tempora, o mores! But I find a great deal to respect.

The problem is that this “Liberal” is not working to make the rest of us, outside of the university, free. Robinson goes on to bemoan the current “eclipse” of humanism after its sunrise through authors like Walt Whitman and Keats. She looks at Competition (with a big C) and quietly advocates for a revolution of thinking about our purpose here. Humanities is a necessary opening of our thinking, the first real Big Data of our existence, but it is in danger from those who have influence and now the tools to create a Benthamist Panopticon, something we must run, at top speed, from.

The 500th anniversary of the posting of the 95 theses by Luther on the church door in Wittenberg is next week, Wednesday, November 1. All this reminded me if we dialed back a couple of centuries, and listened to Dan Carlin’s podcast about the Rebellion of Munster in post-Luther society, we could actually see how a new media was causing terrible contortions, violence, and revolution in Europe. Not a pretty site. But between Marilynne Robinson and Dan Carlin, we can get perspectives on What Is Happening Now.

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