Marilynne Robinson’s “Absence of Mind”

I recommend you check out David Bentley Hart’s review of Marilynne Robinson’s book “Absence of Mind”. The literary talent behind Gilead, and Home (among others), and the keen mind behind The Death of Adam offers a published version of last years’ Terry Lectures given at Yale University. With her discerning eye and broad scope — encompassing culture, science, history, and philosophy — she takes on the modern “parascientific” myths about the human mind that are popularly shopped to us. Trust me, philosophy of mind is a high stakes hurt locker of questions and literature; and often the questions and the literature don’t match. According to Hart (whom I trust), Robinson (who I respect) has handled this important topic responsibly, deftly, and insightfuly.

If you’re not immediately interested because of DBH’s endorsement or because, well, it’s Marilynne Robinson, here’s a taste of what Hart has to say.

What Robinson’s book shows perhaps most clearly is that reductionism is not a philosophy honestly distilled from experience, but a dogma imposed upon it. For roughly a century and a half, Western culture has been falling ever more thoroughly under the sway of the prejudice that modern empirical science is not only the sole model of genuine truth but also capable of explaining all things. It is a strange belief, but to those who hold it sincerely, nothing is more intolerable than the thought that anything might lie beyond the probative reach of their “mechanical philosophy.” And so the exclusion of interiority, and of the self’s consciousness of itself, from their understanding of our humanity is simply inevitable, no matter how irrational or arbitrary that exclusion may be. “Subjectivity,” writes Robinson, “is the ancient haunt of piety and reverence and long, long thoughts. And the literatures that would dispel such things refuse to acknowledge subjectivity, perhaps because inability has evolved into principle and method.”

Even his criticism is a compliment:

If, though, I had to come up with some complaint to make against the book, I suppose I could fret for a few moments that its rhetorical power might possibly distract many readers from the cogency of its arguments. Ours is the age of “bullet” headings, after all, and expository prose is expected to come in bland, easily digestible fragments, composed entirely of short, often repetitious declamatory sentences. There is some danger, consequently, that Robinson’s literary grace — the expressive force of her language, the dense economy of her sentences, the fluidity with which she moves from point to point — will be mistaken by some as willful obscurity, or resented as a cruel tax upon their patience.

It would, however, be a dark day for civilization if writers of Robinson’s gifts could be swayed by complaints of that sort. In point of fact, much of the joy of reading Robinson comes from her ability to translate complex ideas into words suited to their subtleties. Beginning with her remarkable debut novel Housekeeping (1980), all of her work, fiction and essays alike, has been marked by a luminous intelligence and a rather attractive intellectual severity, communicated in a language that wastes no words and that demands attentiveness. Absence of Mind is a short book, but also an intensely reflective and penetrating one, and it offers considerable rewards for anyone willing to read it carefully, and to think along with it. For all its brevity, it makes its case with surprising comprehensiveness.

If you haven’t read Robinson before, consider this your call to duty.  I haven’t read Absence of Mind yet, but it has just rocketed up on my list.

 

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St. Silouan on Nietzsche

From Blessed Elder Sophrony Sakharov’s book St. Silouan the Athonite. (“Staretz” is a Russian term for a spiritual elder, and the term is used affectionately by Elder Sophrony for his mentor and spiritual father.)

I remarked to the Staretz that there are people who interpret freedom from passion, not as love for God but as a particular kind of contemplation of being, ranking higher than distinguishing good from evil, and they rank such contemplation above Christian love. To this, the Staretz replied,

‘That comes from the devil. The Holy Spirit teaches otherwise.’

And listening to the Staretz, I could not help thinking to so-called ‘supermen’ who ascend ‘on the other side of good and evil’.

The Staretz used to say,

‘The Holy Spirit is love, and He gives the sould strength to love her enemies. And he who does not love his enemies does not know God.’

This last criterion occupied an absolutelyexclusive and incontestable place in the Staretz soul. He would say,

‘The Lord is a merciful Creator, having compassion for all. The Lord pities all sinners as a mother is compassionate with her children even when they take the wrong path. where there is no love for enemies and sinners, the Spirit of the Lord is missing.’ (104-5)

What follows is one of my favorite stories from  St. Silouan’s life that illustrates his exceeding love.

I remember a conversation between him and a certain hermit, who declared with evident satisfaction,

‘God will punish all atheists. They will burn in everlasting fire.’

Obviously upset, the Staretz said,

‘Tell me, supposing you went to paradise, and there looked down and saw somebody burning in hell-fire — would you feel happpy?

‘It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault,’ said the hermit.

The Staretz answered him with a sorrowful countenance:

‘Love could not bear that,’ he said. ‘We must pray for all.’

And he did, indeed, pray for all. It became unnatural for him to pray for himself alone. All men are subject to sin, all ‘come short of the glory of God’. The mere thought of this was enough to distress him — in the measure given to him he had already seen the glory of God and known what it was to fall short of it. His soul was stricken by the realization that people lived in ignorance of God and His love, and with all his strength he prayed that the Lord in His inscrutable love might suffer them to know Him. (48-49)