Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and the difficult gift of human exchange.
Language and Form of Life
It is a terrific artistic and moral risk Robinson takes--risking a decrease in aesthetic distance and an increase in moral presumption. But if she negotiates these risks well, she can take us into territories we need to understand better (or more, or again). Take, for "territories" Wittgenstein's "forms of life." If "to imagine a language is to imagine a form of life," as Wittgenstein says (qtd. in Wannenwetsch 32), then Robinson gives access to a form of life as different from what we know as her language is different from her contemporaries, both Christian and non-Christian.
For starters, what other authors could combine the mundane and philosophical in passages such as these, chosen more or less at random, from the middle portion of the 76-year-old minister's "endless letter" to his son:
I was thinking about old Boughton's parents, what they were like when we were children. They were a rather somber pair, even in their prime. Not like him at all. His mother would take tiny bites of her food and swallow as if she were swallowing live coals, stoking the fires of her dyspepsia. And his father, reverend gentleman that he was, had something about him that bespoke grudge. I have always liked the phrase "nursing a grudge," because many people are tender of their resentments, as of the thing nearest their hearts. Well, who knows what account these two old pilgrims have made of themselves by now. I always imagine divine mercy giving us back to ourselves and letting us laugh at what we became, laugh at the preposterous disguises of crouch and squint and limp and lour we all do put on. I enjoy the hope that when we meet I will not be estranged from you by all the oddnesses life has carved into me. (117-18)
Just before suppertime yesterday evening Jack Boughton came strolling by. He sat himself down on the porch step and talked baseball and politics--he favors the Yankees, which he has every right to do--until the fragrance of macaroni and cheese so obtruded itself that I was obliged to invite him in. (119-20)
When she [Della, wife and mother] woke up, she was so glad to see me, as if I had been gone a long time. Then she went and fetched you and we ate our supper in the parlor--it turns out that whoever brought the trays brought one for each of us. Since supper was three kinds of casserole with two kinds of fruit salad, with cake and pie for dessert, I gathered that my flock, who lambaste life's problems with food items of just this kind, had heard an alarm. There was even a bean salad, which to me looked distinctly Presbyterian, so anxiety had overspilled its denominational vessel. You'd have thought I'd died. We saved it for lunch. (127)
The combinations with which Robinson marks these passages--beginning with eating habits, a somber psychological cast of mind, mostly unconscious human disguises, and the march of youth alongside or even into age; then the placement of words such as "fragrance" and "obtruded" next to each other; or phrases such as "disguises of crouch and squint and limp and lour"; or clauses such as "I enjoy the hope that when we meet I will not be estranged from you by all the oddnesses life has carved into me"; or the ministerial interpretation of amounts and kinds of food, especially of a bean salad which "looked distinctly Presbyterian, so anxiety had overspilled its denominational vessel"; finally, the humorous juxtaposition of the prospects of death and the prospects of lunch--these odd combinations of words and things all bear the stamp of Robinson's authorship. I don't think anyone living shares her gift for a simple yet eerie language and a movement that seems, like music, to progress both horizontally and vertically at the same time. But it's not, ultimately, the mixing of styles or the intermixing of the domestic and the philosophical that we're after in this essay except as these lead us into a new language and a new form of life. That form of life seems by equal measure both strange and familiar, but more just and more charitable than we remember. Even while reading about these characters and their effort to further the life between them, an effort sometimes worn down almost to nothing, we're imagining or reimagining the difficult work of human exchange that we also face. (1)
Language: The Poetic & the Social
Early reviewers frequently tagged Gilead as a poetic work, seeing in it the language of poetry rather than of exchange. This is at least partly understandable: the rhythmic rise and fall of the novel's language, its rich imagery, and its spiral movement of associative logic make the novel's text seem deeply poetic. It seems a lyrical memoir or even, at times, a memoir-like lyric. Some reviewers imagined she had spent the twenty-some years since her first novel working on this one. The work, they thought, showed that she had taken her time to compose such sentences, such paragraphs. The "poetic" character that they marked in the novel should provide as tough, and as rich, a challenge as possible to a theory of art as social exchange, what we might call a rhetorical aesthetic.
Though the novel presents itself as fictive memoir, or "endless letter," the comparisons to poetry may be inevitable. In the New York Times Book Review, James Wood called Gilead "a beautiful work--demanding, grave, and lucid" Wood continues, "Gradually Robinson's novel teaches us how to read it, suggests how we might slow down to walk at its own processional pace, and how we might learn to coddle its many fine details" Michael Dirda writes in The Washington Post that the novel is "[so] serenely beautiful and written in a prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it" To take a final example, in The Roanoke Times Peggy Lindsey confesses, "When I first picked up this book and read a few pages, I [was] overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the language and the directness with which it spoke to my heart.... John Ames says, 'For me writing has always felt like praying,' and we are privileged to overhear this, his prayer."
Appreciation of the work's demands, its slowed-down pace, its measured cadences, its ability to speak to the heart, leads, finally, to the image of overhearing, the image used during the last century to describe the spiritual and private character of poetry. According to this way of thinking, poems are not meant so much to be heard as to be overheard. We overhear, in poetry or in that which we regard as poetic, something not really addressed to us, addressed instead to Being, or to self, or to language. As Archibald MacLeish famously wrote in "Ars Poetica," "A poem should not mean / But be." It is our privilege to overhear this discourse as it frees us, for a time, from the busyness of transaction, from the language of instrumentality. Though not directly addressed to us, it seems to expand our conditions of being, or, less ambitiously, our sensibility. In such kinds of writing we might be as close as we can get to prayer. This is why, as I said, Robinson's novel presents as tough, and rich, a challenge as possible to a theory of literary art as social exchange. Its language has the inwardness of prayer.
But look again. The passage Lindsey quotes from John Ames' fictive letter, "For me writing has always felt like praying" continues "even when I wasn't writing prayers, as I was often enough" (19). By sentence end, we realize that our narrator is writing to his son about public prayers, the prayers he composed as minister for his congregation. When he continues, it's hard to know if he is writing about the composition of these prayers for the congregation or his writing of the letter for his son. I take it that the reference shifts between the first and second sentences that follow:
You feel [when writing prayers] that you are with someone. I feel I am with you now [writing this letter that feels like writing a prayer], whatever that can mean, considering that you're only a little fellow now and when you're a man you might find these letters of no interest. Or they might never reach you, for any of a number of reasons. (19)
Wherever the reference shifts, the prayers Ames refers to were not spontaneous, private "me and Jesus" utterances but composed with others besides himself in mind, others figuratively (and eventually) close at hand.
Given John Ames' multiple references to John Calvin in his "endless letter" to his son, and given Robinson's 1990s collection of essays, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, essays based on her revisionist reading of Calvin, it's difficult to imagine that Robinson did not know Calvin's category of "public prayers" and share his estimate that public prayers were still more important than private ones. The passage raises the question--as Calvin might, or as the Psalms might--whether a prayer, or a poem, or a poetic novel might be personal and social rather than personal and private.
The reminder of the social comes not only from a closer look at this passage on writing and prayer but also from Ames' description of a sermon, and even of thought. "A good sermon" Ames writes, "is one side of a passionate conversation. It has to be heard in that way. There are three parties to it, of course, but so are there even to the most private thought--the self that yields the thought, the self that acknowledges and in some way responds to the thought, and the Lord. That is a remarkable thing to consider" (45).
We find the social not only in these references to prayer, and to sermons, and to thought, but also in the aphoristic character of this writing. Our narrator regularly gives counsel to his son by sorting through his own life's experience and trying to anticipate his son's future needs, not so much individual needs as needs we share for building a life. In this way, John Ames is like a storyteller, in fact, Robinson's novel, though presenting itself as memoir or "endless letter," has a good deal of the literary tale in it and certainly has the counsel Walter Benjamin attributed to the tale. Note these examples of counsel, again lifted more or less randomly from the text:
To be useful was the best thing the old men ever hoped for themselves, and to be aimless was their worst fear. I have a lot of respect for that view. (49) Here I am trying to be wise, the way a father should be, the way an old pastor certainly should be. I don't know what to say except that the worst misfortune isn't only misfortune.... (56) In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don't imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try. (57) But I have been thinking a great deal about the body these last weeks. Blessed and broken. I used Genesis 32:23-32 as the Old Testament text, Jacob wrestling with the Angel. I wanted to talk about the gift of physical particularity and how blessing and sacrament are mediated through it. (69) My point here is that you never do know the actual nature even of your own experience. Or perhaps it has no fixed and certain nature. (95) If I could only give you what my father gave me. No, what the Lord has given me and must also give you. But I hope you will put yourself in the way of the gift. (114)
Such passages, though only indexed here, should at least make it possible to imagine the entire book as a kind of counsel, the counsel Benjamin associated with the genre of the literary tale:
the storyteller joins the ranks of the teachers and sages. He has counsel--not for a few situations, as the proverb does, but for many, like the sage. For it is granted to him to reach back to a whole lifetime (a life, incidentally, that comprises not only his own experience but no little of the experience of others; what the storyteller knows from hearsay is added to his own). (108)
Benjamin gives us two categories we might apply to Robinson's fiction: the slowing down of time and the communicability of experience. Benjamin contrasts the time storytelling takes to the speed of information. He quotes the early twentieth-century French poet Paul Valery, "Modern man no longer works at what cannot be abbreviated" (93) and, again, "It is almost as if the decline of the idea of eternity coincided with the increasing aversion to sustained effort" (93). The contrast between the novel's pace and our usual hurry is what led James Wood to mark his surprise and his delight that "Robinson's novel ... suggests how we might slow down to walk at its own processional pace" (see discussion above). But what Benjamin is most interested in is related to the slowing down of time but not guaranteed by it: the communicability of experience. He supposes that all fiction still has, or should have, some of this impulse of the literary tale to provide counsel--though he fears that after World War I the communicability of experience was dealt nearly a death blow. Our narrator's line-by-line effort to communicate experience is surely as much cause for surprise and delight as the slowed-down pace that attends it. In Gilead, both the desire to give counsel and the aphoristic form that counsel takes make this deeply personal discourse more social than contemporary ideas of prayer and of poetry can easily account for. But our ideas about prayer and about poetry may need to be re-thought, as may our ideas about what it means to give an account of one's life.
Plot and Exchange
Attention to the importance of counsel leads us from consideration of language to consideration of plot: What life led to such counsel, or to its revision? Here the question of exchange comes up again, both in John Ames' relationship to his godson and in his relationship to his son. We have already seen John Ames' efforts to give counsel appropriate to his young son's future. In this section we will focus on Ames' perplexed effort to communicate with his godson, John Ames ("Jack") Boughton, in the here and now. Those efforts complicate and deepen his efforts to provide future counsel for his biological son. In a key frequently sounded, Ames writes about Jack, "Of all people on this earth he must be the hardest one to have a conversation with" (196). Within this fictive memoir, with its associative logic spiraling across the page, Robinson sets a carefully constructed series of parallels stamping protagonist and antagonist in each other's image. Ames learns to say, "And the fact is, it is seldom indeed that any wrong one suffers is not thoroughly foreshadowed by wrongs one has done" (194). But saying so doesn't resolve his difficulties with Jack. If by the end of the novel, Ames has moved deeper into his understanding of shared wrongs, he acknowledges when he makes the statement how much work it still requires of him: "That said, it has never been clear to me how much this realization helps when it comes to the practical difficulty of controlling anger. Nor have I found any way to apply it to present circumstance [his 'fear and covetise'], though I have not yet abandoned the effort" (194).
The plot of this novel, slight until "Jack" Boughton shows up, thickens when we hear (164) that the fatherhood John Ames had lost (his daughter and first wife died in childbirth) his namesake has squandered (ignoring the daughter conceived by a young hillbilly girl). We know it rankles Ames when Jack refers to the old minister's seven-year-old son as "little brother" placing ironic claim upon his own status as son. It also troubles Ames when Jack talks, perhaps too easily, with Ames' young wife, who almost could be a grown-up version of the young hillbilly girl, with her uncultured background and lack of social compunction. While Ames looks forward to the coming restoration of his first wife and daughter on the other side of death, he fears the loss of his second wife and son, unanticipated gifts of grace. He questions whether he should warn them against Jack, against his own godson whom he had baptized. This question has implications for Ames' well-being, as well as for his family's, maybe most of all for Ames' ability to give responsible counsel. Ames writes, "Well, I close my eyes and I see Jack Boughton, and it seems to me that more than he has matured or aged he has wearied. And I think, Why must I always defend myself against this sad old youth? What is the harm I fear from him?" (180) While the harm seems to be what might happen to Ames' family in his absence, in "the wilderness of the unknown," Ames knows it is also the "covetise and fear" that threaten to overcome him even as he faces the dwindling of his strength and the approach of death. Much of the counsel Ames can give will just be in working out the story, giving an account, of how he addressed this "covetise and fear."
Closely related to "covetise and fear" is isolation, or solipsism, which threatens to change Ames' letter to his son from measured exchange to self-absorbed diary. Four-fifths of the way through his "never-ending letter," Ames writes,
I have been looking through these pages, and I realize that for some time I have mainly been worrying to myself, when my intention from the beginning was to speak to you. I meant to leave you a reasonably candid testament to my better self, and it seems to me now that what you must see here is just an old man struggling with the difficulty of understanding what it is he's struggling with. (202)
Along with confession comes resolution, and hope: "I believe I may have found a way out of the cave of this tedious preoccupation, however. It's worth a try" (202).
Ames doesn't fool himself about the difficulty of the task. Pulling his account back from diary to speech, from the "tedious preoccupation[s]" of self-absorption to testament, is not easy. Ames has a keen sense of both the individuality of character and the difficulty of communication. Earlier he had written:
In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable--which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us. Maybe I should have said we are like planets. But then I would have lost some of the point of saying that we are like civilizations. The planets may all have been sloughed from the same star, but still the historical dimension is missing from that simile, and it is true that we all do live in the ruins of the lives of other generations, so there is a seeming continuity which is important because it deceives us. (197-98)
This passage's proximity to Ames' confession first shows how easy it is for him or for any of us to get off track into the ditches of self-absorption, but its close proximity to confession also suggests that our radical separation from each other is not the whole truth.
Ames' efforts to get out of the tedious preoccupation with self brings him to a description of his second wife, Della, and their unexpected falling in love--and to the claim that "transformations just that abrupt do occur in this life" (203). This openness to transformation seems to be one requirement for meaningful human exchange. A second requirement seems to be forgiveness or, even more basic, recognition of shared flaw. John Ames will need to confer the blessing of forgiveness, in addition to the earlier blessing of baptism, in order himself to be released from the fear and covetise and threat of isolation triggered by his namesake's return to Gilead.
Gift of Exchange; Gift of Existence
Though the plot quickens in the difficulty of exchange with Jack, it is the difficult, beautiful, humorous--always threatened--exchange between Ames and his young son that drives the novel. It is not, in fact, so much an exchange as the complex initiation, troubled by hope and fear, that human exchange depends upon. In this respect, the minister's narrative casting of bread upon the waters in hopes of future usefulness functions in a way similar to an author's sophisticated initiation of exchange with her reader.
The exchange between father and son is framed in the fictive memoir's opening entry, which seems to have learned something from Raymond Carver's comically pared-down attributions:
I told you last night that ! might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren't very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you've had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life. And you said, Mama already told me that. (3)
So far, this might be the light-on-its-feet exchange between any seven-year-old son and his seventy-six-year-old father. But, characteristically, Robinson now both domesticates the exchange and turns it philosophical:
And then you said, Don't laugh! Because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother's. It's a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I'm always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after I've suffered one of those looks. I will miss them. It seems ridiculous to suppose the dead miss anything. If you're a grown man when you read this--it is my intention for this letter that you will read it then--I'll have been gone a long time. I'll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I'll probably keep it to myself. That seems to be the way of things. (3)
The humor in those last two lines introduces what will become a serious subject: attending to the way of things, in fact, Ames' attention to the natural elements and historical moments of the life around him suggests that an exchange with the things of this world may be prior to his present risky social exchange with Jack and his present-future exchange with his son.
The clarity of the elemental and the momentary comes, in Robinson's novel, partly through the disorientation of the characters. The main characters in Gilead come, as they had in Housekeeping, from a broken and then a radically asymmetrical family, with the father more than a generation older than his second wife, and seventy years older than his son. In Robinson's second novel, the first and perhaps most important turn we're invited to follow takes place within its opening pages: the turn from feeling a stranger in this world to feeling at home in it, learning how achingly beautiful it is, how its beauty more than matches its sadness, the beauty of water, of light, of darkness, of ashes: of elements. (2) Ames begins one of his entries:
Ludwig Feuerbach says a wonderful thing about baptism. I have it marked. He says, "Water is the purest, clearest of liquids; in virtue of this its natural character it is the image of the spotless nature of the Divine Spirit. In short, water has a significance in itself, as water; it is on account of its natural quality that it is consecrated and selected as the vehicle of the Holy Spirit. So far there lies at the foundation of Baptism a beautiful, profound natural significance." Feuerbach is a famous atheist, but he is about as good on the joyful aspects of religion as anybody, and he loved the world. Of course he thinks religion could just stand out of the way and let joy exist pure and undisguised. That is his one error, and it is significant. But he is marvelous on the subject of joy, and also on its religious expressions. (23-24)
The passage on Feuerbach completes a discourse on baptism that had begun with Ames' recollection of the childhood baptism of a litter of cats. This is part of what we might call the design of the novel, the associative logic of the memoir holding together the most mundane and most philosophical in a single passage or in a spiral of passages that echo each other. The passages about cats and the passages about old radio broadcasts of baseball games are exemplary in this regard.
The first thing to note about the cats is that there is nothing allegorical about them. They were mundane creatures through and through: "dusty little barn cats just steady on their legs, the kind of waifish creatures that live their anonymous lives keeping the mice down and have no interest in humans at all, except to avoid them" (22). One of the girls, we're told, tried "to swaddle them up in a doll's dress." Their "grim old crooked-tailed mother" found the kids "baptizing away by the creek and began carrying her babies off by the napes of their necks, one and then another." The kids lost track of which cats were which and some may have been "borne away still in the darkness of paganism" (22). The jump from a cluster of children baptizing cats--including the children's debate whether baptism should be by sprinkling or immersion--to Feuerbach's commentary on water is mediated by this adult reflection on the narrative of early childhood:
I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing. It stays in the mind. For years we would wonder what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them. It still seems to me to be a real question. There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn't enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time. (23)
Though there's nothing allegorical about these cats, their reality has a depth which resonates beyond them for another seventy years or so.
Recently John Milbank has argued that the gift of exchange depends upon a prior recognition of the gift of existence. A gift is not purely a social matter but also historical and ontological. "[T]he perennial adepts of gift-exchange--most of humanity hitherto--have understood this exchange not to be merely social or cultural at all," Milbank writes, "but to be an aspect of a cosmic ecology: a vast circulation encompassing natural beings, the gods, and the ancestors" (444). (3) Robinson's novel seems to be built on the same hypothesis that creation is a gift and, far from static or passive, a gift with exchange built into it. Milbank could be describing Robinson's characters and their growing recognition that the givens in their lives are gifts, including the existence of these "dusty little barn cats."
It's not only the sacredness in cats that gets acknowledged. One knows at first reading how much preparatory work is getting done, for example, in the pot of coffee and fried egg sandwich and radio in this second entry of Ames' memoir:
I don't know how many times people have asked me what death is like, sometimes when they were only an hour or two from finding out for themselves.... I used to say it was like going home. We have no home in this world, I used to say, and I'd walk back up the road to this old place and make myself a pot of coffee and a fried-egg sandwich and listen to the radio, when I got one, in the dark as often as not. Do you remember this house? I think you must, a little. It's a perfectly good old house, but I was all alone in it then. And that made it seem strange to me. I didn't feel very much at home in the world, that was a fact. Now I do. (3-4)
When the radio comes back into the letter, some forty pages farther on, it still is tied to the time of Ames' lonely pilgrimage through life. But it also gets associated with the sound in a seashell, and from there to conversation and the "incandescence" of those who confessed or unburdened themselves to Ames:
My own dark time, as I call it, the time of my loneliness, was most of my life, as I have said, and I can't make any real account of myself without speaking of it. The time passed so strangely, as if every winter were the same winter, and every spring the same spring. And there was baseball. I listened to thousands of baseball games, I suppose. Sometimes I could just make out half a play, and then static, and then a crowd roaring, a flat little sound, almost static itself, like that empty sound in a seashell. It felt good to me to imagine it, like working out some intricate riddle in my mind, planetary motion. (44)
The riddle Ames tries to work out is not only whether the fielder made a play on the ball or if the runners advanced, but also what happens in the play of conversation, what the human subject is, how "a good sermon is one side of a passionate conversation" (45). And in all these things, one gets the sense that he is saying, as he had earlier, in a description of his son and wife blowing bubbles for the family cat, "Ah, this life, this world" (9). This affirmation of the world as gift may be the largest part of the counsel of the novel.
In addition to water, light, darkness, and ash, the elemental extends to days (139), the human face (66), silence and prayer (173), sorrow (137), individual moments in time (91). Each of them might be described as "a thing existing in excess of itself, so to speak" as Ames says of sunshine and of a glistening tree and of poured out water and of a girl's laughter (28). This excess provokes both the vexed effort to communicate with Jack and the hopeful effort to communicate with his seven-year-old son.
Judgment & Blessing
The affirmation of the elemental does not always come easily. It can be named "Kansas" desolate as the Dust Bowl. Or it can be the "howling wilderness" not of place but of illness or of the unknown life our loved ones will face after our death. As readers, we meet various wildernesses (war, drought, loss, fractured relationships, purposeless towns, the closing of churches, the near prospect of death) similar to those we will need to enter. They are said to change with time, especially with generations. They include both the historical and the personal, familial. We wonder what we can bring with us into such wildernesses or if our only resource is the recognition and giving up of gifts, the amazing, almost time-stopping (though time is not an enemy in this book) attention to water, light, darkness, gravity, ash, a charred biscuit. In such passages John Ames can think of heaven as a kind of doubling of earth, or of earth as a kind of epic Troy. He sees, and Robinson makes his sight credible to us, elements with an excess beyond our understanding, a depth that suggests our world is a gift from God. Looking back on the letter near its end, Ames reflects, "I think I'll put an end to all this writing. I've read it over, more or less, and I've found some things of interest in it, mainly the way I have been drawn back into this world in the course of it" (238). It's that being "drawn back into this world" that informs the novel's language and plot. It's this prior exchange between Ames and the world, between human being and the elements and moments of life, that makes possible Ames' risky social exchange with Jack and the present-future exchange that he undertakes with his son.
But if recognition of blessing and openness to transformation are prerequisites for human exchange, so too is recognition of shared flaw. Completion of the letter as well as some measure of peace before death depend upon John Ames' "sullen old reptilian self" (167) coming to terms with his godson. This happens only in the final section of the novel, after John Ames finds out that Jack also has an unexpected second wife and son--or has had them, because Jack is unemployed, his wife's father is not too keen on having a white son-in-law, and the 1950s town of Gilead may no longer be as hospitable as it once would have been to a biracial couple.
Ames writes to his seven-year-old son's adult self, "You may wonder about my pastoral discretion, writing this all out. Well, on one hand it is the way I have of considering things. On the other hand, he is a man about whom you may never hear one good word, and I just don't know another way to let you see the beauty there is in him" (232). Fear and covetise disappear in recognition of shared flaw and fellow-feeling: "The fact was, standing there, I wished there were grounds for my old dread [that Jack could be a threat to my family]. That amazed me. I felt as if I'd have bequeathed him wife and child if I could to supply the loss of his own" (233). Ames also has to learn (though "learn" may suggest too deliberate a process), to see his godson as "a thing existing in excess of itself, so to speak" (28), has to see "the beauty there is in him" (232).
In Ames' vexed but sympathetic relationship to Jack Boughton, we see that recognition of the gift-character of life's elements also makes gifts of exchange possible in our flawed but beautiful social world. Though this may be the most important one, there are many other reminders that wilderness and blessing can be social as well as personal--drought, the Spanish influenza, wars we can identify with, broken relationships. Most times they are both personal and public. In fact, it is surprising how much of the public world makes it into this fictive memoir: historical events such as the Civil War, John Brown's uprising, the Abolitionist movement, the underground railroad, the battle to situate Kansas as a free or slave state; public documents such as Bible verses, hymns, Feuerbach's philosophy, Herbert's poetry, Calvin, Donne; cultural history of denominations, of miscegenation laws in St. Louis, of baseball games broadcast over radios, of the Negro League; and public interpretations of historical events, such as John Ames' grandfather's church's response to John Brown, or John Ames' (burnt) sermon interpreting the rise of the flu epidemic during World War I. Hearing how public things were comprehended by these characters makes those things more personal at the same time as it shows how public life impinges upon the lives of these characters, cannot be kept separate from them.
Memory of the period from the Civil War to the mid-twentieth century keeps entering and re-entering this letter of a 77-year-old minister with a failing heart--memory of three generations in a family of preachers, including the fiery grandfather who supported the Civil War and thought it an insult to justice that it had been shut down before the battle against slavery was done, and also including the grandson who was opposed to World War I and thought the outbreak of the Spanish influenza was maybe a judgment on U. S. involvement in it (41). Though the novel is set during the Eisenhower years, it strikes a quite different note than we usually associate with the 1950s. Near the end of the novel, for example, we get this entry from John Ames, worried that he has shirked the prophet's calling:
I woke up this morning thinking this town might as well be standing on the absolute floor of hell for all the truth there is in it, and the fault is mine as much as anyone's. I was thinking about the things that had happened here just in my lifetime--the droughts and the influenza and the Depression and three terrible wars. It seems to me now we never looked up from the trouble we had just getting by to put the obvious question, that is, to ask what it was the Lord was trying to make us understand. The word "preacher" comes from an old French word, predicateur, which means prophet. And what is the purpose of a prophet except to find meaning in trouble? (233)
But the past doesn't enter the letter (or the life) once for all. Moments in time are as generative as the rest of the elements Robinson describes. Things can be sanctified by memory (96) as well as cursed by it. The meaning of moments in time extends beyond and before those moments, in our narrator's generous perspectivism. Blessing doesn't forestall judgment; but neither does judgment preclude grace. Never, perhaps, is this so clear as in the final scene with Ames and Jack walking through Gilead seeing it from the distance of impending death, on the one hand, and the impossibility of settlement on the other. As readers, we hardly know whether to bless the town or exercise our judgment upon it (and upon more of middle America). The characters and author seem to do both. (The same author who reveals the elemental in the way we might be shown a wilderness night sky also began in the 1990s to write essays of cultural criticism that were often sharply critical of church and society.) (4)
I have made much, in this essay, of the theology of blessing at work in Robinson's novel and of the difficult gift of human exchange that it provokes. The earthly spiritualism that is first introduced through the scene of the cats' baptism and then by Feuerbach's commentary on water seems of a piece with another scene introduced much later in the novel, a more social scene, one resembling communion: (5)
Ames tells of being a young child when his father helped pull down a church that had burned. Lightning struck the steeple, and then the steeple fell into the building. The pulpit was left intact, but most of the pews were kindling.
He remembers all kinds of people coming to help--like a picnic. Young children played marbles on quilts in the grass. Older boys dug around in the ruins for what could be salvaged. They gathered up all the books that were beyond repair and made two graves, one for the Bibles and one for the hymnals. And, the Baptist minister prayed before they buried them. The women put out pies and cakes. And, it was raining, and the ash turned to liquid in the rain, and the men who were working got black and filthy.
Then the narrator writes of his father bringing him a biscuit in his soot-blackened hands.
I remember my father down on his heels in the rain, water dripping from his hat, feeding me biscuit from his scorched hand, with that old blackened wreck of a church behind him and steam rising where the rain fell on embers, the rain falling in gusts and the women singing "The Old Rugged Cross" while they saw to things, moving so gently, as if they were dancing to the hymn, almost. In those days no grown woman ever let herself be seen with her hair undone, but that day even the grand old women had their hair falling down their backs like school girls. It was so joyful and sad. I mentioned it again because it seems to me much of my life was comprehended in that moment. Grief itself has often returned me to that morning, when I took communion from my father's hand. I remember it as communion, and I believe that's what it was. (95-96)
The setting and need for this Eucharistic scene are as carefully wrought as in Spark's or O'Connor's fiction. Yet, despite the burnt church, there is little that is apocalyptic here, and even less that is ironic. The efforts of characters and narrator seem more mundane and, maybe because of that, seem more important than the apocalyptic moment. Laura Tanner describes the scene this way:
As Ames the narrator circles round and round his childhood memory, the emotional impact of the experience he recalls remains inextricable from his sensory apprehension of the moment. The image's intelligibility can be traced not only to Ames's ability to "comprehend" its symbolic meaning but to a different sort of comprehensiveness--the narrative's gathering up of multiple strands of intercorporeal experience, its testimony to memory's stubborn situatedness in the realm of the textured particular. Even as he pushes the bread his father feeds him toward the spiritual realm of the communion wafer, it is the body of the symbol--the hands which present that communion, the bread covered with ash, the food offered from his father's side--that Ames would leave his son; his attempt to exchange essence for experience only returns him to moments which render "the usual companionable way" of father and son rare and holy. (230)
Though one might argue that even outside the world of the novel the communion wafer never inhabits the spiritual realm alone, the important thing to see in this fine commentary is that the father and son's efforts reclaim what Benjamin calls "the communicability of experience" (86). In the words of an old man looking back on himself as a kid in the ruins of a charred church, "I mention it again because it seems to me much of my life was comprehended in that moment." This mentioning is surely part of the difficult gift of human exchange. Robinson clarifies the difficulty and the blessing of that exchange in the life of her characters, as here in Ames' "mentioning" But if the novel is not only about exchange but also is a kind of exchange that the author intends to conduct with us, its readers, what can we gain from it? If the shape of Robinson's novel suggests that she, as well as her narrator, casts her bread upon the waters in hopes that it will have a useful return, how can we describe its usefulness?
The Novel as Useful Exchange
Maybe the first benefit, as the early reviewers suggested, is just that the novel shows us the possibility of this voice, with its humor, counsel, risk, a voice that strips things down to the elemental, that exercises judgment, that attends to blessing, that marks both isolation and transformation, that recognizes both the dangers of fear and covetise and the possibilities of love, that practices a perspectivism that doesn't diminish what can be counted on but reveals new facets that then continue to hold. The novel shows us not only what we lack, as in Benjamin's fear that communicable experience diminished after the first world war, but also the pleasures that accompany our effort to establish a significant human exchange, with each other and with the world we inhabit.
So we return to the category of voice, as both an aesthetic and a moral category. It gives us access to a different way of being in, or of apprehending, the world than we usually experience. It makes a new form of life imaginable. Neither the author's discovery of and spinning out of a particular voice nor the reader's attention to and testing of that voice is a disinterested matter. They're both an important part of moral reasoning and involve rhetorical persuasion. Our attention to voice falls rather awkwardly between categories of theoretical and practical reason, but if that Aristotelian division is questioned we may discover a more appropriate description of this narrative voice's pull on us. Recent work by political ethicist Oliver O'Donovan may help us do so.
O'Donovan writes that Aristotle's division between practical and theoretical knowing has led to the narrow association of moral philosophy with practical reason, a deliberation whose goal is decision-making. O'Donovan follows contemporary German philosopher Robert Spaemann's argument that the source of both practical and theoretical reason can be found in a third, prior kind of reason, which Spaemann calls "existential reason." This is the reason required by the other person, whose dignity is not grasped in two ways, approached first ontologically and then ethically, first theoretically and then practically, first as reality and then as value, but in one way, which Spaemann calls "attention" or "benevolence." O'Donovan differs from Spaemann in appealing less to the category of "person" than to the proposition, derived from Augustine, that we know only as we love. "All knowledge," O'Donovan says, "has an affective aspect, just as all love has a cognitive aspect" (11).
O'Donovan shows how theoretical reason requires a practical posture (12), our disinterested theoretical stance serving juridical discernment or experimental enquiry. That is to say, theoretical reason serves our practical effort to elicit truth out of ambiguity. Similarly, "practical reason" is an abstraction that in reality doesn't rid itself entirely of theoretical reason. Though moral reasoning is most often aligned with practical reason, O'Donovan argues that "[t]hinking morally is a much wider activity than thinking toward decision" (13). He writes:
It includes an attention to the world which is both affective and evaluative, "existential" in Spaemann's terms. Our whole world of beings and events is known to us only as we love and hate. At the root of moral thought is a necessary taking-stock of the world, a discrimination prior to any decision we may subsequently make to influence the world. (13)
O'Donovan calls this taking-stock "moral reflection" to distinguish it from "moral deliberation" which is more narrowly "directed toward decision" (13). Moral reflection, on the other hand, is broader. As O'Donovan says, it has a practical significance, but "it is not oriented to any action in particular, but to the task of existence itself. In reflection we answer the question 'how shall we live?' not 'what shall we do?'" (14).
O'Donovan's description of moral reflection helps us in two ways to articulate the useful exchange that Robinson initiates and invites us to in writing her novel: 1) In making it clear that moral thinking doesn't have to end in decision-making, O'Donovan makes it easier for us to relate our reading of Robinson's novel to other kinds of moral reflection. Reasoning about past history or reasoning about political decisions only a few can make are two of the examples of moral reflection that O'Donovan gives. Similar to such reasoning, our following of John Ames' voice and its intersection with other voices doesn't lead us to particular decisions. Nonetheless, we feel its influence on our moral reasoning, on the restored force that the elemental gains for us, for example, or a recognition of a shared flaw, or an enlarged appreciation of the here and now. 2) The moral reflection we engage in as readers, though it doesn't lead to particular decisions, also doesn't pretend to what O'Donovan calls "a sovereign uselessness" whose end point is just a refined sensibility. To find a path between particular decision-making, on the one hand, and aesthetic appreciation, on the other, O'Donovan first considers Augustine's theological distinction between enjoyment and use. (6)
The truth that God can be loved only for his own goodness and not for the sake of any other thing is only apparently inconsistent with the observation that there are many benefits in loving God.... [T]o love God for the sake of his goodness is also to love the ways in which his goodness is known to us. (18)
It is the same, O'Donovan says, with our moral reflection: "we cannot stop short at finding [this moral reflection] good in itself; we must see how it generates and supports useful goods of deliberative thought toward action" (19).
The case is surely the same with reading Robinson's fictive memoir or "endless letter." Robinson wouldn't have written it, nor would we read it, without some hope that our thought or action might be changed by it, especially since in a novel as rich as Robinson's we are able to live with the voices for a considerable length of time even after closing the book. Pleasure deepens memory; memory links knowledge and action. (7)
For those working against a view of literature as a compensatory art, a view that emphasizes feelings that have insufficient opportunity for expression outside of art, a view that affirms an individualism that, ironically, often seems to be our most common goal--for those working against such a compensatory view, O'Donovan's work on ethics might give a third kind of help. This help is vital for a social or rhetorical aesthetics. O'Donovan gives us a more accurate language for describing the social aspect of what sometimes seems to be the private activity of reading. (The act of reading was more obviously social, of course, when reading was always done out loud and most often for others.) (8) Here is O'Donovan on moral reasoning once again: "[F]rom its reflective roots to its deliberative fruits moral reasoning is a shared and collective enterprise, not a private and individual one. Loving, like knowing, is something we do only with others. Together, not alone, we acquire our capacity to engage the world in cognitive affection" (19). Later in his argument, O'Donovan puts this more strongly yet: "Moral reflection, the identification of objects of love [and objects of refusal], has effect in organized community." (9)
In so far as an author's work persuades us to share the things a particular people intend to love (or refuse to love), it becomes not only a personal and aesthetic but also a social and ethical act. It asks us to love or refuse to love in one particular direction or another, asks us to be part of this or that community. In Marilynne Robinson's work this means, in the first place, asking us to be part of a community that loves the elements of this world, that recognizes them as gifts, and that refuses to lose sight of their gift-character even amidst the keenly registered sorrows and flaws of our world. To do justice to her work requires us to engage it as a social and ethical act, to rejoin delight and persuasion, aesthetics and rhetoric.
Trinity Christian College
Benjamin, Walter. "The Storyteller." Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Harcourt, Brace. 1968.
Carruthers, Mary. The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture. New York: Cambridge UP, 1990.
Dirda, Michael. Rev. of Gilead. Washington Post 21 November 2004.
Lindsey, Peggy. "One of the Best Books of 2004." The Roanoke Times 30 January 30 2005.
MacLeish, Archibald. "Ars Poetica." The Norton Introduction to Literature. (Portable edition). Eds. Alison Booth, J. Paul Hunter, & Kelly J. Mays. New York: Norton, 2006.
Milbank, John. "The Gift and the Given." Theory, Culture & Society 23:2-3 (2006): 444-47.
O'Donovan, Oliver. Common Objects of Love: Moral Reflection and the Shaping of Community. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002.
Ritchie, Daniel E. Reconstructing Literature in an Ideological Age: A Biblical Poetics and Literary Studies from Milton to Burke. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996.
Robinson, Marilynne. The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
--. Gilead. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.
--. Housekeeping. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980.
Tanner, Laura E. "'Looking Back from the Grave': Sensory Perception and the Anticipation of Absence in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead." Contemporary Literature 48:2 (2007): 227-52.
Vander Weele, Michael. "What Is Reading For?" Christianity and Literature 52:1 (2002): 57-83.
Wannenwetsch, Bernd. Political Worship: Ethics for Christian Citizens. Trans. Margaret Kohl. New York: Oxford UP, 2004.
Wood, James. "Acts of Devotion." New York Times 28 November 28.
Woodmansee, The Author, Art, and the Market: Rereading the History of Aesthetics. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.
(1) Laura Tanner has a similar interest in a form of life to which Robinson's fiction gives us access, but her interest is in a kind of phenomenology of perception in the face of aging and death. It seems to me, though, that she takes Ames' father too seriously as purveyor of Christian doctrine. She takes as a doctrinal statement true of Christianity the father's statement that "when someone dies the body is just a suit of old clothes the spirit doesn't want anymore." She writes, "Much remains to be said both about the significance of religion in Gilead and about the tensions between a sensory apprehension of the world and a Christian perspective on the insignificance of the body in relation to the spirit" (231). Robinson, however, immediately qualifies the father's understanding by having Ames recall his childhood experience in the Kansas cemetery: "But there we were, half killing ourselves to find a grave, and as cautious as we could be about where we put our feet" (13). As a reader, I think Ames comes closer to the Christian truth about the interdependence of body and spirit than his father does, and therefore I find less tension than Tanner suggests between Ames' perspective and orthodox Christianity.
(2) Though John Ames writes quite a lot about Calvin, the theology of blessing which Ames develops without mention of Calvin may owe more to Calvin than anything he attributes to him. (See Ritchie, "Blessing and Human Culture in Genesis, Calvin, and Milton," 136-46.) Ames' theology of blessing owes a great deal to Feuerbach; his author's may owe more to Calvin.
(3) In this essay on "The Gift and the Given," Milbank seeks to overcome what he calls "the modern division between reciprocal contract and unilateral gift" (446). He describes both the sign character of gift and the gift character of sign: "But a sign proffered by a material someone deploying a material vehicle is not just a sign, it is also a gift. Inversely, a material thing handed over must be also a sign in order to be a gift. So gift is the exact point of intersection between the real and signifying" (447).
(4) These essays were collected and published in The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought in 1998.
(5) I use the summary that follows with permission from Reverend Roger Nelson.
(6) This is important if, as Martha Woodmansee claims in The Author, Art, and the Market: Rereading the History of Aesthetics, aesthetics is in its beginnings a displaced theology. See p. 20, especially.
(7) See Mary Carruthers' description of medieval memory as moral (or immoral) construction in The Book of Memory, especially p. 64: "Defining memory as habitus makes it the key linking term between knowledge and action, conceiving of good and doing it. Memory is an essential treasure house for both the intellect and virtuous action." The same argument might be drawn from Horace's two-fold purpose of poetry, to please and to instruct, where pleasure was not independent of instruction but was meant to deepen our memory of it (just as instruction was not independent of pleasure but was meant to further it).
(8) See my review of recent work on the history of reading in "What Is Reading For?"
(9) O'Donovan is here working from Augustine's definition of a people as "a gathered multitude of rational beings united by agreeing to share the things they love" (21).
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|Author:||Weele, Michael Vander|
|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2010|
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