Marilynn Robinson: Paris Review interview, quotes

I read “Housekeeping” years ago, and knew I was in the hands of a great writer.  Since I’ve learned you can be a great artist yet an execrable person, in my cynicism I didn’t form an interest in her on account of just one brilliant book.

Now comes this interview, with the comment in the preface that she is a “Christian”.  In this day and age that tells us little about her actual dogmatics,  and the interview doesn’t help us much on that score, but she is a factory of contemplation-inducing quotes.

The Paris Review – The Art of Fiction No. 198

I  don’t like categories like religious and not religious. As soon as

religion draws a line around itself it becomes falsified. It seems to

me that anything that is written compassionately and perceptively

probably satisfies every definition of religious whether a writer

intends it to be religious or not.

You have to have a certain detachment in order to see beauty for yourself

rather than something that has been put in quotation marks to be

understood as “beauty.” Think about Dutch painting, where sunlight is

falling on a basin of water and a woman is standing there in the

clothes that she would wear when she wakes up in the morning—that

beauty is a casual glimpse of something very ordinary. Or a painting

like Rembrandt’s Carcass of Beef, where a simple piece of meat

caught his eye because there was something mysterious about it. You

also get that in Edward Hopper: Look at the sunlight! or Look at the

human being! These are instances of genius. Cultures cherish artists

because they are people who can say, Look at that. And it’s not

Versailles. It’s a brick wall with a ray of sunlight falling on it.

There was a time when people felt as if structure in most forms were a

constraint and they attacked it, which in a culture is like an

autoimmune problem: the organism is not allowing itself the conditions

of its own existence. We’re cultural creatures and meaning doesn’t

simply generate itself out of thin air; it’s sustained by a cultural

framework. It’s like deciding how much more interesting it would be if

you had no skeleton: you could just slide under the door.

The New Atheist types, like Dawkins, act as if science had revealed the

world as a closed system. That simply is not what contemporary science

is about. A lot of scientists are atheists, but they don’t talk about

reality in the same way that Dawkins does. And they would not assume

that there is a simple-as-that kind of response to everything in

question. Certainly not on the grounds of anything that science has

discovered in the last hundred years.

As an achievement, science is itself a spectacular argument for the

singularity of human beings among all things that exist. It has a

prestige that comes with unambiguous changes in people’s

experience—space travel, immunizations. It has an authority that’s

based on its demonstrable power. But in discussions of human beings it

tends to compare downwards: we’re intelligent because hyenas are

intelligent and we just took a few more leaps.

The first obligation of religion is to maintain the sense of the value

of human beings. If you had to summarize the Old Testament, the summary

would be: stop doing this to yourselves. But it is not in our nature to

stop harming ourselves. We don’t behave consistently with our own

dignity or with the dignity of other people. The Bible reiterates this


…a mystical experience would be wasted on me. Ordinary things have

always seemed numinous to me. One Calvinist notion deeply implanted in

me is that there are two sides to your encounter with the world. You

don’t simply perceive something that is statically present, but in fact

there is a visionary quality to all experience. It means something

because it is addressed to you. This is the individualism that

you find in Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. You can draw from

perception the same way a mystic would draw from a vision.

I don’t try to teach technique, because frankly most technical problems

go away when a writer realizes where the life of a story lies. I don’t

see any reason in fine-tuning something that’s essentially not going

anywhere anyway. What they have to do first is interact in a serious

way with what they’re putting on a page. When people are fully engaged

with what they’re writing, a striking change occurs, a discipline of

language and imagination.


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