Marvelous anomalies

“Human consciousness has at least as great an impact on the planet as any force of nature, yet its existence is in doubt because science does not know how to describe it.” —Marilynne Robinson


One of the things I most enjoy when reading Marilynne Robinson’s essays is her earnest yet delighted devotion to the preciousness of being a human on the Earth. “The sheer plenitude of things a mortal encounters is a marvel in itself,” she writes, and her prose illustrates how all that she encounters deserves attention and compassion. Humanity, in particular, is a marvelous anomaly (“What a piece of work…”) which she lovingly defends while noting our “propensity to error” leads us into great evils but also to the kind of wide-latitude indeterminancy within which “we construct our minds and our civilizations.”

With clear logic and complex ideas and sentences, Robinson dismantles the logic that dehumanizes us. She demonstrates “that much influential thought is fundamentally incoherent” (this thought includes philosophy, psychology, and scientific theory) but nonetheless informs our norms, our behaviors, the tenor of our beliefs and our entire lives. Too often we are reflexive rather than reflective. Too often we dismiss feelings as irrational, when they originate in our bodies and minds and often work to alter what we regard as facts, thus biasing our perspectives. Emotions are part of our beings as humans. So are questions, especially the unanswerable questions.

Robinson says science “exploits accidents and relishes surprise”–something that poetry does, too (my aside, not hers, though I doubt she would disagree). But scientific method does not “provide an all-sufficient test for the reality of everything.” By implication, the biblical texts and so-called creation myths offer people a method of grasping the awesome that science cannot answer for and may never yield to, as each marvel reveals new mysteries and new questions.

We cannot say that the stars were arrayed to instruct us in the glory of God, to dispose our minds to wonder, to make us feel our finitude within an order of Being for which millennia are more transient than breath. This, for all we know, is the accidental consequence of the accidental emergence of the constellations, the fortuitous interaction of our unfathomable brains and senses with dazzling reality…We must step back and acknowledge that any accounts of the initial moments that make the event seem straightforward and comprehensible are deeply wrong. Nothing else could be true, considering what it has yielded.

I have not mentioned the words theology or philosophy in conjunction with Robinson, because so many readers would be less inclined to read her work. She’s not afraid to use those words and to examine, often rigorously, what they have meant to societies. Don’t be put off. In the final chapter of her book What Are We Doing Here?, Robinson writes about slander. It’s a short essay I wish all of us would read and think about, especially relevant to our current moment.

“Syntax” by Steve Tobin. Copper, bronze.


The semester has begun. I’ve been immersed in reading Marilynne Robinson (Absence of Mind) and Daniel Ariely (Predictably Irrational) while procrastinating on uploading materials to the software platform for my class and making tomato sauce at home.

Robinson detects, amid all of our human endeavors, a search for answers. That we have questions at all seems proof of sentience, if there can be such a thing as proof. Certainly the process, myth, and language of seeking surrounds most human developments: religion, art, philosophy, science, and others. It’s the classic quest narrative that runs through anthropologically vast distances, from Gilgamesh’s efforts to find eternal life to the Ramayana (with Sita as the prize, in Ravana’s clutches) to Rowling’s Harry Potter, who snags the role of “Seeker” in a game–a metaphor that continues through the series.

But are there answers to our questions? And a corollary: are we asking the “right” questions?


Ariely, like Dan Kahneman, reminds us that we do not always–in fact, hardly ever–choose the most rational actions or answers to dilemmas. We fail to ask ourselves the better questions. We fail to act upon the better actions or decisions.

But we keep seeking. I find that intriguing.


Event Ahead:

On September 16, I’ll be taking part in an art-&-poetry event at a gallery in the “Christmas City” (Bethlehem, PA). Info on my Events page, here.


Reasonable, calming…

Campaign rhetoric is  hardly deserving of the name. The commentator who attempts to persuade or question through the means of valuable, thoughtful rhetoric endeavors to avoid fallacies and ballyhooing. But such commentators are scarce as hen’s teeth. Apparently, we citizens of the USA are not considered intelligent enough, are not respected enough, by our politicians and their media handlers to be worthy of genuine discourse or reasonable argument. We are also far too emotional and prone to grand-standing and stereotyping, the media-savvy promoters must imagine. With a certain amount of dismay, I admit there may be some truth to that pathetic view of the average US voter; but I want to believe we are better than that.

In the thick of a presidential election, therefore, I find it pleasant to retreat to the calming, reasonable, optimistic (though cautioning) prose of Marilynne Robinson. For those of you who, like me, feel a sickening pressure around the whole election brou-ha-ha, I suggest a few hours reading and re-reading her recent book of collected essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books. Robinson makes no secret of her perspectives as a Christian, Protestant, US citizen, and reasonable, thinking, person of letters (humanities canon through and through…). She also establishes how her perspective widens rather than narrows her views, offers her “gentler” interpretations of the Old Testament and of Calvin’s writing and teachings, and argues her opinion with an erudition, elegance, simplicity and wisdom that is exceedingly rare today, particularly during presidential election years…and among people identifying themselves as “Christians.”

In “Open Thy Hand Wide,” Robinson parses the difference between rationality and reason and reminds us of what the word “liberal” originally meant (and how its meaning has changed and become vague). By the way, though a rational person in terms of her use of rhetoric, Robinson is squarely in the arena of reason, which she defines — with sources, thank you — as less numerical and more courageous and intuitive, ie human, than the merely rational.

Is her work ever political? Is it ever not political? It depends upon  how one defines “political.” Robinson is deeply engaged with the human community. I think she would agree with Lewis Mumford on the city’s best purpose as being there to protect the welfare of its citizens, even the least of its citizens, and would agree that one of the most significant values of civilization is the creation of art. Certainly she here asserts that the highest purpose of nationhood is to establish justice (civic, human justice), to keep domestic peace within the nation itself, to secure freedom and liberty for all members of the society equally, and to keep the populace safe while promoting the common welfare of all the people.

I believe she is well aware–though she doesn’t say it even  once in this book–that this stance makes her a classic patriot, a defender of the US Constitution, even as it also means that she can easily be branded a “liberal” for her well-argued stance that the USA was not established as a capitalist nation but as a generous democratic one devoted to the public welfare (ie, “good”), and what the difference between those theories are.

Just a week or two ago, I visited the US Constitution Center in Philadelphia. The performance offered there (“We the People”) and the interactive and non-interactive exhibit halls do a good job of reminding US citizens that the Constitution is a living document that established a government like no other before it, a document amenable to change and interpretation even as it establishes fundamental rights. Let us look at the Preamble and connect it with Robinson’s essays and ideas:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Reasonable. Generous–even Liberal. Secure for the people–no caving in to irrational fears; offering human justice because divine justice is not for us to determine; defense, not aggression; attentiveness to the general welfare (not of the privileged few)…and liberty: the chance to live as safe a life as God and the randomness of earthly environments allow without the oppression of other human beings to weigh us down.

You really have to read Robinson’s measured, calm prose and clear reasoning to feel the optimism; I cannot do it justice. I will just say that reading her book has made me feel much less depressed during a time when lack of discourse and logic has made me almost lose my hope about the democratic process.

Molte bene, Marilynne.

A different kind of difficult book

Elie Wiesel’s Night.

Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird.

André Schwartz-Bart’s The Last of the Just.

Dominique Lapierre’s City of Joy.

Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina.

I’ve been posting about books that I love in spite of–or because of–their challenging material in terms of philosophical thinking or complex scientific explanations. It occurs to me there are other forms of “difficult,” and that topic is yet another challenge for the reader to encounter. These are books I found hard to read because of subject matter, events, descriptions of things I cannot imagine, or maybe can imagine, facing.

Sometimes a book seems difficult for me on these terms because of where I am in my life; it might not be difficult to read at another time. An example of this sort of book is Franzen’s The Corrections, which features among other characters a family patriarch in serious physical and mental decline. My family is experiencing something similar right now, and I cannot quite bring myself to open the book lying on the nightstand.

On the other hand, reading can help me get through tough situations. Maybe I’ll get to The Corrections soon after all if I recall how fiction and poetry–especially the latter–have often been tools for coping or “processing.” It was immensely difficult to read Marie Howe’s What the Living Do close on the deaths (by AIDS) of three friends, but I felt understood when I read her work; I can’t explain it any other way. This exchange is almost magical to me: I do not necessarily feel I understand the writer, but I feel the writer has understood me. Without knowing me. Without knowing a person like me would ever stumble upon and read the pages…yet the text makes me feel understood.

I love that feeling, even though the rational side of me cries “Magical thinking! Coincidence! Self-delusion!”

So that’s art.

Some tough books to read: Gray Jacobik’s Little Boy Blue, Chana Bloch’s Mrs. Dumpty, Donald Hall’s Without, Heidi Ann Smith’s The Carol Ann Burns Story, Selah Saterstrom’s The Meat & Spirit Plan, Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish, Gregory Orr’s Gathering the Bones Together…and these books, mostly poetry, do not include the more traditional memoirs and non-fiction accounts of difficult events that are available to the reader. You could spend your entire life reading about the Holocaust, and some readers do just that.

Why would I willingly subject myself to disturbing reading? I kind of wonder about that myself; it’s not the same impulse that makes me want to read a thriller or mystery novel. In those cases, there is a promise of entertainment in a voyeuristic form and the outcome usually promises a kind of satisfaction that these other books do not always offer (read: hope, redemption, solutions…)

But I will hearken again to something I heard Marilynne Robinson talk about (see my previous post on AWP). She suggested that literature teaches us compassion. Good art of any kind opens up a new kind of perspective, one that thrusts us out of our own comfortable, individual points of view and therefore allows us–in the safety of our own homes, secure in the knowledge that this is only a book and is not happening to us–to engage with the “other.” When we feel empathy for a problematic character, when we feel we understand another person’s plight, even a fictional person, we move away from narcissistic isolation and into engagement with other beings. And that is compassion.

And that is also art.

AWP conference

I got back from Chicago on Monday and have been trying to catch up ever since. Chicago hosted the 2012 Associated Writing Programs conference, where nearly 10,000 writers, aspiring writers, teachers, publishers, and students (often these categories overlap) converge to interact, interface, synthesize, network, inform themselves, and idol-worship.

For an introverted, reflective, crowd-shy person, the event can be overwhelming. I speak from experience.

Nevertheless, the conference generally provides me with tremendous food for thought in the form of books to read, authors to discover, concepts to familiarize myself with, pedagogies to explore, and considerable re-assessment of why I do what I do. Also, I meet people.

At a wonderful presentation called “Literature and Evil,” for example, I was seated next to poet James McKean. We had an amiable discussion about teaching composition prep to freshmen before I figured out who he was. Here is one of his poems: “Bindweed” up at The Poetry Foundation site. For poetry people, that’s big-time. The thing is, I hadn’t read any of his books; it would have been really weird to say, “Oh, I recognize your name. I don’t know your work at all, though. Sorry.” So we chatted about an area of common ground: teaching.

I tracked down McKean’s books via Iowa’s Writing Program and did a bit of internet sleuthing for samples of his poetry. Turns out I really like his work. So I’m going to be reading James McKean’s poems and meanwhile be thinking, what a nice man he is! Such a devoted teacher, down-to-earth. He shared some of his classroom approaches and I shared my teaching experiences with similar students. We talked about the differences between community college adult students and 18-year-old freshmen. We didn’t talk about teaching creative writing, but we did talk about the low-residency MFA and his current crop of students. He is much younger than my dad, but he reminded me of my father, a midwesterner and professor interested in what Marilynne Robinson, Ha Jin, and Paul Harding had to say about evil and literature.

They had lovely and compassionate and interesting things to say, in my opinion. I suggest you read their books. And, while you are at it, pick up a collection of James McKean’s poems. He’s a terrific poet–and a very nice man.