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On Thursday, I heard Marilynne Robinson give the last of a series of four lectures at Yale. The series was called “Absence of Mind: The dispelling of inwardness from the modern myth of the self."

The talk was in Linsly-Chittenden Hall, a domed lecture room with seats that might be as old as I am, the kind with a fixed wooden arm to write on. Mine had smoke weed carved deeply into it; also, cut in less deeply: emerson and his brothers.

There were lots of gray-haired people, including three women talking about their writing group. Some of the students were formally dressed. There was a guy with the aggressively unimpressed air of a reporter with a brown scarf slung around his neck and an open laptop in the front row. Tall, black mikes stood in the front of each aisle that made me imagine urgent, lengthy questions before anything started. A sign language interpreter sat on the stage with his shirt sleeves rolled up, casually chatting with friends. It was beautiful day out, although it was supposed to rain. The daffodils were already in bloom. After I looked at the people a while, I noticed the huge black hearth near the entrance. Then, the stained glass, beautiful, with allegorical figures and words like music, religion, reverence , science, research, art, intuition, allegory. There were bas relief profiles and heads of Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Plato, Franklin, et all, each in his own little alcove above a window around the dome. A student tapped the mike before he sat in the adjoining row.

Marilynne Robinson has iron gray hair, straight, with a little flip at the shoulder. She had on a black pantsuit and purple silk scarf. I had the impression of wryness and intense reserve. Also of a lot of lived experience, and that she was not someone to back away from a rant should a rant seemed called for. She didn’t refer to her novels except in response to questions, but she is one of my favorite writers: Housekeeping. Gilead. Home.

I loved being under the sound of what she called the beautiful voice of human thought.

• She suggested that the soul could be thought of, not as an argument, but as an experience.
• She referred to the response that God gave to Moses when asked who he was: I am that I am, saying that people use the phrase I am, often, almost always with a modifier. I am hungry. I am typing. I am a reader. She called this the abrupt descent into singularity from the breadth of existence.
• Also: Complex life may indeed be the wonder of the universe. If it is, it is not diminished by the fact that we kill it routinely.
• The mind is what the brain does.
• She said that contemporary thinking about the soul tends to use the model of the wager -- that the soul exists primarily to be saved or lost, not as a name for an ongoing experience. She said that she, along with Descartes, thinks that the soul is mind’s self awareness, the part of self that stands apart and appraises. And that human beings are capable of negotiating our own enhancement.
• She said: The strangeness of reality consistently exceeds the expectations of science. Science not a final definition of reality, but a highly fruitful way of inquiring into it.

I talked to her a little afterwards, and asked if that definition -- a highly fruitful way of enquiring into reality – would extend to writing fiction. She smiled, and said that she wouldn’t disagree.

One of the most moving things she said was when, in response to a question, she spoke about having written three sad book. She said that she hadn’t set out for them to be sad, but that she knows that they are. But then, she said, she has spent years immersed in art of all kinds from all over the world, and knows that art at the highest levels can absorb huge levels of pain and make it thrilling.

Then she spoke about getting letters from readers, saying things like: My father was dying, I read your book aloud to him. I was so comforted.

She said, “Something that breaks your heart can enlarge your life. It’s amazing.”

When I spoke with her, I told her a little about what is going on with my novel. She told me to be brave. I said that I am. So, there’s that to live up to.

I loved the intellectual stimulation and moral seriousness; her beautiful, stern, aging presence; even the little chair desks that were fixed and immovable, yet still accommodated me in all my fullness at this difficult moment in my life. It was a pleasure -- a rare, fine, sweetness – to get to hear her talk.
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I loved the review of Marilynne Robinson's new novel in the current issue of the New Yorker.

I need to find her essay, "Puritans and Prigs." Here's a quote that the reviewer, James Wood, uses in his review:

We are forever drawing up indictments against the past, then refusing to let it testify in its own behalf -- it is so very guilty, after all. Such attention as we give it is usually vindictive and incurious and therefore incompetent.

Is the past more guilty than the present? Is that a useful question to think about when considering our own responsibilities to the world as it is now?
susanstinson: (Default)
I just read:

Carmen Dog by Carol Emshwiller, who Ursula Le Guin calls "the most unappreciated great writer we've got." It's about a world in which women are turning into beasts and beasts are turning into women, and features the struggles of Pooch, a transforming Golden Setter who dreams of being an opera singer. It's so sharp and funny and brilliant about gender, motherhood, science and the pose one takes when leaping off a burning building into the arms of acrobats.

and, then

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, who also wrote Housekeeping, which I loved with a passion. Gilead is meditative, serious, and it took me a couple of tries to engage with it, but its gifts are so deep and so essential to what feels like the work of my own life that I'm more alive for having read it. It's beautiful. In the 1950s in Iowa, a Congregational minister at the end of his life writes to his very young son.


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May 2009



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