Marilynne Robinson: The Brilliant American Writer and Thinker on God, Capitalism and Our Fearful Democracy

Marilynne Robinson (Credit: Reuters/Dylan Martinez)
Marilynne Robinson (Credit: Reuters/Dylan Martinez)

Marilynne Robinson talks religion, fear and the American spirit: “The left, at a basic level, lost courage, because they don’t know how to deal with the proclaimed religiosity of the other side”

It makes sense that Barack Obama would describe Marilynne Robinson as one of his favorite novelists. Like a great politician, Robinson has a knack for making the small details of American life seem freighted with cosmic significance.

Unlike a politician, Robinson works in a lonely profession, and in person she’s reserved—warm but quiet, with a ready laugh. She speaks fluently and frankly about topics that few Americans, let alone public figures, would touch with anything besides platitudes—theology, Calvinism, metaphysics, and redemption; the nature of grace and sin. She is decidedly left-wing in her politics, and unabashedly theistic in her worldview.

Robinson teaches at the University of Iowa’s Iowa Writers Workshop. She has won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (for her 2005 novel “Gilead”) and a National Book Critics Circle award for “Lila,” which came out last year. In September, Obama interviewed her about her work, in a wide-ranging conversation subsequently published in The New York Review of Books.

In a new essay collection, “The Givenness of Things,” Robinson touches on everything from neuroscience to the New Testament. She seems as comfortable talking about physics and philosophy as she is discussing God or capitalism. The collection includes a powerful essay on the role of fear in American political discourse, a recurring concern for Robinson in recent years.

I met Robinson in a hotel lobby in Atlanta, where she was receiving an award from the American Academy of Religion. Over coffee, we spoke about fear, faith and why Moses would have advocated for retail workers.

You’ve argued that there is something about the quality or timbre of fear today that has changed. What’s different?

I think it is probably compounded of a number of things. There are changes that make people feel that they cannot anticipate their futures. I think it is a tendency of anxiety—a way of comforting it—that you focus it on some cause, even if you have to invent the cause.

What’s the source of this uncertainty? Is it economic?

What the economics of the moment argues is that no one owes [workers] any loyalty. If someone else is cheaper in their circumstance, they can assume they will be dismissed. If you are persuaded that no one owes you any loyalty, that means that ethical barriers are down. And that is a frightening thing to believe.

Also, I think there are fear hobbyists.

What’s a fear hobbyist?

Somebody for whom fear is a stimulus. The emotional current that used to run through late-night movies now runs through television news. People get addicted to this kind of anxiety. And this leads to extraordinary behavior in so many cases. People are holing up and making bunkers for themselves. It is so bizarre.

I think one of the things that is true of Western civilization now is the huge disequilibrium between the day-to-day comfort that we feel, and the threat that we know is based in reality.

It does feel like the safer we get, the more scared we get.

We have lost the feeling that we have leverage. The safety of our ordinary lives does not tell us how to respond to any of the disruptions that we know could happen. That is a free-floating anxiety that people try to channel into owning guns, or whatever.

There have been John Birchers, McCarthyites—what’s different about this contemporary kind of fear?

It definitely owes heritage to those movements. Partly because of Fox News—the commodification of anxiety and hostility through media—it feels much less contained as a phenomenon than the Birch Society, for example.

You focus on fear coming from the political right. I think it’s on the left as well, though. Anti-vaxxers come to mind.

Everyone is prone to fear. It is one of the things we have to watch out for as human beings. But some people buy guns. And I think that is disproportionately on the right[-wing] side.

During the protests at Yale, Missouri, Occidental and other universities, the protesters’ arguments were often framed in the language of safety. In other words, the justification does come from fear—which may be warranted, of course. But do you think this maps onto the same spectrum?

Well, I think there was a time when fear was sort of associated with cowardice, and to entertain it was not considered a handsome behavior. That barrier is gone, which is not to say there is no reason for fear. It is to say that there is a great value in keeping fear in perspective.

There is a kind of hypochondria, and people are fascinated by their symptoms. Fear hobby-ism does not have a political party.

Do we have the language to censure fear?

It has been done in the past. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” But people assume that a great deal is not possible, and therefore make no attempt, and perpetuate whatever it is that they dread.

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Michael Schulson

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