Back Cover Blurb
- In our era of rampant political and cultural pessimism, we run the risk of becoming bogged down in disillusionment and of losing sight of ways out of the mire. In What Are We Doing Here?, the incomparable Marilynne Robinson offers us balm: impelling us to action, but offering us hope.
- Robinson’s novels, including the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Lila, the Orange Prize-winning Home and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, celebrate the human spirit. In her new essay collection she trains her incisive mind on our modern political climate and the mysteries of faith. Whether she is investigating how the work of great thinkers about America like Emerson and Tocqueville inform our political consciousness or discussing the way that beauty informs and disciplines daily life, Robinson's peerless prose and boundless humanity are on full display.
- What Are We Doing Here? is a call to continue the tradition of the great thinkers and to remake political and cultural life as ‘deeply impressed by obligation [and as] a great theatre of heroic generosity.’
Preface – ix
- What is Freedom of Conscience? – 3
- What Are We Doing Here? – 17
- Theology for This Moment – 35
- The Sacred, the Human – 51
- The Divine – 69
- The American Scholar Now – 81
- Grace and Beauty – 101
- A Proof, a Test, an Instruction – 115
- The Beautiful Changes – 127
- Our Public Conversation: How America Talks About Itself – 135
- Mind, Conscience, Soul – 183
- Considering the Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope, and Love – 205
- Integrity and the Modern Intellectual Tradition – 255
- Old Souls, New World – 273
- Slander – 297
Acknowledgements – 317
- This book featured on a “Books for the Summer: 2018” reading list created by Charles Leadbeater (Wikipedia: Charles Leadbeater) and forwarded by my daughter Naomi2.
- Charles Leadbeater's general introduction was “If there is a theme to this list it is our relationship to time: we often go back in order to go forwards. Progress is rarely a straight line into the future, leaving behind a bad past. Going back is not without its risks however: nostalgia lurks at every turn. Yet increasingly it seems we want a version of progress that incorporates, respects, builds on the past rather than laying it to waste through unforgiving disruptive creative destruction.”
- On this book, his comment was “Should you want a book with weightier ambitions on similar themes (to those raised in Matt Haigh’s Notes on a Nervous Planet) then you might try Marilynne Robinson’s wide ranging What Are We Doing Here? which is a plea for us to stay true to our more generous, fuller selves rather than allow ourselves to be reduced to self-interest and calculation.”
- My initial thoughts for Naomi were
- “I imagine I’ll find this even more annoying3. I looked it up on Amazon. Her style is a bit preachy and – from a quick look4 – her take on history is obnoxious and unsound, and favours the US and repressive types like Cromwell and Calvin.
- It looks like she blames the owners of the Lancashire cotton mills for the slave trade by creating the market for cotton that the American South satisfied.
- She also takes issue with Churchill5 being voted by Americans as the most significant person of the 20th century. She claims he was a social reactionary (maybe correct, but irrelevant in this context – that’s why he was voted out in 1945) and that all he did in the war was hope that America and the Colonies would rescue Britain as they had in WWI. Well, yes, but if he hadn’t taken that stand – and galvanised Britain and the empire to fight rather than make peace – Hitler would have had a free hand to defeat the Soviet Union, and Japan to defeat China, India, Australia .... America couldn’t have stayed “isolationist” as Hitler and Hirohito would have needed to defeat the US before they could mass-produce and deliver the atom bomb (this “trump card” couldn’t have been played until much later than 1945 as bombing Japan was only possible because the Japanese air-force had been eliminated; not so the Luftwaffe without the Battle of Britain which Robinson seems to have forgotten; and rocket technology was all German). Franco’s Spain might have joined in and repossessed Mexico, and Germany invaded the US via Canada and Mexico ... the US would then have known what it was like to fight alone and on their own soil. Half the world would now be speaking German and half Japanese. But it’ll be interesting to read her arguments, if there are any.”
- With respect to the above, it might be worth comparing "Ferguson (Niall), Ed. - Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals", though there the scenario is the invasion and defeat of Britain, though there might not have been much difference as far as Britain's continued role in the War was concerned.
- See Wikipedia: Marilynne Robinson.
In-Page Footnotes ("Robinson (Marilynne) - What are We Doing Here?")
Footnote 2: Footnote 3: Footnote 4:
- If I get down to commenting seriously on any of these essays, I’ll break them out into separate “papers” to hold the comments.
- This remark was based on reading extracts from the first essay “What is Freedom of Conscience?”
- I also note, having now read the essay, that Robinson’s historical references are very partisan and selective.
- There is no index or scholarly apparatus, so without reading the whole book, I can’t tell, but …
- I can’t see any reference to the Indian wars, which is – thanks to the Westerns – the aspect of American history that people in the UK think they know most about, and which they assume white Americans are proud of. I’m not sure whether the British would be blamed for this appalling treatment of native Americans or how this fits her narrative.
- There’s the question of the US Lend-Lease agreement, which she may or may not mention, especially the “Reverse” version at the end of the war. See Wikipedia: Lend-Lease. I’d thought that this was more mercenary of the US than it appears to be from the Wikipedia entry. It’s important to have one’s beliefs constrained by the facts, so I hope to look into this in due course.
- There are also odd little asides to the detriment of those she doesn’t like. She’s very supportive of the religious policies of Edward VI and / or Somerset, but less so of those of Elizabeth I, “noting” that Elizabeth’s choice of dispatch for dissidents was “worse than burning”. Thankfully I’ve not had to experience either hanging, drawing and quartering (Wikipedia: Hanged, drawn and quartered) or it’s supposedly less unpleasant alternative, but surely a moment’s thought would convince you that things can’t get much worse for you than being burned alive?
- She’s also very critical of Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech. See "Churchill (Winston S.) - The Sinews of Peace" / Churchill: The Sinews of Peace.
- She mentions – correctly – that the Soviet Union paid a terrible price for victory in the 2nd World War, but she fails to distinguish the (often enforced) heroism of the Russian people from the policy of the Regime, that was even more destructive (if not more barbarous) than that of the Nazis. It was the Regime and its aspirations, rather than the Russian people, that had to be restrained.
- It is ever the case that the people have to suffer for the sins of their leadership (though the Germans in WW2 were culpable for the sins of their leadership).
Virago (20 Feb. 2018)
"Churchill (Winston S.) - The Sinews of Peace"
Source: The International Churchill Society (winstonchurchill.org)
"Robinson (Marilynne) - What are We Doing Here?"
Source: Robinson (Marilynne) - What are We Doing Here?
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)