Tag Archives: Essays

Reading Notes: Marilynne Robinson and Carl Sagan

Note to Regular tNPs Readers (you hardy few!): I have less time than I’d like to write for the blog these days, partly due to work pressures, partly due to an increased focus on other writing projects. I don’t want to be neglectful, however, so I’ve decided to repurpose some of my reading notes from the past year or two, in case anyone is interested. They’re bound to be a little rough, so caveat lector. This is a first installment.

  • When I Was a Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson
  • The Varieties of Scientific Experience, Carl Sagan

The Varieties of Scientific Experience collects the transcripts of Sagan’s 1985 Gifford Lectures (always given on the topic of “natural theology”), complete with beautifully printed images of the slides he shared while lecturing. As one might judge from the write-ups by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris on the back of the volume, the book is being re-packaged these days as a relevant text for foot soldiers of the so-called New Atheism.

I think it’s appropriate to be at least a little suspicious of this co-opting. When Sagan talks about astronomy and science in general, and the history of science, he really is compelling. His sense of awe and commitment to inquiry are infectious. But I wonder if his aim isn’t different than the aims of Dawkins and Harris et al. Sagan isn’t really interested in snuffing out any sense of, or longing for, the divine in his audience, but to deliver a lesson in epistemological humility.

That said, the book frankly bores when Sagan ceases to lecture on science per se and moves on to dismantle the Mr. Potato Head arguments historically forwarded to (supposedly) demonstrate the existence of God. Anyone who’s sat through a basic Philosophy course in college and paid any amount of attention will know with what relative ease this may be done. But of course religion, whatever it is and for all its accretions over the millennia, is (like life itself) not founded upon or honestly reducible to rational argument or experimental demonstration.

The title of Sagan’s book recalls the American philosopher William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, which was similarly drawn from his own Gifford Lectures, delivered eighty-some years earlier. These two books are not, despite the implication, arguing from diametrically opposed positions. Both are open and curious. But I think James’s book has aged better than Sagan’s (which suffers from scientific progress in his own field as well as from an excess of Cold War hand-wringing) and is, both literally and figuratively, more substantial.

*

Speaking of science. In one of the essays from her uneven but often compelling collection, Marilynne Robinson writes: “Our problem with ourselves, which is much larger and vastly older than science, has by no means gone into abeyance since we learned to make penicillin or to split the atom.”

Sagan, I’m sure, would agree with the bare statement, though he may disagree on what exactly “our problem” is. For Sagan, perhaps, the big problem is our tendency to engage in tribal warfare, which in a nuclear era entails the risk of destroying all life on earth as so much collateral damage. In Robinson’s view, however, the trouble with us is that we so often “turn our backs on what is true, essential, wholly to be desired.”

Compared to Sagan’s more focused concern, Robinson’s is vague and metaphysically loaded, but she spends most of her book arguing, in a roundabout way, that this fuzzier diagnosis is the only really satisfying one. I wonder if there’s a distinction to be made here between collective and individual ends. Solving Sagan’s problem would remove a mortal threat to the species as a whole, which is no small thing. But if you grant Robinson’s diagnosis, perhaps you’ll concede that successful management of it (she doesn’t envision a permanent solution) would probably contribute more to our individual self-knowledge and joy in life than the eternal bunkering of the arsenals of decayed superpowers.

*

In another of her essays Robinson writes: “My point is that lacking the terms of religion, essential things cannot be said.” It strikes me that so much of Marilynne Robinson’s work, fiction and non-fiction, can be summed up in this single sentence.

Not long ago, William Deresiewicz wrote a blog post for The American Scholar, titled ‘My Atheism: An Interim Report,’ in which he came to the same conclusion: that we need religious language in order to say the most important things (he actually invokes Robinson’s Gilead in his post). There is a real divide between persons, Deresiewicz says (I’m paraphrasing), but it’s not between believers and non-believers, it’s between people who imagine that truth is only a matter of factual statement about material phenomena and people who believe that there is an inward truth too, inaccessible to material investigation.

He tells one of his more religiously-inclined literature students: “You and I understand what a lot of the people around here don’t, that books are temples of the spirit.” He clarifies: “I meant the human spirit, he undoubtedly heard me as meaning the spirit of God, but we were taking different routes, I knew, to the same destination.”

There’s something to this, I think. Perhaps we might say that there are the Marilynne Robinsons of the world on the one hand, and (though it might be a bit unfair to him) the Carl Sagans on the other. This is not necessarily a division between “believers” and “atheists.” The late Christopher Hitchens, such a charming and exuberant blasphemer, might plausibly be a Robinson, as are most religious persons or persons (like Deresiewicz) raised in religious families. The difference that counts – and I see it all the time among my own friends, acquaintances and colleagues – is between those for whom stories are the most important thing in the world, and those for whom they are mere decoration.

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“The Edifice of Peace”

The wife and kids and I spent last week at a cabin near Mendocino on the northern California coast, just down the road from what must be the world’s most scenically situated cemetery. If I could pick any place at all for my “long retirement,” the cemetery at Little River would be it. I’d order a custom-built casket with a window and periscope attached; in my earthy drawer beneath the pines I would decompose in perfect contentment with a view of the Pacific bluffs.

Mendocino was settled in the 1850s by New England logging families, Chinese laborers, and fishermen from the Azores. The Yankees left their mark in the town’s carpenter gothic architecture and converted water towers. The Chinese (whose numbers in the mid-1800s were greater than the total current population) built a Joss House, a Taoist temple, that still functions today. The Portuguese planted the otherworldly echium pininana that sprout twelve-foot-tall pink and purple floral towers, each of which could support whole colonies of bees and hummingbirds.

By the early years of World War II, when Japanese subs prowled off the coast, Mendocino was in decline. Later, James Dean’s East of Eden was filmed here, and several episodes of Murder She Wrote. Mendocino is sustained today by tourists motoring up Highway 1, by weekenders from the San Francisco Bay Area, and by the regular patronage of gray-market marijuana farmers who filter down from the woods when they need things like toilet paper or milk or a sit-down-and-talk at the local bar.

In the checkout line of the small grocery store in downtown Mendocino you can buy the Summer 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, but no celebrity gossip rags. You can buy superior tonic water for your evening cocktails and several types of gluten-free baked goods. Mendocino is that kind of place. Every restaurant down Lansing and Ukiah Streets serves local, organic foods. The coffee shop stocks organic almond milk for the dairy-intolerant. The toy store highlights products not made in China.

From the top of nearby Van Damme State Park we hiked through a “pygmy forest” where the acidic soil, without benefit of drainage from higher ridges, has stunted a dense growth of Mendocino Cypress, Pacific Rhododendron and Bishop’s Pine. Down a steep decline we came into the redwoods. Here wild clovers grow as big as a man’s hand. Butterflies, flapping drunkenly from pool to pool of light, tempt you off the path like fairies.

At the beach below the town bluffs we unexpectedly ran into some acquaintances. While we talked, the kids made friends with a local boy named “Monday” who liked to bury insects in the sand and watch them crawl out again. Next day, en route to the botanical gardens at Fort Bragg (where we would spot an osprey), we saw the beginning of a grass fire at the edge of the same beach. We pulled up to a hardware store and told them to call for help. When we drove by again several hours later the firefighters were still smothering the last patches of heat.

Back at the cabin, furnished in a 1940s theme, we cooked beans and rice and listened to Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman records on vinyl, then watched (of all things) Back to the Future. It was, in every way, an escape from the present. There was no cell reception and I’d left my work computer at home. We drank in generous measures of quiet. The kids wanted to stay and breathe the salt air indefinitely, to give more time to the woods and beach, to dedicate themselves to chess and cards and drawing pictures. In full relaxation mode, my wife drank tea and read Stendhal while I drank tea and read Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and passages from Walden.

Framed on the walls of the cabin’s one bedroom were old photographs of the proprietor’s parents, a then-young Navy officer and his high school sweetheart. There were framed love letters they had written each other during the last months of WWII, as well as birth and baptismal certificates, a marriage license, and paper menus from hotels and restaurants where they had dined, back in the days when fifteen cents would buy you a slice of pie, and five cents a cup of coffee.

On the nightstand I found a short essay written in 1945 by the proprietor’s mother, in a pleasant cursive script without erasures. She had titled it “The Edifice of Peace” but the c in “peace” I at first mistook for an s. Intentional? I wondered if it were perhaps a playful rather than a serious exercise, but not at all. Drafted by a nineteen-year-old girl on the threshold of marriage and the armistice, it was written in an inspired spirit of charming, heroic naiveté.

“You and you and you,” it begins, “are the builders of tomorrow’s world. Out of the chaos and destruction of the war each one of you has a stone to build into the structure of peace. What sort of a structure are you going to build? Not the same as the last one, which has crumbled away so completely before the whip of Mars.”

“This time,” she resolved, “we shall not build our foundations on paper treaties.” I nod my agreement. The foundations of even a moment’s peace, it seems to me, can only be built on more substantial things – things like exhaustion, necessity, and desire. Sometimes we’re lucky with the materials at hand.

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Marginalia, no.243

Aesop, that great man, saw his master pissing as he walked. “What next?” he said. “Shall we have to shit as we run?”

~ Montaigne, Essays III, 13

This past Saturday night we were honored with the sight of a man following the example of Aesop’s master. Such acts of efficiency are commonly witnessed in the big city where the pace of life is faster and no one has time for anything. New labor-saving techniques are prized for their own sake. Former urbanites, now suburbanites, my wife and I had forgotten how to admire this sort of thing. As the quote proves, however, there’s no such thing as real innovation.

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Marginalia, no.226

Having been unable to do what they would, they have pretended to will what they could.

~ Montaigne, Essays II, 18

You may have noticed that, just before the deathblow, a gazelle will seem to sigh and resign itself to circumstances under the cheetah’s paw – almost as if it had finally found what it secretly wanted all along. Slow the footage for a moment and you’ll get a perfect icon of the peaceable kingdom. It may be one of those odd intersections of wisdom and foolishness in life, a sort of grotesque mercy: to finally choose what you can no longer escape.

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George and Michel

Thanks to a biting lack of free time, I’ve been unable to dig in for another novel at present.  Instead, I’ve been reading (and re-reading) essays – specifically of Orwell and Montaigne.  They make an odd pair, I suppose.  Orwell: the socialist, futurist, atheist, critic, journalist, idealist.  Montaigne: the humanist, classicist, skeptic, Catholic, epicurean, and realist.  Some thoughts:

Orwell in his essay My Country Right or Left says that “patriotism has nothing to do with conservatism.”  Certain incidents and catch-phrases from the recent American election leap immediately to mind.  Of course, both conservative and liberal philosophies operate in each party, and I’m not out to make a political statement.  But in my experience conservative appeals to patriotism do tend toward the dogged insistence that something which never really was still is and can only be ours tomorrow if we do our duty with regard to x and y.  A truer sort of patriotism, per Orwell, is the “devotion to something which is changing but is felt to be mystically the same.”  There’s a difference. 

It’s curious how Orwell’s sentiments skirt the borders of religious expression -and I mean more than his choice of words.  It’s precisely this loyalty to something changing and yet “mystically” identical through time that allows the long-suffering Roman Catholic to cling to an institution which often enough intends him harm, or at least manages to inflict it.  Montaigne, for one, expresses a fidelity to traditional forms of religion which sometimes seems at odds with his thoroughgoing skepticism.  In at least this respect he is a deeply conservative soul.  Of course he lived during the wars of religion that followed hard on the Reformation, and the carnage and brutality of it was all around him.  Rather than zeal or personal devotion, one suspects it was a longing for peace and stability that motivated him to keep with the old faith, along with a firm conviction that human folly was no respecter of persons or parties, which is always a safe bet.

*

In a radio broadcast for The Listener from June of 1941, Orwell reads and discusses Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem Felix Randall.  He wraps it up with the following observation:

I have tried to analyse this poem as well as I can in a short period, but nothing I have said can explain, or explain away, the pleasure I take in it.  That is finally inexplicable, and it is just because it is inexplicable that detailed criticism is worthwhile.  Men of science can study the life-process of a flower, or they can split it up into its component elements, but any scientist will tell you that a flower does not become less wonderful, it becomes more wonderful, if you know all about it.

I once read a Nabokov interview in which the novelist claimed that objects become “more real” to us the more we know about them.  The lily, he said, is less real to an ordinary person than to a naturalist, and less real to a naturalist than to a botanist.  I thought this was bunk, and swapped Nabokov’s lily for a butterfly (Nabokov sidelined as a lepidopterist) and offered up the counter-example of my daughter.  Don’t tell me, I said, that her infant joy doesn’t grasp in the butterfly something too elusive for scientific observation – the simple, raw miraculous fact of the thing.

What I find remarkable in Orwell’s quote above is how he manages to offer the same basic observation as Nabokov while rendering it inoffensive and, to me at least, intuitively true.  (Perhaps it’s the substitution of gradations in wonder for gradations in real-ness?)  It is precisely the pleasure we take in life and in the objects of existence that motivate all living and all knowledge.  In Essais I, 20 (That to Philosophize is to Learn the Die), Montaigne says that

Whatever role man undertakes to play, he always plays his own at the same time.  Whatever they say, in virtue itself the ultimate goal we aim at is voluptuousness.

That is, we always desire pleasure and happiness, and it is perfectly natural that we should.  Even the ascetic in a desert cell is after some form of pleasure, however subtle or transcendent, though he may prefer to call it by a different name.  But all science, all philosophy -all our thirsting after knowledge- is an epicurean pursuit.  We work our minds into the deeper how and why of things only in order to derive a deeper pleasure from them, and hence from living.

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