Tag Archives: Marilynne Robinson

Art and Sex and Very Small Birds

When breeding season is over the Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) flies down from the inland mountains to the coast where the best tasting insects buzz all winter long. Kinglets are, in Peterson’s phrase, “tiny mites of birds,” about the size of hummingbirds but stouter, olive-gray with white wing bars and eye-rings. We saw a female Kinglet this past weekend, hovering in the boughs and snapping at invisible gnats. She was so compact and perfect, so happy and quick and undistractable, I could have watched her for hours.

Certain people think they’re being very Darwinian when they boil down the various behaviors of organisms to a bare procreative calculus. They apply their formula not only to wild animals but to humans too. “Why do termites and leopards and people do thus-and-such?” they ask. And the answer is always the same: In order to increase the chance of mating and passing on their genes. The way they describe it, it’s almost as if our genes were parasites with minds of their own, and what we innocently regard as our volitional self was nothing but an obliging host.

In Absence of Mind, Marilynne Robinson lampoons the way this idea is sometimes applied to creative endeavors: “What is art? It is a means of attracting mates, even though artists may have felt that it was an exploration of experience, of the possibilities of communication, and of the extraordinary collaboration of eye and hand.” She continues: “So, it would seem, the first thing to know about art, whatever the account of its motives and origins, is that its maker is self-deceived. Leonardo and Rembrandt may have thought they were competent inquirers in their own right, but we moderns know better.”

I share Robinson’s frustration, but I don’t like to underestimate our capacity for self-deception either, and I wonder if there isn’t after all a connection – though maybe a different sort of connection – between our mating and our making. It’s fun at least to ask how human history and culture might have differed if we were the sort of species that restricted lovemaking to set seasons. What if, like Regulus calendula, our hormones cooled after a brief fever and we were spared for nine or ten months at a time from the constant distraction of sex?

There’s really no saying what a circumscribed mating season might have meant for us. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if under those circumstances our urge toward artistic activity cooled too and the making of art was reduced to the same two or three month span as the begetting of children. Not because making art only serves to help us attract mates and pass on our genes, but because the energies behind artistic creation and procreation both express, and promise the satisfaction of, a single intellectual longing.

A half hour after our audience with the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, my wife and I went walking in the hills. It was sunset and the deer were stepping into the meadows. Soft pink and orange clouds – afterthoughts of a Pacific storm – floated above us like colored paper lamps. Talking as we went, I felt as sharp a pleasure in handling ideas as I felt in watching the light change and in smelling the wet earth. It was one of those fully integrated moments the blessing of which I can feel for years and which have so far prevented me from thinking too poorly of the universe.

Walking like this, as any walker can tell you, has a way of stirring up new ideas or making old ones feel fresh again. I found that I was suddenly in love with the old idea – the commonsensical notion, really – that all experience is particular experience. I was in love, more precisely, with my own experience – not merely of the present moment, but of my personal experience of experience, the sense of being my own self and being subject to sensory and intellectual impressions in the particular way that I am.

The human mind is a prism (or mirror or lamp) in which light is gathered and split in characteristic ways. The perceptive faculty may be the same from one person to another, but the instruments are calibrated differently. When we see through these eyes, hear through these ears, touch with these hands, and understand by this mind, there is a personal quality of perception that we can’t bear to think might one day be extinguished. The death of an individual, when the individual is our self, is felt as the extinction of a species.

The desire to prevent the total loss of our own native perception is, I think, what unites both procreation and the arts. By each we seek to establish kinships. If not me, then someone like me. If not mine, then an experience like mine. Children inherit not only physical characteristics but, to varying degrees, the texture of our perceptive faculties. They split the light, if not in the same way as we do, at least in a very similar way. Likewise, through art we try to reproduce the quality of our own vision in others. We craft relics of ourselves, images of the light as we saw it, records of the song as we heard it, in the hope that someone else might discover them and be able, at least briefly, to see and hear like we did.


Filed under Misc.

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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Marginalia, no.253

Every spirit passing through the world fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally comes to look and not to buy.

~ Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

I consider the room and wonder if this is how things end: the stack of books, the board games on the rug, the ukulele just there, the tea in my cup that will evaporate but leave a still detectable residue. So many of the objects we handle will outlast us. There’s always some unsuspected Vesuvius ready to end our fussing about. Is it strange to feel affection for the plants that will stretch themselves here and the creatures that will sniff and scratch long after the roof has collapsed and the soil and rain move in? Is it our own transience that makes us see things as transient? Immortal beings, with infinite perspective, may see only a single, immutable substance. If so, then pity the angels.

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