Book review: When I Was A Child I Read Books

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THE Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Marilynne Robinson is one of the most intellectually daring of writers, and this collection of essays shows her at her flinty, uncompromising best.

Nobody tackles the shibboleths and presumptions of modern culture quite like her; and, particularly for a Scottish audience, her wholehearted commitment to Calvinism is surprisingly liberating.

Central to her political, literary, moral and theological worldview is a sense that there is something wilfully dehumanising in the current ascendancy of neo-Darwinism and Freudianism; that there is an illiberal fundamentalism that asserts humans are “mere humans”. She is unafraid to use the word “miraculous” to describe existence – “say that we are a puff of warm breath in a very cold universe. By this kind of reckoning we are either immeasurably insignificant or we are incalculably precious. I tend towards the second view.” In this light, she constantly upholds the messiness and intangibility of reality against any theory which diminishes it.

But this does not lead to either a vague woolliness or a retreat into pseudo-mystical silence. Rather, Robinson is always more rational than the so-called rationalists. The question she poses in The Human Spirit And The Good Society is the one that secularism, most notably of the Richard Dawkins persuasion, has yet to answer: “In what non-religious terms is human equality self-evident?” Two essays – Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses And The Origins Of American Liberalism and The Fate Of Ideas: Moses – she challenges the caricature of the Old Testament God as a singularly vengeful and small-minded deity, especially when such a depiction intersects with ideas about Puritanism or Calvinism.

She can be witheringly witty at the same time. Writing about Bishop Spong’s Why Christianity Must Change Or Die, she quotes the bishop, dismissing the idea of heaven being “up” somewhere: “today, if one could rise from this earth in an upward trajectory...” Before he can finish the admittedly unwieldy sentence she intervenes “the best sort of trajectory, if one is to rise at all”.

There is a steely edge to this. Would those, she suggests, who are so keen to jettison the Old Testament care to live by it first? Perhaps by “liberally furnishing” freed slaves or by forgiving all debts after seven years – two actions that take on a degree of urgent radicalism in “austerity America”? That the two essays have a modicum of repetition barely matters, since these are ideas that bear repeating. Indeed, it has the quality of gentle, persuasive insistence.

In other essays Robinson is equally adamant that certain trumpeted truths ought to be held up to rigorous scrutiny. Is America really a capitalist country, she asks. Her litany suggests a more nuanced view: “The postal system, the land grant provision for public education, the national park system, the Homestead Act, the graduated income tax, the Social Security system, the GI Bill – all of these were and are massive distributions or redistributions of wealth meant to benefit the populace at large. Even ‘the electrification of the countryside’, Lenin’s great and unrealised dream, was achieved in America by a federal programme begun in 1936.”

The drift towards wanting America to be, at some level, homogenous strikes her as a vast betrayal of its ideals, and, she rather acidly points out, making a virtue of homogeneity didn’t do European states all that much good in the 20th century.

Reading this fine, inspiring little book made me acutely aware that the current non-debate about religion, whether in its virulent Hitchens form, its milquetoast de Botton variety or the depressing supposed defences by Eagleton and Sheldrake, manages to miss the point completely.

Robinson reasserts the primacy of ethics – as she writes, “to describe the processes of ontogeny and mortality does not explain why we are born or why we die” – and treats science not as the enemy, but the inspiration. Her vision of a universe where irony is as ubiquitous as energy is profoundly appealing. She is one of the only apologists I know who does not sound apologetic.

Author: Marilynne Robinson

Virago, £16.99