Marilynne Robinson: The Death of Adam

Marilynne Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize for her second novel Gilead. She was nominated for the Pulitzer for her debut novel Housekeeping for which she also won the PEN Prize. Robinson teaches at the renowned Iowa Writers Workshop and has held a number of lectureships, the most recent of which was at Yale. You can watch her give the Dwight H. Terry lectures HERE. They are entitled Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self and are worth your time.

The Orange Prize For Fiction Awards 2009Gilead and her latest novel Home are about two families in the mid west. The fathers of each family are ministers in Gilead, a small dusty farming town. They share aspects in their theological background, though differ on some issues and teach in different congregations. Overall, the differences are surpassed by the need for comradery and games of chess. Gilead is written from the perspective of the older pastor’s diary, prepared for his very much younger son in order that he may understand and know who his father was. Home is a companion novel to Gilead recapturing and articulating the tension found in the parable of the return of the prodigal son.

Her book Home is reviewed well HERE.

Robinson has the skill to insert herself into the loft of the story, if it were a house and the loft was the overarching theological debate about predestination and free will or forgiveness of others and of self, without damaging the authenticity of the decor and the believability of the characterization of the masters of each house. Throughout, the language is beautiful, descriptive and will make you cry. She woos the readers mind in order to allow her to see what Robinson sees.

In her collection of essays published in 1998, The Death of Adam, Robinson writes differently. In a contrarian manner  she takes up the task of revisiting areas she is concerned have been mistreated, specifically in religion, history and the state of contemporary society and its mind. If her novels are wooing, her articles will ravish you. However her writing is so rich in imagery and vocabulary that the thread of the argument is sometimes momentarily lost. The reader feels as if she should be in a story, but wakes out of it into an argument. Its almost as if Robinson wants to force the reader to concentrate for longer than she is used to, while building her vocabulary and in a teacherly manner awakening a renewed fascination for the subject matter, the fascination for which was lost under the drudgery of cliche.

She criticizes ‘the narrowness’ of intellectual life and questions some of the foundations on which modern thought is based. Throughout she warns against the dangers of mythologizing history and de-mythologizing myth, while educating the reader about the sources of failed academic rigor, popular misreadings of historic figures and historic fact, including Marx, Calvin and his American descendants the Puritans.

She calls Calvin, Jean Cauvin, his name in his home land French. The name Calvin is derived from his Latin name Calvinus. She does this so not to create a barrier in the reader’s mind with what he thinks he knows about Calvin and Calvinism and what is actually the case. She criticizes the assumptions that he is behind the Protestant work ethic as described by Max Weber, and laments the association Calvin has as the “censorious cousin” of Adam Smith. Of the Puritans she says we have misused the word puritanical when we actually mean priggish.  “Priggishness,” Robinson writes “is a virtual poem in the precision with which it expresses pent irritation.” Marx is defended against the crude caricature ascribed to him by politicians wishing to associate any policy that might strengthen centralized government with the Stalinist variety of socialism.

In the first chapter of Adam she attacks Social Darwinism (survival of the fittest applied to sociology) like a mother who, in defense of her unfit child, tears the fittest child-bully on the playground another one. Somewhat controversially she ascribes social Darwinism to the Nazi party, Nietzsche, Freud and not least the philosopher atheist Daniel Dennett. The thrust of her argument however is a comparison between the Genesis account of the dignity of man in his exceptionalism and the failure of Darwinism to be a true base of humanism because it denies man’s exceptional place in creation. She writes: “For old Adam, the near-angel, whose name means Earth, Darwinists have substituted a creature who shares essential attributes with what ever beast has been recently observed behaving shabbily in the state of nature. Genesis tries to describe human exceptionalism and Darwinism tries to discount it.” A fundamental difference she says, between the outlook of modern enlightenment thinking and a Christian perspective of humankind.

Robinson is comparable to Chesterton or Lewis in the quality of her critique of contemporary misthinking. She is a defender of woman and their skills, especially to a conservative church audience, and represents the fairer race more than well. Please do read her novels if you have not done so and don’t forget about The Death of Adam either.

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