Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010). 158 pp. $24.00.
Marilynne Robinson sets out to restore subjectivity to modern thought in her 2009 Terry Lectures, reprinted earlier this year as Absence of Mind. Any account of reality which leaves out the “testimony of the individual mind” is limited and defective, and yet that is pretty much the only account of reality which moderns will offer or accept. “A central tenet of the modern world view,” she says, “is that we do not know our own minds, our own motives, our own desires.” Modern thought, whether descended from Darwin or Marx or Freud, is eager to unmask those motives and desires, revealing the real forces behind human behavior. (How the modernist can act from superior motives and desires, if everyone else’s are suspicious, is a mystery that he is not curious to solve.) With gentle logic and a zinging prose, Robinson shows that the modern enemies of mind, those who engage in “a hermeneutics of condescension,” claim the authority of science without practicing “the self-discipline or self-criticism for which science is distinguished.” In the end, thought without mind is self-refuting.
Much of what passes for modern thought, Robinson argues, is little more than the bulletins of science without the method of science: “parascientific literature,” she calls it. It sets out to establish its scientific credentials by excluding “the beauty and strangeness of the individual soul, that is, of the world as perceived in the course of a human life”—this is its first principle, its “signature,” its “inflection.” As Robinson convincingly demonstrates, though, the genre of parascientific writing first arose and took form as “a polemic against religion,” and has never really progressed beyond its origins and earliest form.
Robinson’s immediate target is the self-congratulatory New Atheism of Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens, which chortles (in the subtitle of a bestseller) How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. For Robinson, however, there is little new about such men and such books. “The motif of a shocking newness that must startle us into painful recognition is very much a signature of ‘the modern,’ ” she points out, and their adoption of the motif is, by this point in literary history, shockingly old. For her, the historic “threshold”—the rupture between tradition and modernity—was crossed some time in the nineteenth century, when the “confidence that science has given us knowledge sufficient to allow us to answer certain essential questions about the nature of reality, if only by dismissing them,” caused intellectuals’ heads to spin. By now, she says, “the parascientific genre feels like a rear-guard action, a nostalgia for the lost certitudes of positivism.”
Robinson is the right one to defend the mind and soul, subjectivity and “novelistic interest,” against those who would eliminate inwardness from reality. She is not only a great novelist—one of the two greatest American novelists of her generation—but she is also intensely religious, an unembarrassed Calvinist whose Death of Adam, a 1998 collection of essays, unembarrassedly entertained “the idea that people have souls, and that they have certain obligations to them, and certain pleasures in them.” Unlike many of her contemporaries in the fiction-writing trade, Robinson understands that a fashionable atheism is far graver a threat to literature than religious intolerance.
Absence of Mind is divided into four chapters. The first, “On Human Nature,” borrows its title from a 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning book in which the sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson sets forth a popular version of his view that human behavior is genetically determined. Wilson is not Robinson’s only example of a parascientific thinker; she also examines Dennett, the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, and the biblical scholar James L. Kugel. In this chapter, she carefully defines the “assertive popular literature,” the “remarkably reiterative literature,” that she calls parascientific.
“The Strange History of Altruism,” her second chapter (and her best), revisits the problem that bedevils any system that would explain away human subjectivity—namely, the random acts of kindness that human beings occasionally perform, even when (to all appearances) they gain no benefit from them. From its beginnings, the genre of parascientific writing has faced the difficulty of how to redefine altruism as something else entirely. For Robinson, this tendency is sadly typical of the parascientific frame of mind, “defining humankind by the exclusion of the things that in fact distinguish us as a species.”
In the book’s strongest and most memorable passage, she examines how the parascientific writers have handled the case of Phineas Gage (18231860), the American railroad worker who became famous for surviving “an explosion that sent a large iron rod through his skull.” The case is a favorite of parascientific writers, who are struck by the fact that, after the accident (in the words of one), Gage became “fitful, irreverent, and grossly profane.” What this supposedly proves is that a brain injury had destroyed his ability to exercise appropriate social control over his speech, demonstrating that appropriateness of speech cannot properly be described as an activity of mind.
Robinson makes short work of such analysis. The explosion might have damaged not merely his skull, leaving Gage disfigured and half-blind, but also his hopes and self-image. If so, irreverence and profanity might not be so surprising, since they are, after all, attitudes that “culture and language have prepared for such occasions.” But parascientific writers never stop to consider how the explosion might have affected Gage’s subjective life, because they rule it out of account from the start—even though, a century and a half after the fact, and entirely dependent upon secondhand accounts in an imprecise and dated idiom, they cannot possibly know anything about Gage’s injury with any degree of certainty. Robinson lowers the boom on them:
And that is the theme of her fourth and final chapter. “Thinking Again” reveals that Robinson has been writing a defense of man all along. Perhaps even more significantly, Absence of Mind is a defense of the humanities—history, literature, and especially religion. Without them, human life is incomplete, because the subject of the humanities (“the witness of mind”) is otherwise dismissed as irrelevant. If there is a “modern malaise,” Robinson suggests—if indeed there is “an emptiness peculiar to our age”—the reason is not that the advance of science has caused “an ebbing away of faith,” impoverishing modern experience. To the contrary, men and women still hunger for the “felt life of the mind,” which has been eliminated from their experience only because they have made the mistake of falling under the influence of the parascientific writers thoroughly dismantled in this short but brilliant book.