Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Marilynne Robinson's Religious Imagination, Part 1: Gilead

After hearing so many good things about Marilynne Robinson’s work, both from media outlets and from literary friends, I’ve decided to complete her trilogy, which includes Gilead, Home, and the recently published Lila. Almost universally lauded with breathless reviews that draw attention to her lucid, beautiful prose, Robinson is the only living fiction writer I can think of who writes from an admittedly religious perspective and who is on the receiving end of gushing adulation from the MFA-cum-New York literati.

I have a few motives for diving into her work now. Besides attempting to erase her trilogy from the list of books I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t read, I also want to explore further an observation that I had several years ago, when I read her only other novel, Housekeeping. My theory goes something like this: though her work may stand out in many ways from that of her contemporaries, it is similar in one crucial aspect—that not much happens in Robinson’s novels except inside the minds of her characters. In other words, like most literary fiction written today, her novels consist of characters’ observations about the world around them, and are driven by ferocity of language rather than the plot itself.

This idea is similar to one I tried to develop in my recent post on Christian Wiman’s spiritual writing. A writer’s religious imagination—the way he or she strives for transcendence through art—must take one of two forms: a narrative vision, in which the supernatural is glimpsed primarily through the workings of plot, or a poetic vision, in which the supernatural is glimpsed primarily through language, through precision of description of what transcendence feels like. I would argue that the former imagination is mythical, pre-modern, and, by way of transference, Catholic; while the latter is scientific, modern, and essentially Protestant. To use an example, I think that Flannery O’Connor’s religious imagination is narrative, while Robinson’s, based on my memory of Housekeeping, is poetic.

I have another, less intellectual motivation for picking up the trilogy: Robinson has had uncharacteristically unkind words for O’Connor’s fiction. In a piece that ran in the New York Times Magazine when Lila was published last fall, Robinson had this to say about the other prominent religious fiction writer of the last half-century:
[she] offered Flannery O’Connor as an example of a religious writer who fails to describe goodness (“Her prose is beautiful, her imagination appalls me”); [and] evoked the nature of O’Connor’s failure (“There’s a lot of writing about religion with a cold eye, but virtually none with a loving heart”)
Them’s fighting words, at least among effete readers of spiritual fiction. They irked me perhaps more than they should have (I too, found O’Connor’s fiction off-putting when I first read her in college, but now that I’m a convert, so to speak, I chafe at apostasy). And so to Robinson’s trilogy I turned.

First up: Gilead, published in 2004. The story is told from the perspective of John Ames, an old and infirm Congregationalist minister, and takes the form of a letter he is writing to his almost-seven-year-old son. Ames is as tender and loving a protagonist as I can recall, and Robinson does a superb job of pulling off the feat of writing a story about goodness and good people without drifting into sleepy sentimentalism.

Ames’ first wife died in childbirth, and he spent most of his life in a biblical darkness, preaching at his church in the little town of Gilead, Iowa, and stringing his days together with solitary domestic rituals and dinners left by kind parishioners. He remarried late in his life to a woman thirty-five years younger than he (Lila, the title character of the third novel in the trilogy), who bore his young son, his intended audience in Gilead.

The story is a modern retelling of the parable of the prodigal son, though the son in question is not Ames’ own but that of his closest friend, Rev. Boughton, the town’s Presbyterian minister who is also aged and in poor health. Boughton’s daughter Glory (protagonist of Home) cares for him, and as his health declines, he awaits the return of his middle-aged son Jack, whom the elder Boughton named for his friend Ames (Jack’s given name is “John Ames”). Jack has led a wayward life, and his return to the town of Gilead presents a challenge for Ames, who, despite his name despises the younger Boughton and fears that he may move in on his own family once the narrator passes away.

Ames’s narration brims with a kind of everyday mysticism. His soul is full of tenderness for the “perishable world” and its often-overlooked beauty, and he possesses a Midwestern, grandfatherly sense of the sublime, often wrapping up reflections with the phrase “it’s a remarkable thing.” Jack’s presence in the town challenges Ames to extend this tenderness to an individual whom he considers both undeserving and unwelcome. Forgiveness is Gilead’s central theme, and Ames struggles to understand what it demands of him at the end of his days.

Above all else John Ames is a man of the written word. He is a biblical scholar and verbatim passages from both testaments permeate his own writing, and he is so familiar with scripture that one could conclude that there is no distinction between his language and that of the good book. The novel itself is a letter written for his son, to be read when the son is grown. Any dialogue, any events that happen in the story are recounted after they happen, filtered through the reflective mind of the old preacher.

As Ames takes stock of his life, he realizes that the best record of who he is might just be boxed up in his attic, where 45 years of his sermons are gathering dust. They are both a source of anxiety for him—for how will he dispose of them?—and also intriguing, as contain the mystery of himself, who he was and what he thought about, many passions and ideas now long forgotten. “It would be worth my life,” Ames remarks, “to try to get those big boxes down on my own…They are a record of my life, after all, a sort of foretaste of the Last Judgment, really, so how can I not be curious?” He estimates that, collectively, if the tens of thousands of pages of sermons were bound into volumes, he would have written 225 books, “which puts [him] up there with Augustine and Calvin for quantity.” At the core of the man, then, is a lengthy text, most forgotten even to him, trapped in dusty boxes, waiting to be discovered. Figuring out who Ames really is would amount to a life’s work of scholarship.

Ames knows the world and is known to the world through writing, which raises all kinds of questions about his ability both to know and to be known. Is he ultimately unknowable, hiding behind his language, no different than any author, whose work makes him known at the same time that it obscures him from the reader’s view? Above all these questions have to do with notions of isolation and communion. Does Ames’ identification with language ultimately isolate him from those around him, or allow him to exist in communion with them?

Ames expresses frustration that his words may have never reached his audience, or, if they did, he has no real way of knowing for sure.
Here I was a pastor of souls, hundreds and hundreds of them over all those years, and I hope I was speaking to them, not only to myself, as it seems to me sometimes when I look back.
How can he ever be sure? One thing that is certain is that Robinson does not suggest that Ames’ situation is unique, that his attempts at communication, as a writer of sermons, are somehow different than our own. Ames’ problems are our own:
A good sermon is one side of a passionate conversation. It has to be heard in that way. There are three parties to it, of course, but so are there even to the most private thought—the self that yields the thought, the self that acknowledges and in some way responds to the thought, and the Lord.
In the very fabric of our thoughts and ideas, we are all caught in the same uncertainties that Ames is. Can there every really be genuine communication between the three selves that Ames mentions? Can we ever be sure that we are understood, that the other parties are really listening?

At times Ames is hopeful that language does not isolate him from the rest of creation, but many of his reflections describe instances where even the best intentions leave him distanced from those around him. Early in the story, he recounts the time he approached two young men, greasy mechanics, who were laughing outside of their garage, but stopped when the old preacher walked by, even though, as Ames implored after the fact from the confines of his letter, “I felt like saying, I’m a dying man, and I won’t have so many more occasions to laugh, in this world at least. But that would just make them serious and polite, I suppose.” The men turn formal, perhaps ashamed to be caught laughing by the respected preacher, and what would have been an occasion for enjoyment instead highlights the boundaries between individuals.

At the core of Gilead is the notion that our identity resides in our individual thoughts. It seems to me that Robinson’s characters are situated in isolation by their very nature, and spend their time lurching toward communion, hoping to experience a sliver of it. Ames does, in his appreciation of natural beauty, in watching the quotidian existence of his wife and seven-year-old boy, and, eventually, only after a long while, in his relationship with Jack Boughton. But for the most part, Robinson’s characters, under the surface of the everyday, bear the great burden of loneliness, which seems to be punctuated only by the tender actions of others.

The confines of the self, and our often unsuccessful attempts to overcome them, frame the story of the lives of the Ames and Boughton families. Forgiveness, tenderness, and appreciation of the everyday—these are the methods by which the characters seem to overcome the boundaries that separate them from each other. When grace operates in Gilead it bears the traces of human action and human observation, and in that sense is essentially familiar. It’s different than in O’Connor’s work, where grace is made known through distortions, through morally and physically disfigured characters that are familiar enough for us to recognize them, but unfamiliar enough to startle us. O’Connor’s grace often works in a violent and jarring manner, while, at least in Gilead, Robinson’s grace is tender, through and through.

I’m a fan of O’Connor, as I mentioned, and as a Catholic I tend to sympathize with her vision more so than with Robinson’s. But Robinson’s should not be dismissed. Silky as her prose is, it nonetheless challenges us in certain ways. By coincidence (or perhaps not) I read Henri Nouwen’s beautiful book on Rembrandt’s painting “Return of the Prodigal Son” just before I picked up Gilead, and his meditations on the nature of giving and accepting forgiveness were fresh in my mind. The story of the Prodigal Son is at the center of the Gospel message, Nouwen insists (as does John Ames), and ultimately, it calls us not to live in the world of lofty ideals or to construct a bulletproof ideology but to express, and accept, a very human tenderness. To explain, Nouwen draws his readers’ attention to the colors and fleshy details of the painting: the warm red of the Father’s cloak, the closed hands of the elder son as he watches his father embrace his wayward brother, the father’s hands placed on his son’s back in a gesture of unconditional acceptance. Nietszche was right, Nouwen seems to suggest; Christianity is the religion of the weak—of forgiveness rather than animosity, of mercy rather than retributive justice. To know the love of the Father we must witness it in others and seek to live it in ourselves, and in many ways that is how John Ames lives and wants to pass on, in the long letter that is Gilead, to his young son.

At the same time, I’m wary of equating God’s love with human love, as Robinson, being Protestant, tends to do. Consider this passage from near the end of the novel, where Ames tries to explain being struck, in the darkness of and sorrow of his old age, by the beauty of the young woman he would soon after marry:
I might seem to be comparing something great and holy with a minor and ordinary thing, that is, love of God with mortal love. But I just don’t see them as separate things at all. If we can be divinely fed with a morsel and divinely blessed with a touch, then the terrible pleasure we find in a particular face can certainly instruct us in the nature of the very grandest love. I devoutly believe this to be true.
A better trained theologian than I could explain how this passage expresses a peculiarly Protestant understanding of grace, with its equation of the sacraments (communion, baptism) with the beauty of a face. But it’s safe to say that Gilead focuses not so much on the mysterious nature of divine love but on how it is revealed in very ordinary ways to humans. In other words, Gilead is about how we feel grace, rather than its essential otherness. 

Does this mean that Robinson somehow reduces grace to a feeling? I’m not so sure. Better go back to the trilogy. Next up: Home, to hear from Glory, Boughton’s daughter.

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