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Marilynne Robinson on writing, scientism, and trusting “the peripheral vision of the mind”

Marilynne Robinson in 2012, by Christian Scott Heinen Bell (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Marilynne Robinson in 2012, by Christian Scott Heinen Bell (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s Marilynne Robinson being interviewed last June for Vice magazine by a writer who was fresh from having studied under her in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. As usual, Ms. Robinson’s displays considerable insight and elegance as she talks about the inner life of the writer and the outer life of a surrounding society that is obsessed with defining everyone and everything in scientistic terms:

Thessaly la Force: It struck me when you said we must “trust the peripheral vision of our mind.” It seems like a muscle in your body that you have to develop by training some other part of you.

Marilynne Robinson: One reaches for analogies. I think it’s probably a lot like meditation — which I have never practiced. But from what I understand, it is a capacity that develops itself and that people who practice it successfully have access to aspects of consciousness that they would not otherwise have. They find these large and authoritative experiences. I think that, by the same discipline of introspection, you have access to a much greater part of your awareness than you would otherwise. Things come to mind. Your mind makes selections — this deeper mind — on other terms than your front-office mind. You will remember that once, in some time, in some place, you saw a person standing alone, and their posture suggested to you an enormous narrative around them. And you never spoke to them, you don’t know them, you were never within ten feet of them. But at the same time, you discover that your mind privileges them over something like the Tour d’Eiffel. There’s a very pleasant consequence of that, which is the most ordinary experience can be the most valuable experience. If you’re philosophically attentive you don’t need to seek these things out.

. . . [I]t’s finding access into your life more deeply than you would otherwise. Consider this incredibly brief, incredibly strange experience that we have as this hypersensitive creature on a tiny planet in the middle of somewhere that looks a lot like nowhere. It’s assigning an appropriate value to the uniqueness of our situation and every individual situation.

. . . I think that we have almost taught ourselves to have a cynical view of other people. So much of the scientism that I complain about is this reductionist notion that people are really very small and simple. That their motives, if you were truly aware of them, would not bring them any credit. That’s so ugly. And so inimical to the best of everything we’ve tried to do as a civilization and so consistent with the worst of everything we’ve ever done as a civilization.

MORE: “A Teacher and Her Student

You Are a Paranormal Phenomenon

The message, upshot , or bottom line of this Liminalities installment is stated in the title. What follows is simply a sketch of the train of thought and reading, extending over several years, that inspires such an assertion, as spurred by David Metcalfe’s recent report from this year’s Parapsychological Association conference in “Parapsychology and Intellectual Integrity: Words of Advice from Dr. Krippner.”

In 2010 Marilynne Robinson published Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self, a book drawn from her 2009 Terry Lectures at Yale on “religion, in the light of science and philosophy.” Her thesis was that the influential fusion of neuroscience, psychology, sociology, and philosophy in the works of such thinkers as E.O. Wilson, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who argue that all human thought and activity is driven by and reducible to unconscious biological motives, has tended not so much to explain religion, art, and other quintessentially human endeavors as to explain them away, and that this in turn stems from a central attitude and approach that hamfistedly and unjustifiably attempts to explain away the very reality of human interiority. As a categorical contrast with and refutation of this approach, she emphasizes the reality and significance of the fundamental sense of “I-ness” itself:

For the religious, the sense of the soul may have as a final redoubt, not as argument but as experience, that haunting I who wakes us in the night wondering where time has gone, the I we waken to, sharply aware that we have been unfaithful to ourselves, that a life lived otherwise would have acknowledged a yearning more our own than any of the daylit motives whose behests we answer to so diligently. Our religious traditions give us as the name of God two deeply mysterious words, one deeply mysterious utterance: I AM. Putting to one side the question of their meaning as the name and character by which the God of Moses would be known, these are words any human being can say about herself.

— Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 110.

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