Marilynne Robinson’s Celebration of the Subjective

August 29, 2010

I propose that the core assumption that remains unchallenged and unquestioned through all the variations within the diverse traditions of “modern” thought is that the experience and testimony of the individual mind is to be explained away, excluded from consideration when any rational account is made of the nature of human being and of being altogether.  In its place we have the grand projects of generalization, solemn efforts to tell our species what we are and what we are not, that were early salients of modern thought. – “On Human Nature,” p. 22

…the beauty and strangeness of the individual soul, that is, of the world as perceived in the course of a human life, of the mind as it exists in time. – “The Strange History of Altruism,” p. 35

The accuracy of Robinson’s claims about modern thought in these short excerpts is less important than what it tells us about her purposes in Absence of Mind—and, perhaps more importantly, in her fiction (especially the recent novels Gilead and Home).  The collected product of the subjective experience and life of the individual human mind, she writes elsewhere, is culture, literature, and art.  Elsewhere, she indicates that the exploration of the subjective experience is the purpose, and, successful, the highest calling, of the novel.  Speaking of Paul Harding’s novel, Tinkers, she writes, “It confers on the reader the best privilege fiction can afford, the illusion of ghostly proximity to other human souls.”

What does this have to do with her own fiction, particularly the joint project of Gilead and Home?  To begin, let’s explore what makes them a “joint project.”  They explore lives in the same time and place, of people who know each other, shifting the center of gravity slightly, creating different novels.  On this level, there is a similarity between her Gilead, Iowa, and Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, Berry’s Port William, or even Joyce’s Dublin.  Yet there’s something different: unlike Faulkner or Berry, she isn’t very concerned with the town/county as such: it’s just the place, not a character.  And unlike Joyce, there’s more than just the busy beehive weaving of human interactions bringing the stories of the various characters into novelistic collision.

Robinson, in Gilead, offers what is, quite literally “the testimony of the individual mind”: John Ames’ long letter his young son.  It is supposed to testify on his behalf, and on behalf of his life, when he is no longer alive to do so.  Home offers the testimony of the same time and place through another mind, that of Glory Boughton.  From both perspectives, there are explorations of Ames’ wife, the Rev. Boughton, and—most importantly—Jack Boughton.  Either book, alone, is successful in offering that “testimony of the individual mind,” that “illusion of ghostly proximity to other human souls,” but what they do together—their joint project—is something greater than either could offer in solitude.

That is, they explore the subjectivity of that testimony.  The clearest example, perhaps is a conversation on Boughton’s porch—if for no other reason than all the central characters are present, and it is a scene in both novels.  From the beginning, we see what might be expected: minor differences in diction, remembering things from slightly different angles, telling the story to different audiences.  Yet something about Ames’ version strikes the reader as a more relaxed conversation, a bit of jousting on the porch on a pleasant evening; as depicted in Home, it seems somehow more a more earnest inquiry.

And at the end of the conversations, we see:

But your mother spoke up, which surprised us all.  She said, “What about being saved?”  She said, “If you can’t change, there don’t seem much purpose in it.”  She blushed.  “That’s not what I meant.”

“You’ve made an excellent point, dear,” Boughton said.  “I worried a long time about how the mystery of predestination could be reconciled with the mystery of salvation.  I remember thinking about that a great deal.

“No conclusions?” Jack asked.

“None that I can remember.”  Then he said, “To conclude is not in the nature of the enterprise.”

“Jack smiled at your mother as if he was looking for an ally, someone to share his frustration, but she just at very still and studied her hands.

“I should think,” he said, “that the question Mrs. Ames has raised is one you gentlemen would approach with great seriousness.  I know you have attended tent meeting only as interested observers, but— Excuse me.  I don’t believe anyone else wants to pursue this, so I’ll let it go.”

Your mother said, “I’m interested.”

Old Boughton, who was getting a little ruffled, said, “I hope the Presbyterian Church is as good a place as any to learn the blessed truths of the faith, including redemption and salvation first of all.  The Lord knows I have labored to make it so.”

“Pardon me, Father,” Jack said.  “I’ll go find Glory.  She’ll tell me how to make myself useful.  You always said that was the best way to keep out of trouble.”

“No, stay,” your mother said.  And he did.

There was an uneasy silence, so I remarked that he might find Karl Barth a help, just for the sake of conversation.

He said, “Is that what you do when some tormented soul arrives on your doorstep at midnight?  Recommend Karl Barth?”

I said, “It depends on the case,” which it does.  I have found Barth’s work to be full of comfort, as I believe I have told you elsewhere.  But in fact, I don’t recall ever recommending him to any tormented soul except my own.  That is what I mean about being put in a false position.

Your mother said, “A person can change.  Everything can change.”  Still never looking at him.

He said, “Thanks.  That’s all I wanted to know.”

So that was the end of the conversation.  We went home to supper.

Gilead, pp. 152-3

And:

Lila said, “What about being saved?”  She spoke softly and blushed deeply, looking at the hands that lay folded in her lap, but she continued.  “If you can’t change, there don’t seem much point in it.  That’s not really what I meant.”

Jack smiled.  “Of course I myself have attended tent meetings only as an interested observer.  I would not have wanted to find my salvation along some muddy riverbank in the middle of the night.  Half the crowd there to pick each other’s pocket, or to sell each other hot dogs—”

Lila said, “—Caramel corn—”

He laughed.  “—Cotton candy.  And everybody singing off key—”  They both laughed.

“—to some old accordion or something—” she said, never looking up.

“And all of them coming to Jesus.  Except myself, of course.”  Then he said, “Amazing how the world never seems any better for it all.  If I am any judge.”

“Mrs. Ames has made an excellent point,” Boughton said, his voice statesmanlike.  He sensed a wistfulness in Ames as often as he was reminded of all the unknowable life his wife had lived and would live without him.  “Yes, I worried a long time about how the mystery of predestination could be reconciled with the mystery of salvation.”

“No conclusions?”

“None that I can recall just now.”  He said, “It seems as though the conclusions are never as interesting as the questions.  I mean, they’re not what you remember.”  He closed his eyes.

Jack finally looked up at Glory, reading her look and finding in it, apparently, anxiety or irritation, because he said, “I’m sorry.  I think I have gone on with this too long.  I’ll let it go.”

Lila said, never looking up from her hands, “I’m interested.”

Jack smiled at her.  “That’s kind of you, Mrs. Ames.  But I think Glory wants to put me to work.  My father has always said the best way for me to keep out of trouble would be to make myself useful.”

“Just stay for a minute,” she said, and Jack sat back in his chair, and watched her, as they all did, because she seemed to be mustering herself.  Then she looked up at him and said, “A person can change.  Everything can change.”

Ames took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.  He felt a sort of wonder for this wife of his, in so many ways so unknown to him, and he could be suddenly moved by some glimpse he had never had before of the days of her youth or her loneliness, or of the thoughts of her soul.

Jack said, very gently, “Why thank you, Mrs. Ames.  That’s all I wanted to know.”

Home, pp. 226-8

Jack and Mrs. Ames are both revealed to be different than Ames’ version of the conversation might make it seem.  It is possible that Ames is suppressing that moment—he is afraid of Jack and his possible influence on his wife and son.  Then again, how are we to know that the narration has not simply lingered too close to the irritated Glory, and that her mind associates the strange, slightly bumpkin Mrs. Ames with such carnivals.  And the Barth?  Ames is old after all—maybe he thought he recommended Barth.

It is likely that the version of the conversation given in Home is closer to the “empirical” truth than that in Gilead, if for no other reason than Ames’ version is significantly shorter: around four pages compared to the 8.5 in Home.  And while what remains in Gilead is a chance for Ames to give some of his thoughts on predestination—and show the grace of his wife—to his son, what occurs in Home is a more tense conversation, centering on Jack’s worry that he is, in fact, destined to be evil, to be a sinner.

The accuracy of the individual testimony is clearly limited—it is, as Robinson admits, subjective.  But that much is not her entire point.  That scene—a pivotal one, certainly—is quite different in both novels: but is either novel any less true for it?  Ames remembers events one way; Glory sees them another; perhaps one or both are actively suppressing or inventing.  But if the latter is the case, they aren’t merely deceiving the reader—they’re deceiving themselves, also; the deception, the would-be-“lie”, becomes a part of their testimony.

The joint project of Home and Gilead is to explore that subjective testimony of the individual life, to highlight the subjectivity of it by juxtaposing each novel with the other, but then to refuse to dismiss or condemn that testimony as flawed or limited.  Robinson celebrates the limitations and subjectivity, because they bring us closer to the reality of the human soul.  It is, in a way, a rejoinder to the idea of a narrator so fallible that the novel cannot even be trusted on the terms it sets forth—it doesn’t matter if nothing in these novels happened as it is narrated: they are not explorations of history, but a celebration of “the beauty and strangeness of the individual soul, that is, of the world as perceived in the course of a human life, of the mind as it exists in time.”

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One Response to “Marilynne Robinson’s Celebration of the Subjective”


  1. […] is the “ghostly proximity to other human souls” of which Marilynne Robinson sometimes […]


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