Elegy for Experience

Human motives, parascience says, can only be derived from primitive drives to survive, prevail, and reproduce, and so altruism must be ultimately false -- selfishness in a burqa.  This bottom-up explanation of human kindness bothers Robinson a lot, but it’s the one bête noire she can’t get a lock on.  Maybe because she won’t allow herself to come out and say “God is love” -- she is so carefully not writing a religious tract -- all she can do is protest the psychological second-guessing that has taught us to question the simple sincerity and authority of our own thoughts and sentiments. When she hits that note, Robinson sounds every bit as Victorian as the parascientists she decries.

(She could have drawn on the Buddha’s powerful claim, based on the subjective science of meditation, that the very ground of the universe is consciousness, and its twin aspects are dispassion and compassion.  So far from being a flimsy veil for instinct, then, altruism is the reality revealed when the veil of instinct falls.  But that wouldn’t have worked for Robinson, because the Buddha held that the separate soul is an illusion, and its passions the source of suffering.)

Robinson is right that we’ve lost our Rousseauian innocence about our own feelings and motives -- itself a repudiation of traditional religion’s sense of sin -- and that the new “scientific” second-guessing began with Freud’s reductionism, finding Oedipus Sex under every rock.  (Robinson tries to kill Freud with kindness, forgiving his search for a universal source of human malaise as a desperate antidote to German anti-Semitism, which blamed cosmopolitan Jews for European malaise.  This is fascinating, but irrelevant.)

But I think that loss of innocence has been a net gain, deepening our sense of the complexity and power of our own psyches even as real science has enriched our appreciation of the complexity and power of the atom, the brain, and the universe.  Freud’s id and superego may have been parascientific hokum, but his probing of the thermonuclear emotions of infancy gave the self an origin myth -- a big bang to mirror that of the cosmos -- and a truth far darker and more primal than any idealistic do-gooder sentiment; yet a truth that can (not to say it automatically does!) set you free, as confession and meditation can, to find your truly generous and kind impulses by facing, not squelching, your greedy, vicious ones.  In psychoanalytic psychotherapy as it ramified far beyond Freud, we might not have been baring our souls to God, but we sure as hell weren’t dispelling any inwardness.

Psychoanalysis and poetry were the “religions” I was raised in, and it’s because I’m so bewildered by the vanishing of those vast inner spaces -- even though I know what airless chambers of narcissism they dead-ended in -- that Robinson’s title and subtitle grabbed my attention.  (I'd love to have a conversation with her about whether that dead end has anything to do with baring the soul to no more than a human witness.)  When we (read “old farts over 50”) were in psychic or emotional distress, we sought healing in meaning; when my friends 40 and under are in distress, they wonder out loud what neurotransmitter pathway is out of whack and what drug will fix it.

I hardly know anyone under 40 (and few enough over 40) who isn’t on one antidepressant or another; what we considered an existential and deeply individuating ordeal, they conceptualize as a chemical imbalance.  What they don’t seem to realize is that “my serotonin” or “my dopamine” is every bit as much a subjective fantasy as “my libido” or “my anima.”  We have no direct, sensory experience of our neurotransmitters!  They are concepts without any emotional color or content, without any associations except for the prestige of science, an authority that derives from the very fact that it speaks a language we cannot relate to.  This is an alienating fantasy of one’s self, not as a cosmos of experience, but as a chemical robot in need of a tune-up by an expert.  This robot has no inner space; it is solid-state.

Marilynne Robinson’s fantasy of the soul alone with itself, by contrast, seems to be something like the “deep romantic chasm” in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.”  Mind you, this is not her imagery.  Rather, it’s the feeling I got clambering through the forbidding fortress rocks and obscuring mists of her prose, only -- just as I wearied -- to come upon this lost, exquisite Shangri-La:

Then there is the odd privilege of existence as a coherent self, the ability to speak the word “I” and mean by it a richly individual history of experience, perception, and thought.  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.