Elegy for Experience
Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self is a tough read. Much of the book, originally delivered as the Terry Lectures at Yale, is annoyingly academic and recondite -- and my own annoyance with it made me realize how conditioned we have all become to polemic, and to the association of polemic with populism, its implicit equation with democratic virtue. If you’re not expressing yourself so Joe the Plumber can follow and get het up, you’re an elitist snob.
Well, yes. Robinson’s essays unapologetically reside at a rarefied altitude. Much of the time, reading them -- with their lofty subtlety, learnéd name-dropping, and aversion to straight talk -- is like walking in on the middle of an academic theological discussion hundreds of years long, still being carried on in certain sheltered venues (not unlike the remote island where a Japanese soldier was still fighting World War II 40 years after it ended) in willed unawareness that out there in the world’s center of mass, “academy” has become a dirty word.
Too bad, because if a polemicist is a street fighter, in your face with a flurry of fists, Robinson is a ninja, around behind you cutting your airway—at least if you’re Pinker, Dennett, or Dawkins -- before you’re aware that anyone else is in the room. Her evident training in both the history of ideas and formal logic makes it easy for her to get the drop on these proudly ahistorical thinkers, who feed on ad hominem frontal assaults from counter-polemicists but can’t withstand the exposure of their own ideological antecedents, false assumptions, and self-contradictions. Let’s hope some of Robinson’s supply-side intellect trickles down, because otherwise the culture at large might never know how deftly the reductionist view of a material universe ruled by blind chance, and a humanity driven by selfish genes, has been eviscerated.
Robinson doesn’t prove that those two key dogmas of what she scathingly calls “parascience” are wrong. Rather, she shows that the arguments for them (when they are argued for at all, rather than merely assumed) are hopelessly shoddy, and that the smugness with which the final authority of “science” is claimed for them is unwarranted. She traces their “Now everything can be explained!” triumphalism straight to the Victorian era, with its confidence -- comical in the light of what science itself was soon to discover -- “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”:
This confidence was already firmly asserted by Auguste Comte, the father of positivism, in 1848. … ‘[M]en of science … have left no gap of any importance, except in the realm of Moral and Social phenomena. And now that man’s history has been for the first time systematically considered as a whole, and has been found to be, like all other phenomena, subject to invariable laws, the preparatory labours of modern Science are ended.’ I seriously doubt that any scientist active today, if pressed, would speak of the sufficiency of our present state of knowledge with equal assurance. Yet in literature of this [parascientific] genre, of which Comte is also an ancestor, that tone of certainty persists, an atavistic trait that defies the evolution of its notional subject.
Robinson is religious, of course -- a private-conscience, social-justice Protestant in the grand line that descends from Calvin through the abolitionists, a lineage she traced in her previous book of essays, The Death of Adam -- but she is not here to crusade for an Intelligent Designer. She just wants to reopen the questions -- or rather, to point out that real science reopened them almost a hundred years ago, when physics rode to the rescue of metaphysics:
It is and may always be premature to attempt, let alone to assert, a closed ontology, to say we know all we need to know in order to assess and define human nature and circumstance. The voices that have said, “There is something more, knowledge to be had beyond and other than this knowledge,” have always been right. … The notion of accident does nothing to diminish mystery, nothing to diminish scale. …
“[T]he material” itself is an artifact of the scale at which we perceive. We know that we abide with quarks and constellations, in a reality unknowable by us in a degree we will never be able to calculate, but reality all the same, the stuff and the matrix of our supposedly quotidian existence. We know that within, throughout, the solid substantiality of our experience indeterminacy reigns.
Nor is Robinson, however, most interested in cosmology. She is most interested in its witness, human consciousness, that most inexplicable of cosmic creations (embodied in a brain that is “the most complex object known to exist in the universe”); and she is most alarmed, not by proclamations of the death of God, but by the endangered status of consciousness, as both a key term in the long conversation and its acknowledged ground. (The most rigorous “objectivity,” she points out, cannot be anything but the practice of a subjectivity that prizes it.)
What’s more, as befits her inward tradition, Robinson does not consider “consciousness” a general phenomenon, but one that is most marvelous and mysterious in that it is irreducibly individual. The meanness of parascience, in her view, is not only its reduction of everything to (a fantasy of) stone-dumb matter, but its determination to generalize about the motives of human beings. The exclusion of consciousness, Robinson implies, is a direct threat to individuality and individualism. That there is an intimate, chicken-and-egg interdependence between the dawning of private self-awareness and the apprehension or imagining of its Witness -- between “I am” and “I AM” -- is an idea central to Robinson’s book, although she barely breathes it, because she is here to fight for the inherent value of subjectivity whether you believe it has indisseverable roots in religion or not.
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.