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What Are We Doing Here?: Essays
By Marilynne Robinson
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018)

We have stepped,” proclaims Marilynne Robinson, “from a metaphysics into a void.” In What Are We Doing Here?, the novelist’s fifth collection of essays, she repeatedly and emphatically names this void: “so-called modernism,” the modern, the era of science,” the “modern period.” Something has gone wrong, sinking us in a “modernist malaise.” Its root is the failure of intellectual integrity, a refusal on the part of scientists, economists, and political leaders of left and right to acknowledge “the anomalous character of the human presence in the world” and concede that they cannot explain it.

In her critique of modernity, Robinson, an unabashed political liberal, begins to sound surprisingly—and sometimes stridently—conservative. Indeed, she seems to have affection for the word, provided that it can be redefined around the act of conservation. The purpose of the humanism  for which she argues is to “preserve as we can the heritage we have received and that we enlarge and enrich it for the sake of coming generations,” a curatorial role that she once “assumed . . . was simply a thing civilizations did.” Humans may be the creators of art, architecture, and all that goes into civilization, but as curators they are responsible for more than the works of their own hands—for that which is created, or, in one of Robinson’s favorite words, given. Human dignity (what she later terms a “radical anthropocentricity”) runs through this recognition of givenness. For Robinson, humans are created beings yet also distinguished from the rest of creation by the ability “to stand apart from what we are and consider ourselves.”

Though Robinson is skeptical of the term postmodern and hardly a conservative in the commonplace sense of the term, her stance may be best understood in conversation with the late Peter Augustine Lawler, who spoke, alternately, of postmodern conservatism and conservative postmodernism. Lawler’s postmodernism is not the postmodern art and theory of the academy. Such “attacks on our ability to perceive the truth and goodness of nature and human nature,” he argued, are really “hypermodernism”: the logical extreme of the belief that the modern individual is itself a construction. Taken to hypermodern extremes, the modern project moves away from the truly human, leaving us, in Robinson’s view, “shadowed by gloom, nostalgia, anomie, deracination, loss of faith, dehumanization, atomization, secularization, and assorted other afflictions of the same general kind.” Lawler preferred a more concise description: homelessness.

On both accounts, the modern individual is fully capable of asking the fundamental human question: What I am—are we—doing here? But pursuing this inquiry requires a language that does not exist. Following the lead of another novelist, Walker Percy, Lawler suggested that among the chief crises of the (post)modern person was being “deprived of the language to express the longings of a real human being” and, indeed, losing “even the language of the individual.” Robinson likewise laments that “we have no language to express the scale of the experience we have.”

That is not to say that we are at a loss for words. But what Robinson calls the “catechisms” of modern thought are of no use. Neither science, nor economics, nor the political right and left can tell us what we’re doing here. They fail in this endeavor because “the modern West for generations [has tried] to move away from a vocabulary that is charged with its own intellectual and cultural history, the shift being understood as advancing thought from the pre-scientific to the scientific or from the religious to the secular.” The project of Robinson’s nonfiction, then, has become one of recovery— of the history and reputation of the Puritans who are central to her worldview, and, increasingly, of a vocabulary that might enable us to ask the questions on which this line of inquiry depends.

Take “the divine.” Robinson devotes a full essay to the topic. The divine, she insists, “is not synonymous with ‘the sacred,’ or ‘the holy,’ certainly not with ‘the spiritual.” Unlike “sacred” and “holy,” “the divine” has no role in the anthropology—that is, the scientific study—of religion because it “asserts the existence of a god or gods” rather than reflecting human behavior toward an object. Religious believers and, too often, theology, Robinson writes, surrender “the divine” for precisely this reason: to use it is to assert the existence of a God whose existence they cannot prove and so would rather stay silent about. The divine is not sacred but, by contrast, that which confers sanctity, “prior to and independent of humankind.” When the language of “the divine” is lost, Robinson laments, we lose the ability to conceive of this kind of prior, external goodness.

The word divine stands at the center of the vocabulary Robinson seeks to develop, one that acknowledges the contributions of modern science but is not limited by them. Robinson is no anti-modern: her goal is to explore the what for of human existence within the sheer vastness of what physics and astronomy reveal about the scale of the universe. Again and again, she returns to the concept of dark matter—that unexplained, invisible, unstudied, and hitherto unstudiable stuff that the mathematics of these fields insists must be there. The divine does not serve as a magic trick to explain away dark matter. Rather, the very existence of dark matter serves as a reminder of the fact that science’s methods of understanding are never final, but always unfolding, often in unexpected, surprising ways. The divine shows through in dark matter because even scientists might gaze on its very necessity, and the limits of our understanding of its existence, and exclaim with Robinson: “How excellent it is that anything could be so unforeseen. And just as excellent, and fully as remarkable, that humankind managed to catch a glimpse of it.” This exclamation points toward the recognition that “A splendid dignity is spread out over all this.” Indeed, Robinson is adamant that human dignity depends upon neither rights nor theism, but the language of the divine: “Absent the great analogy,” she proclaims, “that we are images of God, we hardly seem to know who we are.”

Even modernity, she insists, has not been able to escape reference to the divine in its talk of individuals. The psychological “self,” Robinson writes, “looks to me like a rather robust survival of what was once called a soul.” Our constrained vocabulary limits both modern inquiry and selfhood. The point—and the sticking point—of the language she believes we require is that it is necessarily theological, capable of representing “a very broad, unconditional reality, a givenness that in its fullness reflects divine intent.” Alongside “the divine” and “dignity,” it includes “wisdom, courage, generosity,” givenness, conscience, grace, beauty, faith, hope, love, soul, and virtue. Only language grounded in and unashamed of these words can “create a conceptual space large enough to accommodate human dignity,” capable, we might say, of replacing the language and ideology of the individual with that of the whole human being.

The word liberalism, too, takes on paramount importance for Robinson. In her previous collections, When I Was a Child I Read Books (2012) and The Givenness of Things (2014), she began an argument continued in this collection: that a liberalism defined by rights-based discourse almost inevitably leads to its individualist corruption. Robinson’s preferred alternative stems from the early modern liberalism of English and American Puritans. Against the individualism of Lockean Virginians, she finds in John Winthrop’s political vision “a society whose relations are based on charity, using the word in the biblical sense, meaning love.” In other words, “he sees the bonds of society in mutual care and service.” Robinson grounds her liberalism in an older, less frequently used definition. Perhaps liberality would be more apt here than liberalism, as, for her, this is the politics of generosity.

Even though the practical goals toward which Robinson believes this sense of liberalism must lead are largely indistinguishable from those favored by the modal American university professor, she nonetheless insists on distinguishing her liberalism from that of her political allies. In What Are We Doing Here? Robinson goes further than her usual critiques—of easy abandonment of generosity, eager dismissal of religion and the legacy of Puritanism—and challenges the American left on the level of ideology. “The Left does not understand the thinking of the Right because it is standing too close to have a clear view of it,” she writes. According to the rigid, ideological thinking of both ends of the political spectrum, self-interest and human nature are synonyms: “everything that has happened in our history is to be understood in its essence as profit driven.” In her castigations of Marxism, (social) Darwinism, scientism, and Freudianism, Robinson comes to sound, at moments, rather like the left’s stereotype of a right-wing campus crank. These modern political ideologies “are themselves so starkly determinist, so determinist in every iteration, that this is arguably their point,” she proclaims.

It may seem odd, as Robinson herself acknowledges, for a self-described Calvinist and believer in the predestined fate of human souls to rail against determinist anthropologies. Yet she doubles down, arguing that predestination affords more freedom and dignity than the modernist alternative. Once more, reference to Lawler may help to explain what’s going on. For Lawler, the crisis—and contradiction—of modern life is that “the world created by modern individuals to make themselves at home turns out to have made human beings less at home than ever.” The physical corruptibility of the human body, culminating, without variation, in death, produces this homelessness by refusing to submit to human control: the pursuit of happiness fails to conclude with its ultimate enjoyment. Postmodernism, rightly understood, calls on us to grow “at home with our homelessness”—and, in doing so, to find the freedom and dignity of the whole human being.

Predestination, for Robinson, becomes the concept that allows human life to meet her rule-of-thumb as a novelist, “that to have the feeling of a human being about him or her a character has to seem free and constrained simultaneously.” Its key feature, on her reading, is that we cannot, in this life, ever know the ultimate fate of our soul. In the volume’s concluding essay, even she suggests that the fate of one’s soul may not be visible until every consequence of one’s words and deeds has concluded—an illegibility of predestined fate so radical that it may remain unknown until time’s end. This indeterminate predestination precludes the possibility of human perfection. We would never be able to see that we had arrived at it, and, if by some remarkable chance we did, without knowing, achieve perfection in our lifetime, the possibility remains that we might, after death, suffer some imperfection. So too for any perfect happiness. All that remains is this imperfect world, in which we, imperfect beings who wander, less than fully at home, “experience the reality of moral choice continuously.” From this continuous encounter stem both real freedom and real dignity.

To label Robinson a postmodern conservative or a conservative postmodernist seems to invite boundary policing and accusations of claiming the novelist for a political agenda she does not share. Perhaps a turn away from the language of modern politics can allow us to state what Robinson and Lawler hold in common. Their respective postmodernisms represent, above all, returns to humanism. Specifically, the recognition of the human as a created being is found both in Robinson’s “radical anthropocentricity” and in Lawler’s “whole human being.” The intellectual terrain they share might be called a postmodern humanism (or a humanist postmodernism), joined in the understanding, in Lawler’s words, that “to the extent we understand ourselves as individuals we can never be happy.”

Seen in this light, the differences in Lawler’s and Robinson’s political outlooks stem from the inevitable competition for primacy among humanist principles. As each seeks to replace the modern individual’s “freedom from” with a postmodern “freedom for,” Lawler errs on the side of dignitas; Robinson, toward caritas. As ideals, they are intertwined. One can’t speak of the whole human being without both. Yet transformed by the realm of continuous moral choice into political principles, each ideal makes competing claims on our actions. Together, Robinson and Lawler have worked to build the vocabulary with which we mediate or choose between principles. Such a dialogue offers the foundation for postmodern politics grounded in humanism, one preferable to other nascent political postmodernisms, which in their rejection of the modern individual turn not to the whole human being but to the zero-sum politics of group rights and grievance. ♦

J. L. Wall teaches at the University of Michigan.  His poetry is forthcoming in First Things and Atlanta Review, and he is at work on a book about poetry, covenant, and American civil religion.


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