Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind

I finished Marilynne Robinson’s short collection of essays, Absence of Mind, which are based on lectures she gave regarding the conflict between religion and science.  While she is no doubt making a case for religion, this is not a creation versus evolution debate. Her thought process goes much deeper than the “sound bytes” one hears in the news (for either side).  She spends her time discussing what constitutes the human mind and the human soul.  For anyone who has read much of her work, they understand that she is well-read not just in history, literature and religion, but science, as well.  As I’ve mentioned before, I have difficulty writing about essays and it’s no different with this collection.  I probably read these essays too quickly.  Robinson’s work in general usually takes  a little more effort for me.  However, a couple of her points interested me.

Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self

First, she confronts this idea of being “modern”.  According to Robinson, the idea that all things ancient cannot compare to our modern way of thinking doesn’t hold water:

Another factor  that seems to me to be equally important is the great myth and rationale of “the modern,” that it places dynamite at the foot of old error and levels its shrines and monuments.  Contempt for the past surely accounts for a consistent failure to consult it.

Second, the popular view of science, according to her, has taken out the mystery of the world and the universe.  From her viewpoint, true scientists are those that continue to explore, continue to wonder – who haven’t decided that now we know completely how things really work.  When reading her ideas about science, an excitement comes off the page that I rarely expect to encounter in one who is discussing religion.  While Robinson’s point regarding science seems valid to me, I have to admit that religious people can be equally good at taking the mystery out of the world – sometimes they think they have it all figured out, too.  Perhaps this is why Robinson is one of my favorite writers:  whether writing about science, history, religion, philosophy or literature, she never takes the wonder and mystery out of the world.

For anyone interested in science – especially psychology, sociology and anthropology – this could be a challenging read, even if one didn’t come to the same conclusions that she does.  Her collection When I Was A Child, I Read Books probably would appeal to a broader spectrum of readers.

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“When I Knew Stephen Crane”

I have found it difficult to write about single essays.  I end up simply wanting to say “read this”.  However, at online-literature.com (which is where I found the pictures below), I found an enlightening essay written in 1900 (Stephen Crane died in 1900 at the age of 29) by Willa Cather about her previous interaction with Crane.  I believe she was writing for a newspaper in Lincoln, Nebraska, when he showed up in town waiting on money to be wired to him.  He stayed around town for a few weeks and she got to know him a little.

Willa Cather

Stephen Crane

He was disheveled and extremely skinny.  It seemed he had already written The Red Badge of Courage but had not yet really taken the literary world by storm.  At the time that Cather met him, he was 24.  She had the sense he knew he would not be living a long time.

For anyone interested in artists interacting with other artists, especially ones that are no longer living, this essay is a gem.  My favorite passage described what she thought was the purpose of their relationship:

Men will sometimes reveal themselves to children, or to people whom they think never to see again, more completely than they ever do to their confreres. From the wise we hold back alike our folly and our wisdom, and for the recipients of our deeper confidences we seldom select our equals. The soul has no message for the friends with whom we dine every week. It is silenced by custom and convention, and we play only in the shallows. It selects its listeners willfully, and seemingly delights to waste its best upon the chance wayfarer who meets us in the highway at a fated hour. There are moments too, when the tides run high or very low, when self-revelation is necessary to every man, if it be only to his valet or his gardener. At such a moment, I was with Mr. Crane.

But I won’t continue explaining the essay, I’ll simply say “read this”!

Intelligent playfulness at its best

Kurt Vonnegut’s collection of writing Armageddon In Restrospect proved to be as thought-provoking as I thought it would be – and as funny.

Most of his writings here are fictional stories revolving around American prisoners of war in Dresden, Germany during World War II.  One of my favorites was “Guns Before Butter” in which three POW’s discuss their first meal when they get home much to the confusion of their lackadaisical German guard.  The POW’s write down the recipes in notebooks and draw pictures of their first meal.  I would have to go along with the private who wants a stack of twelve pancakes with fried eggs in between.  He wants chocolate syrup – I’d want maple.

Another story set in medieval England has Elmer and Ivy and their son, Ethelbert, deciding how to act when Elmer is forced to be tax collector for Robert the Horrible.  A trap Ethelbert sets for a unicorn brings all their problems to an end.  From a literary standpoint, I would put this one at the top of the collection.  It’s amazing how well-developed the characters are in spite of the brevity of the story.

Vonnegut has grown on me over the years.  I read Slapstick probably over twenty years ago and was mildly entertained by it.  I’ve been exceptionally impressed by the short stories I’ve read both in this collection and in Bagombo Snuff Box.   In the story from which the title of this book comes, a doctor states that “I think you’ll find that most of the really big ideas have come from intelligent playfulness.”  I think “intelligent playfulness” is the best way to describe much of Vonnegut’s writing.

When I Was A Child I Read Books

I finished Marilynne Robinson’s collection of essays When I Was A Child I Read Books.  I find her thought process fascinating.  I end up having to read her essays slowly so that I can think about all that she says.

Marilynne Robinson

One aspect that I appreciate about her writing is that she does not “pigeon-hole” herself into any specific political or ideological category.   She does not hide the fact that she embraces the Christian faith and takes on Victor J. Stenger’s The New Atheism in a critical debate.  At the same time, many of her ideas about generosity and aleviating poverty could put her on the liberal side of politics.

Her knowledge of science, religion, philosophy, literature and history is amazing.  She has a fondness for sixteenth century theologian John Calvin, old church hymns, and Edgar Allan Poe:

Edgar Allan Poe began to matter to me in what might fairly be called my childhood, my early adolescence.  I more than forgave him his febrile imagination.  In fact I loved the dark gorgeousness of his mind, and the utter, quite palpable, almost hallucinatory loneliness of it.  His elegance and learnedness were his defenses, ironic, conscious, and pure for that reason.  I have always thought of him as a man waiting out the endless night of his life with a book in his hand, some quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, noting the smell and feel of the leather binding, the pretty trace of gilding on the spine, almost too moved by the gratuitous humanity of the thing to open it and put himself in the power of whatever old music still lived in it.  Runes and rhymes, labials and sibilants, trying the sound of them under his breath, while the long hours passed.  I read everything I could find of his, at some point even the essay – or as he would have it, the poem- called Eureka.

I’m now going to have to read this poem by Poe.

“…old Homer, whoever he was…”

I read two more essays by Marilynne Robinson from her collection When I Was A Child I Read Books.  One was titled “Freedom of Thought” and the other was “Imagination and Community”.  Both touched on similar philosophical and sociological themes that revolved around the process of writing fiction.  Her essays give me much “food for thought” as well as someone who can express my thoughts about reading much better than I can.  I also learn new words when I read her essays.  The new word this time around was “apophatic” meaning “involving a mention of something one feigns to deny”.  Robinson uses this word to discuss the concept that there are ideas worth writing about that do not necessarily have words to describe them or “reality that eludes words”.

She looks at her own life as a writer with some wonder and a little disbelief.  I enjoyed her description of a day in her life when she forgets to call her “real-life” mother because she is involved with a dilemma one of her fictional characters needs to work through.

She writes a wonderful paragraph in which she illustrates the concept of community by using her book shelf:

I love the writers of my thousand books.  It pleases me to think how astonished old Homer, whoever he was, would be to find his epics on the shelf of such an unimaginable being as myself, in the middle of an unrumored continent.  I love the large minority of the writers on my shelves who have struggled with words and thoughts and, by my lights, have lost the struggle.  All together they are my community, the creators of the very idea of books, poetry, and extended narratives, and of the amazing human conversation that has taken place across millenia, through weal and woe, over the heads of interest and utility.

At one point, Robinson asks the question “Why write fiction?”  Her answer is simply “I don’t know”.  I would venture an anwer to that question using some of the ideas she talks about:  there are ideas and concepts in the world we live in that are best described in stories as opposed to text books.

“Relevance was precisely not an issue…”

In 2011, I read Marilynne Robinson’s three novels, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, Home, and Housekeeping.  Since reading Richard B. Gunderman’s collection of essays on philanthropy, We Make A Life By What We Give, I’ve been fascinated by essays.  I guess essays are to non-fiction what short stories are to fiction.  As much as I enjoyed Robinson’s fiction, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that she has several collections of essays.  I picked up When I Was A Child I Read Books and read the title essay “When I Was A Child”.

Her essay starts out with “When I was a child, I read books…Surprising as it may seem, I had friends, some of whom read more than I did.”  She goes on to talk about her childhood out west in Idaho.  I love the way she states that “[r]elevance was precisely not an issue for me” in choosing what to read.  In other words, she didn’t care about the perception by the world around her of what she chose to read.  It seemed she found relevance for her in whatever she as an individual happened to read regardless of what others thought.

She continues to expound on this idea of “individualism” in discussing the culture of the West (meaning the western United States).  She relays an incident when a man from Alabama asked her what the difference was between the West, the East and the South.  Her response was “that in the West ‘lonesome’ is a word with strongly positive connotations”.  From reading her works, my guess is that Robinson isn’t promoting reclusiveness or hermitage, but simply pointing out the thought that “lonesomeness” is a part of any new frontier.  Being alone isn’t a sign that something is wrong.  “Alone”can have strengthening benefits.

Myself being a voracious reader of things that are not always perceived as “relevant” by the world around me, I found Robinson’s essay both insightful and comforting.  I thoroughly enjoyed her statement about people in saying “when I see a man or a woman alone, he or she looks mysterious to me, which is only to say that for a moment I see another human being clearly.”

Another essay in this collection is called “Imagination and Community”.  After reading about being “lonesome”, I’m curious what she might have to say about community.  That will probably be the next essay on my list to read.

Do any other voracious readers out there feel “lonesome” – in a positive way?

 

We Make A Life By What We Give by Richard B. Gunderman

It’s always interesting as I read books throughout the year how one will stand out as being the one to beat as my favorite.  Because I mostly read fiction, it’s even more interesting that the one that’s having the biggest impact on me this year is a non-fiction book.

I always thought of a philanthropist as someone who got a college dorm or hospital wing named after them.  We Make A Life By What We Give by Richard B. Gunderman  provides an amazing  look into the role of philanthropy in our lives.   While the act of fundraising and the need for money in philanthropic activities is never discounted by Gunderman, he makes a brilliant case for the fact that we are all philanthropists.  I love the term he uses, “amateur philanthropist”.  The term is not used with any sort of condescension; in fact, he encourages philanthropic activities to be born out of ordinary people’s imagination as they move step-by-step into lives characterized by an ever increasing generosity – regardless of how much money they may have.

Small Cover Image

As listed in the book, Gunderman’s credentials include Vice Chairman, Radiology; Director Pediatric Radiology; and Associate Professor of Radiology, Pediatrics, Medical Education, Philosophy, Liberal Arts, and Philanthropy at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.  The book consists of 22 essays in which he pulls information and insight from this vast background in Medicine and Education.

The theme of a community of people of all backgrounds coming together in generosity to make the world a better place recurs throughout many of the essays.  Gunderman’s idea of philanthropy takes Lao-Tse’s well-known proverb a step further:

Give a person a fish, and we feed him for a day.  Teach a person to fish, and we feed him for a lifetime.  Share with a person the joy of helping others learn to fish, and we enable him to participate in a goodness that transcends any particular lifetime.

How we go about sharing the experience of “helping others learn to fish” takes more than just money according to Gunderman:

Our most important philanthropic resource is our imagination, our dreams.  What do we think is possible?  What purposes larger than ourselves are we capable of discerning and working on behalf of?

Recently, I experienced a little bit of this “community” when my wife and kids raised money for the charitable organization, Kids Against Hunger.  Within walking distance from where we live, there are several fast food restaurants, gas stations, beauty salons, grocery stores and medical offices.  When the owners and managers of these businesses were asked by my wife and kids if they would like to donate anything – whether money directly to the cause or gift cards for drawings at the fundraising event- the overwhelmingly positive response made me think that they understood this was more than just about getting a little bit of advertising.  It seemed that they understood, even in a small way, that this was what a community was all about and they were very eager to work together to feed children half-way across the world.

While I could go essay by essay and reveal all of the nuggets of truth in this book, it would be better for me to simply say “read the book”!  A couple of the essays stood out to me.  “The Good Samaritan” takes Jesus’ well-known story from Luke 10 and beautifully applies it to the potential we have for generosity in today’s philanthropic climate.  I’ve always been fascinated with Jesus’ ability as a storyteller – but that’s probably something for a different post.  “Lessons from the Least “gives examples of human worth from a friend of Gunderman’s who works with mentally-disabled people.

Frequently, he touches on a topic that is near and dear to me:  reading.  Specifically, he points to the reading of fiction resulting in a better understanding of the aspirations we all have as human beings.  Much of the world (or my world, anyway) views fiction as unimportant entertainment.  I found it refreshing for someone with Richard Gunderman’s educational pedigree to grasp the fact that, as an example, “some gain invaluable insight into the human significance of poverty” from reading Charles Dickens’ Hard Times and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.  He uses numerous examples from the Bible, Homer and other literary works to support and illustrate his points.

It’s difficult to do justice to such a wonderful book in a blog post; however, I thought I would be more remiss in not trying.