Some of a great writer’s deepest thoughts might pass under the public’s radar simply because they appear in an academic journal. I hope this won’t be the case with the eye-opening observations of Marilynne Robinson that appear in a special issue on her work of the journal Renascence, published by Marquette University (Vol. LXVI, No. 2, Spring 2014).
Robinson is a renowned, prizewinning novelist (Gilead, Home, Housekeeping). She is also a serious and challenging essayist, author of Mother Country, The Death of Adam and When I Was a Child I Read Books. My interview for Renascence focuses on her nonfiction.
In the interview, Robinson offers readers a challenging insight about today’s culture—our tendency to undervalue ourselves as souls. You might suppose that her perception—given her essays on the Calvinist faith tradition—would apply only to people who believe in souls. Hardly. I find it purely metaphysical at heart, because it is all about what kind of attention we give one another.
In When I Was a Child I Read Books, Robinson comments that we have “a painful and ongoing history of undervaluing ourselves and exploiting one another.” I asked her by what means this takes place, and how we could counteract this influence. Robinson answers, in part, that “the great world tells us that life is all a matter of marketing,” and that “shoddy cultural goods are supposedly justified by the fact that people buy them.” The same goes for shoddy political goods, she says, and when the public accepts and perpetuates “these condescensions” they “endorse cynicism,” which is “a kind of damp shadow that blights the flourishing of the better things we want and need.”
Shoddiness in culture can be anything from tv shows and commercials to rap lyrics, movies, magazines, pop art, and unverifiable cyber commentary. It ends up being shoddy to the extent that whoever generated it did not give it full attention, which implies respect for its subject matter. When rap lyrics refer to women as sexual objects to be violated and tossed aside, the men who write and sing them are not, of course, applying their attention to the humanity of women. They are selling macho swag at the price of women’s dignity. And that blights our culture by casting a damp shadow on women’s hopes for better relationships with men, and those men’s relationships to the children they father.
Cynicism is the driving force behind politicians who disparage social programs that help the poor and provide educational opportunities, among other government efforts of clear benefit to society. Their distorted and often fabricated claims are part of a cynical agenda to reduce taxes on the wealthy at the expense of the poor and middle class. No need to argue how far this blight has spread in today’s world.
The shadows of cynicism hang over billionaire industrialists whose factories and refineries pollute our environment. They try to pour millions anonymously into political campaigns whose goal is to remove government safeguards against industrial pollution. If they were publically identified, the people whose lives are harmed by such pollutants could apply the powers of their own attention to these cynical machinations. Result: such condescension to the wellbeing of others would be thrown into the light of justice.
In the world of religion, the blight of cynicism is associated with sin and evil. In the secular world, let’s just say it’s an enemy to be reckoned with. Today the reckoning has to consist in not only paying full attention to the threat, but speaking out and exposing it to the light of others’ attention.
As any attending metaphysician would tell you, personal attention has the power to change personal lives, culture, and politics.