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.


Thoughts on “Searching for Sugar Man”

On the Film Documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” (about singer Sixto Rodriguez of Detroit)

If you haven’t yet seen “Searching for Sugar Man” this post may not be for you, if you’re on spoiler alert.  So-called spoilers never bothered me, so here goes:

This is about the comeback of a great folk singer who wrote his own beautiful, haunting songs that bombed in his native country.  After 40 years of obscurity he gets the fame he deserves (which is still growing) because of a devoted independent record dealer, multitudes of curious South African fans, and an enterprising Swedish filmmaker.

Forgotten in Detroit, it turns out that in South Africa Rodriguez was an icon more popular than Elvis, his lyrics having inspired young people in the anti-Apartheid movement.  Some went so far as to tattoo his shadowy album cover image on their chests and arms.  Unbeknownst to the artist, his two albums had first been widely bootlegged in South Africa, then re-issued there by arrangement with A&M Records, selling over half a million copies.  Not a penny of royalties, however, made it back to singer Rodriguez, nor a word of his faraway success.  So he continued to live in poverty, supporting himself and three children with backbreaking work renovating abandoned houses.

That’s nice, you say, but what’s it got to do with the metaphysics of attention?  It’s too obvious that Rodriguez got the attention of those folks in South Africa but didn’t in the States, and that’s the breaks.  On an equally cynical vein, you could say it’s touching that he’s finally getting some recognition, at age 70, but imagine how many talented people never do.

Cynics, nevertheless, have to pull up short when reminded of certain precedents.  We recall that the poems of Emily Dickinson were discovered in a drawer after her death, and now she resides in the pantheon of American’s greatest poets.  Dickinson made one or two very shy attempts to find an audience in her lifetime, but failed.  (See next post.) At least with Rodriguez, the era of bootlegging and music sharing kept his songs alive to be resurrected in his lifetime. Where would we be without those crucial people who pay serious attention, and act on it?

Consider the first line from Roger Ebert’s film review: “Do some stories exist only because we need for them to?”

In the documentary about Rodriguez, a Capetown record seller named Stephen Segerman, in Ebert’s words, “emerges as one of those figures independent music depends on—always there in his store, supporting and listening to music he believes in, spreading the gospel.”  Then we have those who listened to the artist, connecting his lyrics with their struggle to end Apartheid.  Ebert adds, “In the case of Rodriguez, the gospel had already spread through South Africa on its own, propelled by the power of the songs.”

Attention in the guise of curiosity eventually enters the picture.  Segerman wanted to know whatever happened to the artist whose albums had sold so well.  It was rumored that he’d committed suicide on stage, shooting himself or setting himself on fire.  Enter the Internet Age, when Segerman could set up a website asking for information about this mystery man.  And who should answer it but Rodriguez’s eldest daughter?!  Enter a Swedish film director, Malik Bendjelloul, who thinks the search for this artist would make a great documentary, and voilà.

…Talk about the play of attention, and its potential power!!

Skipping ahead to Ebert’s last few lines: “The information…eventually dislodge[d] about Rodriguez suggests a secular saint, a deeply good man, whose music is the expression of a blessed inner being.  I hope you’re able to see this film.  You deserve to.  And yes, it exists because we need for it to.”

Wow.  Think about it.  Could attention be the dark (invisible) energy of our world?  The source of life?

In the film, when Rodriguez makes his first triumphal sold-out concert tour in South Africa, he thanks the audience for keeping him alive.  The huge arena sings along with him, knowing all his lyrics by heart.  When I watched the film, members of the audience were in tears, laughing with incredulous joy.  It was ecstatic, wonderful.  So full of what Dickinson calls “the thing with feathers that perches in the soul” – hope.

We were witnessing a miraculous fable that happened to be real.  It was enough to make me agree with Ebert, that the film exists because we need it to.  Does attention exist because we need it to?

It was telling that during all his years of obscurity and hard labor, Rodriguez kept alive his love of music, playing his guitar and singing.  He kept attending to his craft, his art.  So when the miracle of recognition knocked on his door, he was able to step out onto the stage with voice and chops intact.

A curious detail: Somewhere in his working life, when he’d made enough to go to college, Rodriguez majored in philosophy.  He made a point of telling 60 Minutes that there was no shame in hard work, and no shame in being poor.  Sounds like he’s quite an attending metaphysician.

Here’s the link to Ebert’s review: