Thursday, May 31, 2012

Marilynne Robinson Week 5: The Hermeneutics of Suspicion is Suspect

Robinson, throughout The Death of Adam but especially in the essay on "Darwinism," is critical of the whole school of modern thought which believes that under the social and collaborative surface of life there is a deeper reality of selfishness and competition.  This is what Ricoeur called the "hermeneutics of suspicion," a wonderful comprehensive banner.  Robinson has in mind Darwin's own social thought, especially as he drew from Herbert Spencer.  She also includes Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, and most of economics in her indictment. They promote a social theory of fear, about which Robinson writes eloquently.

The social theory of fear, selfishness, and competition pictures our current world as if we were consumed with a desperate struggle for survival.  Yet the actual experience of most Americans is freedom from mere survival, and the freedom to enjoy the fruits of civilization. Robinson writes:

All the forms in which this freedom has been celebrated, all the arts and sciences and philanthropies, are only possible because civilization is intrinsically sociable and collaborative.


Monday, May 28, 2012

Marilynne Robinson Week 4: Against Fear

In her essay "Facing Reality" in the collection The Death of Adam, Robinson argues that what we take to be reality is a collective fiction, resting on faith just as much as any other understanding of history does.

She argues that the dominant construction of reality in our culture today is based on fear.  Robinson then offers this powerful critique:

When they make fear the key to interpretation of history and experience, as they do so often, as ours does now, nothing contains a greater potential for releasing all the varieties of destruction.  Fearfulness assumes a hidden narrative – that we are all ill despite our health, vulnerable despite our apparent safety. We are contemptuous of transient well-being, as if there were any other kind. Routinely discounting the preponderance of evidence is not the behavior of reasonable people, nor is devaluing present experience because it may be overtaken by something worse.

I see this again and again as I talk about happiness.  Most of the people I talk to are, on the whole, happy.  They know that their lives are full of good things, along with some bad.  When pressed, they concede that our social order actually has many excellent features. But, they say, this could only be temporary.  It could all go away.

"We are contemptuous of transient well-being, as if there were any other kind."

The Creator called the world good. To me, to Marilynne Robinson, that is a good reason not to make fear the key to the interpretation of history.