By Lena Baker, Class of 2014
Marilynne Robinson is the author of three highly acclaimed novels—one of which earned a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction—and the recipient of the National Humanities Medal. She is one of my favorite authors and it was a pleasure to listen to her speak on Taylor’s campus.
Marilynne began her talk with a line that she tells her students every year; “You have a gift, which means you have work to do, so take care of yourself.” The Midwest is often viewed as a cultural wasteland with little intellectual or artistic pursuit. Marilynne Robinson’s books are so brilliant because she views the beauty and the dignity in living in a small town in the Midwest. She observed that when she travels around the country she sees pockets of intellectual curiosity and community which contradict the stereotype of ignorance in America. Her talk tonight focused on cynicism and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion in America. This distrust of others stems from the “assumptions that interesting people are up to no good.” We no longer believe that human beings do good things with no ulterior motives. She claims that intellect is now seen as being pompous, courage is just recklessness, and loyalty is naivety. When we view the virtues as a mask for selfishness, narcissism and even cruelty, we stop striving to be good. Robinson stated that this is particularly evident in success. People who strive for success are sometimes seen as narcissistic for believing they could be great. This discourages us from trying to achieve major goals.
Marilynne Robinson’s doctoral work focused on William Shakespeare, and she has since returned to this study. Critics often question William Shakespeare’s authenticity and authorship. It is difficult for people to believe that a man with little education and no gentlemanly status could be such a prolific writer. Some believe that the Earl of Oxford wrote his plays, because only a man with noble blood could be so gifted. This goes back to Marilynne’s appreciation for the Midwest. While many assume that the real work of intellectual and cultural pursuit is taking place on the coasts, the rest of America is achieving great things.
Shakespeare’s character is sometimes called into question as well. His views on marriage, his faith, his virtue, are all reviewed and speculated upon. Robinson claimed that the overall arch of his life demonstrated his love for his wife and his faith. In England it was dangerous to claim to be Catholic or Protestant because so many were being killed for their denomination. However his plays show how valuable he considered marriage to be. In his writings, people who betray their spouses come to terrible ends. Good marriage is seen as happiness itself. His character was evident in the way he treated his audience with respect. It is easy to try to tear apart someone who is successful and ascribe ulterior motives to them. This is another effect of the Hermeneutics of Suspicion.
Marilynne’s talk was, in some ways, a call to excellence. A call to stop focusing on the bad in the world and focus instead on using our gifts. Marilynne ended her discussion by reminding us that a lifetime of excellent work—in whatever form—is a gift to the world.