This Poor Gray Ember of Creation
Marilynne Robinson's second novel, Gilead, is a quiet, deeply moving celebration of the wonders and sustaining bewilderments of human consciousness. As its narrator John Ames writes to his seven-year-old son, describing a difficult journey through the back roads of Kansas he had taken as a child with his father and remembering a shared vision of the rising moon and setting sun on opposite horizons, "palpable currents of light passing back and forth," consciousness is a sort of sweet mysterious strength most of us only brush up against at extraordinary moments:
I can't tell you, though, how I felt, walking along beside him that night, along that rutted road, through that empty worldâ€”what a sweet strength I felt, in him, and in myself, and all around us. I am glad I didn't understand, because I have rarely felt joy like that, and assurance. It was like one of those dreams where you're filled with some extravagant feeling you might never have in life, it doesn't matter what it is, even guilt or dread, and you learn from it what an amazing instrument you are, so to speak, what a power you have to experience beyond anything you might ever actually need.
Ames is a 76-year-old pastor, struggling with angina and struggling too with the realization that he won't be able to pass on to the young son of a late, miraculous marriage what most mattered in his life. So, in a long letter, worked at over the course of a spring, summer, and early fall, he composes his life for his son. It's as if his life had been a long dream, intricately detailed, much of it having taken place in the rutted world or lonely wilderness he mentions above, and what he does as he writes, his son's face before him, is attempt to read and enactâ€”to see and suffer againâ€”its inner drama. If he begins simply passing on advice and family history, he ends having passed on a sense of consciousness itself, its power and its limits, its strange, almost wordless exhilarations.
The book is a great gift, and worth the wait. As most readers of contemporary fiction know, Robinson's first novel, Housekeeping, was published 25 years ago, in 1980. It's one of the three or four strongest novels of that periodâ€”the sort of book you press on new friends or your best students. Like Gilead, Housekeeping is the first-person unfolding of a single consciousness. Its narrator Ruth, fatherless, having lost her mother in a haunting suicide, finds herself, along with her sister Lucille, under the care of their transient and apparently unstable Aunt Sylvie in the family home in Fingerbone, Idaho. Fingerbone is dominated by a lake, in whose depths the bodies of Ruth's mother and grandfather, indeed, much of what matters to Ruth, rest. The lake, its surface freezing and thawing, its boundaries shifting with spring floods, is a constant reminder to the lonely girl that there is "some other element upon which our lives floated as weightless, intangible, immiscible, and inseparable as reflections in water." Freed by the example of her aunt's casual approach to housekeepingâ€”doors stay open, flood waters enter and are embraced, meals are eaten in the dark, the broken family attuned to the immense world outside their fragile wallsâ€”Ruth opens herself to what Emily Dickinson calls the "sumptuous Destitution" of the empty world she finds herself in. Details of the landscape, fragments of memory, and bits of the Bible all become material for her lyric re-composition of the world. Ruth's thinking becomes a way of dancing under water, her prose a means of touching a world "lost but not perished." Sylvie seemingly leads her through "the slowest waltz, … our clothes flow[ing] like the robes of painted angels." It's the strange, sad beauty of this prose, the exhilaration of it, that readers have in mind when they pass this novel on. And it's just that strange beauty that John Ames wants his son to be ravished by.
The theological underpinnings of Housekeeping were not immediately apparent, though it seems obvious now that Ruth is remembering, and Robinson was expressing her fascination with, Emerson and Dickinson and Thoreauâ€”and not only these writers but the shared religious heritage they drew from. This second idea, however, only became clear with a series of essays Robinson began publishing in the '80s and '90s, many of them collected in The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998). There, Robinson mounts an impassioned attack on the modern tendency to explain ourselves solely in economic, social, and political termsâ€”essentially "desacraliz[ing] humankind" by insisting on accounts of our actions that reduce us to the drives of competition and self-seeking. Such a world "has no place in it for the cult of the soul, that old Jacob lamed and blessed in a long night of struggle." Against such reductive accounts, in which "Moral behavior has little real meaning, and inwardness, in the traditional sense, is not necessary or possible," Robinson returns to versions of humankind that celebrate the individual's self-revising encounters with a world grander and more terrifying than we are able to acknowledge. She reads Calvin, for example, her most developed example, as a celebrant of that inward worldâ€”God, in Calvin, presenting himself to human contemplation "in the image of the world," a presentation continually overwhelming, but rendering unique and privileged, each individual response it calls forth. Such accounts, she argues, have vanished from the way we talk about ourselves as a culture without ever having been discredited.