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By Nathan Bierma


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MARILYNNE ROBINSON: WHY WRITING IS LIKE PRAYING

When it is published in November, Gilead will be Marilynne Robinson's first novel since her Housekeeping was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1981. The new novel, about a Civil War-era Idaho preacher reflecting on his father's pacifism and grandfather's abolitionism, was excerpted earlier this month in the New Yorker and accompanied by an online interview. In the interview, Robinson, professor of creative writing at the acclaimed University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, talked about writing and Calvinism.

"A thing I have always loved about writing, or even simply intending to write, is that it makes attentiveness a habit of mind," Robinson says, by way of explaining the time between her two novels. "I do ponder things over long stretches of time, not having any specific intention beyond the hope of having some grasp of them." When the New Yorker notes that one of her characters says, "Writing has always felt to me like praying," Robinson replies, "I do feel that writing is like praying. I think that in both, if they are to be authentic, grace and truth must discipline thought."

The New Yorker also asks Robinson about the legacy of John Calvin, whom Robinson examined in her essay collection The Death of Adam, and who, the interviewer says, "is clearly a presence in the [new] novel." Robinson says Calvin is someone whose influence on Western thought is often acknowledged but "whose writing no one seems to read—not even the scholars and the historians." (I heard Robinson give a paper at Calvin College, so we both know there are exceptions.) She suggests we must resist the impulse to "put his thought to crude uses," but asserts that Calvin's consideration of metaphysics "had a huge impact on the development of the modern West," that the association of his participation in the Reformation with rebellion "was surely a factor" in the French and American revolutions, and that "his belief … that the sacred has no boundaries" survives as secularism.

The interview concludes with an inquiry about Robinson's service as deacon in a Congregationalist church. She notes that Congregationalism "is one of the most democratic branches of Calvinist tradition," in which deacons and pastors are elected, and lay members are sometimes called to speak in place of the pastor. When she has done so, Robinson reflects, "It is a deeply instructive experience, a very interesting way to think. And the situation is interesting—to stand in a pulpit does focus the mind, or it should."

PLACES & CULTURE

From the New York Times :*

  • It may seem odd that Mozambican businesses are doing a brisk trade in three-legged aluminum pots, ferried by the truckload to buyers in nearby Swaziland and South Africa … Mozambique's only aluminum smelter sells its entire production abroad [and] Mozambique is not importing any aluminum, either. The likely [explanation] lies just outside the tiny settlement of 7 September, along the rutted dirt road that links this destitute collection of stone-walled shacks with the outside world. Here, deep in a towering thicket of bush, thieves cut a brace of four power lines from their creosoted wooden poles in February and carted away more than 35 miles of aluminum cable before anyone noticed. … Throughout southern Africa, cable theft is ubiquitous, a sort of third-world analog to first-world thefts of car radios. In [one] district, where power lines stretch over 46,000 miles of poles, the direct losses to the utility this year amount to $250,000, a huge sum here.
  • THE New York City Department of Transportation and the Department of Design and Construction will select a new standard design this fall for the city's more than 320,000 streetlights. The last citywide standard was Donald Deskey's "cobra head" of 1958, and the history of streetlight design suggests that the logic of uniformity poses problems in a city of widely varying streetscapes. … The city installs about 4,400 streetlights a year, and has no plans for replacing a large number. So there is no guarantee that the selected design will be used. Indeed, the main effect of the competition for a new streetlight may be the attention it brings to the problems posed by the growing welter of street furniture, the surviving fragments of earlier ages, and the relative values of uniformity—and variety—on the city's streets.

WEEKLY DIGEST

  • Sigmund Freud is remembered as the founder of psychoanalysis, but since many of his theories have been discredited, his influence is ambiguous. But last week's PBS special, The Question of God, is a reminder that Freud's rejection of the spiritual and divine helped lay the groundwork for the kind of humanistic reduction that has pervaded the social sciences ever since. The series pits the views of Freud against his foil: C.S. Lewis, who seemed to follow Freud's work. "I was astonished at how Freud would raise a question and then Lewis would attempt to answer it," Armand Nicholi—whose course at Harvard Medical School inspired the PBS series—told columnist Terry Mattingly. "Nicholi presents Freud as a spokesman for the 'secular worldview' that denies the existence of any truth or reality outside the material world. Lewis is the champion of a 'spiritual worldview' which accepts the reality of God," Mattingly says. In the New York Times , Peter Steinfels questions whether Lewis was as influential as Freud, but summarizes one of the scholars interviewed in the series: "Despite much talk of postmodernism, for many people the major arguments about belief in God's existence are the same today as they were a century ago, arguments pitting faith and religious experience against the philosophical naturalism that accepts only claims passing tests of scientific verification." Mattingly/Steinfels*
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