Marilynne Robinson on Faith, Capitalism and Democracy

Welcome. Rarely has a novel been so universally acclaimed
as Marilynne Robinson's “Lila”: “An unflinching book,” says “The New
Yorker.” “An exquisite novel of spiritual redemption
and love,” reports “The Washington Post.” And that’s just for starters in this latest
of her books examining the lives of a minister, his wife, their son and neighbors in a fictional
town in Iowa. The first, “Gilead,” won Marilynne Robinson
the Pulitzer Prize. “Home” followed. And now “Lila,” nominated just this week
for the National Book Award, filled, as one reviewer wrote, "with quiet epiphanies." Exactly what we’ve come to expect from Marilynne
Robinson. She has been described as a woman “who speaks
in sentences that accumulate into polished paragraphs” with a mind that “skips the
stones of a question across its ample surface.” And of course that's how she writes, including
her non-fiction work. In fact, it wasn't her gifts as a novelist
that first caught my attention. It was her essays, in such collections as
“The Death of Adam,” “Absence of Mind” and “When I Was a Child I Read Books”
Those drew me to the way she writes and thinks, and to her strong belief in the power of grace
and faith, and her devotion to democracy, which she fears “we are gravely in danger
of losing.” Marilynne Robinson, welcome. MARILYNNE ROBINSON:
Thank you. It's wonderful to be here. BILL MOYERS:
And congratulations for those reviews. MARILYNNE ROBINSON:
Well, thank you. BILL MOYERS:
I was particularly struck with one from “The New York Times” praising you for frankness
about a “truly shocking subject: the damage to the human personality done by poverty,
neglect and abandonment.” And I wondered, why should anyone be shocked
to discover today what can happen to a young girl like Lila? MARILYNNE ROBINSON:
I was also struck by that. It seems, you know, when you, you know, read
Dickens or something, I mean, the great subject really of the democratization of Western culture
has been the abuse and entrapment of people on the basis of economics or class or whatever,
who are capable of wonderful things, you know, and the fact that they are mistreated ought
not to be shocking. They're mistreated against the standard of
what they're capable of and what they are. BILL MOYERS:
Are we suffering some kind of loss of imagination that we cannot perceive the lived experience
of other people? MARILYNNE ROBINSON:
I think it is true. And I think that it's having effects all across
the culture. Education, for example, which has very subtly
turned toward making a good working class, however well-paid, rather than humanizing
people's experience, making them feel what it is to be a human being in the stream of
history on this strange planet, you know? BILL MOYERS:
So what's happened to imagination? MARILYNNE ROBINSON:
I think in a way, we've been talked out of it. But I think that there's kind of a influence
of crude scientism that– BILL MOYERS:
Crude scientism? MARILYNNE ROBINSON:
Crude scientism that has no way of articulating the fact of mind, the fact of imagination,
the complexity of consciousness. And what they can't articulate, they exclude
as being not real, being illusory in some way. If you think that a human mind is a wonderful
thing, there's an infinite interest in cultivating it. And if you think it's simply someone who works
more expensively than a worker in the third world, you know, you have no interest in people
except to make them, you know, a part of the utilitarian system that produces for the sake
of producing. BILL MOYERS:
That would explain, I think, why you wrote that “the broadest possible exercise of
imagination is the thing most conducive to human health, individual and global.” MARILYNNE ROBINSON:
Yes. It's impossible to achieve things like justice
if you don't have enough compassionate imagination for any other human being to understand that
they deserve justice. That shorthand justice is not the thing at
all. You know, what can I say, I mean, my deepest,
I think, religious belief is that we are amongst souls and we have souls. BILL MOYERS:
We are among souls. MARILYNNE ROBINSON:
And that it is a kind, it's a blasphemy. It's not simply an ordinary offense to insult
or to deprive another human being. I think that at our best, that has been the
assumption we've proceeded from. And at our worst, it's an assumption we don't
want to be bothered by. BILL MOYERS:
You once said that at one time, we talked soul to soul. When was that? MARILYNNE ROBINSON:
Well, you know, history is a ragged beast. You know, but it seems to me that in the great
American writers, Whitman and Emerson and so on, there's the assumption that something
magnificent is going on, human consciousness. And the world in which human consciousness
is set as the interpreter. This is as true as it ever was, you know? I mean, there's something miraculous about
human beings. They are, they exist wildly in excess of any
sort of survival model that could be posited for them. We're not even very good at that. You know, we're a great danger to ourselves
all the time. But if you create a sort of model, which is
probably wrong itself, about animal behavior, and take that as an authoritative basis for
describing human behavior, then you've simply excluded everything that we call human. You know, you've excluded imagination and
art and, you know, the things that we have defined ourselves with over thousands of years. BILL MOYERS:
So what are you saying when you write that the soul is “the masterpiece of creation?” MARILYNNE ROBINSON:
Well, it's, you know, I always tell my students this first off, I mean, but the human brain
is the most complex object known to exist in the universe. This is, science says this, you know? But I think that if the most exquisite expression
of cosmic reality is the human brain, the human mind, this is a thing to be acknowledged. This is a thing very much to be honored, to
be felt as a privilege. You know, a universal privilege. What a sweet thing, you know? BILL MOYERS:
Are you using the soul as a metaphor for consciousness or, what do you mean by it? MARILYNNE ROBINSON:
Well, you know, here I am, plunging straight into my personal theology, but I do think
that people really are too splendid to be contained in 70 years of life if they are
lucky, you know? I think that there's a sort of, you know,
if there's an economy, in reality, it would be, it's an enormous extravagance that we
are what we are. And that, there's something very excessive
about human beings. They are brilliant beyond any imaginable use,
you know? And, I mean, who knows if we live another
hundred years what we will have done. If we just can, you know, refrain from violence
a little bit. It's amazing. BILL MOYERS:
You have often told your students, I understand through the years, forget definition. Forget assumptions. Watch. Watch what? MARILYNNE ROBINSON:
Well, you know, one of the problems that I come across with people's writing is that
they think that they can enumerate what are basically biographical or class traits. And then they think that they have captured
a person, that because X and Y and Z are true, they must behave in a certain way, and so
on, you know? When, if you pay attention to people, you
find out that they're continuously original. They're continuously generating, you know,
a new possibility out of themselves. And I, you know, to the extent that they are
permitted to, and to the extent that anyone is alert enough to realize this is happening. BILL MOYERS:
How do you explain the paradox not of wealth and poverty, but given what you think of human
beings, our tolerance for it? MARILYNNE ROBINSON:
I'm, well, you know, I think it, wealth has been known to corrupt for a very long time. And people's perspectives change as they move
into spheres of relative advantage. And I think it's often not so much that they're
indifferent to the poverty of other people, it's that they can actually can be for all
purposes, unaware of it, even if they read about it in the newspaper, you know? I think it's I mean, that is the kind of classic
model of human civilization, where you have a tiny little population of privileged people
and wretchedness as far as the eye can see. Democracy has been meant to remove the artificial
constraints, poverty is the huge artificial constraint, on human thought and action and
so on and our mutual perceptions. And, you know, in this country, in various
ways and degrees, there have been attempts to moderate that entrapment if, you know? And we've abandoned that, I think. That, you know, a lot of people politically
and economically are persuaded that there's some merit in this terrible division that's
settling in. BILL MOYERS:
What do you hear in our public language today, in contrast to what you once called the language
of the character of generosity, the largeness of spirit. What are you hearing in our public language
Well, one thing that really bothers me and really upsets me is that a complex problem
cannot be acknowledged as a complex problem. You know, the president makes, you know, a
proposal, or establishes a policy. Nobody would say, well, this is good on one
hand, but it's problem from another point of view They attack it as being something,
you know, something subversive or something, you know? And the public should hear policies talked
over as if among adults, you know? It would have this good effect, it would have
this negative effect, we have to choose, you know? That never happens, it seems to me. People find the most ridiculously minor, most
opportunistic points of attack, and the attack is all that matters It is disgraceful that we have to watch people
over and again descend to the level of meanness, which we see so often. It seems sometimes as if political discourse
is the cheapest intellectual environment that you can enter into. People have more dignity under most circumstances. They’re not pandering to anybody. I think that pandering has seduced a lot of
public behavior, made people operate at levels that they would not really consider worth
of themselves. BILL MOYERS:
I remember you once ask, who among us wishes that our hymns, our sermons, were dumber? But there are a lot of people who do. MARILYNNE ROBINSON:
Well, as far as the sermons and so on, I think that people who feel that certain things are
associated with an elite feel that they effectively exclude, that they give signals to other people
that they're not welcome within the circle, or something like that, you know? Which, when you consider that, you know, that
William Tyndale's Bible was written for the illiterate, you know, I mean, and it is perhaps
the masterpiece of the English language. Or Luther's Bible, you know, I mean, he would
apparently hang out in marketplaces to hear how Germans spoke German, being so Latinate
himself. But to hear the melodies and to hear the nuances
and depths of ordinary speech has been the most fruitful thing that we have done in this
civilization in the last 500 years. We, you know, to respect people, to be attentive
to them in a way that makes it so that you actually are using these metrics of culture,
to re-express it in art or politics or whatever, you know? That's what all the great people have done. BILL MOYERS:
You had this contradiction we were talking about earlier between the high sense of America
that Walt Whitman articulated as something more than politics. It’s poetry and it’s prose and he captured
that spirit of it. And then you see what we did to the indigenous,
what we, the Europeans did to the indigenous people, the slaves, the freed slaves. I mean, when you and I were young, black men
were still being lynched in this country. MARILYNNE ROBINSON:
Oh, I know. BILL MOYERS:
And children growing up in the Gilded Age, and even today, we have what you call, “a
bracing and punitive severity toward the vulnerable among us.” MARILYNNE ROBINSON:
Well, if you read European history or British history, hanging people for stealing rabbits,
you know, this kind, I mean, the, or people falling into poverty and then they're put
into these horrible workhouses where they basically starve to death. You know, if you really look at history, which
we tend not to do, it is grotesque. And what you see in the best reformist impulses
in America is a moving away from history that was profoundly entrenched in western civilization. And, you know, certainly we never broke free
of it. And certainly when we're feeling atavistic,
we relapse into what are these ancient models of cruelty and injustice. But what we do, I think, that is a mistake
is we fail to value progressive change because it's never perfect. It's never absolute. We're dragging this onerous history behind
us. Ameliorative behavior is utterly to be valued. BILL MOYERS:
You've said in my favorite book that you’ve done, “When I Was a Child I Read Books,”
you wrote that, “the language of public life has lost the character of generosity,”
and that, “the largeness of spirit that has created and supported the best of our
institutions and brought reform to the worst of them has been erased out of historical
That's something that just is amazing to me. One of the ways that I got started writing
the kind of history that I do is that I was trying to think of a moment in which people
understood their situation and reacted to it appropriately, effectively. And that led me to the abolitionists, you
The abolitionists? MARILYNNE ROBINSON:
Yes, exactly. Who were, you know, they were people that
stepped out of privileged places in New England, lived on the open prairie in Kansas or wherever,
you know, set up colleges to teach Greek to whoever might settle around them, you know,
and so on. Incredibly, wonderful people. I mean, beautiful writers, beautiful, you
know, people that created these amazing little institutions like Oberlin and Grinnell and
so on, that maintain the character somehow that was invested in them. You know, I mean, this sort of reverence for
high learning and all, and I don't, they were very effective. They turned things around. People don't realize that slavery was as entrenched
in Western civilization as computers are now. You know? Every once in a while they make this amazing
discovery, you know? I mean, there's a book just out now about
how mortgages were leveraged against slaves and so on. Well, you know, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote
about that, you know? That it was not a small thing that they accomplished. They overturned basically the economic order
of contemporary America. And they are, abolitionist is treated as a
bad word in many contexts, as if they were some, you know, you'd have to be some sort
of frothing maniac to think that slavery should be abolished. BILL MOYERS:
And you make the case in, “When I Was a Child I Read Books,” you make the case that
after generations of attention to public education, public health, public safety, access to suffrage
and equality under the law, those values are now under siege. MARILYNNE ROBINSON:
They are. These voter identification things, you know,
the whole public education, these attempts at reforming public education that seem to
me to be designed to model people into a kind of productivity again, making them useful
for other people's purposes rather than making their education an end in itself. You know, I went, I'm a proud product of public
education until college. It was probably a very eccentric little establishment
by most standards. But I was taught very optimistically in the
sense that people always conveyed the idea that they were giving me something really
of value, something that would make me richer no matter what I did, you know, in life. That, you know, giving me my mind, you know? And I think that this is a spectacularly efficient
model of education. I think that these assumptions that, you know,
making everybody teach to a test, and so on, is valuable in some way. We're just destroying what’s the best impulse,
the most successful impulse in our educational system. BILL MOYERS:
So what's happened to that old impulse you once described, that lay behind, and I'm quoting
you, "the dissemination of information and learning, the will to ensure that the public
will be competent to make the weightiest decisions and to conform society to its best sense of
the possible…" What's happened to that impulse? MARILYNNE ROBINSON:
I don't know. I think that people, you know, it was, it's
always been a human temptation. But it has been an ethics and an ideology
among us lately to say all that matters is money, basically, you know? I don't think people believe that instinctively,
or that they live their lives in those terms. But I think a lot of people who find their
way into prominent places in the culture are happy to proceed on that assumption. I mean, if you have a cable program that scares
every little old lady in America by the standard of public support, maybe, you know, you can
say you've accomplished something. They send you their social security checks,
you know? It's terrible to suggest that people proceed
on such vulgar motives, but I frankly have to assume it's true. BILL MOYERS:
You write a lot about fear lately. MARILYNNE ROBINSON:
About not your fear, but fear abroad in the land. MARILYNNE ROBINSON:
What's the source of it? MARILYNNE ROBINSON:
I think that, I mean, it's exciting to people. BILL MOYERS:
Fear. Yes. I mean, look at the ways in which fear manifests
itself. You know, this sort of anti-immigration feelings,
you know, that people with these crazy weapons, people, you know, buying apocalyptic money,
or freeze-dried apocalypse dinners and things like that. You know, I think that it makes a little narrative
that makes you the hero in an imagined drama. It makes anybody else a potential threat. It's like late-night TV or something, you
know? And I think that it has been pushed on people,
it's used as a stimulus to make people watch cable network A rather than B and so on. And it's become a kind of addiction, I think. There's been this amazing reversal that the
NRA is probably disproportionately responsible for. BILL MOYERS:
National Rifle Association? MARILYNNE ROBINSON:
Yes, exactly, that makes fear look like courage to so many people. You can't drive your car if you don't have
a gun in the glove compartment? Well, what nonsense is that? You know, it's not bold and brave to go around
acting like you think everybody's going to be some kind of threat to you. It's psychotic really. BILL MOYERS:
What do you fear? MARILYNNE ROBINSON:
What do I fear? I mean, I fear for, there are things that
I, you know, obviously I fear for democracy, for example. I don't know. You know, the oddest thing happened. I became 70. And I realized that in order to be 70, you
have to have had basically 69 years of really good fortune and that, you know, what I mean? I don't feel as though I can lose much. I don't think I can lose much at this point. I've had a good life and a long life by world
standards, you know. And this neutralizes many kinds of anxiety
for me. If I can fail now, it will be a minor, minor
event because I have such a short time to experience the fact of failure. BILL MOYERS:
Marilynne Robinson, thank you very much for being with me. MARILYNNE ROBINSON:
Great pleasure. BILL MOYERS:
That’s it for this week. I’m Bill Moyers, I’ll see you here next

11 thoughts on “Marilynne Robinson on Faith, Capitalism and Democracy

  • Marilyn sounds like a humane person. However, those Christians who bemoan the decline in church attendance and the like (godless America), are really calling for a return to a time when blasphemy was punished in law, along with failure to go to church, public swearing and fornication.

  • The lady has heart. Those lacking the same will never walk in her light. Great interview.
    What I notice on comments is so much anger by some. They lack what this lady mentions, heart and imagination.

  • short and honest, robinson is over rated, i have read of several of her items, they can be enjoyable and relaxing but are not exceptional in thought.

  • I tuned into this as an admirer of the author's prose, which I count among the best of our time. To pay her an especially generous compliment, I will admit that her fiction, in the way it ennobles its ethical vision with aesthetic sensibility, reminds me of George Eliot.
    However, this interview sounds like a brief for what she would probably call global Christian socialism. I would call it pathological altruism. To be sure, she propounds her view with a rare coherence of thought. Nevertheless, this only clarifies her instinct to surrender at every opportunity, to follow her over-developed sense of pity to all ends. Yet, to disarm the citizens of the rich world, then unconditionally to open their national borders will produce, ineluctably, some variation on that nightmare narrative titled Camp of the Saints. Western civilization will collapse into the vast multitudes of Africans, Mestizos, Muslims–none of whom sustain a high civilization and none of whom evince, in their own nations, the transcendent (also indiscriminate) empathy for which Marilynne Robinson ingenuously yearns. Must needs we indicate, explicitly, that this endgame hardly consists with her altruistic attitude? It even courts absurdity, and not only an enlargement of the human suffering she abhors. But we find through history that all idealists are victims of a deontological moral calculus: they care more about intent than about result. This is why the Western Left never has and never will apologize for their support of the early Soviet Union, despite the catastrophic death toll they enabled. They believe their intentions were good (a judgment with which I generally concur). But, in such a case, are good intentions really enough? They apply the same calculus today on questions like open immigration and the criminal justice system. Failure and catastrophe once more wait upon their ideals, but no cumulation of evidence can alter their course. For it partakes the nature of tragedy.

  • Oh, the atheists really hated on Marilynne Robinson in spades on this.  How much do you want to get that none of them ever read her or could manage to make head nor tail of her brilliant writing?

  • Empathy need to come back to society.. Or was is never there? (..if you can hang someone for stealing a rabbit…)

  • Yes because Democracy is NOT freedom w neighbors Army and w NDAA. Democracy IS NOT for me nor for my family!!! !!?!!????

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