Tag Archives: Marilynne Robinson

The Power of A Single Word, ‘Existence’

It was about the meaning of existence, he said. All right. She knew a little bit about existence. That was pretty well the only things she knew about, and she had learned the word for it from him. It was like the United States of America — they had to call it something. The evening and the morning, sleeping and waking. Hunger and lonelinesss and weariness and still wanting more of it. Existence. Why do I bother? He couldn’t tell her that either. But he knows, she could see it in him….

Marilynne Robinson Lila page 74

She told the old man she’d been thinking about existence, that time they were out walking, and he didn’t laugh. Could she have these thoughts if she had never learned the word? “The mystery of existence.” From hearing him preach. He must have mentioned it at least once a week. She wished she’d known about it sooner, or at least known there was a name for it She used to be afraid she was the only one in the world who couldn’t make sense of things. Why that shame had come down on her, out of nowhere.

Marilynne Robinson, Lila page 178

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The power of a single word

Think how much any individual mind, any brain, is enlarged by what we can know through books and through literature — places, people, ideas that we would never otherwise experience, things much larger than anyone could contain in his or her own person. People crave this. You go way back into antiquity and everybody is memorizing Homer, everybody is memorizing “The Epic of Gilgamesh” — works of literature that build the cultural mind and make it capacious. Most of us are not the creators of those things, but we possess ourselves of them — or they possess us of them. And each successive work of literature expands the possibilities of our language, deepening our expressive capacity. In almost every major literature there are works that make you love being human, and make you love and revere the humanity of other people. That is the great potential of any art.

Viewed this way, our language — and especially literature, that special, potent case — has incredible power. I was very struck by something that I came across in my reading of Jonathan Edwards. I recall him quoting a writer who talks about how whatever we say lives on after us, that we continue to exist so long as any word we say exists in a living mind. And that there should be two judgments: one when we die, and one when the full impact of our lives has played itself out. That is, when every word that we’ve said, for good or ill, basically ceases to be active.

We’re not in the habit of thinking of ourselves as people of influence in this way. We don’t think that if we say something cruel and destructive now, it can go down generations in terms of its consequences. But it strikes me that this is true — and the thought makes me experience a certain fear and trembling about our political life at the moment. When we speak, we should ask ourselves: How will this ultimately play out? What will be the moral consequence of the fact that so many people have resorted to such crude, cruel language? We know it won’t be neutral. We know it won’t evaporate. It’ll be in people’s minds for generations.

Coming across this idea as eloquently expressed as it was by this writer really made me stop, and think, and recognize the obvious truth of what he says — as if I’d known it before, but never felt it so sharply as when he articulated it well. I have an experience of recognition, not just in response to others’ ideas, but on the order of a single word. It happens, in my own writing, in those moments when you know there’s a perfect word, even though you have not written it yet. You cast about for it, and over time, some obscure word will come to you — your mind knows it’s there. Often, it’s a word with such an extraordinary precision that you wonder how it survived. You think, This must have come down from early modern English or Anglo-Saxon — how did it come to birth? How did it survive? Who was it that needed this word first and coined it? It’s amazing. You wonder how many people have had any use for it over the last 300 years, but there it is.

Writing should always be exploratory. There shouldn’t be the assumption that you know ahead of time what you want to express. When you enter into the dance with language, you’ll begin to find that there’s something before, or behind, or more absolute than the thing you thought you wanted to express. And as you work, other kinds of meaning emerge than what you might have expected. It’s like wrestling with the angel: On the one hand you feel the constraints of what can be said, but on the other hand you feel the infinite potential. There’s nothing more interesting than language and the problem of trying to bend it to your will, which you can never quite do. You can only find what it contains, which is always a surprise.

Marilynne Robinson on Finding the Right Word, The New York Times 22, 2017  (from here) 

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A child disguises her weeping

She wept easily. This did not mean that she felt things more deeply than others did. It certainly did not mean that she was fragile or sentimental or ready to bring that sodden leverage to bear on the slights that came with being the baby of the family. When she was four she had wept for three days over the death of a dog in a radio play. Every time she teared up a little, her brothers and sisters remembered how she had sobbed over Heidi and Bambi and the Babes in the Woods. Which they read to her dozens of times. As if there were any point to those stories after all but to elicit childish grief. It really was irritating, and there was nothing to be done about it. She had learnt to compose her face, so that from a distance she would not necessarily seem to be weeping, and then they made a little game of catching her at it — tears, they would say. Ah, tears. She thought how considerate it would have been of nature to allow the venting of feeling through the palm of a hand or even the sole of a foot.

Marilynne Robinson, Home, pp14-15

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Craving

To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savours of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing – the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again.

(p 152 Faber and Faber)

Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping 

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Knowledge and ignorance of the same thing

‘I believe I’ll make an experiment with candor here. Now, I say this with all respect. My father was a man who acted from principle, as he said himself. He acted from faithfulness to the truth as he saw it. But something in the way he went about it made him disappointing from time to time, and not just to me. I say this despite all the attention he gave to bringing me up, for which I am profoundly in his debt, though he himself might dispute that. God rest his soul, I know for a fact I disappointed him. It is a remarkable thing to consider. We meant well by each other, too.   . . . You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.”                                       Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

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Beauty in the ordinary

You have to have a certain detachment in order to see beauty for yourself rather than something that has been put in quotation marks to be understood as “beauty.” Think about Dutch painting, where sunlight is falling on a basin of water and a woman is standing there in the clothes that she would wear when she wakes up in the morning—that beauty is a casual glimpse of something very ordinary. Or a painting like Rembrandt’s Carcass of Beef, where a simple piece of meat caught his eye because there was something mysterious about it. You also get that in Edward Hopper: Look at the sunlight! or Look at the human being! These are instances of genius. Cultures cherish artists because they are people who can say, Look at that. And it’s not Versailles. It’s a brick wall with a ray of sunlight falling on it.

At the same time, there has always been a basic human tendency toward a dubious notion of beauty. Think about cultures that rarify themselves into courts in which people paint themselves with lead paint and get dumber by the day, or women have ribs removed to have their waists cinched tighter. There’s no question that we have our versions of that now. The most destructive thing we can do is act as though this is some sign of cultural, spiritual decay rather than humans just acting human, which is what we’re doing most of the time.

Marilynne Robinson, The Art of Fiction No. 198 Interviewed by Sarah Fay for The Paris Review 

 

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One loneliness meeting another

Sometimes the review of a novel  is so beautifully written and observed it warrants several readings,

for what it says about the novel and for truths about the world.

Except from Leslie Jamison’s review of Lila by Marilynne Robinson/

“The novel opens in her [Lila’s] childhood, when she is rescued from neglect by a woman named Doll—a fierce savior and survivor and killer—who carries her away one stormy night: “Doll may have been the loneliest woman in the world, and she was the loneliest child, and there they were, the two of them together, keeping each other warm in the rain.” Lila proceeds to break open the potential of this moment. How does one person’s loneliness intersect with another’s? What renewal can come from this convergence, and what are its limits? Sometimes one loneliness meeting another looks like prayer in the darkness. Sometimes it looks like a sandwich. Sometimes it gives rise to those more recognizable ways we collaborate on dissolving solitude: getting married, having a child.”

Leslie Jamison, The Power of Grace,  The Atlantic October 2014

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The solitude of writing

My father always preached  from notes, and I wrote my sermons out word for word. There are boxes of them in the attic, a few recent years of them in stacks in the closet. I’ve never gone back to them to see if they were worth anything, if I actually said anything. Pretty nearly my whole life’s work is in those boxes, which is an amazing thing to reflect on. I could look through them, maybe find a few I would want you to have. I’m a little afraid of them. I believe I may have worked over them as I did just to keep myself occupied. If someone came to the house and found me writing, generally he or she would go away, unless it was something pretty important. I don’t know why solitude would be  a balm for loneliness, but that is how it always was for me in those days, and people respected me for all those hours I was up here working away in the study, and for the books that used to come in the mail for me— not so many, really, but more than  I could afford. That’s where some of the money went that I could have put aside.

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

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