“What do you think people should be talking about more?” Such is the simple question Wyatt Mason posed to the novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson. Her answer, cascading over forty minute and many steps, provides the grist for the introduction to Mason’s brilliant profile in this week’s New York Times Magazine.
Robinson responds that we should be less fearful. Too often, too many censor themselves from fear of offending. And in today’s climate of overbearing fear, we rather imprison or kill people who scare us—shoot first, ask questions later. There may well be a rational fear of someone walking up behind you at night in a hooded sweatshirt, but when did it become justifiable to shoot out of fear? Here is the culmination of Mason’s account of he and Robinson conversing about fear:
Robinson, a woman of 70 who speaks in sentences that accumulate into polished paragraphs, made a confession: “I hate to say it, but I think a default posture of human beings is fear.” Perched on the edge of a sofa, hands loosely clasped, Robinson leaned forward as if breaking bad news to a gentle heart. “What it comes down to — and I think this has become prominent in our culture recently — is that fear is an excuse: ‘I would like to have done something, but of course I couldn’t.’ Fear is so opportunistic that people can call on it under the slightest provocations: ‘He looked at me funny.’“ ‘So I shot him,’ ” I said.“Exactly.”“ ‘Can you blame me?’ ”‘‘Exactly. Fear has, in this moment, a respectability I’ve never seen in my life.”
Robinson’s insight into the respectability of fear is reminiscent of Mary McCarthy’s hypothetical, “If somebody points a gun at you and says “Kill your friend or I will kill you,” he is tempting you to kill your friend. That is all.” To confuse such a temptation with being forced is to assume that fear justifies the abandonment of moral scruples. For McCarthy, it was precisely the confusion between compulsion and temptation that led many critics to accuse Hannah Arendt of not understanding that those Jewish leaders who cooperated with the Nazis had no choice, that they were compelled by fear.Robinson, whose new book Lila will be out this month, says that fear is the root of our cultural cynicism. Here is Mason’s abbreviated account of how Robinson reached her conclusion about fear:
‘One of the things that bothers me,’ she began, with feeling, ‘is that there are prohibitions of an unarticulated kind that are culturally felt that prevent people from actually saying what they think.’ From there, she raised her well-documented relationship to faith; said that students at Iowa from faith-based backgrounds seek her out; sketched the inhibition these students nonetheless feel in describing the sacred (“If you’re Jewish or Catholic, you can make all the jokes about your mother or the nun, but in terms of saying on one’s deathbed, ‘What will it mean to me that this is how I would have described myself, how does the cosmos feel as it nestles in my particular breast?’ they are completely inarticulate about that”); addressed that inhibition and suggested its root (“It’s as if when you describe something good, you are being deceived or are being deceptive”); offered Flannery O’Connor as an example of a religious writer who fails to describe goodness (“Her prose is beautiful, her imagination appalls me”); evoked the nature of O’Connor’s failure (“There’s a lot of writing about religion with a cold eye, but virtually none with a loving heart”); complained about the widespread ignorance of religion in American life; told the story of Oseola McCarty, a laundress who bequeathed most of her life savings to the University of Southern Mississippi (“[An] interviewer was talking about how McCarty took down this Bible and First Corinthians fell out of it, it had been so read. And you think, Here is this woman that, by many standards, might have been considered marginally literate, that by another standard would have been considered to be a major expert on the meaning of First Corinthians!”); suggested that McCarty’s understanding of First Corinthians — in which Paul lays out the kind of communitarian behaviors upon which Christian decency might depend — reveals what it means to read a text well (“It makes you think that comprehension has an ethical content”); jumped to some reading she has been doing that has an explicit ethical content — essays by John Wycliffe, who played a crucial role in the first English translations of the Bible (“Wycliffe says that if you do not object strenuously to a superior’s bad behavior, you are as bad, as guilty as he is of what happens”); and rehearsed the radical activist tradition of translating the Bible, how rendering it into English was a courageous act, a risky resistance of royal authority. … And it was here that Robinson brought up fear: How it has come to keep us at bay from our best selves, the selves that could and should “do something.” In her case, that “something” has been writing. For Robinson, writing is not a craft; it is “testimony,” a bearing witness: an act that demands much of its maker, not least of which is the courage to reveal what one loves.
The connection between faith and fear is actually that between a loss of faith and the power of fear. In Robinson’s telling, faith is one way of keeping fear at bay.Wolfgang Heuer has made this link between faith and courage in his essay “When Telling the Truth Demands Courage” (published in vol. 1 of HA: The Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College.) Heuer argues that the courage to stand up for truth and overcome fear comes not simply from external moral norms but from an inner strength, a “love of oneself and one’s conscience.” Heuer turns to John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, which portrays eight senators in American history who distinguished themselves by their courage. When Kennedy asks how his role models get the power to act in this way, he offers a compelling answer citing President John Adams:
It was not because they ‘loved the public better than themselves’ On the contrary it was precisely because they did love themselves—because each one’s need to maintain his own respect for himself was more important to him than his popularity with others—because his desire to win or maintain a reputation for integrity and courage was stronger than his desire to maintain his office—because his conscience, his personal standard of ethics, his integrity or morality…was stronger than the pressures of public disapproval.
Moral courage comes not from a superhuman morality but flows from an internal strength. Only those who know themselves and love themselves can risk themselves secure in the belief that what they do is right, necessary, and just. What Kennedy understood so well is that morality begins in faith, namely, the faith that one knows what is true.Robinson has, throughout her essays and fiction, looped an iron chord around the twinned facts of faith and the moral self. She has struggled with the question of where, if anywhere, the foundation for self-reliance might be found in a world that increasingly denies the foundation of faith. Her conversation with Mason is an introduction into her world and replete with examples of her own honest and direct convictions. The profile in the Times Magazine is your weekend read.