Ordinary Human Language

by Brian Crane

Absence of Mind

Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind is an apology for religious thought in the face of the New Atheist assault on it. I am an irreligious but sympathetic reader. Devotion to god provided intellectuals with the vocabulary necessary for thinking about the human experience for thousands of years. Dismissing their thought because of the limitations of tools they used to develop it is foolish, and I do think many of the New Atheists fall into this trap, at least in their more populist (and therefore popular) moments. I also loved Gilead when I read it a few years ago, and so, came to this book looking to discover a different aspect of Robinson’s writing. But this ponderous lecture-serious-become-book is not worth the effort. Everything about the style here is weighty and self-consciously difficult despite the fact that the foundation of the argument was the rebuttal of a straw man. Worse it all feels tactical. The straw man is symptomatic of a decision to avoid confronting the New Atheists too directly. In part this is because she is concerned with an intellectual rather than a techo-scientific question. She rightly avoids the trap of eliding the two which–again in their popular/populist moments–these writers fall into. (In their case, it’s enabling: if the philosophical question is really, merely a scientific one, their technologies adjudicate. The shift in terrain wins the question before it is raised.) In part though, the straw man and the opaque style are also symptomatic of Robinson’s refusal to claim the ground as philosophical, her refusal to actually speak within the language of the cultural past she defends. She insists the NAs are not thinking expansively enough but never thinks expansively herself. I had the uncomfortable feeling that she was scared of being “religious” and therefore illegitimate. As a result, as I read, I began to feel that the question was no question, the NAs had won this book before it began and the difficult style was a defensive posture masquerading as careful deliberation. And because of that I thought of Judith Butler’s defence in Lingua Franca of inaccessible language as a tool of serious thought. She too under attack treated difficulty as nuance, suggesting inadequate reading was the problem. Whatever the merits to Butler’s stance–she’s a professional reader who communicates her reading in writing–the fact that Robinson, a celebrated writer and teacher of writing, has published an essay that makes me think of Butler is not a good thing. You can find the brief, brief card file here.

Posted October 2, 2011