Essays Ponder Our Need for Better Behaviour

By Robinson, Jennifer | Winnipeg Free Press, March 3, 2018 | Go to article overview

Essays Ponder Our Need for Better Behaviour


Robinson, Jennifer, Winnipeg Free Press


French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan humorously said the Christian commandment to “love thy neighbour as thyself” must have been ironic, since people generally hate themselves.

Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Marilynne Robinson, in her latest collection of essays, respectfully and persistently begs to differ.

Robinson is interested in no less than the noble and seemingly Sisyphean project of rescuing this simple commandment (along with other beliefs that support humanity) from the reductionism of modern science and the “us-versus-them” mentality of the religious right wing.

Yes, she is religious; yes, theology colours the text of her essays. However, that should neither deter nor encourage readers. Her work is accessible on a level deeper than religiosity, and her intellect is as bright and sharp as a diamond. Even in disagreeing with her, one’s thought process is raised to a higher standard of rigour.

The meaning of the question, “What are we doing here?” changes and deepens as the text progresses. In the essay that gives the book its title, Robinson scrutinizes the decline in the humanities, asking why universities have become increasingly focused on making sure graduates are “competitive” in the workforce rather than intelligent, thoughtful or open-minded.

In her conversation with Barack Obama, published by the New York Times Book Review in 2015, Robinson admits that if she could strike one word from the English language, it would be “competitive.” Obama responds with nervous laughter.

If she seems bold and opinionated, it’s because she is. She is deeply enamoured with a puny, insignificant creature known as the human being, despite its innumerable flaws and destructive capabilities.

“What are we doing here?” is a question leveraged against our tendency to distort and abandon certain historical truths (Robinson, for example, presents ample evidence to show that our reading of the main tenets of Puritan faith is deeply erroneous), and it is also, of course, a teleological question. …

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