Over the years I have collected so many books that, in aggregate, they can fairly be called a library. I don’t know what percentage of them I have read. Increasingly I wonder how many of them I ever will read. This has done nothing to dampen my pleasure in acquiring more books. But it has caused me to ponder the meaning they have for me, and the fact that to me they epitomize one great aspect of the goodness of life. Recently I bought a book titled On What Cannot Be Said: Apophatic Discourses in Philosophy, Religion, Literature, and the Arts, Volume One: Classic Formulations. The title itself is worth far more than the price of the book, and then there is the table of contents. So far I have read only the last and latest selection, from The Wandering Cherub by Silesius Angelus, who wrote in the seventeenth century.
In the stack of magazines, read and unread, that I can never bring myself to throw away, there are any number of articles suggesting that science, too, explores the apophatic—reality that eludes words—dark matter, dark energy, the unexpressed dimensions proposed by string theory, the imponderable strangeness described by quantum theory. These magazine essays might be titled “Learned Ignorance,” or “The Cloud of Unknowing,” or they might at least stand beside Plato’s and Plotinus’s demonstrations of the failures of language, which are, paradoxically, demonstrations of the extraordinary power of language to evoke a reality beyond its grasp, to evoke a sense of what cannot be said.
I love all this for a number of reasons, one of them being that, as a writer, I continually attempt to make inroads on the vast terrain of what cannot be said—or said by me, at least. I seem to know by intuition a great deal that I cannot find words for, and to enlarge the field of my intuition every time I fail again to find these words. That is to say, the unnamed is overwhelmingly present and real for me. And this is truer because the moment it stops being a standard for what I do say is the moment my language goes slack and my imagination disengages itself. I would almost say it is the moment in which my language becomes false. The frontiers of the unsayable, and the avenues of approach to those frontiers, have been opened for me by every book I have ever read that was in any degree ambitious, earnest, or imaginative; by every good teacher I have had; by music and painting; by conversation that was in any way interesting, even conversation overheard as it passed between strangers.
As a fiction writer I do have to deal with the nuts and bolts of temporal reality—from time to time a character has to walk through a door and close it behind him, the creatures of imagination have to eat and sleep, as all other creatures do. I would have been a poet if I could, to have avoided this obligation to simulate the hourliness and dailiness of human life. This is not to say that books could not be written about walking through a door—away from what? toward what? leaving what wake of consequence? creating what stir of displacement? To speak in the terms that are familiar to us all, there was a moment in which Jesus, as a man, a physical presence, left that supper at Emmaus. His leave-taking was a profound event for which the supper itself was precursor. Presence is a great mystery, and presence in absence, which Jesus promised and has epitomized, is, at a human scale, a great reality for all of us in the course of ordinary life.
I am persuaded for the moment that this is in fact the basis of community. I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly. This thesis may be influenced by the fact that I have spent years of my life lovingly absorbed in the thoughts and perceptions of—who knows it better than I?—people who do not exist. And, just as writers are engrossed in the making of them, readers are profoundly moved and also influenced by the nonexistent, that great clan whose numbers increase prodigiously with every publishing season. I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.
I love the writers of my thousand books. It pleases me to think how astonished old Homer, whoever he was, would be to find his epics on the shelf of such an unimaginable being as myself, in the middle of an unrumored continent. I love the large minority of the writers on my shelves who have struggled with words and thoughts and, by my lights, have lost the struggle. All together they are my community, the creators of the very idea of books, poetry, and extended narratives, and of the amazing human conversation that has taken place across millennia, through weal and woe, over the heads of interest and utility.
We live on a little island of the articulable, which we tend to mistake for reality itself. We can and do make small and tedious lives as we sail through the cosmos on our uncannily lovely little planet, and this is surely remarkable. But we do so much else besides. For example, we make language. A language is a grand collaboration, a collective art form which we begin to master as babes and sucklings, and which we preserve, modify, cull, enlarge as we pass through our lives. Some students in France drew my attention to the enormous number of English words that describe the behavior of light. Glimmer, glitter, glister, glisten, gleam, glow, glare, shimmer, sparkle, shine, and so on. These old words are not utilitarian. They reflect an aesthetic attention to experience that has made, and allows us to make, pleasing distinctions among, say, a candle flame, the sun at its zenith, and the refraction of light by a drop of rain. How were these words coined and retained, and how have they been preserved through generations, so that English-speaking people use them with the precision necessary to preserving them? None of this can be ascribed to conscious choice on the part of anyone, but somehow the language created, so to speak, a prism through which light passes, by means of which its qualities are arrayed. One of the pleasures of writing is that so often I know that there is in fact a word that is perfect for the use I want to put it to, and when I summon it, it comes, though I might not have thought of it for years. And then I think, somewhere someone was the first person to use that word. Then how did it make its way into the language, and how did it retain the specificity that makes it perfect for this present use? Language is profoundly communal, and in the mere fact of speaking, then writing, a wealth of language grows and thrives among us that has enabled thought and knowledge in a degree we could never calculate. As individuals and as a species, we are unthinkable without our communities.
I remember once, as a child, walking into a library, looking around at the books, and thinking, I could do that. In fact I didn’t do it until I was well into my thirties, but the affinity I felt with books as such preserved in me the secret knowledge that I was a writer when any dispassionate appraisal of my life would have dismissed the notion entirely. So I belong to the community of the written word in several ways. First, books have taught me most of what I know, and they have trained my attention and my imagination. Second, they gave me a sense of the possible, which is the great service—and too often, when it is ungenerous, the great disservice—a community performs for its members. Third, they embodied richness and refinement of language, and the artful use of language in the service of the imagination. Fourth, they gave me and still give me courage. Sometimes, when I have spent days in my study dreaming a world while the world itself shines outside my windows, forgetting to call my mother because one of my nonbeings has come up with a thought that interests me, I think, this is a very odd way to spend a life. But I have my library all around me, my cloud of witnesses to the strangeness and brilliance of human experience, who have helped me to my deepest enjoyments of it. Every writer I know, when asked how to become a writer, responds with one word: Read. Excellent advice, for a great many reasons, a few of which I have suggested here.
And this brings us to the subject of education. In the United States, education, especially at the higher levels, is based around powerful models of community. We choose our colleges, if we have a choice, in order to be formed by them and supported by them in the identities we have or aspire to. If the graft takes, we consider ourselves ever after to be members of that community.
As one consequence, graduates tend to treat the students who come after them as kin and also as heirs. They take pride in the successes of people in classes forty years ahead of or behind their own. They have a familial desire to enhance the experience of generations of students who are, in fact, strangers to them, except in the degree that the ethos and curriculum of the place does indeed form its students over generations. These gifts are very often made, the donors say, out of gratitude and in celebration, and I have no reason to doubt it. I am even inclined to look charitably upon the fondness of donors for seeing their names on buildings and fountains, to consider it the expression of a desire to implant themselves immortally in the consciousness of a beloved community. In any case, many of our colleges and universities have been richly adorned over many years with assets and resources we are far too ready to take for granted. There are literally hundreds of places in this country where an open and committed student can enjoy an education that would be extraordinary by any except the very high standard so many of these institutions do sustain. This is not to devalue the achievements of any specific university, only to speak the pleasant truth about American higher education in general.
From time to time I, as a professor in a public university, receive a form from the legislature asking me to make an account of the hours I spend working. I think someone ought to send a form like that to the legislators. The comparison might be very interesting. The faculty in my acquaintance are quite literally devoted to their work, almost obsessive about it. They go on vacation to do research. Even when they retire they don’t retire. I have benefited enormously from the generosity of teachers from grade school through graduate school. They are an invaluable community who contribute as much as legislators do to sustaining civilization, and more than legislators do to equipping the people of this country with the capacity for learning and reflection, and the power that comes with that capacity. Lately we have been told and told again that our educators are not preparing American youth to be efficient workers. Workers. That language is so common among us now that an extraterrestrial might think we had actually lost the Cold War.
The intellectual model for most of the older schools in America—for all of them, given the prestige and influence of the older schools—was a religious tradition that loved the soul and the mind and was meant to encourage the exploration and refinement of both of them. Recent statistics indicate American workers are the most productive in the world by a significant margin, as they have been for as long as such statistics have been ventured. If we were to retain humane learning and lose a little edge in relative productivity, I would say we had chosen the better part. Since we need not choose between one and the other, I think we ought to reconsider the pressure, amounting sometimes to hostility, that has lately been brought to bear on our educational culture at every level, particularly in the humanities and the arts.
Here I have wandered into the terrain of societal tensions, by which the dear old United States is much afflicted at the moment. There is a notion with a brutal history that a homogeneous country is more peaceful and stable and, in a very deep sense, more satisfying than one with a complex and mingled population like ours. To an alarming extent, we have internalized this prejudice against ourselves. I have read that the word “heterogeneous,” which was originally a term of geology, was first applied to society by the French writer Chateaubriand to describe America. Ironically, he was in America to escape the French Revolution and its aftermath, as thorough a social dissolution as has occurred in modern history. But he wrote that America was too diverse to be stable. Heterogeneous stone is not as solid as homogeneous stone. Oh, the power of metaphor.
In fact, Europe has gone berserk from time to time over this anxiety about mixed populations, most recently in the former Yugoslavia a few years ago. There is talk now that Belgium will cease to exist, having fallen into ethnic and linguistic halves, and there is fear that this will trigger divisions in other parts of Europe. This same anxiety is tormenting contemporary Africa, and it is one source of the disasters that have befallen Iraq. The assumption behind it is that people who differ from oneself are therefore enemies who have either ruined everything or are about to. It is the old assumption of Chateaubriand that difference undermines stability and strength.
When this assumption takes hold, the definition of community hardens and contracts and becomes violently exclusive and defensive. We have seen Christians against Christians, Muslims against Muslims, fighting to the death over distinctions those outside their groups would probably never notice and could certainly never understand. When definitions of “us” and “them” begin to contract, there seems to be no limit to how narrow these definitions can become. As they shrink and narrow, they are increasingly inflamed, more dangerous and inhumane.
They present themselves as movements toward truer and purer community, but, as I have said, they are the destruction of community. They insist that the imagination must stay within the boundaries they establish for it, that sympathy and identification are only allowable within certain limits. I am convinced that the broadest possible exercise of imagination is the thing most conducive to human health, individual and global.
In fact, we in America have done pretty well. By human standards, which admittedly are low. That we have done relatively well, I submit, is due to the fact that we have many overlapping communities and that most of us identify with a number of them. I identify with my congregation, with my denomination, with Christianity, with the customs and institutions that express the human capacity for reverence, allowing for turbulence within these groups and phenomena. Since we are human beings, turbulence is to be expected. If the effect of turbulence is to drive me or anyone back on some narrower definition of identity, then the moderating effects of broader identification are lost. And this destroys every community—not only through outright suppression or conflict. Those who seemingly win are damaged inwardly and insidiously because they have betrayed the better nature and the highest teaching of their community in descending to exclusion, suppression, or violence. Those of us who accept a historical tradition find ourselves feeling burdened by its errors and excesses, especially when we are pressed to make some account of them. I would suggest that those who reject the old traditions on these grounds are refusing to accept the fact that the tragic mystery of human nature has by no means played itself out, and that wisdom, which is almost always another name for humility, lies in accepting one’s own inevitable share in human fallibility.
I am a little sensitive on this point because another identification I hold passionately is with the academic community, which has its fair share of skeptics and agnostics, some of whom are well enough informed historically to mention Michael Servetus from time to time, to make an occasional offhand remark about the Thirty Years War. On all sorts of grounds I would go to the barricades to defend their right to make me uncomfortable, of course. They have caused me to ponder many things, to my great benefit. There are many examples now of friction between the extremes of these communities, and when it takes the form of radical opposition of either to the other the result is a decline from the humane standards that at best dignify them both.
There are excitements that come with abandoning the constraints of moderation and reasonableness. Those whose work it is to sustain the endless palaver of radio and television increasingly stimulate these excitements. No great wonder if they are bored, or if they suspect their audiences might be. But the effect of this marketing of rancor has unquestionably been to turn debate or controversy increasingly into a form of tribal warfare, harming the national community and risking always greater harm. I think it is reasonable to wonder whether democracy can survive in this atmosphere. Democracy, in its essence and genius, is imaginative love for and identification with a community with which, much of the time and in many ways, one may be in profound disagreement.
Democracy wrote itself some interesting history in the second half of the last century. When I was in high school, there were essentially three choices available to a bright girl like myself. I could be a teacher, I could be a nurse, or I could be a homemaker. My chemistry teacher was so sure I would finally be a nurse that he gave me much better grades than I had earned, so that this path would not be closed to me. And my unknown in the final exam was sodium chloride. But my biology teacher noticed that my drawing of the frog we were supposed to have dissected was entirely too imaginative to reflect any acquaintance at all with the actual innards of the thing, and he, wisely, advised me to pay no attention to the chemistry teacher.
It was my brother who told me I should be a poet. This was not a career, as he or I understood it, but a highly respectable use of solitude. I never had any real aspiration, only the knowledge that adulthood would come and I would want to while it away harmlessly enough to be considered a credit to my family. This may not reflect well on me, but it’s the truth, and I find it worth telling here because I was in fact pulled along into a broader and broader world by the generous interest of my brother, and of friends, a pastor, and various teachers. I believe I would have been happy with my unaspiring life—which always included a great deal of reading. But I am certain that I am happier with the very different, very interesting life that has befallen me.
When I was in college, at Pembroke, which has since disappeared into Brown, we women enjoyed exactly the same rigorous and ambitious education that the men did. Why? One dean explained to us that educated men preferred to have educated wives, and that corporations often interviewed the wife when they made decisions about whom to hire. Education made women socially presentable. This sounds appalling, but I don’t think it was ever a real consideration for anyone. The faculty loved to teach, and they taught well, and a certain percentage of those they taught were women.
Just at that time the great social transformation began, set in motion by Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and many others, which called into doubt the whole system of discrimination that had governed most lives, not only in America but throughout the world. Almost suddenly an expanding field of possibility lay open to women, certainly to me. And almost as suddenly I had reasonable uses to make of my brains and my education. By chance I benefited profoundly from the self-transformation of communities and institutions that have been most central to my life. They changed my experience, and they also changed my mind. If I had lived a generation earlier, I might have thought about many of the things that interest me now, but not with the discipline that comes with writing about them or teaching, and not with the rigor that comes with being exposed to response and criticism. And, of course, I would have had no part in conversations that I consider important. So my mind has been formed by the uses I have been able to make of it. It is true for everyone that the experience that society gives to us, or denies us, is profoundly formative. Because I have lived at the cusp of great social change, I am perhaps especially aware of this fact. I am aware not only of the benefits I have enjoyed, sharing the life of this community, but also of the good service we can do one another by contributing as we can to the health, generosity, and courage of our community.
I have talked about community as being a work of the imagination, and I hope I have made clear my belief that the more generous the scale at which imagination is exerted, the healthier and more humane the community will be. There is a great deal of cynicism at present, among Americans, about the American population. Someone told me recently that a commentator of some sort had said, “The United States is in spiritual free-fall.” When people make such remarks, such appalling judgments, they never include themselves, their friends, those with whom they agree. They have drawn, as they say, a bright line between an “us” and a “them.” Those on the other side of the line are assumed to be unworthy of respect or hearing, and are in fact to be regarded as a huge problem to the “us” who presume to judge “them.”
This tedious pattern has repeated itself endlessly through human history and is, as I have said, the end of community and the beginning of tribalism.
At this point in my life I have probably had a broader experience of the American population than is usual. I have been to divinity schools, and I have been to prisons. In the First Epistle of Peter we are told to honor everyone, and I have never been in a situation where I felt this instruction was inappropriate. When we accept dismissive judgments of our community we stop having generous hopes for it. We cease to be capable of serving its best interests. The cultural disaster called “dumbing down,” which swept through every significant American institution and grossly impoverished civic and religious life, was and is the result of the obsessive devaluing of the lives that happen to pass on this swath of continent. On average, in the main, we are Christian people, if the polls are to be believed. How is Christianity consistent with this generalized contempt that seems to lie behind so much so-called public discourse? Why the judgmentalism, among people who are supposed to believe we are, and we live among, souls precious to God—300 million of them on this plot of ground, a population large and various enough to hint broadly at the folly of generalization? It is simply not possible to act in good faith toward people one does not respect, or to entertain hopes for them that are appropriate to their gifts. As we withdraw from one another we withdraw from the world, except as we increasingly insist that foreign groups and populations are our irreconcilable enemies. The shrinking of imaginative identification which allows such things as shared humanity to be forgotten always begins at home.
To look only at certain effects of this cynicism that manifest themselves in my experience: It is my good fortune to work with many gifted young writers. They are estimable people. The Writers’ Workshop is as interesting and civilized a community as I have ever encountered, and it owes the successes of its long history to the fact that it works well as a community. A pretty large percentage of these fine young spirits come to me convinced that if their writing is not sensationalistic enough, it will never be published, or if it is published, it will never be read. They come to me persuaded that American readers will not tolerate ideas in their fiction. Since they feel that anything recognizable as an idea is off-limits to them, they sometimes try to signal intellectual seriousness by taking a jaundiced or splenetic view of the worlds they create and people. They are good, generous souls working within limits they feel are imposed on them by a public that could not possibly have an interest in writing that ignored these limits—a public they cannot respect.
Only consider how many things have gone wrong here, when a young writer is dissuaded by the pessimism that floats around the culture from letting her or his talent develop in the direction natural to it. If the writer is talented, the work might well be published, and the American reading public will look once more into the mirror of art and find sensationalism, violence, condescension, cynicism—another testament to collective mediocrity if not something worse. Maybe even spiritual free-fall. But the writer is better than this, and the reading public is better than this. And the publishing industry is better than this, too. The whole phenomenon is a mistake of the kind that is intractable because so much that passes for common wisdom supports it. A writer controlled by what “has to” figure in a book is actually accepting a perverse, unofficial censorship, and this tells against the writerly soul at least as surely as it would if the requirement being met were praise to some ideology or regime. And the irony of it all is that it is unnecessary and in many cases detrimental because it militates against originality. But the worst of it is that so long as a writer is working to satisfy imagined expectations that are extraneous to his art as he would otherwise explore and develop it, he is deprived of the greatest reward, which is the full discovery and engagement of his own mind, his own aesthetic powers and resources. So long as a writer is working below the level of her powers, she is depriving the community of readers of a truly good book. And over time a truly good book can enrich literally millions of lives. This is only one instance of the fact that when we condescend, when we act consistently with a sense of the character of people in general which demeans them, we impoverish them and ourselves, and preclude our having a part in the creation of the highest wealth, the testimony to the mysterious beauty of life we all value in psalms and tragedies and epics and meditations, in short stories and novels. In the same way we diminish the worth of the institutions of society—law, journalism, education, and religion as well—when we forget respect and love for the imagined other, the man or woman or child we will never know, who will take the good from these institutions that we invest in them, or who will be harmed or disheartened because our institutions are warped by meagerness and cynicism.
It is very much in the gift of the community to enrich individual lives, and it is in the gift of any individual to enlarge and enrich community.
The great truth that is too often forgotten is that it is in the nature of people to do good to one another.
This essay was excerpted from When I Was a Child I Read Books, a collection of essays to be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in March, copyright Marilynne Robinson.