A fifteenth-century oil painting of Pico della Mirandola (Alamy Stock Photo)

Wonders Never Cease

Integrity & the Modern Intellectual Condition

I place the origins of modern intellectual tradition in the seventeenth century for the purposes of this discussion, granting that assertions of this kind are most useful when they are understood as provisional. The “modern,” however the word is understood, has been going on for a very long time, has in fact grown old in the course of its pilgrimage from the late Renaissance to the day before yesterday. Here, in brief, is my theory of how the modern period arose and how it has become another era, and in need of another name. The term post-modern doesn’t serve—it only connotes namelessness. The fact that it has not been improved upon is interesting in its own right, of course.

The modern, the era of science, arose when the Renaissance and the Reformation brought acute and positive attention to human subjectivity. The mind became a sacred space where God communed with the individual in ways that enabled thought and perception in the discovery of empirical fact. While it is difficult to imagine a purer statement of subjectivity than Descartes’ I think therefore I am, his subjectivity is not entrapment because God permits him his perceptions, and God would not lie. Scientific inquiry in its beginnings was one mode of interaction between the human and the divine that arouses those gifts of the mind that were thought of then as proof of a human and divine bond and likeness.

Scientific method proved powerful, empiricism allayed philosophical worries about subjectivity until they were in effect forgotten, and the assumption became general that science could and sometime would explain everything, including the mind itself. So over time the mind was desacralized and the world as well, metaphysics was put aside, and science, brilliant as it was, took on the character of dispeller of myth and agent of disillusionment. There was nothing inevitable about this. In the first place, the remarkable capacities of the mind, in the Renaissance often celebrated in terms of its ability to understand the movements of the stars and planets and their relative size and distance, were spectacularly demonstrated in the emergence of vast new areas of knowledge. Yet somehow that central mystery, the ability of the mind to deeply know the physical world, ceased to be acknowledged, even as its impact on thought and culture grew continuously. The most remarkable thing about the universe, Einstein and others have said, is that it is accessible to our understanding. Then the converse must also be true—the most remarkable thing about us is that our understanding is of a kind to find the universe accessible. A good Renaissance humanist, a Pico della Mirandola, would seize on this as proof of our central place in creation. But as science developed it put such thoughts aside. It dropped the great Renaissance fascination with our singular character as creatures who learn, devise, imagine, create. Brilliant science celebrated itself, rightly enough, but it ceased to marvel over the gifts of the singular species that invented science and has persisted in it. Humankind has fallen in its own estimation, while the notion emerged and still vigorously persists that this utterly human project is somehow inhuman. Among other things, it is usually taken to be aloof from the errors we are prone to.

Religion came to be reckoned among these errors. It began to be regarded as a crude explanatory system, an attempt to do what science actually could do, that is, account for the origins and the workings of things. And on these grounds religion came to be treated as though it had been discredited by science. Scripture, the Church Fathers, and classical theology have far other interests, yet Christianity has been earnestly and ineptly defended by some as if it really were battling science for the same terrain, as if it really were a collection of just-so stories all along, rather than the body of history, poetry, ethical instruction and reflection, and metaphysics as well, that had deeply informed, dignified, and beautified Western Civilization for so many centuries. Science has not produced social ethics or poetry. It has very little to say about history, has induced little in the way of philosophical reflection. This is nothing against it, of course. It is about other business.

But to put science in place of religion as if it were an equivalent framing of reality must necessarily entail the loss of many things that have indeed been lost. There are some transformations that are worth pausing over, simply to appreciate their strangeness. Christianity, which had shaped literatures and cities and regimes, had structured time, and consecrated the passages of life, began to be tendentiously misrepresented, and very few seemed even to notice what was happening. This is as true now as it has ever been. And there are still the would-be loyalists who will forever insist that the Bible is in fact a collection of utterly veracious just-so stories, reinforcing the arguments of their supposed adversaries.

There are some transformations that are worth pausing over, simply to appreciate their strangeness

It is a pity that Europeans took to tramping around in the non-European world when they did, corrupting every kind of evidence while imposing their assumptions on the lives and languages of the people they found there. Notably, in their response to indigenous religions, they interpreted what passed through the dense filter of their incomprehension as primitivity, which primitivity was then widely asserted and assumed to be the basis and essence of all religion. This kind of thinking lives on among scholarly syncretists, who propose that the God of the Hebrew Bible is a composite of local gods, a little El, a little Baal, a little Marduk. These mythic eminences left literatures that are a more-than-sufficient refutation of the notion that they contributed attributes to the God of Israel. But where a core primitivity is assumed, their very unlikeness authenticates them.

In any case, in the course of all this there has been a radical transformation of the West’s conception of humankind. No one now would say of us, “in apprehension how like a god!” A Shakespeare returned from the grave would be astounded to learn what that apprehension has been up to, how far it has penetrated into inconceivably distant reaches of the universe, for example. Writers of his period generalized instances of brilliance to characterize Man in the abstract, the human species itself. We detach human achievements from humankind, whom we are then free to consider in whatever reductionist terms might suit our purposes, recently as economic units who can only act rationally in terms of self-interest, in every interaction minimizing cost to themselves while maximizing benefit, whether consciously or unconsciously.

How like an angel.

Wars, plague, punishments designed to terrorize and appall, lethal poverty—every kind of horror was commonplace in Renaissance England. If we think we have grounds for doubting the sacredness and splendor of our species, they had better grounds. At the same time, the best that we have done, the sheer mass of it, would surely confirm them in their high estimate of human capacities. This is to say that there is no necessity behind the extreme declension our species has suffered in its own eyes.

In defense of this lower valuation, our moral failures will be enumerated. There are a great many of them, as there are in any age or generation. We may be more aware of them than earlier periods were of their own crimes and vices. If this is true, and if the case we wish to bring against ourselves might be called moral, it is interesting that we can at the same time be receptive to a model of human nature that is morally blank at best. Self-interestedness is not a trait well thought of in traditional moral systems, however demotic. That it is presented to us as uniquely and inevitably our governing motive puts an end to all the old struggles of the soul, and moots old considerations like honor or loyalty or compassion. I do not wish to imply that people are no longer moved by such considerations. But I am impressed by the authority of an idea of self and others that strips everyone of individuality and of seriousness, and of the possibility of actions that are original and free. What will Western liberalism finally mean if there really is no more to respect in citizen and stranger than this?

So, if we say that the age of science began with a Renaissance awe at the power and agility of the human mind, endorsed by the faith that its brilliance was to be enjoyed and marveled at as engagement with God and likeness to him; if we have now arrived at a point where the mind and the self are frequently said not to exist, according to contemporary theory following God himself out of the universe of credible things, then it is clearly an understatement to say a tremendous inversion has taken place. The exalted mind of early science has given way to a flattening of experience that, on no actual grounds, is called modern and also scientific—this while science has made tiny earth a seraphic eye that turns every way, looking always farther and deeper into the strange, surging cosmos.

 

I have presented a list of historical errors, which have affected Western life profoundly, and the rest of the world as well because of the assertiveness and prominence of Western culture. The modern period has been shadowed by gloom, nostalgia, disillusionment, anomie, deracination, loss of faith, dehumanization, atomization, secularization, and assorted other afflictions of the same general kind. It has become an iron cage. And so on. Objectively, there is very little in late-modern experience to account for all this moaning. By the standards of earlier centuries we have been very fortunate. These days most people see their children live to adulthood. It would be hard-hearted to consider this a small blessing. There are related facts, also non-trivial. For example, far fewer women die in childbirth, leaving far fewer orphans. In Western countries, at least, most people can read, a major enhancement of life. All this is definitely something to work with, in terms of our having lives we can enjoy and make meaningful. And a great many people do precisely this. Nevertheless, as a matter of curriculum, which is our substitute for catechism, we learn that something has gone very wrong, that our human modifications of the world make it impossible to live a truly human life. The horizon open to us is that “patient anesthetized upon a table.” An implication behind it all is that the disillusioned know something the uninitiated don’t know. The importance of that unnamed thing is granted, and the gloom it brings with it is given place, in books, on canvasses, in plays and installations. And everything that reflects its scale and coloration, which to my eye looks like resentment, desolation, and self-pity, is ipso facto modern. So it has been for more than one hundred fifty years. Enormities have befallen the West during those years, which were wholly enormities committed by the West, induced in part by the sense of threat and failure, and nostalgia as well, that has cursed late modernity, both culture and period. I generalize. But in my experience there is an alienation between science and the humanities that discourages humanists from acquiring more than a minimal awareness of science, poorly digested, while at the same time they assume that their own work is marginalized, even a little humiliated, by the triumph of science. Unaccountably, in this brilliant period the workings of the mind, which uniquely express and describe the mind, whether as poetry or as microbiology, have ceased to be of interest in themselves.

In my experience there is an alienation between science and the humanities that discourages humanists from acquiring more than a minimal awareness of science

The thought has been prevalent for a long time that the human project, whatever that is, has failed and left us stranded and bewildered. The myth is that this is the effect of modernity with its disillusionments, the sad burden of all we now know. But in fact our errors have brought us here, the inversions and misconstructions that arbitrarily, though as if by necessity, enforce certain conclusions about what life means and how it can be experienced by us. Intellectual integrity can be and often is understood to mean that one enters boldly into diminished reality, even kicks the rubble around a little. But it should mean examination of received notions, for example that reality is indeed diminished. Intellectual integrity is not possible so long as we give ourselves over wholly to cultural consensus, however broad, however long enshrined.

At the beginning of the modern period, God was a given in the field of thought that was the seed bed of science in our sense of the word. This aspect of the thinking of figures like Descartes, Locke, and Newton is regularly treated as a tip of the hat to prevailing powers, or a carryover from a kind of thinking they were themselves finding the means to leave behind. It looks to me, from my reading in the period, as though the Reformation in England, which radically isolated the individual in the fact of asserting his or her immediate relation with God, found consciousness, that is, experience, a very rich field of theological exploration. Their exploration took the form of a parsing of the mind according to its functions and capacities, with the understanding that it is, and is made to be, the intermediary between God and the soul—granted, of course, that anyone might choose to reject this awareness of God’s intimate awareness of him, and might turn away from the knowledge of God implicitly proffered to him. Adam figures in all this, as the archetypical human being in whose creation we are all created and whose attributes we receive, fallenness famously, but also the ability to know God as Adam did.

I confess I am perfectly happy to accept this view of things. However, I can hardly recuse myself from a discussion in which, so far as I know, I am the lone participant. So, having given fair warning of my biases, I will consider certain consequences of conceiving of the mind thus theistically, putting aside the question of God’s existence, simply admitting his existence with its effects into the discussion as Einstein did the cosmological constant, not as anything demonstrated, only as something somehow necessary to making the rest of the system work.

 

First of all, to do this re-situates the discussion of the nature of the mind in our experience of the mind—our own and others’—rather than in theoretical speculations about the brain as a product of evolution, or the brain as a lump of tissue responsive to stimuli. Wherever any kind of brain is studied, except a human brain, the questions are, what can it do, and what does it do. Researchers in London have demonstrated that a bee can learn to perform behaviors that are unlike anything a bee is called upon to do in the normal course of life. A very tiny brain is sufficient to produce behavior that might appear to justify the word “intelligent.” This is consistent with Darwin’s observations of ants in his garden. So reductionism in the case of an insect is inappropriate, because, elegant as its suite of instincts clearly is, they do not preclude its having the ability to react to novel circumstances, to appraise and adapt, within limits we will never establish since we will never know how to test for them exhaustively. Appraise and adapt—I use anthropomorphic language here, lacking any other, therefore lacking any way to suggest a distinction between human and insect purposiveness. Despite Darwin, it has been usual for a long time to make reductionist accounts of human behavior and consciousness, likening them to those of ants or crickets to demonstrate, in effect, that anthropomorphic language is not really appropriate in our case either. But better science undercuts the old notion that tiny-brained creatures are automata running solely on instinct. It appears they can sometimes decide when instinctive responses would not be useful. I go farther here than the science does in inferring self-awareness. In any case, as we learn that intelligence has been lavished on the living world at large, we should be less reluctant to acknowledge our share in it.

Mysterious intelligence is mysteriously pervasive.

It is increasingly clear that there is no baseline simplicity to which our own essential nature can be reduced. Mysterious intelligence is mysteriously pervasive. Bad science has for a long time assumed a not-so-great chain of being, an apparent rising complexity that is in fact only a compounding of simplicities, explainable top to bottom in terms of a fundamental primitivity. In fact we are an extraordinary instance of a pervasive complexity. Science has not proposed any way of accounting for this fact, not having been aware of it as a fact until quite recently. A theistic vision of the world is freer to see the world whole, as it is in itself, so to speak. “The world is full of the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil,” in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Within this great given, that Being is an astonishment, any aspect of being can be approached with an expectation of discovering wondrous things. The slime that comes up from the depths of the sea in fishermen’s nets is a ruined universe of bioluminescence. Microorganisms live in clouds, air moves in rivers, butterflies navigate the earth’s magnetic field. The matter cosmologists call “dark,” which makes up most of the mass of the universe, seems to be non-atomic. Wonders never cease.

Over against this we have a constricted empiricism, the building upward from the seemingly known or presumptively knowable, its expectations based on limited technology and on the old idea that science is a process of de-romanticization, de-mystification. To speak as the theists did of lavishness, elegance, artfulness, is to introduce language capable of acknowledging that there is more to the world than its intricate economies of survival. John Locke, a theist, saw Being as a great, boisterous ocean that will always remain essentially unknown to us. The more we learn, the truer this seems to be. To apply too broadly a paradigm drawn from narrow experience is an error that entails cascading errors. Classical religion brings assumptions of vastness and relation, and beauty, and wonder, and humility before its subject, all very useful in giving reality its due. I do not wish to imply that secular scientists do not often bring these gifts to their work, or arrive at them in the course of their work. It is in the study of humankind that these things are consistently absent. It is as if we can only be granted a place in the universe if we are made vastly less extraordinary than we clearly are. This is the kind of persisting bias and error that intellectual integrity would forbid. The old theists looked at extraordinary humankind, the quintessence of dust, to consider the nature of the universe. This makes perfect sense. We do, after all, demonstrate in our being what is potential in matter and time.

 

Second, if we approach the mind with my cosmological constant still factored in, we can say the mind is morally competent—Adamically speaking, that is, in its design, allowing for all deviations from the ideal or the norm. I am not the first to note that modern thinking about the mind has often proceeded from the study of pathologies, real or not. It seems clear enough to me why Victorian women might have been prone to hysteria. I look back at the comparatively mild limits and prejudices I escaped by grace of the Civil Rights movement as if I had found myself two steps clear of a falling rock. In the American South, the intense depression observed in slaves sold away from their families was diagnosed as an illness to which their race was oddly prone. In such cases, assumptions about the nature and life experience of certain human beings obscured the obvious, and science built on the sand of engrained error. I suspect this may be why the study of human consciousness is so markedly different from science in general. It very typically confirms or defends theories about social roles. The fact that it does not view the human person with particular respect as consciousness or, to use an old phrase, as moral agent, has a long history of grave and shameful consequences.

The great anomaly here is that the science of the human brain, if science is indeed the right word, does not take account of what the brain actually does. I have been invited from time to time to lend my brain to science—that is, to pass it through an fMRI while using it creatively. Even if I had not seen an article about how this machinery had been taking hair from the heads of experimental subjects due to faulty calibration, the thought that I could attempt anything remotely similar in such circumstances to what I do when I am writing fiction is simply bizarre. This is surely a grand instance of the application of faulty methods to a faulty question. The science of the mind, as it is practiced now and has been practiced for generations, has no place for human inwardness, the reflective settling into oneself that somehow finds and yields structure and meaning, not all at once but as a kind of unwilled constellating of thoughts and things to which some part of one’s attention may have drifted any number of times. It is in the nature of the mind to distill, to do its strange work over time. No snapshot, no series of images, could capture its life.

Walt Whitman wrote a beautiful little poem about a spider, and about the workings of consciousness:

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you, O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

This could be a description of the making of coherency from experience, as the mind does autonomically. It could describe the making of a poem, or the process of reaching beyond the isolation of subjectivity by means of these gossamer threads of inquiry and speculation to arrive at a kind of insight we might call scientific. None of these readings would exclude the others. That the spider serves so well as metaphor for the soul’s musings places both these silent creatures in the same “vacant vast surrounding,” places the soul in the world experientially, without condescension to the world and without rarification of the soul. I note the importance here of the complex psychology intrinsic to the self theistically understood. The speaker of the poem watches himself watching, understands that there is purpose in his attentiveness, that it is itself a gossamer thread finding a hold in the delicate strategy of exploration he sees in the spider. He beholds himself in his essential humanity, as solitary, as one given to musing and to discovering analogy and elegance where his attention rests.

Science tells us we have no souls. And science gives us no name and no way of accounting for the phenomenon of self-awareness that makes our thoughts, doubts, dreams, memories, and antipathies so interesting to us, and our frustrations with our faults and failures so acute. Granting that “the soul” as an idea might be culturally particular enough that it gives self-awareness a character not intrinsic to it. The classic soul is more ourselves than we are, a loving and well-loved companion, loyal to us uniquely, entrusted to us, to whom we entrust ourselves. We feel its yearnings, its musings, as a truer and more primary experience of ourselves than our ordinary consciousness can offer us. Traditionally souls are spoken of as saved or lost, being the immortal part of humankind, even though they are also thought of as unoffending, indeed, as offended against when we misuse our worldly agency. Freud’s super-ego bears a superficial resemblance to the soul, the great difference being that the super-ego is the internalization of strictures and demands that are not one’s own or friendly to one’s well-being, and that intervene in the formation of a primary self. The old song says, “It is well with my soul.” No song says “It is well with my super-ego.” That would describe a state of utter capitulation to a harsh authority enforced by a submerged but dreadful guilt.

Science gives us no name and no way of accounting for the phenomenon of self-awareness that makes our thoughts, doubts, dreams, memories, and antipathies so interesting to us

It is interesting to consider what we have received in exchange for the theistic world view of our ancestors. Psychological complexity is acknowledged in modern theories of the mind—in Freud’s tripartite psyche, in notions of an un-evolved reptilian brain coiled at the base of consciousness, in bicameralism, and recently in the brain as a sort of calculator making continuous and presumably accurate estimates of the organism’s relative advantage, cost-benefit analysis in the terms of economics, the discipline whose prestige seems to have overwhelmed what remained of humanist impulses in this field. Complexity enters this schema because some undescribed mechanism intervenes to conceal our selfishness from ourselves, to allow us to believe that our generosity actually is generosity, and so on. Why, if self-interest is the unique and universal motive, any shame or blame would attach to it is one question. Another is, what would this system of concealment look like as biology or neurology, and would its complexity, its physiological cost, be repaid by concealments that hardly seem necessary in the first place, given the selfishness thesis. In any case, all this complexity takes place in isolation within the standard human skull, which is not a very pleasant place to be. I suppose this is both a source and a consequence of modernist malaise.

 

“My soul, by grace of God, has gone / Adventuring where marvels be.” These are lines from a poem, “Pearl,” written in the fourteenth century. The voice of the poem describes a dream vision of a girl child who has died. The speaker sees her as a lovely young woman by a river, in a paradise he cannot yet enter. The poem speaks beautifully and tellingly of such loss, acknowledging a depth of grief that is, finally, embraced in the consolations of a cosmic order that is as tender and profound as such sorrows would require. We might call this wish fulfillment, the projection of human hopes on an empty heaven. Or we might call it a vision of Being that is large and rich enough to accommodate the experience of human love and grief. How else to do justice to them? “Pearl” movingly evokes a young child’s translucent loveliness, and pearls adorn the sleeve of the cosmic Christ. The garden where the child is buried is a faint but real promise of the paradise where her soul flourishes. The beauty we see in this world is a sign and portent of an ultimate beauty, and we are rightly enthralled by it. Beauty has no place in modern theories of the mind, nor do the pleasures of memory, thought, or perception, or the aesthetic pleasures. Endorphins are not adequate to filling this void. They only mean that pleasure happens, as I hope we all know, even without the word.

Truth itself is dissolving as a concept in an acid bath of idle cynicism. So to what standard are the ethically inclined to hold themselves?

My argument is essentially that the universe of theism is large enough not only to admit of the great range of human emotion and imagination, pathos and grandeur, but to enhance these things, to value them even when they are never noticed or valued or, for that matter, expressed, in the whole of a mortal life. Unless it is to distinguish itself very sharply from theistic tradition, I have no idea why the various psychologies are alike in disallowing the more ingratiating human traits. Religion is represented as a repressive system from which modern thought is a liberation. Yet all these psychologies are bleakly determinist, and so poor in their view of the possible that it is impossible to guess what their version of a free act would look like. The notion that all behavior is essentially self-interested might liberate selfishness, but that would be no more than a slight deviation from a pattern of behavior that is inevitable in any case. If decency is merely feigned, the enabler of selfishness, it might be no deviation at all. I grant all the problems associated with the doctrine of predestination, and I find it a vastly deeper problem to be asked to subscribe to the idea that meaninglessness is irresistibly implanted in human nature, that super-ego will wrestle id to a draw, that the hand in the collection plate will appear to be putting something in, not taking something out. A better modernist anthropology might change my sense of all this, but as it is I think it is entirely appropriate to evaluate what there is on offer.

In case there are doubts, this really is an essay on the subject of intellectual integrity, a thing many of us have felt to be sorely lacking these days. Why is it so difficult to find the language to approach this subject? Well, these psychologies I mention imply or say outright that there is no mind. Then how do we speak of intellectualism? These psychologies imply or say outright that there is no self. Then how do we speak of integrity? The notion has caught on very widely that there are no facts, only interpretations. Truth itself is dissolving as a concept in an acid bath of idle cynicism. So to what standard are the ethically inclined to hold themselves? Who knows to what extent the “thought” of a period is what we take it to be. But modern thought especially has been made a curriculum and a catechism. There are no grounds for doubting its influence. Again, in the matter of intellect or ethicalism, it is conspicuously lacking in terms to address these things or to value them.

For a very long time it has been assumed that intellectual integrity in the modern period demanded the rejection of religion. As corollary there is the assumption that we must adopt the worldview of the modern period. This subtle coercion, to embrace certain ideas on other grounds than their merits, might explain their survival despite their being, from a human point of view, desiccated things, deeply unsatisfactory. And this while brilliant science continuously sets before us a vaster, more cryptic and spectacular cosmos, the brilliant human mind being mirror and alembic of all this grandeur, as it has always been. The modern science of the mind is to science in general as a blighted twin to a living body, mimic life and thwarted development. I propose that this is true because it epitomizes “the modern” as a concept. It is first of all a worldview. The methods of the science that sponsors it presuppose its validity—the soul will never reveal itself to an fMRI, and poetry, prayers, painting, and architecture are inadmissible as evidence. These theories of the mind change, to the extent they do, as cultural styles change, not in the way of hypotheses that are winnowed and refined in the ordinary course of inquiry. (I use the word “mind” because their attentions to the brain yield, by their lights, insights of global validity into human nature, the kind of inwardness implied in a deceptive valuation of one’s own motives, and so on. To say they learn this from scrutiny of the brain would be false. The idea goes back at least to Freud.)

Einstein’s great mistake, the constant he added into his theory to make the equations work as he wanted and which he regretted ever afterward, has turned out to be no mistake at all but an anticipation of the effect of dark energy as anti-gravity. I skirt specifics because I don’t understand them. But there is a point to my analogy. If a theoretical account of the order of things does not describe what reason or intuition propose to the understanding, then the factor that would correct for its deficiencies should be looked to, pondered. The modern world, insofar as it is proposed to humankind as its habitation, is too small, too dull, too meager for us. After all, we are very remarkable. We alone among the creatures have learned a bit of the grammar of the universe. Einstein was known to mention God from time to time, which need not imply theism in any traditional form, only the sense of a universe more intrinsically orderly, capacious, and finally unknowable, than theory and formula could capture. For him the Lord seems to have been another cosmological constant, an undemonstrated given necessary to allowing the reality he wished to describe its full character. We have in ourselves grounds for supposing that Being is vaster, more luminous, more consequential than we have allowed ourselves to imagine for many generations. No idea is authenticated by the fact that it hurts our feelings. Intellectual rigor is not inevitably reductionist. Intellectual integrity cannot oblige us to deny what is manifestly true.

 

This essay will appear in What Are We Doing Here?, forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in February 2018. © 2017 by Marilynne Robinson.

Published in the December 15, 2017 issue: 

Marilynne Robinson is the author of the novels Lila (2014), Home (2008), Gilead (2004)—winner of the Pulitzer Prize—and Housekeeping (1981), as well as four books of nonfiction, Mother Country (1989), The Death of Adam (1998), Absence of Mind (2010), and When I Was a Child I Read Books (2012), and The Giveness of Things (2015). She teaches at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

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