Pushcart 2013: Marilynne Robinson: “On ‘Beauty'” (non-fiction) from Tin House #50, Winter 2011

Tin House #50 (“Beauty”) Cover Art by Jillian Tamaki

There are those who believe we have outlived every beautiful notion about what human life must be because this is an age of science. These people must not have been paying attention. Science, being one of the unequivocally human undertakings, describes humanity to itself, for weal and woe, in everything it does. Mathematicians and physicists of a habit of using the words beautiful and elegant to endorse theories that are likelier to cleave to the nature of things because of their efficiency and soundness of structure. I would like to see language brought to a similar standard.… For me, this is a core definition of beauty: that is both rigorous and dynamic and that it somehow bears a deep relationship to truth.

Unlike last week’s “We Are All of Us Passing Through,” this is the kind of essay I have no idea how to talk about. It’s lovely, it’s readable… but it seems to me it skips the rails and covers a lot of territory beyond Beauty. Is that ok, in an essay? Obviously so, since it’s in this anthology, not to mention Tin House. Maybe I’m dense.

Robinson starts by talking about her earliest impressions of what Beauty might be, dives into the murky waters of “educated” and “plain” language. “Prejudice against learned language reinforces the notion that those who speak ordinary American English can’t have much on their minds” doesn’t actually make sense to me, but I’ll agree with “Plain language has a strong, subtle music in it, which is intimately related to its capacity for meaning.” Still, I’m left wondering if she’s playing both ends against the middle. But, I’m a fan of multiple dialects, so fine.

Then she gets into the crossing of swords between aesthetics and science; I very much enjoyed this section.

What would Melville have done with dark energy, or Poe with spooky action at a distance? Whitman could only have loved the accelerating expansion of the universe. Dickinson probably knew already that our sun is atremble with sound waves, like a great gong. It is a loss of the joy of consciousness that keeps us from appropriating these splendors for the purposes of our own thought.

I’ve found many stories that cross the lines between science and literature, many instances of writers doing just such appropriation. Lethem’s As She Climbed Across the Table is about falling in love with a scientific discovery. Jim Shepherd, Anthony Doerr, Seth Fried, Mike Meginnis, Julia Elliott, these come quickly to mind. Look at all the architects Zin found inspired by Calvino’s Six Memos. On a more literal level, look at all the bacterium photgraphs you can find on FineArtAmerica.com. Contemporary science fiction – good stuff, not space opera – is full of the beauty of the universe. Harlan Ellison, Arthur C. Clarke, these are writers of beautiful, emotional stories using science as a starting point. So she’ll get no argument from me – but why does it read like she feels the opportunity has passed us by?

Then the essay seems to abandon “beauty” and turn towards narrative. I’m interested, anyway, since I’ve been encountering so much about narrative lately (like the Sunday morning political commentary show that included a panel of four writers to discuss the Obama narrative; Robinson, too, dips a toe into political observation at several points). Maybe I’ve just been paying more attention. I found this section wonderful.

We know that humankind has sat around its fires from time immemorial and told its tales and told them again, elaborating and refining, and we know that certain of these tales have become myth, epic, fable, Holy Writ. Now, because we have devoted so much ingenuity to the project, we have devised more ways to tell ourselves more stories, which means only that an ancient impulse is still so strong in us as to impel the invention of new means and occasions for telling and hearing to satisfy this appetite for narrative. At the most fundamental level, narrative is how we make sense of things…

She goes beyond describing us as creatures of narrative, though, to posit a purpose for narrative: “to practice us in acknowledging the fact that plausibility is no guarantee of truth, that plausibility can be merely an effect of intelligibility compounded by fantasy, or fear, or worse.” Or, people lie, and fiction is there to remind us, just because something makes a good story doesn’t mean it actually happened. It’s something like an analogue of object permanence, prior to the development of which the infant thinks his mother has ceased to exist if he can’t see her. Perhaps we have developed, through natural selection, a love of fiction to temper object permanence, to look beneath surface appearances, to develop critical thought: just because that guy with the big club in his hand is smiling at me, doesn’t mean he’s not going to kill me and take my wildebeest. Suspicion-for-survival. Now I’m going a little off the rails myself, I’d say.

My theory of narrative as a fundamental act of consciousness implies to me that paranoia might be entrapment in a bad narrative, and depression may be the inability to sustain narrative.

A few years ago I was temporarily in a state of paranoid delirium for a couple of days due to a medical misstep. “Trapped in a bad narrative” is a perfect capture of that time. When my potassium and calcium returned to normal levels and my mind returned to its (relatively) lucid state, it did indeed feel like I had escaped from a world hidden in some heretofore unknown dimension. I’m not so sure about the depression, however. I have been long acquainted with that, and I suspect depression, too, is a kind of bad narrative. Cognitive therapy, in fact, seems based on that very principle: if you change your thoughts about the world, you can change how you feel. To some degree, it even works. But I suspect Robinson is referring to more general, societal states of mind, in any case. Still, I’m fascinated by this idea, by the section on narrative in general.

I think this essay is a little less cohesive than I would have expected; maybe that’s why it’s a Pushcart-winning essay, when I’m more geared towards grad school theses. It’s one of those essays I enjoyed once I stopped trying to understand it.


5 responses to “Pushcart 2013: Marilynne Robinson: “On ‘Beauty'” (non-fiction) from Tin House #50, Winter 2011

  1. Hi Karen,

    I’ve enjoyed some of your readings of the Pushcart material. I recently bought the 2013 edition and have mixed feelings about it.

    However, I really liked this sprawling, insightful essay from Robinson. If you don’t mind, I’d like to attempt an explain/explore her main idea, not only to help (maybe) clear up some ideas, but to help me better understand them as well.

    I think her main idea is that beauty has become suspect. Even though she thinks the word “beauty” falls short of explaining the experience she’s describing, it’s maybe the best we have. Nevertheless, in science, the academy, and in religion, or any other philosophical discourse, there’s a tendency to blind ourselves to the fact that our ideas about the world are simply hypotheses, not ontological truths. This leads us to places of error that we sometimes can’t see.

    To her, all three, theology, science, and the academy have fallen into “narratives” that fail to celebrate the error of hypothesis, thus closing ourselves off from beauty.

    For instance, in the academy, we’ve become obsessed with tearing apart a text, looking for the ways that it’s a cultural construct, full of hidden assumptions about class, gender, ethnicity, etc. There’s something to “reveal” in order to tear down, to undermine, or prove that it espouses a dominant, or marginalized, discourse. Because of this we cannot celebrate the work’s narrative of consciousness. Fiction already starts with “error,” in that it isn’t true; it’s a completely falsified reality. In this way it’s one of the most honest modes of expression because, from its inception, it starts with the “unreal,” with characters and settings that do not exist. Robinson believes we have to respect the writer’s vision (the falsification) and not immediately assume the narrative means something different from what the author is saying. It’s a chance to take part in the hypothesis of narrative, of fiction, in order to learn more about ourselves, our culture. We must experience this fictional world with the artist, on the artist’s terms and not try to undermine everything he or she is says or immediately assume the meaning is suspect.

    This respect of “fiction” extends to all of the areas she addresses. Religion should not exclude itself from the narrative of science, and science should not exclude itself from the narrative of religion. We’re so interested in “right” and “wrong,” that we fail to see, as history has shown us, that those ideas are never set in stone, and that new paradigms often subsume, or revise, the traditional ones.

    This main idea also relates to her discussion of how high brow language has often criticized common, everyday speech.

    The human journey is about creating narratives, telling ourselves stories about the world, about what we believe, not in order to “know with certainty,” but to work through what we can’t, to respect the mystery that is intrinsic to our consciousness.

    If we, no matter what we believe, were more open to this idea that everything we believe (presuppositions) is a narrative we’ve crafted, we would be more open to the “beauty” that is the experience of uncertainty, and the celebration other people’s narratives, rather than shutting others out because their ideas don’t mesh well with ours.

    That’s my two cents on this essay. Hope it helps where you thought you might have a hard time seeing cohesion. Back to the Pushcart book for me!

    • Hi Phillip – thanks so much for contributing. I love hearing what other people have to say about these stories.

      What’s especially interesting for me about revisiting this particular essay is that I read it in January. At about the same time, I started a math course, which, in addition to the usual calculations and formulas and theorems, included some ideas I, as a lifelong mathphobe, found particularly striking: calculus as a democratizing force, mathematics as metaphor, as a way of relating ideas. Via that course, I discovered Keith Devlin, who is likewise unwilling to confine math to its own corner separate from aesthetics (he gets downright reverential when he discusses holding a 13th century copy of Liber Abbaci). And George and Vi Hart turn math into art. Through all this I became more interested in doing a series on “mathematical fiction”; I hope to commence this summer. Then again, I hope to do a lot of things this summer, and I have to accept that summer is not big enough to fit them all in, even if the PEN/O.Henry volume I planned to start in June isn’t coming out until September.

      I have to admit, when I hear terms like “ontological truth” I run for Google – I can’t tell you how many introductory philosophy texts I’ve read, but anything above the level of Sophie’s World just goes by me. Ontological truth links existence with truth, is that it? A cat is truth because cats exist. I have no idea what this means. Maybe my cat knows, but she isn’t talking.

      ” To her, all three, theology, science, and the academy have fallen into “narratives” that fail to celebrate the error of hypothesis, thus closing ourselves off from beauty.” This makes sense; I think as a whole people have a tendency to grab on to a narrative as tightly as they can, disregarding any new information, to feel safe and comfortable and “right” which is why political discussion is so difficult. I’m not sure I see it in the essay, however; what did I miss?

      ” I think her main idea is that beauty has become suspect.” – I see this as regards plain vs educated language, though she praises both in appropriate contexts. I’m not sure where I see it in regards to science/religion or narrative.
      I think that’s my main problem – I love what she says about beauty, and what she says about science and elegance; I’m on board there. But the connection between science and religion, and the movement into a discussion of narrative – I love these ideas, too, but I don’t quite get the connection.

      However, I’m willing to accept it’s my limitation, at least at this moment. After all, I throw this stuff out there into the cybervoid in order that 1) I might force myself to articulate exactly what I see, what appeals to me, and where I don’t follow; and 2) others might come along and show me another path. I thank you for contributing to both goals, and I hope you’ll want to perhaps continue this discussion, or look at another piece along with me – or both.

  2. Hi Karen,

    I think it works in broad strokes and relates to all of human experience. We have all sorts of narratives, stories that we tell ourselves about love (at first sight, or love conquers all, soulmates, etc.). We fall into problems, however, when we make these things absolutes. That’s all I mean about ontology, just that we believe our narratives are the “true” stories, eliminating the possibility of other narratives. Religion as a narrative (God created the world, has a plan for it, etc.) is often pitted against the science narrative (No proof of God’s existence, the material world, the one we can study is the one we should embrace). These polarizations often exclude the “other” narrative. The evangelical Christian narrative has traditionally been skeptically of opening itself up the science narrative and vice versa. I think the point is that they have “closed” narratives and aren’t interested in taking the foreign ideas on their own terms and exploring them as an expression of human experience, and as representative of a certain epoch of consciousness. All narratives, rather than being touted as absolute, should be celebrated as another moment of humans trying to figure life out. When we disrespect the other narratives, we undermine and ignore the beauty implicit in the very search for meaning.

    If you haven’t read much philosophy, some of the ideas may be a bit difficult with which to grapple. It’s a sort of stepping back, in a way, and realizing that everything we think and believe has a world of assumptions underneath. The existentialists tell us that all of our systems are constructed (she quotes Nietschze, saying there’s only interpretation, not truth, or something like that). Robinson has no problem believing that idea but points to that very statement’s quality as interpretative.

    The core of what she’s saying, I think, is, we don’t KNOW anything when it comes to the grand questions, and what we think we know constantly changes. However, trying to figure it out, the very nature of asking the questions, is where beauty lies. It lies in the constant formation of hypothesis, in the possibility of being wrong. Writing has long been concerned with the questions and has long addressed them from the place of hypothesis. We should approach all of our narratives and the narratives of others, from the position, respecting the varied responses to the question of what it means to be human.

    Does that help at all?

    • Ok, great, I’m with you on all points – that questioning is beauty (wasn’t that where Socrates began everything?) and that we all cling to our narratives and dismiss anything that doesn’t agree. Cognitive dissonance is a good thing; it leads to growth, but only if you allow stuff in to be dissonant in the first place. I’m still not sure I see it in this essay, but I’ll accept that you see it – that there’s more cohesion in the essay than I originally thought – and I hope I’ll eventually get there.

      And don’t worry about typos. Every time I revisit an old post, I’m horrified at what I find, no matter how many times I proofread, spellcheck, etc. I think there’s a gremlin in the internets that convinces me I’m seeing correct spelling when I’m not. Hey, that’s my narrative, and I’m sticking to it, because to abandon it would be to admit I’m a lousy proofreader.

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