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Saturday, January 2, 2010


Marilynne Robinson has a seemingly outrageous thesis in an essay ironically entitled "Facing Reality." The title is ironic because Robinson is identifying our modern conception of "reality" as one of the most popular fictions currently on the market. Another way to say it would be that this new reality is our new mythology, bequeathed to us by our modern predecessors. She has in mind men like Freud, Marx and Darwin. Her thesis: "I suggest that, for us, the sense of sickness has replaced the sense of sin, to which it has always allied, and that while we are acutely aware of the difficulties surrounding notions of good and evil, we ignore, though they are manifest, the equally great difficulties surrounding notions of sickness and health, especially as these judgments are applied to behavior."

Quite a lot is packed into this little quotation. On the one hand, we seem to have an innate sense of something that is deeply conflicted, both in ourselves and in the world we inhabit. Some have termed this fear that precedes fear, anxiety. It's a "weasel-word" nowadays that's become the stand-in for any behavioral anomaly or non-physical malady affecting the mind. But what is it? Why are our cabinets filled with Valium? Most importantly, why have we projected this deep-seated dread onto the world? Robinson contends that this tendency manifests itself whenever we attempt to strip all of the outward appearances of things in order to view the depravity we knew was there all along, why we feel compelled to focus all of our critical insight on history's "dirty laundry" and nothing else.

I'm not immune to this epidemic, and in many ways, I see myself and much of what I've written and said in the past few years as symptomatic of it. Reading Robinson has been a sobering experience for me, and probably a much-needed corrective to much of the poison upon which I've become intellectually dependent. I can't close any better than she did in her essay, so I'll share it with you: "This being human--people have loved it through plague and famine and siege. And Dante, who knew the world about suffering, had a place in hell for people who were grave when they might have rejoiced."

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