Marilynne Robinson at Town Hall

On Friday September 13th we had an early dinner, heated-up homemade pizza Yvonne had made the night before, and ran for the #40 bus picking up passengers on 24th Ave, across the street. After a 35-minute ride we got off at 3rd and Union, downtown, walked south and then uphill on Seneca, across I-5 and its roaring traffic, to Town Hall. We entered the main door at 6:30 with 30 other early-arrivers, as the hall opened. We had an hour to look around and find good seats. By 7:30 the seats were filled.

Town Hall is not-for-profit events venue for public talks. Tonight we would see novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson. Samantha Power would speak in a few days. Robert Reich, U.S. Labor Secretary under Obama, and Pramila Jayapal, our 7th district Representative to Congress, talked on the topic “The Common Good,” on Labor Day. Generally ticket prices are modest; the Robinson tickets, ordered online, cost $5 each.

We had been to Town Hall twice before, once in January 2012 to see Pico Iyer introduce his memoir, “The Man Within My Head,” who turns out to be Graham Greene, and in June 2016 to listen to northwest novelist, Tom Robbins, talk about his memoir, “Tibetan Peach Pie.” Both were stimulating evenings. We didn’t know much about Iyer but he was a wonderful speaker, full of stories about his travels all over the world and living with his Japanese wife in her home country.

We’ve read all Tom Robbin’s novels, beginning with “Another Roadside Attraction,” most before we moved to Washington and before I fully understood how both constant rain and aggressive blackberry bushes could absorb so much of ones consciousness. I got to know both once we began living full-time in Deer Harbor on Orcas Island in 2002.

Town Hall's Great Room has been refurbished
Town Hall's Great Room has been refurbished

Town Hall was opening again after a two-year renovation and Robinson’s evening was part of their month-long Homecoming Festival. Originally the home of the Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist, built a century ago, the Great Hall, under vaulted ceiling and central dome and on three sides fitted with stained glass windows, seems less like a church and more like an attractive public space. Everything had been spiffed up: new carpet, paint, restored curved-bench seating, and a new sound system. It’s an intimate, but not small venue for sharing. A huge, deep excavation lies right next-door, certain to be another Seattle sky-scratcher.

New construction next door
New construction next door

I’d read “Gilead” (2004) and “Home” (2008) but not “Lila” (2014) and caught up with “Housekeeping” (1980) in 2017, two years after we stopped briefly in Sand Point, Idaho, where the novel is set and where Robinson grew up. “Housekeeping” is interesting but odd, at least in comparison to “Gilead” where Robinson is crystal-clear about what she’s up to.

We positioned ourselves on the right side of the right aisle (facing the stage), about ten rows back in deference to the up-close reserved seating all across the auditorium. We had an unobstructed view of the podium. The audience was gray-haired, a few more women than men, with virtually no one under 30 in sight. Yvonne wanted to know where all the smart Amazon and Microsoft coders were. It’s a fair question.

Marilynne Robinson at Town Hall
Marilynne Robinson at Town Hall

Robinson is nearly 76, retired from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop three years ago but continues to read, research really, with more intensity, probably than before, because most of her time is her own. Robinson is both a Christian and formidable intellectual, and is warmly welcomed at Christian colleges and institutions. But she seems to be warmly welcomed everywhere. She’s not a polemicist, she’s not doctrinaire; she’s doesn’t want to convert anyone to anything. But she does want to share what her intuitions, her inner life has prompted her to express and the treasures she’s found in Calvin and other theologians. She does that through her fiction, essays, and public speaking. For Robinson, the existence of her consciousness, the existence of all of us, is a miracle that she’s continuously aware of and grateful for.

Her talk this evening was titled “What Are We Doing Here” as is her latest book of essays (2018). It’s a good question and she’s been thinking about it her whole life. She began by reading an essay from her book. Neither Yvonne nor I caught its title. The reading went on for perhaps 45 minutes. Though some or perhaps most of the audience was following along (they’d chuckle together once in a while), I couldn’t hear enough often enough to make it out. I’m hard of hearing, wear ear-whistles (Yvonne’s name for them) and do OK in most venues but not in the newly remodeled Great Hall. I hadn’t had trouble with Iyer or Robbins years back. Maybe my hearing has worsened.

I was badly wanting her talk to be captioned (which I make use of with Netflix and when we go out for a movie) and it could have been. She was reading from her book and the pages could have been projected. The question and answer period was a bit better, perhaps because she was more animated – but for my ears, brain, and Costco hearing aids, the new sound system, with its trace of an echo and flattened frequencies (if that makes any sense) just didn’t work. I was disappointed.

At first at Q&A time no one came forward and embarrassed for Seattle I began to think about something I might ask. Then a half-dozen came forward with questions and I relaxed. The last had been one of her students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop though I don’t think she remembered him. Then it looked like things were wrapping up and my sense was that Seattle hadn’t engaged with her enough so I hurried to the microphone and asked her my question (having cleared it with Yvonne first since I wasn’t entirely clear what the other questions had been and didn’t want to make a fool of myself). Robinson looked in my direction.

My question was very simple: “Could you connect ‘Housekeeping’ with ‘Gilead’ for us?” A little ripple from the audience. As she thought what to say I turned and walked back to my seat next to Yvonne and saw smiles on many faces. They wondered too.

Robinson talked about how she never expected “Homecoming” to be published. It was a time when she was very interested in metaphors in writing and “Homecoming” was the result of that preoccupation. “Gilead” came 24 years later and she approached writing in a different way. But of course I wanted to know how she evolved from a secular to religious writer but she wasn’t telling.

Golden Gardens Stair Climb
Golden Gardens Stair Climb

I was left unsatisfied, so the next day while walking west on 57th through Ballard down to Shilshole, north to Golden Gardens, up the 272 stairs to 34th Ave and 85th St, east crossing 24th and south again, I listened to recent Robinson YouTube interviews. And they were great. And she was great.

In Ames she’s a member of a Congregational/Church of Christ congregation where she sometimes delivers sermons. She set “Housekeeping” in Sand Point because she knew it so well but when it came time to think about doing a second novel she didn’t want to use that same grounding device. She spent the next twenty years researching the Puritans, especially Jonathan Edwards, and then began to read Calvin’s “Institutes,” finding his writings enormously insightful. She went on to read widely in 15th through 18th century theology, philosophy, economics, and history, trying to understand the source of the idea of America, the profound commitment to treating each person as an equal deserving acknowledgement, sympathy, and help, Jesus channeled through Calvin. It was radical.

What Are WE Doing Here?
What Are WE Doing Here?

During the question and answer period in the Great Hall a young neuroscientist challenged Robinson about her new book and the way it dismisses some of the claims and direction of brain science. Her answer was that brain science is as relevant to understanding people and their consciousnesses as phrenology was to personality. He was visibly flummoxed to hear her compare his science to the quackery of explaining personality by skull shape. He tried to argue but eventually gave up. After the talk and as we walked out, Yvonne pointed out to me that the neuroscientist was surrounded by an apparently adoring group of brain science sympathizers.

It’s conventional wisdom today, among many people I think, to assume that brain science will eventually explain everything about minds and consciousness and that artificial intelligence and technology will succeed in imbeding minds in silicon. According to this way of thinking, humans are just carbon-based computers using data and algorithms to cope with the environments they find themselves in. Human consciousness isn’t a miracle, it just happened and soon humans will extend consciousness, possibly making themselves irrelevant in the scheme of things.

On the one hand we can wait and see what happens, see whether the brain scientists can accomplish what they imagine. It would seem to be an empirical question. On the other hand, Robinson is certain that seeing humans as a kind of explicable machine is deeply mistaken, not that science and technology can’t do amazing things, but the tendency will be to lose the understanding humanism has struggled to achieve, namely to see and treat human beings as sources of meaning, ends in themselves, deserving of love and respect, and for her as a Christian and Calvinist, a way to encounter the divine in the world.

Listening on YouTube to Robinson’s 2018 “Gilead” interview at Wheaton College (two towns over from where I grew up) I was struck my how much I agree with her though without the Christian tone and adjectives. First, I think, she is a humanist and her history, circumstances, interests, and deep intuitions lead her to a liberal Christian expression of humanism.

At Wheaton she talked about the importance of 19th Century Abolitionism and how its energy and equality insights could have been carried further at that time, for instance, by pursuing the liberation of woman. She sees every person as a unique human being, to be honored and respected for their uniqueness. She believes that each person comes into the world with a God-given special purpose. We have an obligation to find ours and be true to it and provide a community within which others can do the same.

Robinson explained that providing real, useful sympathy to another person often requires an act of imagination, not a mechanical response. Great literature and art can help us develop our imagination and thus the importance of the Liberal Arts. The world and our being in it is a miracle and we owe it our full and continuing attention. Every experience, every moment is important.

Christianity has become unattractive, uninteresting, unengaging to many people because its language has become calcified, dead, and perceived as a cudgel to force people into a belief system rather than as an attractive system that fits natural intuitions. Language, all language including Christian language, has to be used with care. Her writing is a way to bring Christianity to people whose intuitions don’t find an adequate expression and community in the world.

Marilynne Robinson “What Are We Doing Here?” 2017 November 9 in The New York Review of Books: Then how to recover the animating spirit of humanism? For one thing, it would help if we reclaimed, or simply borrowed, conceptual language that would allow us to acknowledge that some things are so brilliant they can only be understood as virtuosic acts of mind, thought in the pure enjoyment of itself, whether in making a poem or a scientific discovery, or just learning something it feels unaccountably good to know.

So – I couldn’t properly hear Robinson at Town Hall – but maybe that was actually a good thing. I had to find other ways to engage with her thought and so I dug deeper. I wouldn’t have done that at all if she hadn’t spoken at Town Hall and we hadn’t attended.

Town Hall and its programs add to the richness of life in Seattle and encourages minds to encounter one another, understand and grow. Well done!

© 2019, johnashenhurst. All rights reserved.

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