MARILYNNE ROBINSON with Lennie Goodings: The Restless Reader
11.45 am on Saturday, 15th August 2015, Baillie Gifford Main Theatre
By Beatriz Lopez
President Barack Obama said of Marilynne Robinson: ‘Your writings have fundamentally changed me’, and indeed, she intends her novels to expand our minds. In her first appearance at the Book Festival, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of critically acclaimed novels such as Housekeeping (1980), Gilead (2004), Home (2008) and Lila (2014), discussed the relationship between her reading and writing in a philosophical lecture encompassing epistemology, cosmology and wonder.
Having received a classical American education, Robinson acknowledged the impact on her work of past literature. Antiquity, she said, gives us a ‘deeper sense of reality’ than contemporary writing can afford. However, literature can never attain truth, but different viewpoints which, while evidencing the fallibility of human knowledge, also allow the development of cultural diversity. It is precisely the unknowability of things which shows that our reason is generally no more reliable than our opinion. Therefore, Robinson warns of the dangers of single-minded rationalism, which often portrays human beings as instinctual mechanisms devoid of complexity. For her, we have the responsibility of making ourselves out of the different perspectives writing provides. As she put it, ‘You need to make the mind you want to live with. Respect your interests!’ for the portrayal of the educated person as the product of a certain scheme is an insult to people’s diversity.
Robinson’s compelling and well-delivered lecture showed that she has certainly made a great mind for herself. Often, though, she became entangled in philosophical arguments, losing the essence of her own writing along the way. Readers expecting her to discuss her novels may have been disappointed. But the lecture did throw light on the author’s approach to fiction, particularly her ongoing interest in the mysteries of human individuality.