31 January, 2011Issue 15.2PhilosophyScience

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A Fragment of the Mystery We Are

Ed Sugden

foerMarilynne Robinson
Absence of Mind
Yale UP, 2010
176 Pages
£18.00
ISBN 978-0300145182


On 13 September 1848, among the rocks where the new train line was to run outside of the small town of Cavendish, Vermont, there was a sudden explosion, probably caused by poorly prepared dynamite, which blasted a tamping iron through the left eye and top of the head of the popular foreman Phineas Gage. Within minutes, and much to the amazement of the gathering throng of townspeople about him, it appeared he had not only survived, but was remarkably unperturbed. As time went on, however, it became clear that he was a much changed man, subject to fits of almost bestial rage and outbursts of wild profanity, the fundamentals of his whole personality totally altered.

This now long-gone story from a rapidly expanding America interests Marilynne Robinson in Absence of Mind, not so much for its contents, as for how it has been utilised by contemporary neo-Darwinian thinkers such as E.O. Wilson, Stephen Pinker, Michael Gazzaniga, and Antonio Damasio. Surveying their work, she notices how each of them allegorise the story, turning it into a fable of selfhood, seeing in the story proof that personality can be located in an exact place within the brain, thus destroying the quaint notion of a mind/body dualism. For Robinson these accounts are wildly misleading, as “there is no sense at all that he [Phineas] was a human being who thought and felt, a man with a singular and terrible fate.” This dual demand for a reincorporation of context alongside an intense reverence for the self is typical of Absence of Mind as a whole, and provides the argumentative scaffolding that supports the book. Bravely and with immense intellectual clarity and precision, Robinson attacks those discourses which she sees as undermining the uniqueness and provenance of the human mind. What emerges is a triumph for traditional humanism and a provoking challenge to modern scholars to generate a critical language meaningful and rich enough to represent the strange paradoxes of the self. Stunning both in the range of its references and the generosity of its thinking, Absence of Mind represents another brilliant addition to the canon of one of today’s most important writers.

And what a strange and beguiling canon it is. Housekeeping (1980), a frontier novel of longing and loss, first introduced her lambent and aqueous prose, her combination of metaphoric, symbolic depth with sensuous and direct descriptive presence. Then nothing happened, until Mother Country (1989), the oddity among oddities, an indictment of Thatcherite social policy and nuclear power. Another gap followed until The Death of Adam (1998), again a non-fiction book, which explored the legacy of Calvinism and roundly denounced Darwinism and cloddish modern atheism. It was with much general surprise that she finally returned to fiction with the Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead (2004), a novel so delicate that it was easy to imagine she required every one of those 24 years after Housekeeping to compose it, before producing its sequel Home (2008).

It is Gilead that Absence of Mind most resembles, forming a polemical counterpoint to Gilead’s easy erudition and emotional intimacy. Gilead, a book-length letter written by a dying Iowan pastor to his son examines the meaninglessness of contemporary attacks on metaphysics, and asserts the essentially mystical and transcendent reality of the everyday. Absence of Mind, originally delivered as part of the Terry lecture series at Yale (a series that has included, among others, Paul Tillich, John Dewey, and Carl Jung) explores the philosophical roots of such concerns.

Robinson’s primary focus in the book is on what she terms parascience, a tradition that she suggests involves a diverse range of thinkers from Charles Darwin to Herbert Spencer to Sigmund Freud to Richard Dawkins and the aforementioned neo-Darwinists. Although acknowledging the ostensible difference in focus, ideology, and thought of the above writers (and others like them), she posits a unifying methodology that underpins their discourses. Surveying the field she notes how a parascientific work “using the science of its moment” goes from an account of the “genesis of human nature in primordial life to a set of general conclusions about what our nature is and must be, together with the ethical, political, economic and/or philosophic implications to be drawn from these conclusions”. Though notionally empiricist in focus, parascientific works undermine their own claims on truth by extracting and positing unjustified value judgements. This might include the non-existence of God, the essentially base and bestial selfishness of humanity, or the absolutely quantitative and knowable nature of all existence. Yet, Robinson suggests, the most egregious epistemological crime that these works commit is in their dismissal of a rich, volitional, and essentially free construction of the self. What unites them is that they believe it to be a “persisting illusion” that “we reason and learn and choose as individuals in response to our circumstances and capacities”. The risk is that Robinson, in so eloquently deconstructing the foundational precepts and unspoken assumptions of such a wide range of works, reinscribes exactly the same sort of totalising and generalising tendency of parascience itself. Can such a wide range of thinkers in so many different disciplines be adequately placed beneath such a methodologically strict umbrella?

Whatever the answer, it is precisely the grand, over-arching ambition of the work that is to be admired, as well as the scope of its interests and the magnitude of the conclusions. As the work progresses it becomes clear that the focus is less the parascientific than the entirety of modern thought and the meaningfulness of the claims it makes. Robinson is effortlessly able to construct a grand and absolutely convincing historical schema of epistemology that abrogates modern intellectual arrogance. Modern discourse is characterized for her by a temporal schism, verging on the apocalyptic, that converts all past thought into a morass of superstition and illusion. She identifies how time and time again modern thinkers invoke “the crossing of the threshold” which “asserts that the world of thought, recently or in an identifiable moment in the near past, has undergone epochal change”. This gives them the unjustified “right to characterize the past and establish the terms in which discourse will be conducted from this point forward”. This might sound reactionary, coming with the implication that “the old ways were best” as well as being deeply sceptical of any notion of progress. The reality is more nuanced. What she is demanding is a more delicate approach to the way in which we conceive of history. Instead of ironising, smirking, and dismissing, Robinson argues that we should first emphasise context and then intellectual sources. She dismisses the notion that any idea can form “in a weatherless vacuum of some kind, in the pure light of perspicuous intellect”, which inevitably is to exclude what she terms the “testimonies of culture and history”. A tension does arise here—if Robinson emphasises context and sources as the key elements of her historiography, is there the implication that the rich self she emphasises again and again is rendered passive to the pressing presence of culture (in other words is fundamentally determined by elements exterior to it)? If not, is the self she believes in exactly the type of “perspicuous intellect” she dismisses elsewhere, unconditionally freed from the culture it inhabits?

The word “testimony” provides a way of uniting these two disparate strands. Through reincorporating and re-emphasising the presence of thousands and millions of thinking selves in the past, a more accurate, sensitive, as well as radically disintegrative method of thinking about our forebears can emerge. There is “richer data to be gleaned from every age and every culture, and from every moment of introspection” she suggests. Robinson’s urges, then, do run counter to current critical trends in cultural theory, which tend to render the self absolutely passive to larger and only subconsciously felt historical (and often linguistic) forces which aggressively construct and mediate all discourse. Not only can the self be the locus of cultural creation, the volitional and originary site of what we call history, but even if it is not, it has the power to respond actively to and shape the culture in which it finds itself. A complex historical loop is generated with the self creating culture, the culture modifying the self, and the self responding again in turn ad infinitum. The important point is that the mind is somehow reincorporated into discourse.

The implicit question then posed is how to write and create this type of highly individualised history. How can critics, looking back over a vast abyss of long-dead years, reconnect with the living consciousnesses that necessarily generated all that we know and think? How can we construct the historical Ouija board that will let us hear their voices? Robinson gives neither any answers, nor any practical advice, but the force of the rhetoric and the beauty of the sentiments ought to inspire the next generation of thinkers to attempt, at the very least, to recover an “imagination of humankind large enough to acknowledge some small fragment of the mystery we are”.

Ed Sugden is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at Linacre College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.