The Givenness of Things

When authors publish collections of essays, we are often presented with a bizarre array of fascinating, yet completely unrelated musings that often only serve as a peep-hole into the minds of our most beloved authors.

This wasn’t quite the case with Marilynne Robinson’s The Givenness of Things. In her ninth publication, Robinson has focused her writings on bestowing the virtues of creativity and of spirituality; taking us from a critique of the modern scientific mindset, right through to the problems of realism.

This is in every sense a polemical work, not a lighthearted jumble of reflections. Indeed the title might be re-phrased as The Givenness of Things: An Attack on the Modern Mindset. Robinson, in her beautifully candid style, systematically pulls apart the carelessness of the modern world as being outwardly orientated and cognitively stagnant. Indeed there is a clear sense of frustration in the way that Robinson compares the attitudes of her social contemporaries to that of her philosophical idols, such as Calvin or Locke. This frustration is most certainly rooted in Robinson’s despair with what she deems Neo-Darwinism: in other words a complete reliance on empirical data to inform our perceptions and opinions of the world.

Instead we are called to return inward, to focus on the soul and on the mind as a source of inspiration and wonder. For Robinson, this does not represent a step back for science but rather an important amalgamation of the two most awe-inspiring facets of human existence.

Much of what we are presented with throughout these seventeen essays, however, is not simply degrading the modern, but also celebrating the human spirit. This is largely explored through Robinson’s religious idolisation of John Calvin: the figurehead of the protestant reformation.  Calvin and his theological ideals become the reference point for morality and preoccupy almost every essay in the book, to the point where Robinson ‘makes a Calvinist out of Shakespeare’. This serves as the book’s downfall. Despite being meticulously imagined and effortlessly reasonable, each essay is marred by the deification of Calvin as some moral overlord of culture and spiritual intelligence. It is as if Robinson cannot imagine creativity or morality without Protestantism; her own religious doctrine has come to re-define her appreciation of great-minds such as Shakespeare and her understanding of the empirical model. This ultimately leads to passages in the text sounding more like a sermons than essays.

However, the fact remains that this collection of essays are insatiably addictive. Well-written and theoretically broad, Robinsons’ ability to construct an argument is magnificent. Not only does each of the essays reasonably contemplate some of the largest philosophical and theological problems that preoccupy academic thought, they are able to make it a pleasure to contemplate.

Virago (2015)

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