Bracing herself against the podium, pushing her long silver hair out of her face, Marilynne Robinson spoke of a lost era: an era in which thinkers like Alexis de Tocqueville heralded scholarship as the core of democracy. She was here, lecturing on Emerson’s essay “The American Scholar,” to recall us to that forgotten purpose.
Emerson would have been delighted to name Robinson among his acolytes. She is, in many ways, his ideal scholar. Four novels, a Pulitzer and a National Humanities Medal behind her, she’s gained a great deal of fame, but doesn’t seem to set much stock in it (by her own admission, she’s spent most of her writing life dressed “like a bum” in day-after-day solitude). She’s famously well-read—Kant and Marx, for instance, both made appearances in her lecture—yet also fiercely original. The very structure of her talk testified to that. “Emerson wrote a really beautiful essay,” she said, “and I’m not going to talk about it very much.” What began as a study of his 1837 address became a wide-ranging reflection on the state of education (and economics, and politics, and society, and art) in America.
There is something tender about Robinson’s style of oration. One interviewer remembers her speaking to him “as if breaking bad news to a gentle heart.” For her, humankind has an innate brilliance; our problem is that we also have an innate tendency to bring tragedy upon ourselves, to cover up our magnificence. Speaking softly, bent over her text in concentration, Robinson declared that today’s American is no longer a Citizen, but a Taxpayer (“Capital C, Capital T”). Universities are like “beached vessels of unknown origin” abandoned to plunder, their treasures sold to the highest bidder. We leave it to a cadre of specialists to catalogue and quantify human nature, instead of opening the field to the common man. The very question of what a human being is has been made “small and tedious.” In short, we have created an economics of scarcity in the midst of “astonishing abundance.”
Universities, said Robinson, should rise beyond petty nationalism and economic determinism to promote “the splendor inherent in human beings”—something Robinson herself seems never to forget. Over the course of the evening, whenever she happened across a fact that particularly delighted her, she’d pause to savor it. Advances in brain imaging technology? “What treasures!” Arts institutes, cultural centers? “Long may they flourish.” The idea that we on this “little nothing” of a planet like to spend our time pondering the moons surrounding Saturn? “That’s just spectacular!”
And of course, this is exactly what Robinson’s writing does best: make us sit back and taste life, remind us of the flavor of human dignity. Through her—as her character John Ames puts it in Gilead—we “see the celestial consequences of our worldly endeavors.” Maybe this is why her works tend to shape themselves around metaphors, where we feel her characters’ struggles, and our own, embodied in the natural world. (And then, if we’re writers, we steal her metaphors, hoping a little of the pixie dust will rub off on us. I was so floored by Housekeeping in ninth grade that for a year afterwards I was writing poetry about nothing but lakes, trains, and people’s reflections in windows.) She didn’t bring up this passage of Emerson’s essay, but reading it the night before her talk, I thought of her:
Thus to him, to this school-boy under the bending dome of day, is suggested, that he and it proceed from one root; one is leaf and one is flower; relation, sympathy, stirring in every vein. And what is that Root? Is not that the soul of his soul?
Emerson’s point is that the precepts “study nature” and “know thyself” are really one commandment. That’s why he, and Robinson, think education is the root of individual freedom—and why it’s so egregious to let moneyed interests run the game of scholarship. At one point, Robinson remarked that “capitalism” has become equated with “Americanism,” and giggled at the very absurdity of the idea.
Here comes the inevitable Silicon Valley angle: Robinson’s talk was highly relevant in this bastion of wealth, where the so-called “hewers of wood and drawers of water” are being forced out to make way for techies. Robinson took no direct hits at Stanford, but the questions she raised surely apply to this institution. Why do we care so much about the amount of money Stanford graduates make, rather than the kinds of humans they go on to be? Do our academic departments perpetuate a “quasi-theology” surrounding market forces as the shaping force of society?
But the talk, to be honest, was less immediately engaging than the short Q&A session that followed. Once off-script, Robinson sounded more like the roving, humorous, lightning-quick intellect we encounter and love in her novels. An older man asked the last question of the night: was Robinson consoling herself in the face of the “degenerate present” by idealizing the past of the American university?
Robinson responded wryly that it becomes clear how much America used to value education when you visit beautiful institutions built years ago. Lounge in their cathedral-like libraries, climb their turrets and towers, stroll in their elaborate gardens; they look, she said, grinning, like the sacred sites of wealthy and venerable religions. What we need to do, as a country, is vaunt education and scholarship—for everyone—back to that hallowed role.
Photo courtesy of here.