If you should pick up Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind, I suggest that you begin at the end. This is not simply because Robinson writes wonderfully provocative closing lines, although she does. Every time I read the final sentence of her introduction to the Vintage edition of Calvin’s selected works, I’m tempted to applaud: “Behind the aesthetics and the metaphysics of classical American literature, again and again we find the Calvinist soul, universal in its singularity, and full of Calvinist wonder.” But in Absence of Mind we need Robinson’s concluding apologetic for inwardness and subjectivity, not just to enjoy her lucid prose, but also to balance her book-length quarrel with current forms of reductive positivism.
It would be a mistake to think that Absence of Mind is a screed against science; it is, however, a ruthless attack on scientific rhetoric that hastens to make claims for a strictly materialist view of the world and that engages in a “hermeneutics of condescension,” which considerably oversteps the bounds of science itself.
Thus to appreciate the whole of the argument, we need to hear it through that conclusion, with Robinson’s evocation of the singular soul as “the haunting I who wakes us in the night wondering where time has gone, the I we waken to, sharply aware that we have been unfaithful to ourselves, that a life lived otherwise would have acknowledged a yearning more our own than any of the daylit motives whose behests we answer to so diligently,” the I who recognizes “that there is no proportion between the great given of existence and the narrow vessel of circumstance in which it is inevitably forced” (110-111). This is lovely writing, and true. Its appeal to melancholic introspection and a proper reckoning of one’s place in the universe–while revisiting Donne’s microcosm, “I am a little world made cunningly,” and revising Kant–limns her larger argument, namely that the felt experience of the human mind or soul (she uses the two terms interchangeably) constitutes data that cannot simply be written out of the equation of what it means to be human.
It is precisely this truncating of data that Robinson finds so aggravating in much of current writing that purports to be scientific, that and its curious reversion to dualism. It is not, she argues, the person who takes seriously the overwhelming experiential data of human self-awareness who pits spirit against flesh, but rather the “parascientist” who relentlessly reduces the brain to a mere lump of dissectible meat and excludes the “ethereal” mind–the illusionary ghost in the machine– by definition rather than by rigorous experiment or logic. In contrast, Robinson argues that “mind” is simply what the brain, “at the level of complex and nuanced interaction with itself,” does (120). Or to put it another way, the brain is mind incarnate.
Robinson presses her critique of scientific rhetoric along several lines. True science, she argues, is modest in its claims to understand the world and “does not foreclose possibility, including discoveries that overturn very fundamental assumptions. . . . [I[t is not a final statement about reality but a highly fruitful mode of inquiry into it” (124). In contrast, Oracular Science (my term, not hers) inserts itself into public discourse through declarative statements along the lines of “science has proved,” while relying on arguments that exclude God, religion, metaphysics, and mind by definition, construing these words in ways that are uncharitable, unhistorical, and untenable. This, Robinson argues in turn, is rationalization, not reason.
Concomitantly, she questions the familiar rhetoric of “crossing the threshold,” by which with “miraculous abruptness” everything humans once thought is rendered not only obsolete but also irrelevant to scientific inquiry. Taking another tack, her close readings of modernist sensibilities uncover incommensurable diversity in the arguments of thinkers from Freud to Pinker to E. O. Wilson, who are united only by their core assumption that “the experience and testimony of the individual mind is to be explained away” (22). She takes aim at anthropologies that posit the unverifiable claim that we are exactly like “the ancient primates whose genes we carry” (134) in the face of evidence that culture-making–the outward sign of introspection–changes the very fabric of human beings.
Along the way she tests scientific, or as she prefers to call them parascientific, interpretations of altruism, memes, and the unconscious, that “clutch of certitudes” that trivialize and discredit human subjectivity by severely limiting their fields of inquiry–and thereby dramatically improving their chances of winning points–and she brilliantly historicizes Freud’s “besieged and beleaguered” encapsulated self within the larger narrative of European nationalism. Her allies include Descartes, the next Frenchman she seems eager to rehabilitate; William James; modern physics, a science that remains open to potential and possibilities; and history itself. Of the latter, she notes, “Contempt for the past surely accounts for a consistent failure to consult it” (29).
There is much to savor in this little book, including the pleasure of watching Robinson decapitate slack arguments with exquisite precision and courtesy. The greater pleasure, however, is spending a few hours in the presence of a great mind.