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Night Thoughts of a Baffled Humanist | The Nation

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Night Thoughts of a Baffled Humanist

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This essay is adapted from When I Was a Child I Read Books, forthcoming in the spring from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. © Marilynne Robinson.

Recently a friend sent me a composite photograph of the planet Mercury. Even as a composite, grossly disfigured to accommodate our strategies of perception, it had about it the great calm and sufficiency the ancients attributed to the spheres. The innumerable scars of eons of local cataclysm were only proof of its indomitability. Someone has named the more visible of these scars. The largest, a gigantic bloom of relative brightness, is Debussy. Machaut, Vivaldi and Rachmaninoff have their craters, as do Rembrandt, Matisse and Derain. And there is a fosse, a trench, called Pantheon, which I take to be a shrine to the unknown, or in any case the unnamed, cultural gods. I like the eccentricity of the choices, which suggests that personal preferences are reflected in them. There is an astronomer somewhere who loves Machaut and Derain. So a record of his or her quietest human pleasures is inscribed, not on the planet, of course, but on its image. More detail has been added to our universe, to the map of what we know in the very human ways we can know it.

About the Author

Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson is a novelist and essayist. Among her books are Gilead, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for...

Also by the Author

For William James, all our certitudes depend on the pretense that there are no radical mysteries underlying them.

The thought occurred to me that if the name of everyone on earth who is remembered for any kind of distinction were assigned to a crater or a mountain or a seeming rivulet somewhere in the visible universe, the astronomers would soon be out of names. The universe expands, in terms of the horizons of our awareness, in terms of its own phenomenal life, and again and most dramatically in terms of the horizons of plausible speculation. Indeed, these speculations involve the possibility of other universes preceding or coexisting with this one, in numbers that can fairly be called astronomical. Scatter the names of all those who have ever lived over the surface of the knowable cosmos, and it would remain, for all purposes, as unnamed as it was before the small, anomalous flicker of human life appeared on this small, wildly atypical planet.

Say that we are a puff of warm breath in a very cold universe. By this kind of reckoning we are either immeasurably insignificant, or we are incalculably precious and interesting. I tend toward the second view. Scarcity is said to create value, after all. Of course, value is a meaningful concept only where there is relationship, someone to do the valuing. If only to prove that I can, I will forbid myself recourse to theology and proceed as if God were not, for me, a given. Let us say that God is an unnecessary hypothesis here because we ourselves can value our kind. There is perhaps nothing more startling about human circumstance than the fact that no hypothesis can be called necessary, that we are suspended in time ungrounded by any first premise, try as we may to find or contrive one.

We may say the human community can provide the nexus of relationship that makes the concept “value” meaningful. But evidence that this capacity is reliably present in us is not persuasive. Interdependency ought to ensure that we will regard one another as the basis of our own well-being, and will reciprocate, service for service, working out the fine points as circumstance requires. This has been a commonplace since antiquity, and it describes the ways of the gentle Tasaday, the dwellers in Utopia, certain religious orders and political movements while they are still drawing up charters and manifestoes, and also certain villages and neighborhoods and exotic places as we remember or imagine them when the here and now is getting on our nerves. The logic of such mutuality and reciprocity seems irrefutable, and so the falling short is always a fresh surprise. Surely somewhere there are people still beyond the reach of Western contact who live as nature would dictate. But an anthropologist proceeding from another premise seems always to have gotten to them first, and to have found them to be the epitome of naturalness as he understands it—xenophobic and homicidal. If we are a young species in evolutionary terms, we may well be old in terms of the span of life our nature will allow us. And still we do not know what we are, or why we act as we do.

This has always been as much a practical as a metaphysical question, insofar as the two can be distinguished. Practically speaking, we can persuade ourselves of anything at all and act on it. This often manifests as a bold willingness to be rid of problem populations—intellectuals, for example, or Gypsies or Cherokees or Albigensians or Carthaginians, or sturdy beggars, or degenerates and social parasites. Anyone could add to this list the names of other groups and populations who have suffered clearances, pogroms and outright extirpations. The phenomenon recurs so often it should surely factor into any account we make of ourselves. Historical retrospect allows us to identify with past victims, with their humanity, with the fact that they were simply going about their lives and could not on any reasonable grounds be blamed for the real or imagined difficulties or the anticipated disasters that brought down real disaster on them. We can admire whatever traces remain of distinctive forms and motifs; we can retrieve the fragments of poetry and regret a loss whose dimensions such remnants can only suggest. Still, after so much history, those irritations at certain elements of society, certain problem populations, have never gone away, and are now clearly resurgent, becoming normalized and respectable, as they have done so often in the past.

This teeming world, so steeped in its sins. No one could begin to count them. This does sound like theology of the darker sort, the kind that would make us all inheritors not so much of primal guilt as of a primal predisposition to incur guilt. We moderns are supposed to have liberated ourselves from such thinking. Belief in a bent toward acting badly has been taken to inhibit our potentiality for acting well, though why this should be true is not obvious. In any case, because we have behaved badly under both dispensations, we have provided ourselves with strong evidence for the soundness of the darker view—bad behavior for these purposes being defined as any act or omission, individual or collective, that diminishes human life. This standard might strike some as narrowly anthropocentric, but the interests of our species are so deeply intertwined with those of the planet that this definition should serve well enough.

* * *

And here we are. Wondering what this means, how we got where we are, I reread Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech. He called the speech “The Sinews of Peace,” but whatever peaceable thrust it had seems to have been forgotten almost instantly, if it registered at all. Not surprisingly, given the times, and given the history of the world, it was an armed peace he had in mind. Clearly he wished to persuade his American audience that the British Empire would be strategically vital in a coming confrontation with an emerging Soviet adversary. His urging the importance of the Empire also seems to have made little impression, except, of course, on Stalin. But the Soviet threat, which was, formally at least, almost a subtext of the speech, had a profound, world-historical impact. Churchill said, “No one in any country has slept less well in their beds because this knowledge [of the atomic bomb] and the method and the raw materials to apply it, are at present largely retained in American hands.” But in 1946, when he spoke, Soviet scientists were known to be working desperately, sleeplessly, to bring an end to this monopoly, materially assisted by such notables as the British diplomat Donald Maclean and the Manhattan Project physicist Klaus Fuchs. Churchill goes on to say, “I do not believe we should all have slept so soundly had the positions been reversed and some Communist or neo-Fascist State monopolized for the time being these dread agencies. The fear of them alone might easily have been used to enforce totalitarian systems upon the free democratic world, with consequences appalling to human imagination.”

Surely no Russian who read these words could have felt otherwise than threatened by them. To “appall human imagination” is no mean feat, after all. The US secretary of state and the British foreign minister both claimed, in the days that followed, not to have been aware of the contents of the speech before it was delivered. Churchill said truly that he spoke in a “sad and breathless moment.” Any lover of humankind must regret that the world could not have caught its breath, healed and rested a little, before decisions were made that would shape and seal its future, as the perfection and deployment of these “dread agencies” have done. Stalin saw Churchill’s vision of the role of the “English-speaking peoples” as equivalent to Hitler’s vision of the role of the German-speaking peoples, that is, as their having by nature a right and obligation to control the future of the world. It must be said, he had a point. If, from a Western perspective, there were problems with the Soviets’ pursuit of Soviet policies in regions they controlled or influenced, it can hardly have come as a surprise. And Stalin’s rationale for maintaining a Soviet empire, that it was necessary for defense, is entirely analogous to Churchill’s rationale for maintaining a British empire.

Certainly there was an inevitable conflict of civilizations. But if the terms and conditions of the conflict had not been set at a time when the world was wounded and in shock, it might not have taken such destructive forms. It is important to remember that the American public learned about the atom bomb in the same moment the world learned about it. Though they had been entirely unconsulted in the matter of its use, as they had been in its creation, they could see the implications of both very clearly. Churchill alludes to the fact that America would not remain even relatively alone in the possession of this technology. He says it is in American hands “at present”—a point well calculated to encourage defensive anxiety by exploiting the horrors of the new warfare. This is a response Churchill is clearly ready to encourage. He says, “The dark ages may return, the Stone Age may return on the gleaming wings of science, and what might now shower immeasurable material blessings upon mankind, may even bring about its total destruction. Beware, I say; time may be short.”

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