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.
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.