Former Archbishop of Canterbury Interviews
Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author about Her Latest Book, Jack
This is part one of a two-part interview between author Marilynne Robinson and former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams about Jack, Robinson’s latest novel in the Gilead series. Here, Robinson and Williams discuss what the novel opens up about race in American history, the nature of the human soul, and “the problem of good.”
Listen to the interview on The Living Church Podcast. Parts one and two air Oct. 1 and Oct. 8, respectively.
|Rowan Williams Interviews
On The Living Church Podcast
Rowan Williams: Marilynne, it’s lovely to hear you again. I hope you’re well.
Marilynne Robinson: Very well. I hope you are also well.
RW: Great privilege to be able to talk about the new book. If it’s okay, I’ll plunge straight in. I’ve got a few general areas that I’d love to explore a bit. And I’ll begin with the most boringly obvious question, which I guess everybody will be asking, which is: when you wrote Gilead, did you envisage four books, or did that emerge as you got to know the characters, as you’ve listened to them?
MR: It was slow emerging. You know, I didn’t think I would write another book related to Gilead when I wrote Gilead.
RW: So it was a matter of watching what was emerging with the characters, and, what, addressing the unfinished business of how to understand them, how to see them three-dimensionally?
MR: Yes. I learned actually, over time, that I had three-dimensional ideas of these people that were sufficiently robust for me to give them their own novels. They stayed in my mind and they were very strongly characterized in my mind. And so, you know, why abandon them really?
RW: It does seem to me there is something about the very nature of imaginative writing, which, if it’s really doing its work, leaves you with unfinished business. I know that you’ve been teaching Shakespeare this last year, and I often think about the way in which Shakespeare can’t let go of certain themes, like fathers and daughters. And it’s as if, when he’s done one extraordinary evocation of that, he says, “You know, I haven’t even started.” And then another play comes along.
MR: Yes. Well, you know, I always enjoy comparisons to Shakespeare. [Laughs] But it is true that your mind is in the book for a very long time, a couple of years or more. And you realize that you have, I think, populated it more richly than — you know, sort of like explaining a dream, where there is so much more setting and intensity and so on, than you can somehow convey, at least in one novel.
RW: Yes. The other thing which I suppose has been very much in my mind reading Jack is the subtext about race, which is so, so significant, in the first two particularly, and is really foregrounded in this fourth novel. And as things have turned out, it could hardly be more timely as a reflection. It’s as if in this novel, the sense of the race issue, of racism itself, as a kind of foundational sin in American society — that’s allowed to come up in a very articulate way, and in a very in-your-face way sometimes. I’m thinking of that very poignant episode late in the book, when Jack is traveling, and he goes to the boarding house with this kindly old woman. And when he says that his wife will be joining him, that she’s a colored lady, she sort of explodes. And then (I’m just looking at the text here):
“That isn’t possible. It’s against the law. … Just when you think you know somebody!”
So just like that, it had ended. He knew there was no appeal to be made.
And we’ve been introduced to this lady in the boarding houses, you know, a warm, kind person, eager to welcome this man who’s helped her family, and suddenly we’re up against this extraordinary brick wall. And that’s something to do with the way in which, in the whole of the book, the tensions between individual kindness, individual goodness, and a sort of collective brutality come through. And I read that as a very theological take on it, something very much to do with the fact that racism is not simply a problem of individuals with faulty perceptions. And that’s something to do itself with the nature of sin, I guess. It did strike me that this certainly brought that very much to the surface. The contemporaneity of it.
MR: That’s something that has fascinated me. You know, at intervals it becomes an extremely important subject. I didn’t really anticipate the importance that it would have now, but whether it’s quiet or whether it’s, you know, active as an issue, it’s always an issue. And I think that one of the things that good literature can do is explore the anomalies of individual and social behavior. The fact that people experience themselves as kind and fair and all that sort of thing, during centuries while this one glaring exception was so conspicuously present…
RW: Yes, because that’s something that a lot of commentators noted, particularly, I think, in the second of the [Gilead] sequence, that the unthinking assumption that the early days of civil rights protest and so forth, that that would pass, or that [it] was just a localized and almost contingent phenomenon. That’s brought out very, very poignantly in that second book, where Jack of course knows more than his father ever will about that subject and knows that his father is not a bad man, and that all those others who are saying these things are not bad individuals. It’s a great problem in a society, which, as is often said, is both very permissive and very judgmental at the moment, to try and disentangle the systemic underlying question, what I call the foundational sin question, from individuals being bad or being deliberately destructive. It’s very hard, I think, in, I suppose, also an individualistic society where we think in terms of blame. And so when people push away questionings about race, it’s because often they don’t want to be put at an individual disadvantage. It seems that that’s quite a substantial social factor at the moment, a contradiction in our collective minds.
MR: Yes. I think sometimes — I think very often actually — that we don’t think about the issue terribly well, I’m afraid. When there’s all this talk about 1619, you know, and what that means. It means many things. But one thing it means is that there was not one minute in meaningful American history when we were not a country of two races. And the history of it, I mean, granting all the denial and suppression and all the rest of it, you simply can’t imagine American culture without granting the huge importance of African American culture, the impact on language, religion, music, virtually everything that you would call distinctively American. And there’s a way in which to speak of the African American population in this country as if the fact of the crime against them is the only thing that matters about them — I think that that’s a huge problem, that it’s an irony, that people who have had such a profound impact, to whom we go for the most important political language that we use in any serious argument about the nature of the country, and so on — the fact that [the crime against them] is primarily how they’re viewed is clearly a very misleading thing. I mean, part of the exclusion of African American acknowledgement is the fact that their very great importance and their very great value as salient essential original members of the culture somehow [gets] lost even among people who consider themselves sympathetic and informed.
RW: One point that you raise there or imply there that these are people from whom we borrow significant moral language for our self-understanding — certainly for American self-understanding — as if there is an agency and an indebtedness that people are very, very reluctant to face. But I also found very moving in the book the way in which Della’s father sets out his position. Not quite fully separatist, but in a sense, a kind of iron resolve not to accept a walk-on part in somebody else’s drama, but to write the script, even if other people don’t recognize it. And that’s tragic in a very strong sense, as I read it.
MR: Yes, I agree. Certainly. It’s one of the great historical ironies, of course, that the language of Jefferson is so profoundly important to the language of Martin Luther King. You know, that we are conjoined twins, the two civilizations in America, and that when they speak most poignantly, most profoundly, about their aspirations, their identity and the rest of it, it comes back to that great language — and renews it — that [language] that most of us have never abandoned, never ceased to be moved by.
RW: Yes, that idea of renewing the language is very powerful, because one of the tropes, I think, in the language of somebody like Martin Luther King, is, if you like, prophetic in that strictly Hebraic and Old Testament sense of prophetic recall to the language that the ambient society uses about itself at its best. It’s saying, “Well, this is what you say about yourself. So, I tell you that this is what I hear, and it’s not what you say.” And that’s a real challenge for renewal, I think.
MR: Yes. And also, Jefferson, you know, he invokes, basically, the idea of the soul, “Adam became a living soul.” Because he’s retelling the creation myth when he talks about being endowed by our creator and so on, and this is not something that is simply adapted as a cultural claim. It’s basically a description of human nature, that we are in an intimate, original relationship with God as individual people. And I think that that’s an idea that African American culture has never seen as being narrow in its powers of description. It’s an essential claim that associates them very, very deeply with the original claim made for human beings in early America.
RW: Absolutely. And the significance of the language of “soul” in the vocabulary of African American culture, that tells its own story, I think, doesn’t it?
MR: It’s certainly very important. Very essential.
RW: And that takes me on to an area I wanted to discuss a bit more, which is the way in which you use that language of “soul,” so evocatively at various points in this book. And I think one of the passages that I most immediately loved and warmed to was when Della says to Jack,
“[O]nce in a lifetime, maybe, you look at a stranger and you see a soul, a glorious presence out of place in the world. And if you love God, every choice is made for you. There is no turning away. You’ve seen the mystery— you’ve seen what life is about. What it’s for. And a soul has no earthly qualities, no history among the things of this world, no guilt or injury or failure. No more than a flame would have. There is nothing to be said about it except that it is a holy human soul. And it is a miracle when you recognize it.”
And that is, if I may say so, that is an absolutely wonderful, resonant passage and goes straight to the heart of the underlying question. But I wonder if I can press you a bit to say a bit more about how that language of the soul as a sort of alien presence without history or guilt — some would say, well, surely souls are historical, are formed by what they’ve been doing, they’re formed by time and change. And is that still part of the picture when you talk about this radiant timelessness of the soul in the way you do there?
MR: Well, you know, I suppose I think of the soul as being the human self in the presence of God, the human self under God’s eye. We don’t know how to interpret ourselves really, because for one thing, we don’t know the feelings and motives and so on that form human history, human behavior. But we know as a matter of faith, or as a matter of cultural assumption, perhaps, that there is an essence in the human being that is valuable. And, from God’s point of view, lovable, despite all the accidents of worldly existence. It’s a singular, impenetrable relationship of the self with God, based on, certainly, the primary love of God toward the creature. So, I mean, in that sense, because we have a much more than earthly history, and much more than an earthly existence, there has to be that in us that is not touched by the world.
RW: Yes. I entirely see that. Sometimes I’ve suggested that if we want to understand what we mean by a “spiritual” perspective on ourselves or the world, we have to think of ourselves and whatever else we encounter as simply related to God before related to us, therefore in a dimension always inaccessible to us, which exists in that kind of primordial connection with the creative love of God. And to see another person, or even to see any material thing in the world, in that light, as turned towards God before it’s turned towards us — that’s, in a sense, that’s the essence of the spiritual. That’s what saves us from being completely buccaneering, dominating, possessive, cutting a swathe through the world, which sadly is what we are, what we live with such a lot of the time. It’s an amazing passage. I think it also connects a bit in my mind with another passage which struck me very deeply rather earlier in the book, which is really about resurrection, about the angels opening the caskets. You remember the passage.
The angels would open the caskets and lift up old Mrs. This and young Mr. That, making themselves, to their great joy, much less marvelous and interesting than the recently disinterred. Wings are fine, and a kind of luminosity would be very nice, but to hear a familiar laugh would be an almost unbearable joy, a human joy exceeding anything seraphim could feel, since angels cannot know death. So that much was true, granting his terms. In such a blast and glare of astonishment, what offenses could be remembered?
And I read that as another way into the same sense of mystery, and there, of course, connected very much with the strange way in which the uniqueness of this mystery, the heart of every person, is in fact bound up with physical memory — the remembered laugh — which is highly specific, highly material, and yet somehow not at the mercy of change and chance. And that insight that angels don’t know death, therefore somehow the resurrected human is a more astonishing thing than the angels — that’s a very powerful theme.
MR: Thank you. Yes. I do think of people as being beautifully individuated, the billions of us that there are, all of us distinct from one another and, you know, unpredictable in indescribable ways. I think that that’s a very great part of God’s pleasure in creation. I don’t see it as being something that would perish with the flesh. I see it as one of the great ornaments of the children of Adam.
RW: Yes, I must say that I thought that that passage — if I wanted to start a theological seminar on resurrection, I might very well start with that bit. But let me move from there to that question which I think is raised by the language there. In some ways, this is also a novel, isn’t it, about the difficulty and the elusiveness and the imperative of joy? And you end with a very resonant and very startling meditation on happiness as something stolen, as if from the world of external injustice and internal despair. Nonetheless, this person reaches for, grabs onto, a possibility of joy, which doesn’t seem to connect with any deserving, with any process, it’s just there. And it’s to be held, to be touched, to be received. So that, whereas there’s a way of coming into theology by the problem of evil, I think you’re hinting that there’s a problem of good as well, that if there’s random, unpredictable, horrible evil in the world, yeah, that makes for a very difficult vision of the world, but it’s, in some ways, almost equally difficult to come to terms with the problem of good, with the joy that causelessly and unreasonably breaks in.
The knowledge of good. That half of the primal catastrophe received too little attention. Guilt and grace met together in the phrase despite all that. He could think of himself as a thief sneaking off with an inestimable wealth of meaning and trust, all of it offended and damaged beyond use, except to remind him of the nature of the crime. Or he could consider the sweet marriage that made her a conspirator with him in it, the loyalty that always restored them both, just like grace.
This undeserved problem of good.
MR: Yes. Yes. It seems to me as if, you know, the moral habits of traditional Christianity have acted as if, basically, our understanding of ourselves and circumstances of others and so on, are much more simple and binary, actually, than they could possibly be. And, you know, it seems to me as if, in a circumstance where something is ambivalent, to overlook what might be the element of grace in it, is not respectful toward God, in a sense — that he makes the rain fall on the just and the unjust. And we can, I think, assume that the unjust enjoy the rain as much as the just do. [Laughs] And I can, too. You know, I just think that we have a very harsh and excessively narrow conception of what morality, what the joy of existence, and so on, can amount to, should amount to.
RW: Yes. Quite early on, you have a conversation, which is about thanksgiving, [including] the sense of the literal celebration of it:
She said, “You could come to my place for Thanksgiving.”
He laughed, “What have I done to deserve that?”
“Thanksgiving isn’t something a person has to deserve.”
And that’s a nice sort of ambiguity there. Thanksgiving as an event isn’t something that any of us has to deserve; thanksgiving as a practice isn’t something any of us has to deserve. That’s the whole point of it. And that’s interesting because to rescue the notion of thanksgiving from the notion of, I suppose, some sort of debt, is really important — that you give thanks not because you are now under an obligation, you give thanks because something has been made possible gratuitously, by grace. I took that as one of the, if you like, one of the passages that set a motif for the whole of this narrative.
MR: Yes. I have been listening for some time to a station that plays Black spiritual music all the time. The lyrics are full of gratitude very often. And they thank God for being able to pray. They thank God for being able to sing. Or they thank God for being alive, you know. [Laughs] And there’s — I don’t know, with all respect to my own denomination, I hear these kinds of realizations less frequently, perhaps, than one should. There are songs that thank God for difficulty, for making it hard. All of them you could dance to, I think. But it’s like another, but entirely appropriate, vocabulary for experience, religious experience. I didn’t start listening to it until after the book was done. But I was happy to find that certain of the ideas that I deal with in that book could be highly, highly compatible with these songs.
RW: That’s a picture that corresponds to God and God’s creation, which again takes one right out of the register of duty and debt. There’s this one place, I think, where you talk about what is owed to people that has to be discharged, but never amounts to real respect. That struck me, again, as a really poignant and searching thing, that when we attempt to discharge a duty to someone we never get as far as real respect, because respect has about it that sense of — well, of distance, actually, the right kind of distance, what Simone Weil wonderfully calls the hesitation we ought to feel on the threshold of somebody else. And that’s bound up, I think, with this dimension of thanksgiving as well.
MR: Well, you know, I do think that many varieties of unhappiness would be effectively addressed by remembering more often than we do that respect is owed to other people, without exception, without condition. I think that so many of the problems that we have are [because] we lack the imagination to remember what is owed to another human being. And then, of course, we ourselves and the people that we care about have to live with the abrasions of finding no presumptive or too little presumptive respect, and in dealing with other people toward ourselves or toward our children or whatever. I mean, it just seems to me as if the treasure of Christianity, among many others, is that it does sort of tell us how we should live in the world, and for our benefit, in order to feel abundance, you know? And it’s not anything that we ever look at, it seems to me, at least in my experiences.
RW: To feel abundance — I think that’s the key to it. I was thinking of a couple of things from a rather different context, which to my mind illustrate the notion of respect. The late Dewi Phillips, the philosopher who was a fellow townsman of mine from Swansea in South Wales, used to say that something very, very significant had happened in Welsh village life when people stopped coming out onto the streets to watch a funeral procession going past. As he said, there had been, when he grew up — which would be, I don’t know, 30-odd years before I was growing up — there would still be the sense that you would come out on the streets, you would walk a certain amount of the way with the funeral procession, as a mark of respect, not simply a mechanical taking a hat off, but a way of acknowledging that there was something which you could only cope with through a slightly ritualized kind of behavior which didn’t make a great deal of sense. I mean, what difference does it make to walk alongside a hearse? But it was an acknowledgement of a loss that you couldn’t find words for, a dignity you couldn’t find words for. And that was respect.
And the other thing that came to my mind was, very different, again, but also from Swansea in South Wales, and that’s Dylan Thomas’s wonderful preface to his collected poems, where he tells the story of a West Wales farmer who still put out offerings for the fairies. And somebody said, “Do you seriously think that you’re making any difference by putting out these little saucers of milk for the fairies?” And the farmer simply said, “I’d be a damn fool if I didn’t.” And Dylan Thomas says, “These poems are written for the love of man and in praise of God. And I’d be a damn fool if they weren’t.”
RW: And respect — with that element of, almost an undercurrent of exuberance [Laughs] — I rather warm to that.