Former Archbishop of Canterbury Interviews
Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author about Her Latest Book, Jack

This is part two 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 seriesHere, they discuss John Calvin, the tension between love and “harmlessness,” and Jack’s sense of self. 

Listen to the interview on The Living Church Podcast. 

Rowan Williams Interviews
Marilynne Robinson

On The Living Church Podcast

Part 1: Podcast | Transcript
Part 2: Podcast | Transcript
Book Review of Jack
Study Guide for Jack (PDF)

Rowan Williams: 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.”

Marilynne Robinson: [Laughs]

RW: And respect — with that element of, almost an undercurrent of exuberance in it [Laughs] — I rather warm to that.

MR: Yes. Yes. You know — people seem to be very interested at the moment in the concept of the soul. I’ve noticed this, you know, I think that that’s just such an excellent thing. Because if people had more love for the soul experientially, and as the sort of secret of all beautiful originality, they would have a much kinder view of God, which I think is extremely necessary, because how we are to understand nature of God has everything to do with how we understand the nature of everything else.

RW: Yes. And I think it has to do also with the notion that when we talk about the image of God in human beings, we’re really not talking about there being some bit of us that’s a bit like God, but that our sense of awe and hesitation and joy on the threshold of the mystery of another person is like that we feel in the presence of God, or should be, and vice versa. So each learns from the other. The deep awe and reverence and joy on the threshold of God tells us something about how we’re to turn to the rest of creation and how we’re to react.

MR: I agree utterly.

RW: And coming back to that theologian we both rather treasure, John Calvin, I think people who looked hard at what he says about the image and what he says about the love that’s required of us, I think there’s a lot there, isn’t there, in Calvin, about just that. It’s not all about depravity. It’s not all about the obliteration of the image. Depravity is in a sense much more to do with the fact that if this is what we really are, if this is how God is and we are, what a loss there is in our lostness, because there is such joy on the other side of it.

MR: Yes. And he has also this Renaissance assumption of human magnificence.

RW: Yes.

MR: I mean, look how spectacular we are, you know, solving these problems in our sleep and all the rest. And then he says, basically, this is dust and ashes compared to what we would be. So it’s an a fortiori comparison, catapulting the human image beyond human experience. Which I think is very beautiful. You know, when Calvin wrote the word “depravity” — it comes from Latin and it comes from print, and it meant something “warped.” The same with “corruption” — he uses it to describe a flawed text. And he also uses “depravity” to describe a flawed text. And when you think of the importance of mirrors for him, and the fact that at that period it would have been very difficult to make a truly accurate mirror or lens — I mean, it seems to me as if the idea of depravity, of warpedness, has everything to do with that very modern conception that he has that yes, indeed, we perceive brilliantly and yes, indeed, there’s always a major flaw in what we perceive, you know, that we have not the means to correct for. So I’m campaigning quietly against the negative connotations of the word “depravity.” Very hard work. [Laughs]

RW: As you indicated, it’s the same with the word “corruption” in the way it’s used, especially in the Greek Christian tradition, it’s much more to do with fracturedness, fragmentation. That when we say we are corrupt, what we’re saying is that we’re in bits. We don’t know how to pull ourselves together, quite literally. The incorruption or incorruptibility that we’re promised is not some kind of static welding together. It’s much more the idea that all the diverse elements that make us who we are are given an integrity, a wholeness, a capacity to respond in their wholeness. And that’s a very different take, isn’t it, on corruption and incorruption.

MR: Yes. Yes. And, you know, when you think of Calvin, basically — I mean, he translated from Jerome’s Latin as it had been received at that time into his own Latin, all the passages that he wrote commentaries on. And he was doing classic scholarly work, disputing the interpretation of the Hebrew. And so when he’s using the metaphor of corruption for a human being in the same way that he would use it for a text, I think that has to be borne in mind.

RW: That’s right. We can’t read accurately. We can’t read adequately with the eyes we have.

MR: Right.

RW: I wonder if I could just go back for a moment to angels and death and those other themes — that very wonderful phrase about angels not knowing death. Clearly, since one of the most significant scenes or episodes in this novel is set in the cemetery, that can’t be an accident in the light of what you have to say about death. There must’ve been some conscious choice about giving the night in the cemetery such a very strong and resourceful presence in the book.

MR: Well, you know, these things are always a little bit mysterious to me. I knew that Jack was set in St. Louis, and I went with a friend of mine to St. Louis — a city about which I knew nothing at the time — and it turns out that it has a famously vast and beautiful cemetery, where Clark of Lewis and Clark is buried, and so on. And we walked around and looked at all this. Very communicative, cemeteries. And I thought of it as a place that would be, you know, racially identified — I mean, they did tend to separate people in those circumstances — and something that would attract Della, something that she would want to see, just overstepping of, you know, rules and anxieties and all the rest of it. So I sort of put them there, and then they began talking. I was pleased that they did.

RW: And the rest is history. [Reading from the book] “[W]e are not in the land of the living. We’re ghosts among the ghosts.” …  “[T]wo spirits. Invisible. Nothing else to say about us. …” That’s, again, part of what I took from the cemetery episode. In a way it’s a focusing on, well, on the eternal, on the soul, because that’s what you, in a sense, you have to focus on in that context.

MR: I mean, the whole thing about immortality is that it certainly creates the sense of an essential self, like nothing else would. The return of someone would be a highly, highly particular consequence of life and restoration and all that sort of thing.

RW: Yes, yes, absolutely. There’s another theme which obviously relates to the rest of the sequence in a big way, because as various people including myself have argued in different places, a lot of this sequence of novels is about goodness — the strength, the flawed character of goodness, the ambiguity of goodness, goodness and holiness, and all the rest of it. You’ve got some comments about goodness here, put in the mouth of Jack’s father:

You are not good for your own sake. That probably isn’t even possible. You are good as a courtesy to everyone around you. Keeping a promise or breaking it, telling the truth or lying, matters to those around you. So there is good you can do and can always do again. You do not have to believe you are good in order to act well in any specific case. You never lose that option.

That phrasing, “you don’t have to believe you are good in order to act well,” obviously that’s hard hearing for Jack, who certainly in the other novels toys with the idea, or the fantasy almost, that he’s predestined to reprobation in some sense. And when that comes to his mind, does that connect at all with the way in which you more than once see him as striving to be “harmless,” as if — or that if he can’t believe he’s good, he can at least have the choice of refraining from harm?

MR: Yes, I do see it that way. He has an impulse that he describes, or that his father has described for him, to interact with the world of other people in a way that kind of tests reality by marring it. And, I mean, there’s nothing selfish about any crime that he does. He’s never better off for it. He steals things that are worthless. He breaks things that are simply vulnerable and meaningless.  I’m interested in goodness, partly because I don’t really understand the alternative. [Laughs] Don’t tell people I said that. But in the case of Jack, I want it to be sort of a way that he reaches out from a very intense isolation that he feels. And because he has those impulses, he has no confidence that he can — you know, he can’t accept an ordinary place in the ordinary world. He feels somehow disqualified from that, or disqualified by a failure of aspiration or something like that. He likes himself. That’s one of the things that I want to sort of get across. There’s a way in which, with all its difficulties, there are real pleasures for him in being who he is, being what he is.

RW: But that also is where some of the moral and emotional pinch points come in the novel, isn’t it? Because here he is, in love with Della, and it’s more and more borne in on him that there’s no way for him to be “harmless” to her in the particular society he’s in. And yet what he’s being asked to do, in a way, is to respond as if he were a good person to a good person’s love. And he has to weigh that almost against the harm. That’s why I think the final passage about being a thief of the good is so powerful. It’s a kind of desperate way through this almost catch-22 situation. He can, he’s invited to, or summoned to, something which is manifestly good, which is unaccustomedly good. And yet he weighs again and again, he’s made to weigh by other people, the harm he might be doing to this person who loves him, and that’s part of the edge of the narrative for me.

MR: Yes, for me also. I mean, the best thing that he will do in his life, the best thing, in terms of how he describes it to himself, is to be loyal to someone that loves him, to be loving to someone who loves him. And he’s used to being looked at askance by society at large, but in the course of doing the most honorable thing, he is putting himself at the greatest distance from social approbation. I’m very aware of that. I’m so hard on my characters sometimes. But, you know, he’s being invited to be a good man, in a sense, in a way that would be a bad thing. There’s only one way that Della could understand it if he left her: a very injurious thing, a betrayal. And staying with her of course, is, in every way, dangerous to her.

RW: Exactly. And that’s something which her father certainly lays out in utterly uncompromising terms. And that also makes me think a bit about the whole chronology of the sequence. This is Jack some years before we first meet him. Those that have read the whole sequence will know that Jack has, in the important sense, been faithful. And yet that faithfulness is still being tested to destruction on both sides, if we think back to Gilead and Home. So presumably, as with the third novel of the sequence, where we’re being invited to see how people have learned to be where they are, and how and what Jack has learned is, I think, one of the unanswered but powerful and consistent questions coming from the whole sequence.

MR: Yes. Well, it’s interesting. I’m trying to write something about my mind changing, just an essay, and, you know, there’s such an important way in which you never feel as though that’s really true. I mean, reaching back as far as I can, in my memory, it seems as if I was sort of about the same project. And Jack — he presents himself as being more worldly than he is, as a defense for what he would feel as a sort of defenselessness, really, an inability to muster an inoffensive, “good man” presence. Whatever he pretends, he does not deviate from being who he is, which is that soul that Della sees in him. God loves his problem children. I think we find that in the texts.

RW: Yes. And I think just turning back to Home in particular, one of the things that I think every reader will carry away from that is the awareness of Jack’s immense integrity, not in what you might call a conventional, heroic sense, but in a very quiet, a very restrained way. He is who he is. I’m thinking of Geoffrey Hill’s line, “I cannot turn away from what I am.” And he’s not saying that or expressing it in a defiant, aggressive way. And the poignancy of Home is the poignancy of watching Jack’s integrity at work, in an environment where, initially at least, nobody sees that that’s what it is.

MR: Yes. Yes. Well, I think that what I’m exploring there is the fact that we are basically inattentive even to people that we feel that we deeply love, you know, and that inattentiveness is the great test that they bear — to maintain integrity in the face of it.

RW: But certainly reading Jack is immensely illuminating as you then turn back to the earlier novels to see how that integrity takes shape, because being able to follow this painful constant self-questioning that’s going on in Jack in this novel — the finely-poised awareness of how each gesture or each action can be misheard or mis-received, misapprehended — I found it deeply illuminating as a way of filling out the character we’ve already met. You see that almost hypersensitivity about how he’s being heard and received, how that’s shaped and how it works and how it is to some extent, not overcome by, but at least embraced by the love that he receives and the difference that makes. But without that being a sort of cheap resolution at all. I think he ends up as an extraordinarily many-layered and compelling figure.

MR: Good.

RW: Well, I mean, the book works basically.

[Both laugh]

MR: Thank you. That’s what every writer is waiting to hear.

Listen to this conversation on The Living Church Podcast.

Download a free study guide and book review of Jack

Read the transcript for part one.