Marilynne Robinson and President Obama

Saturday, November 7, 2015

A short essay called, simply, “Fear,” by Marilynne Robinson, was the subject of my previous post. I did not imagine that almost immediately after, there would be a two-part transcription, also in The New York Review of Books, of a lengthy dialogue between Ms. Robinson and the President in Des Moines, where Robinson lives and teaches, on September 14 of this year (there is a good deal about this online, readily available). Apparently this conversation was arranged by the White House, at Obama’s request, but the two were already quite close. Obama awarded the National Humanities Medal to her in 2013, and they became good friends. It all started when Obama read Gilead and was profoundly stirred by it.

For you Republicans out there who may be reading this Rumination, it is not a partisan political statement. This is about Obama as a human being. He is widely described as private and aloof, and no doubt that is true of his demeanor and his difficulty doing the sort of schmoozing that politicians are expected to do, However, his youthful memoir, Dreams From My Father, has an astonishing quality of empathy.  I have also been struck, in recent years, by Obama’s apparent incorruptibility and imperviousness to scandal. The tabloids have done their best, but nothing has stuck. No doubt his invincible belief that people can be coaxed into being their better selves has not served him well politically, but if he lives a long life, there is ample reason to believe that we will have many good things from him. For instance, here is part of an interview that Ms. Robinson gave to The Daily Beast:

Would President Obama make a good writing student at Iowa?  He has a wonderful, highly original mind. It’s delightful to imagine him at the Workshop. I can’t imagine anything less likely to happen, but it’s still fun to imagine. Of course he would come as faculty, not as a student, and he would teach us about the real world from a perfectly unique perspective. Whole new terrains would open for us.

There are many things that I did not know about Obama until I read some of the online material. I certainly did not know that he likes to go to church services when he can. His office contacted Robinson when he was due to be in Iowa (I think this was before they actually met) to find out what church the famous author attended, so he could perhaps visit it (apparently he did not do so, in the end, wanting to avoid publicity). The conversation transcribed in NYRB is revealing on a number of levels, but the aspect of it that impressed me most, and drives me to sit down at the computer this morning, is what Obama said to Ms. Robinson about reading literary fiction. The great majority of men that I know read only non-fiction, which has always struck me as impoverishing. Here is part of what Obama said:

Are you [Robinson] somebody who worries about people not reading novels anymore? And do you think that has an impact on the culture? When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you.

This is what literary fiction does that non-fiction simply cannot do. A biography can give you a fascinating portrait of a person’s life and the biographer’s angle on it, but at crucial points, the best that the biographer can do is informed guessing. The subjects of even the greatest biographies withhold their deepest secrets from us. An autobiography can allow readers into a portion of the writer’s mind, but the autobiographer will always hold something of himself back, whether consciously or unconsciously. Collected letters of a person tell us a great deal, but the whole person is still not there; not even the most exposed letter-writing can take you into the unconscious of a person. The great fiction-writing, however, presents us with fully developed insights into the deepest recesses of a character. That’s why Hamlet and Anna Karenina and Huck Finn and the narrator of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time have a hold on the human imagination that cannot be duplicated in non-fiction.

The Daily Beast has published an exceptionally interesting interview with Ms. Robinson, who says that she was supposed to interview Obama that day in Des Moines, but he ended up interviewing her:

There was an article in The New York Times Magazine about Robinson in June, which I missed (I read the Times extensively, but don’t read the Sunday Magazine as a rule).  There is a rather shocking disclosure in it; she dislikes Flannery O’Connor (“Her imagination appalls me”)! How can that be? Ms. Robinson identifies herself as a Calvinist and has written a whole book of essays about this orientation. I have often wondered about her as a Calvinist because she emphasizes her belief that people are essentially eager to be good and do good things. I, being also a “Calvinist” (but only as re-interpreted by Karl Barth), have a darker view of human nature. Flannery O’Connor is beloved by many for her depiction of the action of the grace of God where there is only twisted, violent, sinful human nature.

Well, no matter. This link between the politician and the esteemed novelist can only result in good things for us all. (The photos of them together are really remarkable. Their love for each other is patently obvious.)

The link to The New York Times Magazine piece is here:

Postscript: I was thrilled to see that Marilynne Robinson reads the news for two hours every day. That makes me feel a whole lot better about the amount of time I spend doing the same thing!

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