“Absence of Mind” by Marilynne Robinson

I requested Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of Self months ago from the public library and my turn in rotation finally came up. It’s a short, small book containing essays based on a series of lectures she gave at Yale University. In them, she covers some of the same ground as she did in her previous collection of essays The Death of Adam, such as the faulty facts deployed by those who denounce religion in the face of what she calls “parascience.” I savored and was challenged by The Death of Adam, but did not have a similar experience with the four essays in Absence of Mind.

“On Human Nature” argues that “the mind as felt experience had been excluded from important fields of modern thought.” In “The Strange History of Altruism,” she questions the recent spate of articles supporting social Darwinism that humans are selfish creatures, altruistic only to those who do (or might) share genes. “The Freudian Self” details some of the reductive understanding by and about Freud of the relation between people and sexuality. And “Thinking Again” notes that those who argue against religion in the name of science talk about research as if it’s complete, finished, and finite. (See, for example the title alone of Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith.)

While her points are well taken, I enjoyed them more in The Death of Adam. Here, they were weighed down with what I think of as ivory-tower jargon, including one of my least favorite terms (I find it needlessly esoteric, and thus alienating), hermeneutics, i.e., the study of texts.

If there is an agenda behind the implicit and explicit polemic against religion, which is now treated as brave and new, now justified by Wahhabism and occasional eruptions of creationist zeal, but is fully present in the rationalism of the eighteenth century, it may well be that it creates rhetorical occasions for asserting an anthrolopology of modern humanity, a hermenuteutics of condescension.

The essays didn’t feel accessible or engaging to me, though this could certainly be due to faults in my own understanding or attention. My dislike of this book disappoints me, as I’ve appreciated and enjoyed Robinson’s novels as well as The Death of Adam. While I appreciate her arguments against facile proofs and reductive science, they are couched in such difficult, dry prose I struggled to wade through this slim volume.

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