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Some Excellence of Marilynne Robinson

January 7, 2016

“It seems to me that, within limits the Victorians routinely transgressed, the exercise of finding the ingratiating qualities of grave or fearful experience is very wholesome and stabilizing. I am vehemently grateful that, by whatever means, I learned to assume that loneliness should be in part pleasure, sensitizing and clarifying, and that it is even a truer bond among people than any kind of proximity. It may be mere historical conditioning, but when I see a man or a woman alone, he or she looks mysterious to me, which is only to say that for a moment I see another human being clearly.

I am praising that famous individualism associated with Western and American myth. When I praise anything, I proceed from the assumption that the distinctions available to us in this world are not arrayed between good and bad but between bad and worse. Tightly knit communities in which members look to one another for identity, and to establish meaning and value, are disabled and often dangerous, however polished their veneer. The opposition frequently made between individualism on the one hand and responsibility to society on the other is a false opposition as we all know. Those who look at things at a little distance can never be valued sufficiently.

But arguments from utility will never produce true individualism. The cult of the individual is properly aesthetic and religious. The significance of every human destiny is absolute and equal. The transactions of conscience, doubt, acceptance, rebellion are privileged and unknowable. Insofar as such ideas are accessible to proof, I have proved the truth of this view to my entire satisfaction. Of course, they are not accessible to proof.

Only lonesomeness allows one to experience this sort of radical singularity, one’s greatest dignity and privilege. Understanding this permits one to understand the sacred poetry in strangeness, silence, and otherness. The vernacular form of this idea is the Western hero, the man of whom nothing can ever really be known.”

— Marilynne Robinson
from “When I Was a Child I Read Books”


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