An essay from Guernica (her first appearance there that we’re aware of) in which Robinson again levels the deck guns at unexamined arguments of her intellectual contemporaries and the broader culture. Even David Brooks gets name-dropped.
She begins with an analytical autopsy of free-market economics — particularly the libertarian kind that seems powerfully in vogue and woefully unchallenged:
Our civilization has recently chosen to identify itself with a wildly oversimple model of human nature and behavior and then is stymied or infuriated by evidence that the models don’t fit. And the true believers in these models seem often to be hardened in their belief by this evidence, perhaps in part because of the powerfully annealing effects of rage and indignation.
Proceeding onward, Robinson implicates neo-Darwinism for its diminishing and anachronistic anthropology:
Modern theories of human nature, which are essentially Darwinist and neo-Darwinist, pare us down to our instincts for asserting relative advantage in order to survive and propagate. This dictum hangs on our essential primitivity as they understand it—assuming that our remote ancestors would have been describable in these terms, and that we, therefore, are described in them also. But it seems worthwhile to remember that this is a modern theory projected onto the deep past.
Thus arriving finally at the crux of the piece:
I have made a long and indirect approach to my subject — the human spirit and the good society. The subject was of interest to me in the first place because I have felt for a long time that our idea of what a human being is has grown oppressively small and dull.
This sentiment comes as no surprise to readers of her fiction. Fingerbone and Gilead seem impossibly expansive and resplendent despite their diminuitive population and size. This grandiose view of the ordinary world is the indispensable delight of Robinson’s canon. John Ames musing “Ah, this life, this world” is a direct contravention to the diminutive and damning narrowness of a scientism that asserts life and world to be nothing more than the rote mechanics of an impersonal cosmos.
And so she seizes upon Thomas Jefferson’s assertion from the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” to make her case:
What would a secular paraphrase of this sentence look like? In what nonreligious terms is human equality self-evident? As animals, some of us are smarter or stronger than others, as Jefferson was certainly in a position to know. What would be the non-religious equivalent for the assertion that individual rights are sacrosanct in every case?
One of Robinson’s finest efforts to date at weaving her parallel interests in religion, literature, economics, and science into a common thread — one that challenges assumptions and assertions with every loop.
This essay is yet another excerpt from When I Was a Child I Read Books — which arrives in bookstores tomorrow. As always, we encourage you to buy your copy from a local, independent bookseller.
Our thanks to David Mahaffey for the link.