Tim Carpenter on Marilynne Robinson

1. When did you first encounter Marilynne Robinson's writing? What did you read and did it affect you straight away?

I first heard about Robinson in reviews of Gilead, her second novel; the critics uniformly emphasized that it followed her well-regarded debut by quite a number of years. (I had to look it up: Gilead came out in 2004, 24 years after Housekeeping.) Both books sounded right up my alley, but I didn’t pick up either until the New York Times did a thing in 2006 where they asked a bunch of writers and critics to name the best American fiction of the past 25 years. I think Philip Roth and Toni Morrison had the most votes, but the editors noted that Housekeeping had surprisingly been selected by a couple or three respondents.

So that spurred me to get Housekeeping, and the book pretty much slayed me from the get-go. I remember deciding after a few chapters to read it once rather quickly and then more slowly soon thereafter. I maybe read one other book and then went right back to it. So yes, it did affect me straight away: I guess I’d never imagined that the sadness and longing of this life could be so entirely – and more important, unembarrassingly – embraced and made into a useful and productive thing.

2. How has her writing affected and influenced you? What does it make you consider or think about?

Well, once at a signing I told her, “Without your example, I couldn’t make the things I want to make.” It’s hard to describe something that permeates you; with her, it’s like asking how breathing has affected me.

But I can nonetheless recognize her influence on two levels. The first is craft, which in her case is not only exquisite and rigorous, but also entirely straightforward. The other writer who has so captivated me is David Foster Wallace, whose prose is of course anything but straightforward. In Infinite Jest, and all the stories and essays, I found someone who wrote the way my brain (and all of ours?) feels: disjointed, parenthetical, racing wildly ahead and behind, footnoting and sub-footnoting. But as I was starting to find my voice with a camera, I knew that I was not much like that as a maker.

As I worked through Gilead and Home and the essays, along with re-readings of Housekeeping, I learned from Marilynne Robinson that simplicity and directness could be immensely powerful (even if they weren’t exactly fashionable at the time, or even now). No formal pyrotechnics or fantastical characters or plots, just a sentence-by-sentence care for the meaning made (and often frustratingly not made) by normal human beings in our every moment of perception and conception. And that was honestly quite comforting to a guy like me, who is never going to make any wild formal innovations in photographs or photobooks.

The other level of influence is in subject matter, although maybe that’s a strange phrase to use because I don’t mean anything to do with the kind of “subjects” that could be named with concrete nouns. Rather I mean that her great and pervasive subject is our transience in this world.

It wasn’t that Robinson awakened me to this subject; I feel like I had a plenty large store of disconnectedness for a long time (as I’m sure most of us do). But perhaps I had been suppressing that, or trying to overcome it? Like I thought that everybody was supposed to “only connect.” But Housekeeping revels in the integrity of the self that – however much it loves the world, and wants it – remains singular and alone. It is a fucking painful novel.

Robinson takes our transience in this world to its most discomfiting conclusions and somehow makes it consoling. It’s no coincidence that Wallace Stevens is among her favorite poets. Death is the mother of all beauty indeed. We need the cosmic impermanence to confer meaning – to bring form – to what would otherwise be ceaseless and chaotic earthly experience.

Now that’s all pretty heady, but what it meant to me was that I could use this way I felt – a longing which previously seemed “negative” – as a positive means for making something meaningful and useful. Every good picture I’ve made is a manifestation, an aspect, of that: where I’ve tapped into the central thing. When that happens, it has little to do with finding the right subject matter per se but rather with finding the right thing inside.

3. As you've sat with her writing over time has anything developed or changed over time?

Indeed, much has developed, and one major theme in her writing has been particularly vexing to me. I figure I’ll work this up into a full-on essay at some point, but that’s probably a ways away. It’s the topic of religion and its relation to secular thought and particularly selfhood. This is brought out almost entirely in her essays (which are more heavily margin-marked – with both affirmations and objections – than anything I’ve ever owned), but it bears as well on the novels.

Robinson is a Calvinist and seemingly deeply knowledgeable about the Bible and doctrine (although I am in no position to judge that). She clearly believes in God. But I say this in all sincerity and with a profound desire not to offend her: the novels simply do not feel as if written by someone who believes in an afterlife. Even if the characters (preachers abound) might believe in something beyond, the sense that this life is all we have is simply elemental to the fiction itself. Or at least it seems so to me.

And yet in the essays, her belief in a God-made soul – one that exists before and after our earthly existence – is unequivocal. In my reading of Robinson, I sense almost that she pities (ever so gently) those who don’t share a sense of external meaning, as if perhaps their experience of life is diminished. For example, in an essay called “The Sacred, The Human,” she writes: “So great is my respect for secular people that I wish they had a metaphysics worthy of them.” (But then, the very next sentence is this: “I would be very interested to see a secularism based on contemporary science, though I grant the difficulty of deriving a metaphysics from anything as surpassingly dynamic and complex as the universe has proved to be at every scale, and as continuously open to reconception as our understanding of it must be.” And I’m thinking: changing, complicated, always revised – this all sounds just fine by me as a way of considering the ineffable.)

I, on the other hand, am a materialist; on the weight of the evidence, I understand the self to be entirely the creation of the brain. And thus the self ceases to exist when the brain dies.

So that’s a pretty profound difference. But the wonderful thing is: either way, we get Atget and Virginia Woolf and Ornette Coleman. And that’s where I think Marilynne Robinson and I converge: she is powerfully opposed (and persuasive to my satisfaction in her opposition) to a deterministic view of the brain. This is because she is well-read in the physical sciences, a believer in the Big Bang and evolution (though not always in the specific mechanisms of natural selection, where we disagree). Her facility with quantum indeterminacy is the basis for her anti-determinism, and this is a position that I share.

Which all means that we – each and every one of us – can be nothing other than completely idiosyncratic and separate persons, each as intrinsically worthy as the other. As creatures with unique and singular consciousnesses, our dignity is inherent. So Robinson and I ultimately get to the same place (I hope sincerely that I characterize her conclusion adequately), but by vastly different paths: hers is an external meaning while mine is entirely internal. In this case, all’s well that ends well, I suppose.

And in another sense, it’s been a really good thing for me to read Robinson so deeply. Because I can sometimes think that I know it all, and I’m often dismissive of religion. But I must acknowledge that a deeply religious worldview is the basis for a literature that I hold in the absolute highest regard. A literature that, more importantly, speaks to things I long to articulate but can’t, and that makes me want to be a better artist. I feel the same way about the music of Sufjan Stevens, another person for whom Christianity is important, and it makes me want to know what it is that’s getting them to this place that I admire, and envy, as a maker. This is not at all to say that my atheism is insecure, but rather that this world is replete with wonder.

4. Is it just the writing, or are you also drawn to the person of Robinson too?

I really love this question, because it made me wonder: Isn’t the writing the person? In other words: aren’t our creations the profoundest manifestations of self? For me, working with a camera is nothing less than self-creation, and I shudder to think of what my life would be like without the ability to make pictures.

But even if we don’t entirely equate our makings with our selves, I’m sure that our impressions of others are influenced by the things they’ve made. That unique and separate sensibility I mentioned before: what better evidence of it than a poem, a picture, a symphony? (It must be mentioned that this a value-free position; it’s just as easy to see evidence of a tired and derivative sensibility as it is of something wonderful and unexpected.) I’ll regretfully never meet Henry James, but holy shit that writing! To glimpse that melancholy and desire is to be drawn to a person. Or at least it feels uncannily like it.

But so anyway to get to the basic thrust of the question: yes, I am drawn to the person as well. I’ve now seen Robinson a number of times at readings and talks (once with the charming Colm Tóibín) and I much admire her calm and thoughtful presence. She is a person entirely and unapologetically comfortable with her intellect and her moral/ethical compass. She is formidable. And she pulls no punches, particularly lately: as she says in the introduction to her latest book, “I am too old to mince words . . . The willingness to indulge in ideological thinking – that is, in thinking that by definition is not one’s own, which is blind to experience and to the contradictions that arise when broader fields of knowledge are consulted – is a capitulation no one should ever make. It is a betrayal of our magnificent minds and of all the splendid resources our culture has prepared for their use.”

Is it evidence of her integrity to mention that Barack Obama is a fan of her work and her person? The New York Review of Books printed in two parts a conversation between Robinson and Obama that gives one hope for our intellectual and political futures.

5. For someone who hasn't read anything of hers, where would you recommend someone begin? Why there?

For many years now, whenever anyone has said they need a good book, I ask if they’ve read Housekeeping. Start there; it effects a deeply strange transfiguration. Gilead is equally wonderful, and yet different: simpler, more direct. Because I never believe anyone who says that he or she loves all of any artist’s output unequivocally, I must admit that Home and Lila are perhaps a half-notch below the first two. But that still puts them far far ahead of most everything else.

If you’re inclined to the essays, and wish to stay more toward literature and selfhood topics than theology, then the last three books – When I Was a Child I Read Books, The Givenness of Things, and What Are We Doing Here? – are best. My favorites from the first: “Imagination and Community,” “Austerity as Ideology,” and “When I Was a Child”; from the second: “Humanism,” “Givenness,” “Decline”; and from the third: the title essay, “What Is Freedom of Conscience,” “The Sacred, the Human,” “The Divine,” and the Hope section of “Considering the Theological Virtues.”

At the moment, I’m grappling with a remarkable essay from the last book called “Grace and Beauty.” The thesis is: “Beauty disciplines.” As her characters are written, they reach a place of aesthetic wholeness – beauty – that establishes “limits within which substantive invention is possible and, more to the point, within which variation is meaningful. These limits liberate the character, a fact that would be accounted a paradox if it were not so familiar.” Which I take to mean that form disciplines, that cogency is beauty. Will it surprise you to learn that Robert Adams is a Robinson fan? Many years ago he wrote: “Beauty is, in my view, a synonym for the coherence and structure underlying life.”

6. Any favourite passages you'd like to leave us with?

How did this turn into the hardest question? There’s so much I want to share. I’m going to err on the side of too much, but I promise I’ve chosen the lines I find most relevant to making pictures. And I hope to inspire the further reading of Marilynne Robinson.

From the essays:

"The most persistent and fruitful tradition of American literature from Emily Dickinson to Wallace Stevens is the meditation on the given, the inexhaustible ordinary."

"What is often described as a sense of the transcendent might in some cases be the intuition of the actual."

"[W]e have untried capacities to live richly in a universe of unfathomable interest, and we can and do, amazingly, enhance its interest with the things we make."

"What we have expressed, compared with what we have found no way to express, is overwhelmingly the lesser part."

From Housekeeping:

"Every spirit passing through the world fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally has come to look and not to buy. So shoes are worn and hassocks are sat upon and finally everything is left where it was and the spirit passes on, just as the wind in the orchard picks up the leaves from the ground as if there were no other pleasure in the world but brown leaves, as if it would deck, clothe, flesh itself in flourishes of dusty brown apple leaves, and then drops them all in a heap at the side of the house and goes on."

"One’s own dread is always mirrored upon the dread that inheres in things."

"For why do our thoughts turn to some gesture of a hand, the fall of a sleeve, some corner of a room on a particular anonymous afternoon, even when are asleep, and even when we are so old that our thoughts have abandoned other business? What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?"

"And so the ordinary demanded unblinking attention. Any tedious hour might be the last of its kind."

From Gilead:

"Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?"

"Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave – that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing."