Book review: ‘Absence of Mind’ by Marilynne Robinson

Absence of Mind

The Dispelling of Inwardness From the Modern Myth of the Self

Marilynne Robinson

Yale: 144 pp., $24

A few years ago, I noticed that an alarming number of acquaintances were reading the work of spiritual speaker and author Eckhart Tolle. The conclusion they seemed to be drawing was that an individual had a right to his or her experience. That individual also had a right not to be interrupted or derailed into someone else’s experience, a conclusion that seemed far too convenient, too self-serving to be worthy of a thinker of Tolle’s stature. Marketing might have explained the Tolle trend, but I also chalked up the perversion of his hard work to the culture of greedy individualism.

Ideas and explanations without context, charismatic thinkers and our willingness to discard old beliefs to embrace revelations have, over the last 160 years or so, trapped human inquiry into the self and our species in a looking-glass world that’s didactic and separates common sense from science and the self from the world.

We look in the mirror, Marilynne Robinson writes in “Absence of Mind,” and we see an untrustworthy, self-interested creature with an untrustworthy mind. No wonder a philosopher such as Tolle, for instance, who offers the idea that we aren’t so bad after all, that we have a right to believe in the value of experience and the mystery of the universe, might be clung to like a floe that a polar bear has finally found to rest upon.

Winner of a Pulitzer Prize for her novel “Gilead,” Robinson in this new nonfiction work questions the authority of science, not its methods, which she sees as evidence for the capacity and beauty of the human mind. She is annoyed by the arrogance of modernist thought, which has entrapped us for so many generations: “After Darwin, after Nietzsche, after Freud, after structuralism and post-structuralism, after Crick and Watson and the death of God, some assumptions were to be regarded as fixed and inevitable and others as exposed for all time and for all purposes as naïve and untenable.”

Robinson, however, affirms her own “very high estimate of human nature”: “We have had a place in the universe since it occurred to the first of our species to ask what our place might be.”

But positivism and modernist thought have had the opposite effect: They encourage the “exclusion of felt life”: We are discouraged from making explanations about our place in the universe. Subjectivity is not allowed; instead, there is what Robinson calls an “absence of mind.” This is, she writes, one of the reasons why modernist thought and parascientific literature so often include polemics against religion. “The physical universe, as it is known to us now, is not accessible to the strategies of comprehension that once seemed so exhaustively useful to us.” Along with a “sterilized and occluded mind,” she writes, comes a “missionary zeal, an impatient need to enlist believers.”

Of course, here one could argue that as the world has divided between science and religion, a missionary zeal exists on both sides of the divide. Robinson’s arguments, so much more interesting, capacious and informed than most, do at times become shrill and sarcastic, the voice of a powerful mind that was, for much of its existence, prevented from criticizing prevailing ideologies. Religion has been around a long time, she writes somewhat petulantly. Science is relatively new.

Robinson explores that old irritant in the flesh of positivists — altruism. She argues that the inability of most parascientists to adequately explain why humans share information and help each other exemplifies not only the blindness of modernists but also their assertion that humans are basically selfish and unreliable. The idea, according to E.O. Wilson, that the " brain is a machine assembled not to understand itself, but to survive,” she writes, means that the mind, “unaided by factual knowledge from science sees the world only in little pieces. It throws a spotlight on those portions of the world it must know in order to live to the next day, and surrenders the rest to darkness.” This suggests, to Robinson, that Wilson believes in science “as a kind of magic, as if it existed apart from history and culture, rather than being, in objective truth and inevitably, their product.” The mind is little more than a “passive conduit"— “our minds are not our own.”

In a chapter on Freud, Robinson shows how he contributed to the “absence of mind,” the denial of the worth of the individual. She explains how Freud, a product of the anti-Semitic, divisive world of prewar Vienna, attempted in his work to erase human differences with a universal theory of behavior. “Freud’s highly polished, deeply troubled Vienna… bears more than a little resemblance to the Freudian self.” Freud experienced the world as threatening and overwhelming. He dismissed Romanticism, with its essential belief in human nature, as childish, even infantile. He insisted on “a psychology that withdraws itself from history, from culture in the narrow sense, and from the natural world.” Altruism? Oceanic feelings of love? Not in his world.

How can we deny the power of the mind, Robinson asks, when we consider remarkable scientific discoveries? How can we deny experience? Why continue to insist on selfishness and untrustworthiness as fundamental aspects of being human? “Each of us lives intensely within herself or himself, continuously assimilating past and present experience to a narrative and vision that are unique in every case yet profoundly communicable, whence the arts. And we all live in a great reef of collective experience…The schools of thought I have criticized exclude the great fact of human exceptionalism, though no one would deny that it is a pure expression of the uniqueness of the human brain.” Surely, Robinson argues, there is room in our vast imagination to “acknowledge some small fragment of the mystery we are.”

Robinson makes a strong, unapologetic case, not for mystery but for self-respect. It seems to this reader that this case is stronger, more deeply argued than a case for religion, even as she ties the two together: “Our religious traditions give us as the name of God two deeply mysterious words, one deeply mysterious utterance: I AM.” I read this book as an antidote to the disregard for humanity that has characterized so much of modernist thought and that has been identified with scientific inquiry for the last century and a half.

Salter Reynolds is a writer in Los Angeles.