Sunday, March 26, 2006

A Public Space: Excerpts from Robinson

In the inaugural issue of A Public Space, a new literary journal edited by Brigid Hughes, formerly of The Paris Review, there's an essay titled "You Need Not Doubt What I Say Because It Is Not True" by Marilynne Robinson, in which the acclaimed author of Housekeeping and Gilead "makes a case for fiction." If you forget that the title of the essay has the cloying ring that one might expect from the title of Dave Eggers' next novel, or that Robinson's arguments are ornate but not the most coherent I've ever seen, there are some great nuggets, several of which pertain to recent concerns on this blog. Here are three:
Our extraordinary complexity is not only our distinction among the animals, and our glory -- it is also our tragedy, and our capacity to do extraordinary harm. We may have most of our genome in common with the higher primates -- as well as with pigs and fungi, it seems -- but we are the only creatures who would ever have thought to split the atom. This is an instance of our unique ability to get ourselves into the worst kind of trouble: to create trouble this seismic world, left to itself, would have spared us. To err is human. To err catastrophically is definitively human. ... The neo-Darwinists insist that we and our behavior are formed around the project of assuring our genetic survival. History should be sufficient rebuttal.

I draw my examples from science because I will argue that our sense of the world is always hypothesis, and that we are sane to the degree that we understand this. To proceed by hypothesis is the method of modern science, ideally. It is one of the dominant assumptions of modern culture that science by its nature drives back the shadows of error. It is this confidence that very often leads science to forget skepticism, and to take itself for the unique domain of truth. Many of the darkest shadows in the modern period have been the products of science -- and there is no reason to call it by another name than science, simply because it was grossly in error. Racial theory and eugenics are cases in point. I say this because I wish to assert that all thought always inclines toward error. The prejudices that would exclude one tradition of thought from this tendency -- be it science, be it theology -- is simply another instance of the tendency toward error.

The psychologies that have come and gone since the word psychology was coined have tended to describe what they have taken to be universal attributes. All the men in the world want to kill their fathers and marry their mothers. Or, more recently, we are all of us merely passive receptors which allow for the survival and propagation of memes, concepts and fragments of concepts afloat virus-like in the medium of collective life. The fact that two theories so utterly incompatible could coexist -- and Freudianism still pervades the culture -- can only mean that we have not the slightest idea what we are actually talking about.

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