The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought by Marilynne Robinson (1998)

A year of Rob Doyle’s old favourites

Marilynne Robinson belongs to a rare and attractive category of thinker: the contrarian of high moral seriousness. That is, her contrarianism stems not from congenital misanthropy, but from the union of a fertile system of values with an instinctual mistrust for consensus.

I became interested in Robinson not through her much-loved novels, but through her recent essay collection What Are We Doing Here? Reading her felt faintly transgressive, in that one is not accustomed to modern intellectuals writing at full tilt from the starting point of an unabashed belief in God.

When Robinson writes about religion, it really does seem a more coherent stance towards existence than whatever is meant by atheism: religion has “its origins in the human intuition that reality is rooted in a profounder matrix of Being than sense and experience make known to us in the ordinary course of things. By theology I mean the attempts to realise in some degree the vastness and atmospheres of this matrix of Being”.

Robinson’s earlier collection, The Death of Adam, reappraises certain historical figures and schools of thought around whom our views are so cosily consensual that we have long ceased thinking about them: “a campaign of revisionism, because contemporary discourse feels to me empty and false”.

What could be more countercultural than a spirited bid to rehabilitate John Calvin, that scarecrow-signifier of religious gloom and Christian self-hatred? “My heart is with the Puritans,” Robinson admits with an air of dignified mischief, while taking pains to distinguish the genuine, self-effacing morality she admires from mere priggishness (“signs by which they make themselves recognisable to others and to themselves as virtuous”).

Decrying the societal and ecological carcinogen of free-market economics, Robinson traces the brutal anti-values underpinning them to the more or less explicit calls to exterminate the weak found in Nietzsche and Darwin. Occasionally she comes close to denouncing the entire project of modern thought itself. In going after such big game, an author could make herself ridiculous; Robinson’s patent sanity and earthed, life-loving conservatism make me trust her.