Lila: Too Mysterious By Half

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Soon we’ll have a piece up on Marilynne Robinson’s newest novel Lila by Fare Forward editor, Charlie Clark. But in the meantime, a few thoughts. Lila is essentially, as Barbara McClay has pointed out, a call-back to Robinson’s earlier novel, HousekeepingIt shares a lot of its spirit with that novel—and avoids some of the problems that, I thought, haunted her last novel, HomeI agree with John Wilson about the virtues of her novel as novel. The writing is as beautiful and bewitching as it was in her first two novels. There are two passages in particular near the end, one about Lila attending the movies and one about an imaginative vision Lila has of the general resurrection that are, alone, worth the price of admission.

But her essential theological concerns have remained basically the same throughout most of her work, including Home, and they reach some of their fullest flowering here. That’s both good and bad. We’ve written admiringly of Robinson’s theological project more than once in Fare Forward, but it has its weaknesses, too. It’s possible to read Lila as, in part, a pretty conventional brief for universalism. The title character spends much of the book pondering over the eternal fate of people she knew in her troubled life, including some who took good care of her when she sorely needed it but who also rejected Christianity. In the end, she concludes that because there is “goodness at the center of things,” her friends must be in Heaven—a conclusion seemingly sanctioned by her husband, the pastor John Ames.

Ames. He’s a wonderful character who seems to embody a great personal holiness. But sometimes you wonder how he is a preacher. One of the funniest tropes in Lila to me is his repeated apologies to Lila for his inability to adequately answer her questions about suffering, hell, and grace, which are constantly on her mind (“For a preacher you ain’t much at explaining things,” Lila says at one point). There are a few times he attempts an answer to her questions, but often he acts kind of surprised by them (“Lila, you always do ask the hardest questions”) and then retreats into an invocation of mystery or the transcendence of divine truth (“If I tried to explain I wouldn’t believe what I was saying to you. That’s lying, isn’t it?…I really don’t think preachers ought to lie”). It turns out to be so difficult to put theology into words without sullying it that it is better just to remain silent. But what, then, does he preach when he steps up to the pulpit?

That’s related to another one of Robinson’s consistent themes, present also in Lila: that human beings are mysterious, and essentially unknowable—and that loneliness is therefore an inescapable condition. We can know some divine truth, maybe, even if we can’t really express it, but we can’t really know each other. Life is just a series of endless encounters with subjects totally alien to us. In Lila, this is captured in Ames’ marriage to Lila, which for most of the book is threatened by how alien the two spouses are to each other and by Lila’s recurring intention to leave their marriage unannounced—though she never quite does. Elliot Milco captured the basic sense of Robinson’s vision about human relations in a piece he did for Fare Forward on love:

For much of college I was fixated on the problem of communicating with other people. Prone to social anxiety and weaned on Kant and Kierkegaard, I was the sort of undergrad who carried around philosophical problems like a cross and regularly pondered the basis of intersubjectivity. I had laughably earnest inner dialogues about the difference between my self and how I was perceived. How can people know each other, when the self is inside and our exchanges are all on the outside? And if we cannot know each other, how can people love each other? Worse still, if we know each other only through exterior qualities, then isn’t knowledge, which seeks to reduce a person to the exterior, be opposed to love, which affirms people in their inscrutable inwardness?

These are heavy thoughts. I was accompanied in them for a short while by Emmanuel Levinas, who elevates and poeticizes the problem in his Totality and Infinity, and who convinced me that loving others was a matter of ineffable transcendence, something to be spoken of only in poetry and mysticism, irreducible to the mundane facts of daily living. Maybe it is knowing that prevents love. Maybe love is just a matter of letting the other be, beyond understanding or familiarity, resisting the urge to transform people into inert objects, totalities, wholes. True love is disinterested, receptive, free from expectation or judgment. True love is beyond order or rationality.

That’s Robinson. Part of the reason Home failed for me is because that vision of human relations became too heavy-handed: just people over and over again failing to understand each other, even in the most trivial ways, and then apologizing, and then rinse-and-repeat. Life is sometimes like that, but it’s not always like that, because we can actually know each other to a greater degree than Robinson allows. We are not, in the technical theological sense, mysteries.

Milco points out that it’s not always wrong to vest love with a degree of mystical poetry. That’s the good behind the Robinson approach. As Father Thomas Joseph White put it, “We live in a universe that actually invites us to a sense of studious wonder…it’s a wonder in which we may study more deeply the mystery. Who will ever say that they have finished thinking about what a human person is?” Likewise, divine truths do sometimes inspire awed silence—and there are times when silence is a better response to a certain context than speaking badly about it or giving routinized, perfunctory answers. But an overemphasis on the intense and “inscrutable inwardness” of the human person is ultimately going to be as distorting and unhelpful a vision for life as a too brash dismissal of that inwardness would be.

This has enormous practical consequences. All of us will someday have to answer the questions Lila poses to Ames, if we haven’t already. Our answers don’t actually have to be as tortured, tentative, and hesitant as Ames’ are. Preaching the Gospel boldly is as important as respecting the difficulty of someone’s situation. As for loneliness, I do not share Robinson’s sense that it is inevitable as a lived reality. I think that’s a self-fulfilling stance, and maybe even a cruel one, as loneliness is painful, and we don’t need a reason in this world to inflict unnecessary pain on ourselves. Dorothy Day said, “‘We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.” There is a solution to loneliness, but only because Robinson’s vision is too mysterious by half. Community and friendship are possible, as is preaching, as is, yes, even moral judgment and condemnation, because knowledge isn’t as impossible as all that.

Peter Blair

Peter Blair lives in Washington, DC. A 2012 graduate of Dartmouth College, he works as Campus Program Coordinator for the Thomistic Institute. Peter is editor-in-chief of Fare Forward. He is on Twitter: @PeterAWBlair.