The Artist as Judge

Some months ago, I wrote of Marilynne Robinson that,

Regardless of her political preferences, her worldview, in its starkly Calvinist way, and insofar as it’s expressed in those novels and Absence of Mind, is conservative in a way that goes far beyond the political.

I further claimed that her novels Gilead and Home were “at their core . . . conservative works.”  I wasn’t entirely at ease with the phrasing at the time—my mention of going beyond the political was an attempt, of sorts, to hedge—and have grown less comfortable with time.  Her most recent collection of essays, When I Was A Child I Read Books, leads me to suspect that she would respond, more or less, by saying she had always thought of them as deeply liberal works.  Though that, too, would be an unsatisfactory label.

Peter Lawler, however, has offered me the term that I was groping blindly for: Robinson, he says, is a “neo-Puritanical novelist”:

[I]t’s from the Puritans that we get the idea that freedom is about more than work or productivity. Every person has a soul, and so everyone should be able to read what the Bible says about one’s personal destiny and charitable moral responsibilities for oneself.

The Puritans, Robinson explains, are a potent source of our devotion to liberal education, to education for civilization. The Jeffersonians, we might say, excel in the pursuit of the means or conditions of freedom, but it’s the Puritans who supplied us with our original insight about the personal end or point of our freedom. Freedom of religion is for freedom of religion–understood as an organized community of thought and action in which particular persons participate.”

What confused me—what prompted me to label her works, despite my best judgment, “conservative”—is the refusal of Robinson’s writing to accept many of the premises of contemporary liberalism—at least as it is construed in what we’ve taken to calling “liberal” cultural products.  The crux of it is: Humans are created beings with souls, and therefore freedom must be a freedom in order to—a freedom with some defining purpose that takes into account that we are created beings with souls.

That doesn’t make her a voice out to spread the Good News.  It makes her a quiet but insistent voice that relentlessly judges history.  She is—as the title of the most recent collection should make clear—one of America’s most genuinely counter-cultural voices.

On a further note, maybe this helps to explain my continued befuddlement at the question of liberal/conservative (“pop”) culture: certainly there’s plenty that’s liberal, and less that’s conservative—but there is a third category that, like Robinson, may reject premises of contemporary (“pop”) culture without becoming conservative, or, if not in outright rejection of these premises, is deeply and genuinely self-critical and self-questioning.  I’d be willing to wager, moreover, that what we deem lasting and worthwhile from this period’s cultural production in fifty years will have been disproportionately from the third category.

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3 thoughts on “The Artist as Judge

  1. I find modern and classical more helpful than left-right, or “liberal” in any fashion. Renaissance humanism was “liberal,” yet I don’t see it fitting into “modern” as I understand it. Conservative is best understood as an opposition to radicalism, or “modernity” as I understand it.

    Calvinism-Puritanism, certainly not modern. The French philosophes, modern. The Scottish Common Sense Enlightenment, not modern [and the version of the Enlightenment that vitiated the American Founding].

    When you speak of a “freedom with some defining purpose,” that is an Aristotelian teleology [Aquinas’ as well], and it is “natural law,” the concept of freedom of the American Founding. The freedom that is an end in itself is that of the moderns, of the utilitarians, of the libertarians [except Rothbard]. Pope Benedict complains of such a soulless freedom, whose only telos is itself, freedom for freedom’s own sake.

    Lawler, whom I like: “Freedom of religion is for freedom of religion–understood as an organized community of thought and action in which particular persons participate.”

    This is Barry Shain’s thesis BTW,
    The Myth of American Individualism:
    The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought

    Coming from the Roman Catholic tradition, I’ve found learning Protestantism–particularly via “Calvinist resistance theory”—invaluable in understanding the American ethos. I like Lawler because he appreciates that, that somehow between whatever’s modern about Locke and the Calvinist view of man, there is, as he puts it, an “accidental Thomism.”

    [I don’t think it was “accidental,” but that’s a quibble.]

    “Our Declaration is Thomistic at least to this extent: Because of Congress’s amendments to the original draft, the God of Nature becomes emphatically also the living God of the Bible. That’s in the context of free persons pledging all they have and are to each other in a sacred cause they share in common.

    Had our Declaration been the exclusive or even the primary product of the original Puritans, it would have been theocratic—that is, not orthodox Christianity. The Puritans, Alexis de Tocqueville tells us, were heretics in the sense that they were about basing the law of their political community on the law found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. There’s not a word in the New Testament that would justify their effort, in effect, to criminalize every sin.”

    [Here, the thing is that to rid themselves of all traces of popery, the Puritans left the ecclesiastical courts behind in Europe. So where marriage, divorce, childrearing, adultery, inheritances, drunkenness, and many of the components of social order were once administered by the church, it fell to the state to enforce these norms of social order.]

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    • the antecedent is not quite clear, (and I may be confusing your thoughts with a paraphrase of someone else’s) – are you saying The Scottish version of the Enlightenment vitiated the American Founding ? And if so, is vitiated the actual word you want to use, or the opposite of the word you want to use?

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