Nightlights and Night Watches: The Unifying Experience of Literature

Two in the morning just might be the loneliest time. The house lies still; only my thoughts run.  Lists of what I have done and what I must do alternately congratulate and accuse me, while instant replays of the previous day’s conversations play on my mind’s screen. Soon enough, I flee my bed for the solace of my living room chair. Here I sit in a pool of light with only Marilynne Robinson for company, and one could do worse to chase away night demons. 

Her essay, “When I Was A Child I Read Books,” explores reductionist trends in education that diminish the meaning of the word “human” by teaching a dualism that eliminates soul from science and man from matter.  She contends that materialism, that idea that the world is only what can be scientifically observed, eliminates the numinous:  “The assumption persists among us still, vigorous as ever, that if a thing can be ‘explained,’ associated with a physical process, it has been excluded from the category of the spiritual” (Robinson, 10). Science of this sort, rather than augmenting the wonder of creation through its discoveries, reduces it to mere mechanics. 

She locates this problem and its propagation not only in the academy and its curriculum, but also strangely enough within the church, which has, in an effort toward universal inclusiveness and accessibility, “retreat[ed] from the cultivation and celebration of learning and of beauty, by dumbing down, as if people were less than God made them and in need of nothing so much as condescension” (Robinson, 5).  The church, by accepting the presuppositions of materialism, has abetted what Robinson terms “dreary determinisms” (Robinson, 5). 

Modern science works with an eye toward identification, rather than understanding. Whereas identification merely classifies facts, understanding strives to view facts within a larger framework:  “Science might note with great care and precision how a new pathology emerged through this wholly unforeseen impact of space on our biosphere, but it could not, scientifically, absorb the fact of it and the origin of it into any larger frame of meaning…Science has no language to account for the fact that it may well overwhelm itself, and more and more stand helpless before its own effects” (Robinson, 16). This is because modern science, which deals exclusively with matter, recognizes only half of reality. Science of this sort relegates the soul to another realm and, through this bifurcation, rends the human experience.

Robinson locates a remedy for this wound in a return to wonder that stems from reconnecting what dualism has bisected.  She sees in literature, especially fiction, an opportunity for healing by returning to the Homeric lacrimae rerum, the tears in things, “the great sadness that pervades human life” (14). True fiction observes unintended consequences, cosmic ironies, and tragic half-truths that obscure tidy classifications. Rather than mastery of the world, it characterizes the experience of man in a world that will not be simplified. 

Far from deriding science, Robinson longs to re-associate it with soul.  She appeals to Paul’s letter to the Romans, where Paul suggests that the visible created order reflects the spiritual realities of the universe, “[God’s] eternal power and deity” (Rom. 1:20).  Robinson reflects:  “If we are to consider the heavens, how much more are we to consider the magnificent energies of consciousness that make whomever we pass on the street a far grander marvel than our galaxy?  At this point of human convergence, call it self or call it soul, questions of right and wrong are weighed, love is felt, guilt and loss are suffered.  And, over time, formation occurs, for weal or woe, governed in large part by that unaccountable capacity for self-awareness.  The locus of the human mystery is perception of this world” (Robinson, 9). The study of humanity, in which fiction participates, necessarily reconnects the physical and the spiritual since man is both body and soul.

Fiction presents, in microcosm, a dim reflection of the human experience which is fraught with that inexplicable self-awareness that finds me, like so many others, sitting in a pool of light after midnight in search of coherence, contemplating grandeur and beset by misery.  It is simply soul, casting about in the magnificent, decorated void for grace.  Perhaps this grace is best found in the dark, in the stars and frivolous decorations, in the divine night lights that dangle from space, fixed by magnetic gravity we cannot comprehend so that we find them, night after night, where we always have. Grace in the cosmos, evident to night watchers…  Thank You, Lord, for leaving the lights on, and thank you, Marilynne Robinson, for the company.