Wednesday, December 15, 2010

No Frigate Like a Book

Day 310 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and I return today to The Death of Adam, by Marilynne Robinson, because I finally finished this amazing book of essays by a wonderful historian and novelist, and because of the marvelous mention of Emily Dickinson on page 211. This comes in the essay titled "Marguerite of Navarre, Part II, " which is really mostly about Marguerite, while the essay "Marguerite of Navarre" (understood to be part I) was mostly about Jean Cauvin, whom she sheltered and nurtured.

In addition to revealing Robinson as an excellent historian and compassionate moralist, this book reveals her as a feminist and environmentalist. I remember that when I started this book, I kept wondering why The Barbaric Heart, by Curtis White, wasn't full of references and citations to Marilynne Robinson. Her book was first published in 1998, and his in 2009, a full decade later. I still don't know why!

Her last essay "Wilderness" heralds a book like his: "I think we are desperately in need of a new, chastened, self-distrusting* vision of the world, an austere vision that can postpone the outdoor pleasures of cherishing exotica, and the first-world pleasures of assuming we exist to teach reasonableness to the less fortunate, and the debilitating pleasures of imagining that our own impulses are reliably good." She points out that our own impulses quite often foist nuclear waste onto the wildernesses of Utah, Idaho, and the Lake District in England, so beloved of the Romantic poets. In fact, she has a whole book, Mother Country, about environmental pollution in Britain, evidently so ignored or so unpopular as to be out of print....

People want pictures of koalas. They want to "Save the Whales" on bumper stickers. They don't want the cold hard truth.

"I am bold enough to suggest [that], to this point, environmental successes quite exactly resemble failure. What have we done for the whale, if we lose the sea?  If we lose the sea, how do we mend the atmosphere?" And so on.

*And Curtis White, in The Barbaric Heart, criticizes the environmental movement itself for falling short of the real change, which must come in the heart.

"Every environmental problem is a human problem," says Robinson. "Civilization is the ecology being lost. We can do nothing that matters if we cannot encourage its rehabilitation." She wants us to civilize ourselves enough not to keep up with the current money-based industrial and military practices that require the relentless dumping of dangerous garbage into our seas and wildernesses, even to "surrender the idea of wilderness," especially of wilderness "as an escape from civilization," and instead become civilized enough not to destroy it and each other.

But what about Marguerite and Emily?! Marguerite gathered scholars and writers together and promoted French as a literary language and advanced civilization in the time she lived, and herself wrote poems and stories that today read as modern but were neglected in her own time and "read as lady's poetry and therefore as all she asked of herself, or the best she could do. Emily Dickinson comes to mind." And the dismissing of her innovations in language and punctuation.

"There is no frigate like a book," wrote Emily Dickinson. When I first heard that phrase, I did not know a frigate was a sailing vessel, often light and swift, that could carry me away to far-off places, like a book, and sometimes a war vessel, that could "arm" me with knowledge. But I had heard the phrase "frig it," one "f" word substituting for another in a frustrated curse, so I thought I was hearing something I shouldn't have heard when someone, my dad, I think, first quoted that line in my hearing.

But I have sailed backward into history, and forward into the inevitable deterioration of the environment if we do not veer off our present course, via The Death of Adam, by Marilynne Robinson. And still I look around at our present world, as she does, with childlike wonder and hope and ripples and waves of compassion.


Nancy Devine said...

what a terrific way to think of a a means for sailing somewhere!

Collagemama said...

I like the self-distrusting vision of the world. We are so excited about penguins, rain forests, and coral reefs, but we've removed all the host plants for butterflies and bees.

Kathleen said...

Yes, alas! I heard biologist (and ant specialist) Edward O. Wilson speak on the topic of species extinction, the interconnectedness of things, etc. He said the earth would survive the extinction of humans, but not the extinction of ants. But Robinson points out that humans are needed to maintain the radioactive garbage we've already caused...and, if we "civilize" ourselves enough, might find a way to safely and truly get rid of it, and make no more.