Pulitzer winner embraces tradition

Modern attitudes toward the Western intellectual tradition should be reevaluated, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson argued in a lecture Tuesday.

In the first talk of the four-part 2009 Dwight H. Terry lecture series, Robinson dismissed the notion that humans have reached a stage where they have fully unraveled the mysteries of the human condition, an idea she called the “crossing of the threshold.” Instead, Robinson argued in front of a nearly full house in Linsly-Chittenden Hall, modern thinkers should have respect, if not reverence, for the intellectuals who have come before them.

Author Marilynne Robinson chats with students after her lecture entitled “On Human Nature,” which was the first of four Dwight H. Terry lectures she will deliver this year.
Erica Cooper
Author Marilynne Robinson chats with students after her lecture entitled “On Human Nature,” which was the first of four Dwight H. Terry lectures she will deliver this year.

Robinson, an author and faculty member at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, received the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for her novel “Gilead,” which recounts the life of a dying reverend in a rural Iowan town.

As the central topic of Tuesday’s lecture, titled simply “On Human Nature,” Robinson identified the recurring intellectual belief that humanity has undergone some fundamental changes and is now in an age of unlimited comprehension.

“I was educated to believe that we had entered a realm called ‘modern thought,’ and we must naturalize ourselves to it,” Robinson said.

Using examples from modern academia, including philosopher Bertrand Russell and Biblical scholar James Kugel, Robinson criticized the contempt for tradition that she saw as characteristic of many contemporary thinkers — an intellectual trope going back to Descartes, whom many philosophers have blamed for creating the mind-soul division that has become entrenched in Western thought.

“There’s a kind of hostile skepticism that is impoverishing, because there’s still the human project,” Robinson said. “We as organisms have generated works of great beauty. In culture, as in nature, there is no leaving the past behind.”

Dwelling for a time on the issue of religion, which she called “a major factor in any consideration of the workings of the mind,” Robinson also found fault with the tendency of academics to take the “intellectual high ground” and dismiss the belief systems of seemingly primitive societies.

“Religion is a point of entry for anthropological inquiries whose intents are largely invidious,” Robinson said. “But that ancient religions contemplated cosmic origins should instill awe at what humans are, the mind is.”

Audience reaction to the lecture was mixed. Several attendees noted that the speech was often unclear or unnecessarily convoluted, contrasted with the simple, poetic nature of Robinson’s writing in works like the 1980 novel “Housekeeping.”

“At times it seemed somewhat impenetrable,” Victor Vu ’02 DIV ’05 said.

Others said they resonated with Robinson’s message of appreciation for the academic tradition of the past.

“I usually found myself agreeing with what she said,” Divinity School Dean Harold Attridge said, quipping that the speech was “a brilliant romp through the history of Western thought.”

The Terry lectureship brings intellectuals to campus to discuss the state of religion and human nature in the face of scientific and philosophical developments. Robinson’s next lecture, “The Strange History of Altruism,” is scheduled for March 26.

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