Recently I wrote about Richard Diebenkorn and described how deeply his work and approach to life informed my way of art making and being in the world. In that post I referenced Adam Gopnik‘s description of squareness:
Cézanne, unique among the masters, was utterly square. Diebenkorn, the perfect representative of a culture without irony, was square, too, but he managed to be square without being corny, which is a nice way of remaining classic. This unbending classical sincerity—a Cézannist quality—radiated from the man, and it was a trait that his friends most often admired and recalled.
I am drawn by this contrarian position as a way of navigating (avoiding?) a contemporary world of art that is overly fixated on the cool, the hip and terminally detached. Call me Ishmael? No, I’d rather be Square.
Maybe square is an apt code word for what matters most to me these days. And if square is my tribe, then I I can’t help looking for kinspeople. A high probability candidate is the extraordinary Marilynne Robinson, author of a new novel Lila and subject of a very thoughtful and sensitive portrait by Wyatt Mason that appeared in the New York Times Magazine this Sunday.
Admired by writers and readers for her exceptional literary gifts—she is the winner of many literary prizes for her previous novels Housekeeping, Gilead and Home—Robinson is a rather singular figure in literary circles for her unabashed devotion to Christianity (she is a sometimes Congregationalist preacher) and her passion for John Calvin. That interest permeates her novels as well as her non-fiction writing including The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays, and Mother Country.
Mason is a thoughtful writer, and in his piece for the Times he is able to portray both the delicate finesse and the fierce muscularity of Robinson’s mind. These words, elicited from her during the several days he spent with her in Iowa City, are memorable:
“One of the things that bothers me is that there are prohibitions of an unarticulated kind that are culturally felt that prevent people from actually saying what they think.”
“It’s as if when you describe something good, you are being deceived or are being deceptive.”
“Being and human beings are invested with a degree of value that we can’t honor appropriately. An overabundance that is magical.”
“A lot of people who actually believe in the sacredness of life, they write things that are horrible, desolating things. Because, for some reason, this deeper belief doesn’t turn the world…It comes down to fear; the fear of making self-revelation of the seriousness of ‘I sense a sacredness in things.'”
I am drawn deeply to Robinson’s version of squareness and her willingness to “sense a sacredness in things.” But I also resonate with the part of her that stays outside of life just a bit, a tendency to stand apart.
Mason quotes Robinson on this issue:
I have always been—always from childhood’s hour, as Poe would say—in the habit of feeling quite a stark difference between myself and the world I navigated. Which was any world I navigated. And then, at a certain point, I found out that that was a) very formative and b) probably an error, although it was that discomfort that made me feel like writing, the feeling of difference.
To the extent that I was ever an unhappy person, I was happy with my unhappiness…
People do things very differently…And it probably has to do with genes and child rearing and all sorts of things. But you can feel a distance as regrettable and at the same time take a kind of pride in it. The stalwartness of the self. That it can endure. And that even though you can kind of theoretically see how you could be more like the world that excludes you, you know that you can rely on yourself not to be…Somebody who had read ‘Lila’ asked me, “Why do you write about the problem of loneliness?” I said: “It’s not a problem. It’s a condition. It’s a passion of a kind. It’s not a problem. I think that people make it a problem by interpreting it that way.”
In that same vein, Robinson reveals a few of her concerns for constructing the inner life. She shares a teacher’s wise words, valuable advice received when she was quite young: “You have to live with your mind your whole life.” Robinson elaborates: “You build your mind, so make it into something you want to live with.”
Her devotion to building an inner landscape that is sustainably compelling and companionable 24/7 is the essence of the hermit’s creed. And with proclivities towards hermiting of my own, this is just one more reason why she feels like a cotraveler.