It has become something of a critical cliché to end a review or an essay with a phrase such as “…and find out something about what it means to be human”. The elevation of this simple characterisation of a piece’s themes and ideas into a full-blown cliché is partly a reflection of its over-use by unimaginative critics and partly a reflection of the sheer number of works of art that attempt to engage with issues of personal identity. Indeed, the crisis of identity is perhaps the central recurring theme behind all of modern literature. However, despite all of the books, films and plays devoted to excavating conceptions of the self, surprisingly little headway has been made. We are still alienated from our deepest desires. We are still trapped between the need to be social creatures and the desire to be true to ourselves. We are still fundamentally estranged from each other’s subjectivities.
In fact, art’s lack of progress has been so complete that one might well be tempted to conclude that art — whether it be literary, dramatic, cinematic or figurative — simply lacks the capacity to generate the kind of robust truths that stand up to close intellectual scrutiny. After all, if one does not turn to interpretative dance when one wants to discern the nature of a neutron star, why should we turn to poetry when we want to discover who we are?
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson’s extended essay Absence of Mind – The Dispelling of Inwardness From The Modern Myth of The Self is an attempt to address this very question. Robinson feels that the rise and rise of scientific conceptions of the self have resulted in a general impoverishment of discourse surrounding human nature. An impoverishment that has left us alienated not only from the many ancient and richly metaphysical traditions embodied by the arts, philosophy, and religion, but also from ourselves and our willingness to trust our own insights into who we are and what we want.
Unfortunately, rather than clearly defenestrating these shrunken visions of humanity and providing a sustained and rigorous argument in favour of a richly metaphysical conception of the self, Robinson provides us with a one hundred and thirty page-long howl of entitlement. Robinson is sloppy in her choice of targets, meretricious in her engagement with science and vacuous in her proclamations. Absence of Mind is a book that fizzles with anger at the idea that scientists refuse to take Robinson’s private intuitions into account when formulating their theories but when the time comes for Robinson to articulate a reason — any reason — as to why they should, she remains oddly silent. Absence of Mind is a book written with little insight and with little to say.