Disturbance of the epistemological conventions of the marriage plot in Lila
Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevedo
The relationship between epistemology and power is one that underlies much of the quintessential form of the female Bildungsroman: the marriage plot. Drawing on theorists from Michel Foucault to Miranda Fricker, this essay argues that Robinson’s third Gilead novel, Lila, challenges epistemic injustice, a challenge rooted in the generic conventions of the androcentric American Bildungsroman tradition, as well as the transcendentalist philosophy that informs it. Indeed, this essay reads Lila as a novel primarily about epistemology and power, arguing that the relationship between Lila and Ames dramatises the tension between his recognised, reified form of academic, book-bound learning, and her marginalised, discredited, and life-learnt knowledge. The exchanges they have throughout the novel not only highlight how these forms of knowledge are linked to power, class, and gender, but also question and undermine such a hierarchy.
Marilynne Robinson’s essays and the crisis of mainline Protestantism
This essay examines Robinson’s imagination of American church history and her interventions into current church politics. In her view, recent American church history is defined by the tension between the Protestant mainline and evangelicalism. The two key essays for the expression of this view – “Onward Christian Liberals” and “Credo” – are both defences of liberal Protestantism, with its spirituality of uncertainty and its political emphasis on social justice, and critical of the evangelical focus on personal conversion and neoliberal political associations. In The Death of Adam and, more recently, The Givenness of Things, Robinson worries over ‘the effect of marginalising the liberal churches and elevating fundamentalism to the status of essential Christianity’, curiously blaming the Protestant mainline for the decline of the mainline itself. This essay therefore foregrounds Robinson’s questioning of the relationship between liberal churches and their congregation, asking questions about the history and politics of the American church to shed light on its centrality to Robinson’s political imagination.
The chapter opens by contemplating the Victorian debate as to whether Shakespeare’s grave should be opened in order to ascertain not merely the presence of his body but also the conformation of his skull. The significance of that skull is outlined with reference to Wilkie Collins’s novella Mr Wray’s Cash-Box, which emphasises the role that the bust of the dramatist in the parish church of Stratford-on-Avon plays in the myth of Shakespeare’s genius. Other portraits of the Bard are then highlighted as the focus of phrenological speculation, and the connections between physiognomy, phrenology and genius are made further with reference to the actual exhumation of the Scottish poet Robert Burns, during which an authorised cast of his skull was taken specifically for phrenological analysis. Having established the presence of phrenology in a popular culture that proceeds far beyond medicine, the remainder of the chapter outlines the basic tenets of the pseudoscience, identifies the central protagonists of its early years in Britain and describes the chapters which follow.
Building on the ideas of Jacques Derrida, this essay explores how the unseen haunts the landscape of Robinson’s novels, Gilead and Home, making the reader bear witness to a politics of absence figured as racial. The negotiation between the visible and invisible, the material and the metaphysical enables Robinson to construct a radical reimagining of the history of the Midwestern landscape in her narratives. Drawing on an original, unpublished interview with Robinson, this chapter argues that what is at stake in reimagining the landscape of Iowa in the Civil War from the perspective of those on the cusp of the civil rights movement is the ability to remember and learn from history. For Jack, in particular, the landscape of Gilead is inscribed with his personal hopes and desires for his loved ones writ large in the history of his hometown and region; his alienation is one that stems in part from a struggle to feel at home in a nation that denies them existential value.
These three, short contributions read Marilynne Robinson in her historical and contemporary contexts. Sarah Churchwell considers key concepts of justice and charity in relation to the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Richard H. King draws on Robinson’s theological and philosophical ideas – particularly goodness and grace – linking Robinson to fellow Christian writer, Flannery O’Connor. Bridget Bennett finally discusses the home in Home and its varied iterations throughout Robinson’s work.
Marilynne Robinson’s nonfiction essays have sometimes been criticised for their doctrinaire certainty, as a juridical lexis and distinctly latinate syntax precipitate rhetorical closures at the expense of even-handedness. Yet, Robinson’s fiction adopts an entirely different register, in which highly stylised and visionary passages reveal coherences as much aesthetic as conceptual. This essay argues that the patterns of sense and suggestion in her novels emerge from the dense poetic textures of her prose. In this way, Robinson’s prose is ‘poetic’ not only in the vaguer senses of conjuring vivid images, or being pleasing to the ear. Housekeeping, for example, has several pivotal scenes in audible metrical cadences, lending a suppressed emotive charge to ostensibly routine occurrences. These local effects have broader implications for the structure of Robinson’s works. As this essay argues, rhythm, both at the level of the sentence, and in episodic narrative patterns, is central to Robinson’s fiction, as she shows how whole lives can be shaped by a simple object, a casual gesture, or a turn of phrase.
Enacting feminine alterity in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping
Makayla C. Steiner
Marilynne Robinson’s debut novel Housekeeping is a novel about women that is frequently read as a feminist version of the American male Bildungsroman. Beginning with its very title, it highlights various methods by which feminine alterity may function to welcome the lonely and make the home a place of refuge, while also illuminating its theoretical limits. This essay argues that Robinson’s adult women characters both support and complicate the lived efficacy of feminine alterity as they attempt to create a welcoming home for two young orphans. It also demonstrates how Robinson’s aesthetic is the most successful enactment of feminine alterity because it makes ethical behaviour – what Levinas sometimes calls holiness – possible.
Mesmerism, celebrity practitioners and the schism of 1842–3
This chapter examines the uneasy relationship between phrenology and mesmerism, and the division of opinion with regard to the potentially secular implication of the pseudoscience that further eroded phrenology’s position in mainstream culture. Attention is paid to how John Elliotson came to dominate the debate on phrenology’s utility in London medical circles, and how the journal he edited – the Zoist – was instrumental in redefining the nature of the pseudoscience. The chapter also considers the equally lively debate outside the English capital and makes detailed references to reports of the careers of a number of now-forgotten provincial phrenologists and phreno-magnetists, these latter being practitioners of both phrenology and mesmerism. As well as the apparently sincere demonstrations that were given by the evidently philanthropic Spencer Timothy Hall, the chapter examines the somewhat more scandalous activities of Henry Bushea as well as the controversial opinions of William Collins Engledue and their relationship to the schism which proved the downfall of the Phrenological Association – a short-lived and elite body which never quite exercised an effective oversight of British phrenology. The chapter concludes by intimating the rise of a commercial phrenology increasingly shaped by touring American practitioners and analyses the rise of the influential Fowler and Wells publishing empire and its subsequent reinvention as a consulting practice headed by Lorenzo Fowler in London. Beyond this financially lucrative phrenology, other practitioners persisted as mere entertainers, occupying booths at fairgrounds or on seaside piers. These were the declining years of phrenology.
The chapter begins by reappraising the encounter which conventionally forms the climax of Spurzheim’s British tour – a demonstration of anatomy which Spurzheim made in Edinburgh – the content of which apparently prompted a bad-tempered verbal exchange between Spurzheim and Gordon. Greatly mythologised by proponents of phrenology, the actual details of this encounter are revealed through access to an unreprinted contemporary newspaper account published in England rather than Scotland. The subsequent reception of Spurzheim by the Edinburgh intelligentsia is then contemplated, before the chapter moves to consider the impact of Spurzheim’s teaching and writing upon George Combe, the Scottish lawyer who would become the central figure in a specifically British incarnation of the pseudoscience. A major consequence of Spurzheim’s visit was the establishment of the first British phrenological society in Edinburgh in 1820: the history, foundation, rules and activities of that influential body are discussed at length, and its influence upon a substantial network of local societies across the United Kingdom is demonstrated through insights into the meetings they organised and the museums they maintained. The activities of the Phrenological Society of London, founded in 1822, are also discussed, and in particular the examination which its members made of the crania of convicted criminals. The chapter closes by intimating the background to the slow decline of the phrenological societies and anticipates the gradual integration of phrenology into mesmerism under the particular influence of the London physician and teacher of medicine, John Elliotson.
The historical setting of Beckett’s Film in 1929 is conventionally related to the significance of that year in the history of film. But Beckett's use of the device of the ‘angle of immunity’ suggests an additional historical context. Both the setting of Film in 1929 and its production in the early 1960s prompt me to inquire into the medical meanings of ‘immunity’ in a film whose damaged protagonist, dilapidated setting and production in the sweltering heat of New York in July prominently raise issues of health and disease. I supplement my inquiry into the medical meanings of Beckett’s ‘angle of immunity’ with an exploration of the concept’s social significance. Drawing on Jacques Derrida’s and Roberto Esposito’s reflections on community, immunity, and autoimmunity, I note that O’s flight in Beckett’s Film is not merely a flight from perception but also a flight from community. This flight from community manifests the destructive, autoimmunitary logic of the self/not-self dichotomy that the immunological revolution succeeded in placing at the heart of immunology as Beckett was shooting his film.