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One of the unsettling things about a Marilynne Robinson essay is that it feels at once old-fashioned and also as though it might have been written yesterday. This is a deceptive approach that leads to startling effects. In her latest collection, What Are We Doing Here?, Robinson sounds Emersonian notes, but also draws on the styles of Montaigne and Augustine and, of course, the early American preachers—often in the same essay, and often while discussing recent phenomena in the context of the eternal. As a result, when you open the book you're struck by the pleasing sense of reading an old master who's been given the Lazarus treatment to come back and explain Fox News via the Epistle of James.
If there's one concern that unites these essays, it is the question of how to conquer cynicism in a secular world. ("So great is my respect for secular people that I wish they had a metaphysics worthy of them.") Robinson argues passionately that the humanities can save us—if we can save the humanities. ("We have not lost them. We have only forgotten what they mean.") She wants right-wing social Darwinists and left-wing economists alike to develop a grander vision, one where they understand that human beings are motivated by more than their own profit. ("There are those who would account for all this brilliance and urgency as the effect of tiny increments of applied self-interest.") I'm not sure she's right about cynicism among Marxists—the Marxists in my acquaintance are some of the least cynical people I know—but regardless the topic, it remains a treat to watch Robinson's mind at work on the page.