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First experiments with fundamental things

What follows is the first part of a two or three part exploration of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, winner of the 2005 Pullitzer Prize.

Have recently finished Robinson’s Gilead and Derrida’s “Force and Signification,” I wish to attempt a synthetic reading of the two. Quick summaries of both: Gilead, this year’s winner of the Pulitzer prize, takes the form of the letter of a preacher, who is dying, to his seven year old son, who will presumably read it at a later age. “Force and Signification” critiques structuralist literary criticism particularly and teleological interpretation generally. Trying to see the former through the latter, certain questions come to mind.

How does one write on a text without being motivated by some end? How does one not merely submit a text to that end, that interpretation? Might one approach a text, at worst, as an end in for and of itself, or, at best as a thing—that is, more clearly, not an object exactly, any more than sense or any sense is an object—in for or of itself? What is a text before it is appropriated by the nimble hands of the interpreter, mined for material, forged into bolts or screws or beams of an edifice, or even perhaps contributing a brace to the tower of the wrecking-ball crane? A collection of codes from an incomplete cipher that demands its reader provide sense by arranging what information there is and supplying what is lacking, or is perceived at any rate to be. So, even though I might read Beowulf without knowing the precise import of the warrior code or the exact procedure of ritual hospitality, I will still extract from it a sense, because my mind works to bear one out.

Perhaps then one might treat his negotiation with a text, recounting what insight toward which he feels that encounter has gestured. It is this negotiation that is the matter: before and after the reading the text is just marks on leaves, doodles on paper, scratches on rock. I will proceed in this spirit.

One remarks on one hand—and this is the first, uncritical, unschooled response—that Gilead derives much force from its form: a letter written by John Ames, a preacher who is near death, to his young son. The letter is supposed to offer what Ames wishes to import, or at any rate believes he would have wished to import had he lived, to his son:

Your mother told you I’m writing your begats, and you seemed very pleased with the idea. Well, then. What should I record for you? I, John Ames, was born in the Year of Our Lord 1880 in the state of Kansas, the son of John Ames and Martha Turner Ames, grandson of John Ames and Margaret Todd Ames. At this writing I have lived seventy-six years, seventy-four of them here in Gilead, Iowa, excepting study at the college and at Seminary.

What else should I tell you?

In this sense, the sense of the text as vessel for information, Ames’ letter is a metaphor for all writing. On the other hand, one is aware of the conceit, the authorial sleight of hand, the craft of his book: the speaker Ames is the speaker speaking according to the will of the author, and a very skilled writer at that. One withdraws, suspicious, if one is like I always am when I find myself reading fictions, from the conspiracy of the plot. One inquires, “this is a seductive story; why how to what end does it pull at me?” There is no disinterested text—or, we should say, there is no disinterested negotiation, no disinterested encounter between text and reader, for even disinterests seek to maintain their own investments—but only various exercises of rhetorical technique and voluntary focus. I ask myself, then, What does Gilead want to convince me of? Better, as we do not want to suggest that a text would want to inform us of anything, what does Gilead want of me? And, what do I want of Gilead? What do I make of it?
The answers to these questions of course I substantiate by citing examples which I select, subconsciously or consciously, because I believe they support whichever claim is desirous to me. I play with a stacked deck. I suspect that Gilead wishes to assure its reader of the very fine thing that existence is. Ames writes, at various places:

“Existence is the essential thing and the holy thing.”

“I have been thinking lately how I have loved my physical life.”

“You see how it is godlike to love the being of someone. Your existence is a delight to us.”

These among others appear at moments throughout the letter, with enough frequency that one has difficulty not focusing on them. The theme of existence, of its essential transitoriness, motivates the entire novel, drives it along. I said that Gilead derives force from its form, and I meant it: we are drawn into Ames’ recountings because we share with him the anxiety of his passing, of the finality of his passing, its cessation of all further tales. Just as the character Ames’ impending death was his impetus for writing the account we read, we worry that the things he might import will remain unfinished in his offing. We savor his existence while it lasts. And Ames is shown to be a model connoisseur of Being who takes notice of the most mundane yet breathtaking instances:

“You are standing up on the seat of your swing and sailing higher than you really out to, with that bold, planted stance of a sailor on a billowy sea. The ropes are long and you are light and the ropes bow like cobwebs, laggardly, indolent. Your shirt is red—it is your favorite shirt—and you fly into the sunlight and pause there brilliantly for a second and then fall back into the shadows again. You appear altogether happy. I remember those first experiments with fundamental things, gravity and light, and what a pleasure there were.”

“I saw a bubble float past my window, fat and wobbly and ripening toward that dragonfly blue they turn just before they burst.”

“I remember walking out into the dark and feeling as if the dark were a great, cool sea and the houses and the sheds and the woods were all adrift in it, just about to ease off their moorings. I always felt like an intruder then, and I still do, as if the darkness had a claim on everything, one that I violated just by stepping out my door. This morning the world by moonlight seemed to be an immemorial acquaintance I had always meant to befriend. If there ever was a chance, it has passed. Strange to say, I feel a little that way myself.”

We can see that the in Ames’ view, existence approaches what might be called holy, for its richness and beauty. At the very least, I could. But I may be led astray by meditations on mortality. In praising Ames’ elegies of existence, I ignore the entire question of theology as it pertains to the novel. I do this as an atheist who doesn’t desire to pronounce judgment on, or even begin pondering, theological questions. Gilead demands that one consider such things, however; to ignore them would be to treat the text prejudicially.

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