Absence of Mind by Marilynne Robinson

I’ve probably mentioned now and again how much I admire Marilynne Robinson. She’s not a prolific writer, but she’s a brilliant one. Famous for her books centred around the fictional town of Gilead: Home, Gilead and Lila, as well as her transcendent stand-alone novel Housekeeping. I haven’t read any of her non-fiction before, but I saw this slim volume in the library and immediately wanted to read it covering, as it does, the subject of consciousness, neuroscience and the nature of being which is a subject about which I have become somewhat absorbed. Unlike most writers Robinson does not approach the subject from a scientific angle; those familiar with Robinson’s work will be aware that she is of a more theological bent and whilst I generally avoid theological literature I respect Robinson enough to give it a go. Plus, reminded of that memorable opening scene from my most favourite book The Last Samurai, it’s only fair to give the other side a chance.

Far from being a heavily theological book, what I found was a highly intelligent, well-reasoned and sensible book which seeks to challenge the recent phenomena of divorcing the mind from lived experience. If that sounds a bit obscure, that’s probably because it is and if you have little to no grounding in recent writings about consciousness and neuroscience I’m not sure this book is a great place to start. But bear with me, I’ll try to explain. In modern scientific terms there is a suggestion that we have moved to a state where the ‘mind’ has become purely explained by genetics and mechanics; the theory goes that lived experience – subjective, individual perception – cannot be trusted as a vehicle for understanding the nature of consciousness and the human condition. In such literature – as espoused by the likes of Steven Pinker (on my to read list) and E O Wilson as well as, to a lesser extent, Richard Dawkins and Bertrand Russell (who I greatly admire) – there is a tendency to divorce the human imperative from its history and culture, as though these have no influence on the way people behave. Instead we are reduced to the carriers of genetic information or, in the case of Dawkins’s theories, memes which self-propogate in us almost without our conscious knowledge or control. Robinson believes that the supposed ‘objectivity’ of this ‘parascientific’ enquiry is dubious at best, and denies the subjective experience which sites us in a living world surrounded by living beings, all of which have an influence on how we respond to our environment and experience our consciousness.

Robinson draws on the example of Phineas Gage as a way in which the modern discourse has set a narrative which excludes history and culture. As it happens I’ve come across the case of Gage a few times recently in my readings around the subject of consciousness and neurology. Gage was a twenty-five year old railway worker who suffered a brain injury when an explosion sent a large iron rod through his skull. Gage is a famous case in neurological terms on account of the supposed change in his behaviour following the accident, whilst the rest of his faculties appeared undamaged, resulting in the supposition that the seat of human emotion and social awareness is located in the pre-frontal cortex. However, as Robinson points out, whilst Gage is often used as an evidence the evidence itself is often taken out of context and without consideration for the experience that Gage had undergone, as she explains here:

“How oddly stereotyped this anecdote is through a number of tellings. It is as if there were a Mr. Hyde in us all that would emerge spluttering expletives if our frontal lobes weren’t there to restrain him. If any kind of language is human and cultural, it is surely profanity, and, after that, irreverence, which must have reverence as a foil to mean anything at all. If to Victorians this behaviour seemed like the emergence of the inner savage, this is understandable enough. But from our vantage, the fact that Gage was suddenly disfigured and half blind, that he suffered a prolonged infection of the brain, and that “it took much longer to recover his stamina,” according to Gazzaniga, might account for some of the profanity, which , after all, culture and language have prepared for such occasions. But the part of Gage’s brain where damage is assumed by modern writers to be localized is believed to be the seat of emotions. Therefore – the logic here is unclear to me – his swearing and reviling the heavens could not mean what it means when the rest of us do it. Damasio gives extensive attention to Gage, offering the standard interpretation of the reported change in his character. He cites at some length the case of a “Modern Phineas Gage,” a patient who, while intellectually undamaged, lost “his ability to choose the most advantageous course of action.” Gage himself behaved “dismally” in his compromised ability “to plan for the future, to conduct himself according to the social rules he had previously learned, and to decide on the course of action that ultimately would be most advantageous to his survival.” The same could certainly be said as well of Captain Ahab. So perhaps Melville meant to propose that the organ of veneration was located in the leg.”

It’s a fascinating insight as in all the reading I have done so far, the absolute certainty of Gage’s change in personality goes unchallenged whereas Robinson asks us to consider the reality of Gage’s situation: the accident happened in 1848, medical treatment, including pain management, would have been fairly limited. Gage suffered an ongoing infection of the brain and a terrible injury from which he never recovered; and what was known of Gage and his behaviour prior to the accident is limited and subject to reports which cannot be corroborated. Robinson sets aside the ‘objectivity’ of science, which she challenges here as being based on flawed and limited data, and asks the simple question: put yourself in his shoes, how might you behave? In the context of his situation, might we all swear and profane and, perhaps, not observe the social niceties we had been held to before the horrific brain injury? And doesn’t anti-social behaviour only exist because there is social behaviour against which to measure it?

Robinson argues that in order to understand human experience, behaviour and emotion it is foolish to try to divorce that experience from history and culture. She believes there is a tendency to try to draw a line between ‘historic’ experience and ‘modern’ experience, as though we exist in a vacuum and earlier knowledge or understanding is so flawed as to be irrelevant. As she explains here:

“Another factor that seems to me to be equally important is the great myth and rationale of ‘the modern’, that it places dynamite at the foot of old error and levels its shrines and monuments. Contempt for the past surely accounts for a consistent failure to consult it.”

Most powerful is her examination of Freud which is done with due reverence to the man and his work (she is complementary). Robinson places Freud in his historical context: an intelligent and influential Jew living in an increasingly anti-Semitic Austria (which she reminds us is where Hitler began his life and work) which rejected and increasingly ostracised the Jewish community. In this context, Freud’s theories which seek for a universal experience, divorced from cultural influence and historical connections, becomes a defensive, or at least a balancing, theory. I don’t know enough of Freud’s work to validate her theory but she makes a compelling case. Again, her point is that by treating the theory as timeless we lose something in its understanding, that people work to influence minds in their time and are themselves influenced by minds both of their time and in their history. We are all an evolution and our experience is a complex blend of all the things which make up our experience: our biology, our political time, our environment, our history, our language, our culture. She posits that science is a part of that culture, not something which exists separately to it.

Another aspect she pulls apart is the twin poles of both referring back to a primordial or ‘primitive’ experience, an experience which we are said to be separated from by cultural norms and social expectation, as a template for human consciousness and understanding whilst ignoring our historical cultural context. This largely refers to the theory that the ‘mind’ – our conscious lived experience – is fundamentally untrustworthy and instead we must refer back to ancient behaviour (which has the advantage, or disadvantage, of being largely speculative and therefore unverifiable) as a template for our gene-based consciousness and understanding of the world. She draws the comparison of the sparrow and the dinosaur, whilst not destroying the idea entirely she does draw the concept into disrepute:

“A primary assumption of the evolutionary model behind neo-Darwinism is that development can be traced back through a series of subtly incremented changes. At what for our purposes is the terminus of all these changes there emerges, voila, the world as we know it. The neatness of this argument has always bothered me, but this is no refutation of it, not am I interested in refuting it. I wish only to point out that there are certain things it should not be taken to imply. For example, it does not imply that a species carries forward an essential similarity to its ancestors. A bird is not a latter-day dinosaur. We can assume the ancestors ate and slept and mated, carrying on the universal business of animal life. Still, whatever the shared genetic history of beast and bird, a transformative change occurred over the millennia, and to find the modern sparrow implicit in the thunder lizard is quite certainly an error, if one wishes to make an ornithological study of sparrow behaviour. On the same grounds, there is no reason to assume our species resembles in any essential way the ancient primates whose genes we carry. It is a strategy of parascientific argument to strip away culture-making, as if it were a ruse and concealment within which lurked the imagined primitive who is for them our true nature.”

In this way she dissects the concept of a meme-based and gene-based explanation for human consciousness as fundamentally flawed because it requires us to consider our conscious experience to be flawed and untrustworthy and attempts to in some way objectify an experience which is, and only can be, experienced and observed subjectively. We are not the mere vehicle of genetics, we are people. Neither can we experience the world from outside of it, being mired in it as we are.

Absence of Mind is a difficult book. It is a difficult book which requires, or at least benefits from, a grounding in the writers which Robinson seeks to challenge. It is difficult because it deals with concepts which are difficult to process and it’s written in a way which requires continuous access to a dictionary. Yet it is a very rewarding read. It is challenging and intelligent, but more than anything else I found the book to be very humane and empathic. Rather than positing the human experience in ‘scientific’ terms, Robinson asks us to trust that we are part of our experience, that our subjective and unique perception is something we shouldn’t dismiss. It isn’t a plea for God, though Robinson is a religious person known for her theological leanings there is neither a dismissal of science nor a promotion of God. It made me realise that in a lot of the science-led writings I have read, there is an authoritative tone which perhaps is unwarranted, and it was good to see Robinson willing to admit unknowns and concede, in fact in some places praise, the merits of the scientific approach. I have no doubt there are flaws in her arguments, but she was more than willing to concede flaws and unknowns and uncertainties and perhaps if I revisit the book in a few years time I will find it full of holes. I don’t know. What I do know is that Robinson promotes the human experience, the idea that there is something about our experience which is unknowable, that it has fuzzy edges which defy neat explanation, and whilst some may fill that hole with God, others fill it with curiosity (most especially scientists, as Robinson points out), but whatever we fill the hole with the idea that our conscious experience is merely a marionette for the gene denies something which we know to be true but have somehow become to doubt: that we are more than the mere sum of our parts.


Absence of Mind is published by Yale University Press

(obviously I read this before shingles destroyed my brain)


About bookbii

I'm an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary place, and it is quietly wonderful
This entry was posted in essays, neurology, non-fiction, psychology, religion, science. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Absence of Mind by Marilynne Robinson

  1. What an incredible summary and review of this complex work. The book sounds fascinating and actually comforting and validating.

  2. Pingback: The Tree by John Fowles | biisbooks

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