Why the West Will Set You Free: Thinking with Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson is an arresting writer. I think her forces pivots on that word, arresting. There were moments in her collection of essays “When I Was A Child I Read Books,” that I literally had to put the book down to travel through the same process that led her to that particular combination of words.

In the eponymous essay, Robinson looks at the ideological difference between the eastern and western halves of the US. According to Robinson, Westerners tend to be insensitive to the “system of signs and passwords” that give subgroups their meaning. It’s a position that may incline Westerners toward an open-minded democracy, but it can also give them the appearance of being slow. Robinson opens the essay by laughing at herself and the ones around her who, when says she grew up in rural Idaho, are amazed that she is so educated. Even when she says she went to Brown they only express further amazement that she got into Brown. She writes, “I think it is indifference to these codes among Westerners that makes Easterners think they are without culture.”  

In the west, to be lonely isn’t necessarily a neurosis. In fact, it’s a mark of bravery to be alone on a ranch with little to no company for days. The loneliness engenders a state where the individual isn’t so judgmental. They receive things–art, people, religion–as they are.

For Robinson, a western attitude can lend itself to democracy.

“I am vehemently grateful that, by whatever means, I learned to assume that loneliness should be in part pleasure, sensitizing and clarifying, and that it is even a truer bond among people than any kind of proximity. It may be mere historical conditioning, but when I see a man or a woman alone, he or she looks mysterious to me, which is only to say that for a moment I see another human being clearly.”

This was a passage that literally arrested me. To someone from the east coast, seeing a stranger may be disconcerting. They grew up in a system of codes, and they deploy those codes toward everyone they meet. It’s a great way to protect yourself, but it’s a rhythm of perception that will perpetuate unequal social codes. It’s also a view that see categories rather than the radical humanity of an individual schedule.

Having grown up mostly in Alaska and California, I share Robinson’s perspective of the west. I didn’t particularly feel united in American history. When I moved to the east coast, racism in practice was a new experience for me, as were the concepts of WASPs and private schools and antisemitism. When I moved east, I showed my new neighbors another way of living, and for better or for worse, they showed me another way too.

For Robinson, “the west” (which is another name for an outsider) has a critical role:

“Since the time of the Hebrew prophets it has been the role of the outsider to loosen these chains, or lengthen them, if only by bringing the rumor of a life lived otherwise.”

It’s the primary responsibility of the west to be the outside, to remind the nations of the various forms of life.

Robinson concludes that the west in the American imagination is increasingly marginal. That’s because people who are outsiders (true outsiders) “are assumed to be disabled and dangerous.” Nowadays, there’s a tendency to view human nature as inherently judgmental, with an overwhelming need for constant contact. This not only goes against the values of the west, but the ideals of democracy.

Robinson says we need to reanimate the notion of the west, of the outsider, of democracy; we need to reconsider the belief that people can and are and should be strange, that seeing someone as strange is to see their complex humanity. We need to stay open to the various forms of life, and the myth of the west, with its penchant for solitude and mutual respect, may allow for this.

By not respecting the outsider, by saying implicit bias can’t exist or that we know all there is to know of someone, we close ourselves to various forms of reality. We allow ourselves to be ruled by fear and arrogance. We become less democratic.

If the idea of the west, of nonjudgmental silence and self-reliance can reassert itself, perhaps our government and the lives it oversees will become more tolerant, feeling, and democratic.

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