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The mind of the ‘me’ generation

13 July 2010

This plea seems oddly timed, says Hugh Rayment-Pickard


Absence of Mind: The dispelling of inwardness from the modern myth of the self
Marilynne Robinson

Yale University Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

CONSIDER where you are sitting or standing right now. You are reading this particular issue of the Church Times, on a specific date (whatever day it is for you today — it’s a Saturday for me as I write).

You feel the temperature of the air around you, and you are em­braced by a combination of ambient noises and sensations: the twin rhythms of your heart and lungs, the weight of your clothes, the concentrations of colour and shape in your field of vision, and the pre­sence (or absence) of other people.

This experience is unique to us as human subjects: no one else experi­ences anything quite like it. The whole of our lives — from the first fill of our infant lungs to our final gasp — is made up of a flow of unique experience. Everything that we call “our life”— our memories and fears, our religious experiences and feelings — appears in this way. While the flow lasts, we are alive, hu­man, real. But, without these ex­periences, you and I are literally nothing. John Donne was wrong: everyone is an island. The six billion residents of planet Earth are, each of us, separate centres of subjective awareness.

In her wonderful, but ultimately frustrating new book, Absence of Mind, Marilynne Robinson asks why our culture has “tended to forget the beauty and strangeness of the individual soul, that is, of the world as perceived in the course of a human life, of the mind as it exists in time”. The book is a plea for us to question the dominance of scientific and parascientific ways of thinking in our culture.

Robinson tries to show us that the sciences, for all their dreams and claims of objectivity, are in the end founded on human experience of the world — in other words, subjective experience.

Robinson is not the first thinker to offer this argument. A century ago, Edmund Husserl, the father of phenomenology, was equally con­cerned with what he called the “trans­cendental” foundation of human reality. Husserl was soon eclipsed by the rise of existentialism, but his writing has recently been attracting new attention, particu­larly in some theological circles.

Robinson is a novelist. It is per­haps not surprising that she sees personal experience, personal stories, and personal judgements as fundamental to human knowledge; and her fiction arguably offers a more persuasive argument than the one we find in Absence of Mind. Robinson’s novels produce an in­tense empathy that leaves us not only thinking, but feeling, that our damaged human stories truly are the fragile foundation of all reality.

This is the kind of book that leaves my mind crowded with big questions. Although science has dominated many areas of our think­ing, our culture has also, surely, become infatuated with individual experience — with “me” and “my world”. Science may have neglected subjective experience, but the popu­lar mindset is summed up by the teaching of Boyzone: “no matter what they teach you, what­ you believe is true.” I’m not sure which of these two errors constitutes the greatest threat, but I suspect that it is the second. I wish that Robinson had reflected on both.

The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is the author of 50 Key Concepts in Theology (DLT, 2008).

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