Reading Robinson:
The Politics of Caring
17 November 2014

This is my new view. Some might find it depressing, but I rather like it. The leaves have been shed by the tree in the yard behind the whitish building on the left, and I’ve cropped out the slice of sidewalk on 86th Street.  So there’s more to it than the photograph suggests. Also much more looking up. I took the picture standing up, to avoid the screens behind the lower window panes. Seated, I can see the top of the sliver building. That’s the one across 86th Street, smack in the middle of the picture — which captures almost its entire width. There was a vogue for such constructions in the early Eighties (living in our second apartment, on the seventh floor almost directly opposite, we watched it go up), but then, I believe, they were banned. Meanwhile, just for orientation, our old apartment was the one in the opposite corner, on the right, only on a higher floor. You can see what would be the window of the blue room, just beyond the balcony railing. The window directly opposite belongs to the bedroom of the apartment next door.

The whitish building used to be a residential hotel. Then it was gutted, leaving only the four curtain walls. It was amusing to peer over our balcony railing and pretend to be looking down into the ruined tower of a demolished castle. But that phase didn’t last very long. When first rebuilt, it served as a halfway house, and there used to be jolly holiday parties in the patio. I don’t know what’s going on there now.

So, everything is different, but also much the same.


The view seems far more familiar than the contents of my head. It’s not just the diversion of mental resources to the organization of a new kitchen, or to the million-and-one nitzy decisions about where to put what everywhere else. It’s also the impact of Marilynne Robinson. Oh no! regular readers will gasp, here we go again. Last year, it was Hannah Arendt. This year — but Robinson hasn’t, to my knowledge, written nearly so much as Arendt, so I won’t be ploughing through book after book, filling entries with my amazed impressions. Robinson’s thought is also more concentrated upon a single point. She believes that we are images of God. This means almost exactly the opposite of what you might think. It means that we are fully as wonderful creatures as images of God would be. Like God — this part is new, but it makes terrible sense of Scripture — we have awful powers, and we allow evil to exist in the world. (Very bad things, anyway.) But that’s not the whole story, and we’re simply not, according to Marilynne Robinson, the depraved monsters, at war with “nature,” that modern anthropology makes us out to be. She wants us to stop thinking cynically about ourselves — it’s a terrible habit that, like smoking, does unimaginably more harm than good. (Maybe we’re cynical because we can’t smoke.)

It’s easy to say that Robinson is a self-confessed progressive Calvinist. But, as with Arendt’s conception of the human condition, you have to rethink everything in order to grasp the remark’s implications. Our political discourse has degenerated into an absurd polarization that resembles nothing so much as a softball game played by teams that nobody would pick. The alignments — just to pick one, the association of faith in God with a conservative outlook — are unnaturally exhaustive, by which I mean that everything is on one side or the other. Liberals who believe in God don’t have a voice, because conservative refuse to believe them on this point. Widespread fundamentalism — childish nostalgia for simpler times that never were — is certainly regrettable, but so is the progressive tendency to reject everything that’s old and to become infatuated with everything new. Marilynne Robinson wants us to stop supporting this bad ball game. She wants us to stop playing games altogether, at least when we ought to be taking each other seriously and improving the infrastructure.

It seems the most natural thing in the world that intelligent women would have a far better grasp of the natural frontier that separates public life from private life than their male counterparts do, because for men in our culture, “private life” means “solitary life” and independence, whereas for women it means “family life” and caring. Women don’t fear that public life will swamp or pre-empt private life, because they trust their own sense of right and wrong to keep that from happening. Even in the most totalitarian experiments, the germ of private life has been kept alive. For all the rubbly catastrophe of the Twentieth Century, at least it taught us that human beings are not good at being engineered. Crooked timber and all that.

It will be argued that women are better at caring because they’re mothers, but I beg to repeat that I’m talking about intelligent women. Intelligent women apply their experience of family life to imagining other families with similar joys and needs. Being mothers isn’t enough; the sense of caring doesn’t come with the act of caring, but the awareness of it, and that information is no less available to men than to women. As things stand, however, women do display an aptitude. They get it, that everybody needs to be cared for in some way or another.

Absolute independence is a chimerical nightmare, not the hallmark of a strong character, because it misunderstands privacy as indifference. That’s to say that, as an independent man, I grant you your privacy because I don’t give a damn about you, and if my independence requires that you not give a damn about me, that’s not too high a price to pay. But it is too high a price, far too high. The extravagance of the price is betrayed every time a strong man has to avoid confessing the truth, that he does give a damn about someone else, especially when that someone else is also a strong, heterosexual man.

Once you start caring, how do you know when to stop? There can be no systematic, rule-of-thumb answer, and this is another thing that intelligent women seem to get. The worst thing about caring is that it calls for tough choices. But you learn to make them and try to do your best. That’s not a very sound principle for political life, but then caring is private, not public, and therefore not political. But political life does depend, very much, on the contribution, intellectual and otherwise, of men and women who know how important caring is. People who don’t care in private will never care enough about politics to do it right.