Housekeeping’s Contemplative Approach to Longing
By C. E. Morgan
It has been forty years since the publication of Housekeeping, the celebrated novel which introduced Marilynne Robinson to the literary world. Characterized by quiet but stalwart prose and an unmistakable confidence rarely found in the work of a newcomer, the book won the Pen/Hemingway Award and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 1982, notable awards in an era dominated by writers like Mailer, Roth, and Updike. Here, one sensed, was the real thing, a talent so assured, so impregnable, it could render tattered lace and piled leaves into high art, crafting cohesive narrative from the fragments of experience that constitute our lives. Just the sheer wealth of insight packed into the slim volume must have been relief for those seeking wisdom, not just storytelling, from their literature.
Robinson’s laudatory season, however, was followed by a literary silence that has become nearly mythic in publishing circles: there would be no long fiction for 20 years, until the arrival of Gilead, an epistolary novel exploring death, forgiveness, and grace, which went on to win the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It became quickly evident that Robinson’s quiet years had been unusually productive, evidenced by the profusion of nonfiction that soon followed, as well as by her theologically and intellectually fertile follow-up novels, Home and Lila. Her steady pace has continued unabated for 15 years now, and her work has been awarded the National Book Award, the Orange Prize, the National Humanities Medal, and the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction, among other honors. She has assumed her place among our literary lions.
Housekeeping was written in Robinson’s mid-30s, and it reads as the extended rumination of a mature mind long-trained in the art of perception, a faculty which so powerfully informs the narrative that the book can be accurately described as an examination of the speculative mind itself, where the action becomes a means toward thinking. The novel’s cerebral nature is hardly a conventional move, but neither is the plot of the book, wending gently along as it does, faint as smoke.
The story belongs to Ruthie—whose name derives from an ancient word meaning grief—but also to her sister and their kin, all of whom have been schooled severely in the particularities of death, loss, and grief. Ruthie and Lucille’s grandfather ends both his “professional and mortal careers” when his train slides into the town lake, their mother dies by her own hand, a grandmother shrinks and expires. Great-aunts arrive and hastily retreat, other relatives are long-disappeared, and there are no friends for succor, only anonymous residents of the wind-blown, snow-stricken town of Fingerbone, Idaho. Ruthie and Lucille are eventually cared for by their aunt Sylvie, a sometimes-transient, whose own tether to normal life is slight. Across the pages of the novel, as the young sisters navigate a psychologically isolated girlhood with few worldly skills, even Lucille finally drifts away, leaving the home in search of “some other people” (66). Alone and strikingly similar, Sylvie and Ruthie are like refugees from conventional life, growing increasingly wary of the world and its illusory comforts, ephemera masquerading as the real. In the final pages of the book, when the town threatens to separate this reduced family, Sylvie and Ruthie set their old house alight and flee town on a passing train, transients now, becoming spectral figures as they traverse the American landscape, less flesh than embodied memory itself.
Inlit with perceptive brilliance and the ability to communicate the evasive connections we only occasionally piece through simile and extended metaphor, or through the capacious symbol systems of religion, the novel foreshadows much of what we now know are Robinson’s enduring concerns: the ramifications of loss and severance; the agonies and spiritual fruits of itinerancy; and the exquisitely sad position of the human mind in the cosmos, imbued as it is with a self-consciousness capable of producing as much sorrow as wonder while contemplating the fleeting world. Indeed, as we read Housekeeping, we really read the contours of Ruthie’s mind. Though Robinson’s name has become synonymous with a particular brand of erudite Christianity marked by hawkish liberality—an unwavering, exacting rallying of our liberal virtues—Ruthie’s consciousness through much of the book displays a quality that will feel deeply familiar to Buddhists, a phenomenological posture that is sometimes referred to as bare attention. Bare attention involves a soft but strict attention trained without comment on a sense object. This mode of awareness, immediate and receptive, reveals the world in its bright nakedness. It is cultivated by meditators and precedes associative and conceptual thought outside of meditation. Interestingly, this seeing openly before language allows, then, for the use of fresher language, something many writers achieve intuitively: “The grass was blue with frost. The road was so cold it rang as I stepped on it, and the houses and trees were one flat black. A bird sang with a sound like someone scraping a pot, and was silent” (144). And it cultivates the spiritual generosity that defines Ruthie’s mind, where the suicide, billowing sunlit sheets, a sunken train, and the inwardness of a child’s face achieve ontological parity.
What unifies all of these phenomena, what establishes their equality—and what is perceived by training simple awareness upon them—is their impermanence. But like the dull knocking of wood that calls meditators to the zendo, the perception of impermanence eventually draws many of us into theological questions on the nature of being. It is a great irony in Robinson’s work, but one which mirrors humanity’s frustration with the limits of our minds, that even at her most intellectual, she uses ideas to indicate the limits of conceptual thought, pointing always toward something greater: “the primary condition of our existence is a mystery as virginal as it has always been” (The Givenness of Things, 90).
It is precisely in Housekeeping’s undeniably associative and conceptual treatment of longing that Robinson leans away from anything that could be mistaken for Buddhist doctrine guised in fictional form. Here, there is no cultivated detachment from what’s been lost. Instead, a contemplative approach to longing unifies every page, if not every paragraph, of the novel, so that it sings like a Baroque da capo aria, carefully composed to elucidate a single affect while commenting on vanished action. With extraordinary care, Robinson examines the human response to what has proved perishable, transient, impossible to hold—the small, personal tragedies to which every life is vulnerable.
If each work of great literature can be understood to contribute to a literary whole that explores the human condition, using its own pages to render a small portion of humanity brilliantly and complexly, then, in its treatment of what Robinson calls “the great sadness that runs through life” (When I Was a Child I Read Books, 14), Housekeeping succeeds beyond measure. Her extended examination of the omnipresence of death in life, and its natural attendant, human sorrow, is vital for a culture profoundly resistant to and fearful of melancholy, which we’ve medicalized in the great American project of positivity and progress, tolerating it only through the sugared grief of sentimentality. In this deracinated understanding of the human condition, suffering is not something to be tasted and understood in its complexity—a bitter but instructive sap from the tree of life—only an abnormality to be diagnosed and diminished. When we medicalize melancholy, we curtail awareness, and as Housekeeping reveals, it is precisely an awareness trained on sorrow that leads to theological insight and clarity.
If Housekeeping resists a Buddhist reading, it resists a straightforward Christian reading as well, demanding instead an enlargening of categories on its own terms. That said, using Ruthie’s unveiled mind, Robinson lands lightly but repeatedly on the argument from desire, which is an appeal for the existence of God explored in Scholastic Christianity but made popular to a much broader audience in the twentieth century. The argument suggests that all natural—as opposed to culturally conditioned—desires correspond to their existing satisfaction in the material world, such as hunger finding its satisfaction in food. As the argument goes, because the longing for union with a perfect divinity cannot be satisfied in finite existence, it must correspond to a supernatural or transcendent compensation, i.e., what we call God.
In Housekeeping, Ruthie is not merely content to perceive impermanence but strives to discover its meaning, an act which is distinctly theological. She asks: “For why do our thoughts turn to some gesture of a hand, the fall of a sleeve, some corner of a room on a particular anonymous afternoon, even when we are asleep, and even when we are so old that our thoughts have abandoned other business? What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?” (92). The desire for existential completion is made more explicit and staunch later:
For need can blossom into all the compensation it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is foreshadowing—the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. (152–53)
In the novel’s cosmology, it’s unclear whether longing indicates a later, corresponding satisfaction, or if, in an ontological shape-shift, longing—voluptuous, enduring, universal—becomes coextensive with its own completion, i.e., memory itself is fulfillment. To illustrate this, Robinson reimagines the resurrection of Jesus as a self-fulfilling manifestation of the apostles’ fervent grief and desire; he appears to them because they long so powerfully for him, and whether he reappears in any material sense is not clear. What is clear is that to long is to come as close as we can on this plane to unification with what is most loved and mourned. In this argument—if it can be called that within the intimate confines of a novel—to reside imaginatively in that restoration is to reside in divinity itself: if God is indeed love, then we know God as the restoration of what was most beloved.
This epiphany can be overstated; we are reading a novel, after all, not a theological tract, and words will fall short of a divine experience described alternately as beyond active knowledge, residing in the darkness of unknowing, nondualistic, or simply being in “all” or “one.” God known through longing is God as koan, perceived not with the limited human apparatus of sequential thought and language but through radical confrontation with the überreality that inheres in all things, which remains paradoxically hidden: “Everything that falls on the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world’s true workings” (116). This supreme reality, to which mystics have pointed through the ages, is obscured by quotidian comforts and human activity.
In this regard, the divergent paths of the two sisters are fateful. Whereas Lucille chooses the well-trodden, conventional life, Ruthie accepts loss piled on loss without succor, and her subsistence only intensifies: she eats lightly, is frequently underdressed, whipped by the elements, and undernourished by human contact. The conventional world is swiftly losing its grip on her: “I would be lost to ordinary society. I would be a ghost, and their food would not answer to my hunger, and my hands could pass through their down quilts and tatted pillow covers and never feel them or find comfort in them. Like a soul released, I would find here only the images and simulacra of the things needed to sustain me” (183). Itinerants haunt the scenes of Housekeeping as they haunt the fringes of Fingerbone, and as the novel crests a mournful arc toward closure, Ruthie’s eventual itinerancy becomes a foregone conclusion. When, in the final pages, Ruthie and Sylvie hop the train to become transients together—and how perfectly matched is that word for the wanderer to our world of impermanence—she becomes, in essence, a traveling monastic, and her own kind of fulfillment.
Sight without eyes, ecstasy without touch, knowledge without words. Suprasensual experience, the perception of a deeper spiritual reality, is most often the purview of solitaries. Across traditions, monastics have been showing us the path for millennia, whether through apophatic wordlessness, radical solitude, Franciscan poverty, yogic sense withdrawal, extended retreat, or contemplative prayer. What reappears in many traditions is a sense of this world as mired in illusion, and the need for a transfigured self, or nonself, to penetrate the illusion. In one of the most famous tales of the desert fathers, a young monk asks an elder how he might proceed spiritually, since he is already praying, meditating, and purifying his thoughts, the expected activities of a humble and devoted acolyte. The elder extends his hands toward heaven, and while his fingers burn like lamps, says to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.” This, of course, isn’t meant to be read as a transfiguration of the body but of the spirit. The self, if such a term can apply to the bioluminescence we attempt to concretize, is transformed through renunciation and, if the mystics are to be trusted, then unified with the transcendent, the immanent. When Ruthie renounces the comforts of the world, she aligns herself with these ascetics, devoted to a special category of knowledge attained at the frontiers of human normalcy. There will be no home-cooked meals, no children, no pillows, no ease, nothing to mediate Ruthie’s immersion in the suprasensual. She deliberately chooses poverty and austerity, which offer no gloss: “It is better to have nothing, for at last even our bones will fall. It is better to have nothing” (159). As the mystics tell us, anguish precedes enlightenment, and so Ruthie refuses to soften the anguish. She seeks the very cohesion this world seems to deny. She seeks the resurrection of all things large and small. Through radical want, she seeks a God who blesses the grieving poor with the truth.
Boxcarhank LLC f/s/o C. E. Morgan. © 2020 by C. E. Morgan
C. E. Morgan is Harvard Divinity School's Ministry Program Creative Writing Fellow. An award-winning novelist and critic, she is the author of the novels All the Living (Farrar, 2009) and The Sport of Kings (Farrar, 2016), which was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize and winner of the 2016 Kirkus Prize.