A couple excerpts from the final essay, “Wilderness,” in Marilynne Robinson’s terribly essential The Death of Adam, which I am saddened to be returning to the library shortly. First:
One need not have an especially excitable or a particularly gloomy nature to be persuaded that we may be approaching the end of the day. For decades, environmentalists have concerned themselves with this spill and that encroachment, this depletion and that extinction, as if such phenomena were singular and exceptional. Our causes have even jostled for attention, each claiming a special urgency. This is, I think, like quarreling over which shadow brings evening. We are caught up in something much larger than its innumerable manifestations. Their variety and seriousness are proof of this.
Denial is clearly a huge factor in history. It seems to me analogous to a fractal, or a virus, in the way it self-replicates, and in the way its varieties are the grand strategy of its persistence. It took, for instance, three decades of the most brilliant and persistent campaign of preachment and information to establish, in the land of liberty, the idea that slavery was intolerable. Strange enough. These antislavery agitators were understandably given to holding up Britain’s ending of slavery in her colonies as the example of enlightened Christian behavior. But at the same time, British slave ships used the old slave routes to transport British convicts to Australia. Every enormity was intact, still suffered by women and children as well as men. Of course the color of the sufferer had changed, and it is always considered more respectable in a government to ravage its own population than others’. To this objection, I will reply that the arrival of the British was an unspeakable disaster to the native people of Australia and Tasmania. Slavery and genocide were only rechanneled, translated into other terms, but for the American abolitionists, and for the British abolitionists as well, this was nothing to pause over. It is understandable that Americans should wish to retain all the moral leverage that could be had from the admirable side of the British example. Still, this is another potent allegory, something to unriddle, or at least to be chastened by. After our terrible war, the people who had struggled out of bondage, and were won out of bondage, found themselves returned to a condition very much resembling bondage, with the work all before them of awakening public awareness, in the land of the free, to the fact that their situation was intolerable.
Reform-minded Americans still depend on the idea that other countries are in advance of us, and scold and shame us all with scathing comparison. Of course they have no tolerance for information that makes such comparison problematic. The strategy, however generous in impulse, accounts in part for the perdurable indifference of Americans to actual conditions in countries they choose to admire, and often claim to love.
I have begun to consider Edgar Allan Poe the great interpreter of Genesis, or perhaps of Romans. The whole human disaster resides in the fact that, as individuals, families, cities, nations, as a tribe of ingratiating, brilliant, momentarily numerous animals, we are perverse, divided against ourselves, deceiving and defeating ourselves. How many countries in this world have bombed or poisoned their own terrain in the name of protecting it from its enemies? How many more would do so if they could find the means? Do we know that this phenomenon is really different in kind from the Civil War, or from the bloodbaths by which certain regimes have been able to legitimate their power? For a long time we have used dichotomies, good people/bad people, good institutions/bad institutions, capitalist/communist. But the universality of self-deceptive and self-destructive behavior is what must impress us finally.