Sunday, February 8, 2015

Marilynne Robinson’s Lila – The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Reads About Loneliness

Lila is the third (or maybe fourth) book in the Gilead trilogy.  I’ve not read the others and found this to be a compelling if emotionally difficult read, but certainly not one that is dependent on having read the other books - it stand nicely on its own.  It is an emotionally difficult read because it is so bleak, especially at the beginning where the protagonist is stolen away as a baby from a home where she is not adequately fed, not kept clean, and where she is put outside when she is crying so that she doesn’t disrupt those who are inside.  The woman who steals her is a migrant worker who carries her from place to place with a loose band of people who lead a marginal existence until the dustbowl hits, and then things get really bad.  At some point, her caregiver, Doll, settles into a town for a year so that Lila can learn to read – something that she is drawn to, but doesn’t get much practice with until she steals a bible from a church – but that is getting to the end of the story, which is also the beginning.

This book could be read on many levels and, especially as an analyst, a book that is written from the perspective of having access to Lila’s thoughts raises interesting questions about our ability to know what goes on in the minds of others, especially those that have had such impoverished backgrounds when we who are writing and reading books like this most likely have not.  What Robinson does is to describe a mind that is filled with poorly understood memories that flow into each other in ways that would be confusing if they were being handled by a less masterful writer.  We are propelled through this woman’s experience – both her current experiences and the past, which passes in front of our eyes in a beautiful unfolding of her experience and the intermingling of the two becomes the story that we are forced to create almost on our own because the narration feels so ungrounded by time and place.  We are given hints, our appetite is whet, and then we learn more, but never all that we might have known.  We never, for instance, get a good picture of what this woman looks like.  And that feels consistent with the story being told essentially from her perspective.  She is a woman without mirrors, physical or psychological – a girl and then a woman being moved forward by forces very much beyond her control.

So, there are two questions about her inner world that spring to my mind.  One – despite the fluidity of her memories and the shifting of time that seems consistent with a mind that has never known clocks or calendars, but instead days and nights stretching into seasons, there is a central sense of self – a certainty about who she is – that seems to orient her – to keep her upright – she has a deep keel despite having slipped through pretty shallow water most of her life.  This is supported by the consistent relationship that she and Doll maintained – she felt loved and valued despite not having the same roof – and many times any roof – over her head.  The other is whether she could realistically have the kind of bookish interests that this character has – and here I think we must imagine that a woman very much like the author has been born into a local universe that does not contain books.  And I think if we believe that – and what else could be the case – then this may be a reflection of what could have happened.

I’m sorry for that jag.  You see there are questions about the Romantic vision – one first put forward perhaps by Rousseau – that the natural state of man is one of being at one with nature and that if we were raised by wolves we would be even more human than we can be when we are the products of our citified lives.  Mowgli of the Jungle Tales would be the quintessential example of this.  But could it be that if we were raised by wolves we would simply be primitive – our animalistic selves would predominate?  Doll is not a wolf – but there are a lot of wolves barking at the door – or lack thereof – in Lila’s early world and she knocks around a great deal – but she is, in this book, baptized – not just in the religious sense, but also in the sense of being washed clean, and this is a decidedly mixed experience for her – but I think it exposes her essential goodness – and maybe even her puritan or more to the point Calvinistic goodness.  And are we essentially good or evil?

You see, the beginning and end of this book is that Lila – a wild one if there ever was one – a person who was all but abandoned, was stolen, lived on the run, loves and is at one with nature, but is also a person who, as a woman, became a prostitute to survive when Doll left her, who became a domestic and who was on the way to returning to the wild – leaving St. Louis behind to get back to the nomadic migrant life in Iowa – fatefully stopped at a Calvinist church in a medium sized town in Iowa and fell in love with and married the minister – a man who had been widowed for forty years – a man who was probably thirty or more years older than she – a man who had been as bereft and alone as – well as Lila was once Doll disappeared from her life.

To write that thumbnail sketch of the plot above makes this book sound farfetched, and yet it is not.  Of course it is an intentional allegory.  Lila steals the Bible and retreats to the abandoned farmhouse where she is squatting and she writes out the lines from Ezekiel – a book of the bible that I was not the least familiar with – and the metaphor comes home to her – of a baby that is covered in blood and dirt and that is washed clean by the lord – the baby is Israel – the baby is Lila and the minister is cleansing her – and the baby is you and me – cut off from those around us and hungering to be connected – to be cleansed and brought back into the fold.  And the allegory when put out there by a plodder like myself – seems like an evangelical tract that you would run from, but in the hands of this author the allegory and the plot work – on the personal and the religious level without feeling preachy or forced.  We are happy to both suspend disbelief – or rather to believe – on many levels.  And partly this doesn't feel preachy because it becomes clear that faith is a very complicated thing.

The plot works because the minister is very sensitively portrayed – he gets Lila – her wildness and her skittishness – and, most profoundly, her loneliness.  And he gets that he can be with her without having to force his way in – she will, in her own sweet time, out.  And this relationship - to my ear like the relationship between analyst and patient – unfolds slowly and beautifully.  There is at the center of this story one of the most touching and sweet love stories I have read – and I can’t imagine a more romantic rendezvous than the afternoon of Lila’s baptism. 

But this is not a Romance Novel.  Lila’s baptism comes at a great and terrible cost.  She is separated from the people she has loved – first and foremost from Doll, but from all the unwashed whom she has known and loved.  As she is transformed to the 1%, she leaves behind the 99% that have sustained and loved her.  At one point, I found myself thinking that this is, among all the other things that it is, a reflection on the guilt of privilege – on what it means to be one of the select – whether that is religious or economic or, on the level of the changes that a therapeutic relationship with a lover have wrought, of psychological health – to realize that there is a loneliness of privilege as well as one of poverty. 

This is also not a Romance Novel because of the disparity in the ages between the lead characters.  Lila must face what life will be without the person that she has connected with and we watch as she teeters between preparing to return to her former life and figuring out how to imagine living within the confines of her current one.  It is the minister that makes her citified life bearable.  She has lived in cities before – real cities – but never connected with anyone.  Here she is connected.  Will that connection take?  It seems to be taking, more and more, as the novel progresses, but we don’t actually learn her fate in this novel – perhaps in the others we do – but in this one that question is left hanging nicely in the air.

Robinson has imagined herself into a life and invites us to do the same.  She is also opening up a big part of her experience and of ours – what it means to be alone.  What it means, in the midst of that loneliness to sense the presence of others – whether a maternal figure – a paternal/romantic one – or the presence of God – and to be skittish in the presence of that other.  To fear that who we are cannot be accepted by that other – to fear that being accepted will lead us to lose what we already have.  On this most essential level, the novel works.  It articulates a kind of essential loneliness – one that Sullivan calls prototaxic – the loneliness of awe – of having no words to articulate the experience – but it also articulates the process of learning those words – so that this story could be the story of each of us developing – coming to find the words – to find the story – that best articulates our experience – even if that will cost us dearly it will also allow us to connect with that which is available.  Can we hope for more?
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