One Quote Review: Mother Country by Marilynne Robinson

This is a surprisingly little read book that displays Robinson’s wonderful discursive intelligence in a whole new field. It asks why we should be so concerned about the threat of nuclear warfare when plants like Sellafield produce the equivalent destructive force and let it slip out of tubes minute by minute, day by day, no less toxic because it happens over the course of fifty years, not fifty milliseconds?

It is a caustically anti-British book, in a form that is rare. She directly connects the rise of British capitalism through the Poor Laws, the Welfare state and the plutonium industry with the curious emptiness of rigorous thought in British policy formation.

Needless to say, I loved it.

British social thought may as well be imagined as occurring this way. It takes place in a country house built and furnished to accord with conventions polished by use, a house filled with guests, great and minor luminaries, ornaments of literature, the sciences, the church, and of philosophy and politics. Most of them, not coincidentally, are cousins at some remove. They are charmed to find in one another just that streak of intuitive brilliance they had always admired in themselves, and to be confirmed in their sense that they are true members of a group in which there are no impostors, by a very great similarity of taste, of interest, of sympathy. It is a leisurely visit, some centuries in length, and in due course everyone has confessed his weakness for Hesiod, and admired the garden, and regretted the weather. The evenings would perhaps have begun to weigh, if someone had not suggested a game called Philanthropy. The rules of this game are very simple. One must justify things as they are by attacking things as they are. It is a philosophic game, perfectly suited to showing off a fine wit. It has even the thrill of risk, since it invites subversive ideas. But the point is always, of course, to achieve a resolution that will bring the argument right back where it began.

This distinguished party warms to the challenge. And how affecting it is to hear them, one after another, in the language of statesman and moralist, decry the sufferings of the poor, until it seems that the very table they sit around must be made into splints and crutches and the topiary garden planted in potatoes. Then, just when the pleasure of participation in this virtuous fantasy is at its height, that is to say, just when the temptations of virtue are most intense, then the player reveals the illusion: This “virtue” is not virtue at all, but an evil to be scrupulously avoided. A little thrill of relief passes over the company when their world is safely restored to them. But the risk is never as great as it may seem. Any strategy is sufficient in defending the moon from the wolves.

Your Correspondent, Always falling over his many gymnastics trophies

One Reply to “One Quote Review: Mother Country by Marilynne Robinson”

Comments are closed.