Fleeting beauty

Marilynne Robinson, winner of the 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel “Gilead” (Picador), made a rare appearance on Thursday evening in Portland at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Robinson spoke as part of the 2005-06 Portland Arts and Lectures series.

Wearing a black blouse and black pants, heels and a silver necklace, Robinson spoke for over an hour, reading from what appeared to be handwritten notes. In a soft, elusive, slightly tinny voice, one that in no way mirrors the searching and darkly poetic prose that Robinson has used to such acclaim in her fiction, the author centered her lecture on the loss of awe and beauty in the modern world.

“It has seemed to me for some time that beauty, as a conscious element and experience, as a thing to be valued and explored, has gone into abeyance among us,” Robinson said.

Lifting her shoulder-length silvery hair off her left shoulder, Robinson explained, “though I do not by any means wish to suggest that we suffer from any shortage of beauty, which seems to me to be intrinsic to experience and everywhere to be found.”

Tracing her life as a writer back to a childhood of being inspired by “the need to write poetry whenever there was a good storm,” Robinson recalled the alluring hold that the natural world has always held over her.

Yet wistful nostalgia was not at the heart of the novelist’s recollections. Robinson linked the openness and wonder that she originally viewed the world with as a child to the poetry of Wordsworth and Keats that she discovered later on in life. And as a result of what she deemed an “impractical education,” Robinson declared that she felt she was given “cultural permission to be attracted to whatever seemed to me to be beautiful.”

However, for Robinson, the beauty, and the awe that she feels was once reverently held for that beauty, have long since disappeared from everyday life and from writing.

“American literature, back in the days when we still remembered the [American] Revolution, aspired to an aesthetic of simplicity, of common speech, of common circumstance,” she said.

Robinson stated that the loss of an appreciation for simplicity, for beauty in any form, has resulted in human interaction that “lacks respect for people in general.”

“We condescend, as if we are not all ourselves members in good standing,” she said. “We are not much in awe of one another these days.”

Then, tying her observations into what she sees as an overall “enormous ratcheting down of expectation in Western civilization,” Robinson linked together the loss and appreciation of beauty in modern culture with topics as diverse as the United States’ invasion of Iraq, the reasons why writers write fiction and the weight of societal expectations

“We all know that we can see beauty where our culture or our generation tells us to see it,” Robinson said. “We know that beauty can be fraudulent or compromised, whenever power or privilege wishes to flaunt itself and recruit beauty into its service.”