Michael Robbins

  • This Is a Testament

    “IN THE BEGINNING God created the heaven and the earth.” You have to admit it’s a hell of an opening line. “When I think there was a day when a human first wrote those words,” Marilynne Robinson says, “I am filled with awe.” And that, for better and worse, is the kind of book Reading Genesis is—Robinson muses through Genesis, telling you what she thinks, getting filled with awe. It’s a book-length reading response. But it’s a reading response by Marilynne Robinson, who has written a few of the finest novels in English, so I’ll take it.

    Of course, she’s not really thinking of the day when a

  • Down and Outbreak

    IN THE FALL of 2019, I wrote in these pages: “It remains unlikely that Ebola will spark a global pandemic. But it is almost certain that something else will, and there is every danger that it will exacerbate prevailing social tensions.” The occasion was two books about the 2013–2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Each author, Richard Preston and David Quammen, warned of the “Next Big One,” as Quammen put it, which could well be “an inevitability.” People tend to forget Cassandra was right.

    Quammen’s new study opens a few months after I wrote those sentences, when reports of a “pneumonia of

  • Look Back in Anger

    ONCE UPON A TIME, humans lived in small, nomadic, egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then, several thousand years ago, they domesticated plants and animals, discovered agriculture, and grew sedentary, eventually erecting cities, which gave rise to civilization—emperors, taxes, public works, the DMV. This was either a good thing (Hobbes) or a bad thing (Rousseau).

    So the story goes; maybe you heard it in college. Anthropologists and archaeologists have understood for decades it’s not true. James C. Scott summed up what we now know of early humanity in Against the Grain (2017): “It turns

  • Home Alone

    THE LAST FILM I SAW IN A THEATER was Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, at BAM Rose Cinemas in February 2020. Of course it didn’t occur to me that this would be the last movie I’d see on the big screen for well over a year—why would it? I hadn’t gone more than a month or so without visiting a movie theater since I was sixteen. Thirty years of movie after movie, Jurassic Park to Jeanne Dielman. Art houses and multiplexes; malls and drive-ins. All abruptly shuttered, some forever.

    So my movie-going narrowed, like everyone else’s—in my case, to a forty-eight-inch Sharp LED TV and Panasonic Blu-ray

  • Search and Destroy

    I REGRET TO INFORM THE READER that Andreas Malm’s new book, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, does not in fact contain instructions on how to blow up a pipeline. The title is aspirational: how to get enough people to realize that (a) drastic measures are now required to prevent or ameliorate the worst effects of global warming, (b) the usual protests and appeals to institutional authority are getting nowhere, and therefore (c) direct action against the instruments and agents of climate disaster is justified.

    I’m not going to pretend to be impartial. News items pile up in my brain: three-thousand-year-old

  • A Rumble Offering

    YOU KNOW HOW, when you roll into a small town for the first time, in search of a slice of pie and a decent cup of coffee, you inevitably uncover a byzantine and nefarious criminal conspiracy, perhaps concerning Russian spies and Nazis? And your sense of justice and your MMA-style fighting skills demand that you stick around long enough to expose the evildoers, protect the innocent, and kick a whole lot of ass?

    OK, that probably hasn’t happened to you more than once. But it happens to Jack Reacher all the time. Lee Child’s ex-military drifter-hero is framed for murder in a small Georgia town

  • Against Damnation

    I REALIZED WHEN I WAS AROUND EIGHT THAT THE VERY CONCEPT OF HELL IS INSANE AND EVIL, and never looked back. I don’t regard this as an especially precocious perception—many other Christians I have known report a similar experience.

    I wrote the above sentences for a version of this review in February, in a different world. I ate at restaurants with friends, rode crowded subways, went to the movies. Now it is early April and I have not been outside in a month. I watch Netflix, Zoom with friends, eat beans from a can. And I listen to black metal, whose refrigerated guitars I find perversely soothing

  • I Me Mind

    THE HARD PROBLEM, DAVID CHALMERS CALLS IT: Why are the physical processes of the brain “accompanied by an experienced inner life?” How and why is there something it is like to be you and me, in Thomas Nagel’s formulation? I’ve been reading around in the field of consciousness studies for over two decades—Chalmers, Nagel, Daniel Dennett, John Searle, Jerry Fodor, Ned Block, Frank Jackson, Paul and Patricia Churchland, Alva Noë, Susan Blackmore—and the main thing I’ve learned is that no one has the slightest idea. Not that the field lacks for confident pronouncements to the contrary.


  • Journals of the Plague

    Ebola “begins as a mystery story,” as the science writer David Quammen puts it in his excellent 2014 primer Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus, which expands on a chapter from Spillover, his enchanting study of zoonotic diseases. Every new infectious disease is a mystery, of course, but the dramatic efficiency with which Ebola kills—it is highly lethal and infective, causes hemorrhagic fever, and has a brief incubation window—lends it an apocalyptic aura. Indeed, science writer and New Yorker contributor Richard Preston introduced The Hot Zone—his best-selling 1994 account

  • The Varieties of Religious Experience

    “Praise the world to the Angel, not what’s unsayable.” Thus spoke Rainer Maria Rilke, waxing a bit Nietzschean. It’s something of a commonplace in late modernity: the exaltation of the finite and transient—“things that live on departure,” Rilke says—and the concomitant demotion or denial of the eternal. The opposition grounds Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Wallace Stevens pares it down to an epigram: “Death is the mother of beauty.”

    Or as the philosopher Martin Hägglund explains in his rather exasperating new book, “Life can matter only in light of death.” This thesis is expounded in This

  • States of Grace

    It’s probably Elaine Pagels’s fault I’m a Christian, if I am. When I was in college, one of my professors quoted the Gospel of Thomas in class. I don’t remember which passage he recited, but I remember that it sounded nothing like the gospels I had grown up with. If anything, given my limited repertoire at that time, it reminded me of Kafka or Beckett—terse, enigmatic, wry, gnawing at the edges of the mystical. I lit up like a pinball machine. I needed to hear more. One thing puzzled me: I hadn’t been the most diligent or devout catechumen, but I knew the Bible contained no Gospel of Thomas.

  • Unnatural History

    With the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere the highest it’s been since the Pliocene, there is no dearth of au courant theories explaining how nature and society do not in any sense compose distinct spheres. Nature cannot be distinguished from society because the former, no less than the latter, is “constructed”—a discursive figuration or trope with no independent external reality. Or they can’t be distinguished because nature now constitutes a hopelessly blurred hybrid with society. Or because nature has simply ended. Or because, as French philosopher and anthropologist Bruno

  • States of Wander

    The encomiums that plastered the internet in the hours and days following John Ashbery’s death on September 3 were mostly in accord: Ashbery’s poetry was “puzzling,” “enigmatic,” “impenetrable,” “difficult,” “elusive,” “obscure,” “incomprehensible,” “inscrutable,” “confounding,” “indecipherable,” “inaccessible,” “hard to grasp,” “incoherent,” “challenging,” “mysterious.”

    I may have sighed. Oh, it’s accurate enough—I was immediately seduced when I first read Ashbery, in college, but I couldn’t have told you precisely what the words that seduced me, you know, meant. Ashbery was at first for me

  • Our Struggle

    No one seriously concerned with political strategies in the current situation can afford to ignore the "swing to the right." We may not yet understand its extent and its limits, its specific character, its causes and effects. We have so far . . . failed to find strategies capable of mobilising social forces strong enough in depth to turn its flank. But the tendency is hard to deny.

    Those words appear in the late cultural theorist Stuart Hall's 1979 essay "The Great Moving Right Show," but they could have been composed—well, you know. In a piece the year before, Hall had written of

  • Visible Republic

    Gentlemen, he said, I don't need your organization. And surely Bob Dylan, one of the wealthiest and most successful artists in the history of the world, did not require the imprimatur of the Nobel Committee for Literature at the Swedish Academy. Nevertheless, here we were, on the morning of October 13, 2016, arguing about whether it made a lick of sense for a popular songwriter—even the popular songwriter—to be awarded this most prestigious of literary prizes. Was there precedent? There was not: Every single previous winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature—even Winston Churchill (1953)—won for