Michael Robbins

  • 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

  • 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