Robinson and Optimism

“I want to overhear passionate arguments about what we are and what we are doing and what we ought to do. I want to feel that art is an utterance made in good faith by one human being to another. I want to believe there are geniuses scheming to astonish the rest of us, just for the pleasure of it.” 

Marilynne Robinson, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought

Would it not be awful if one could legitimately argue that we have become so gripped by a terror at complexity that we are enamored with the mere utility of nearly everything?  This is the kind of question that haunts.  It suggests the possibility that great numbers of people, for the greatest amount of any given day, celebrate their love for things that infer nothing about a consciousness of meaning.

Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitizer Prize-winning author of Gilead, has suggested the notion that it is just as easy to imagine people as profoundly noble as it is to imagine them in any number of disparaging ways.  And, as much as my thoughts tend toward cynicism regarding the intentions of others, I know that there is a great measure of truth to what she is saying.

I can, after all, imagine any one of us to be in some corner of the world, pouring over some great work by a greater mind than our own.  I can conceptualize a farmer, for instance, after a hard day’s labour in the scorching sun, perched on a chair under a fan of light, reading Walden and wondering, for all the world, what Thoreau meant by it.  I can also envisage a nurse, with feet propped up and her uniform still on, sipping warm tea as she attempts to parse out the difference between what Calvin actually infers in The Institutes of Christian Religion and what subsequent interpreters have implied.  And I can imagine both the nurse and the farmer doing so simply for the wonder of doing it, each celebrating their mind for their mind’s sake

I know that this is not always or primarily the case but, like Robinson, I would like to hold on to the notion that there are artistic, scientific, and philosophical geniuses spread throughout this world scheming to astonish the rest of us, just for the pleasure of it.

When I have looked for these people, I have to admit that I have found them.  And, when I have found them, I have been inspired by them.  I cannot say that I have felt the same when I have taken on a disparaging view of humanity.

I am no optimist.  However, I do not think there is much to drink from fountain of despair.  In addition, it seems more honorable that we would live with a notion of each other that hopes something for us and expects something from us than to live in any other way.

Ross Melanson

About Ross Melanson

He is a poet, visual artist, and independent scholar living in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. He is the Founding Editor of page51 - a website dedicated to exploring the relationship between art, culture, and philosophy. Read more →, or

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