At the heart of human existence is erotic desire. This erotic desire lurks behind the scenes in Marilynne Robinson’s Jack. In the fourth volume of Marilynne Robinson’s quartet that centers around Gilead, Iowa, the character Jack takes center stage. He has haunted the background in many of the subsequent novels, but in Jack, one encounters his own thoughts and predilections. The main narrative is structured around his interracial marriage with Della. This paper utilizes Willie James Jennings’s discussion of the erotic and Jean-Luc Marion’s erotic reduction to analyze the relationship between Della and Jack. Jack awakens to the meaning and purpose in life by being loved by another which makes him realize his own capability to love. Alex Sosler is an assistant professor of Bible and ministry at Montreat College.
Marilynne Robinson’s quartet of novels revolves around the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa. Themes of race, loneliness, aging, faith, and grace permeate her writing. Each of her first three novels highlighted a particular character from the town. In Gilead, John Ames, a Congregational minister, is dying from a heart disease and writes a reflection to his young son.1 However, a character enters from a twenty-year absence from home and family that steals his attention, his godson Jack. The son of his best friend Robert Boughton (the Presbyterian minister), Jack is continually a source of conflict and frustration not only for Ames but for anyone who comes too close. In Home, Glory, the daughter of Boughton, comes home to care for the ailing patriarch.2 While there, Jack returns and he again looms menacingly in the background. Finally, in Lila, the story of Reverend Ames’ young wife, Lila, is told.3 These stories provide a sort of panoramic view of events, happenings, and people in this small town. In Robinson’s fourth novel, Jack, the source of so much conflict and grief takes center stage.4
Jack proves problematic for several valid reasons—not least for impregnating a young girl and abandoning mother and child, irritating people for no other reason than annoyance’s sake, and rejecting the prodigal love of his father. Though his ethic in Jack is to be “harmless,” he seems to do just the opposite. All Jack does is harm. He is condemned to believe that he’s been predestined to hell, a son of perdition—until years later, an African American woman named Della arrives on the scene. This love relationship fueled with eros might be his escape from his lifelong understanding of his own damnation. Jack provides the background of Della and Jack’s relationship, the struggles they both endure and the challenges of loving each other.
Using Jack and Della as a paradigmatic relationship, this article will focus on the erotic power which pulls others toward communion. By employing theologian Willie James Jennings’ reflections on eros in education featured in After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging alongside Jean-Luc Marion’s The Erotic Phenomenon, this paper presents the erotic relationship between Jack and Della as central to Jack’s survival as he realizes that he is capable of love.
A brief note on the interlocuters: I choose Robinson in dialogue with Marion for a generative but non-direct influence. They both write with the phenomenological insights of givenness and grace. Robinson has a book of essays entitled The Givenness of Things,5 while Marion has Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness.6 For both, all givens are gifts of the Giver. There are no indications that Robinson writes with any influence of Marion in mind, though they both carry similar insights that, presented together, reciprocally enliven each other. In essence, both authors reflect the Calvinist notion that the world is a theater of God’s glory. Or as Robinson puts it, “A theology for our time should help us to know that Being is indeed the theater of God’s glory.”7 The givenness of the world is the phenomenological influence that wakes Jack up to life and living.
One example in Robinson’s Gilead provides an exemplary passage for the evidence of this phenomenological givenness. Reverend Ames reflects on an evening when his wife, Lila, was taking pictures of Ames and his son sipping honey suckles one summer night. Writing to his son, he says,
There’s a shimmer on a child’s hair, in the sunlight. There are rainbow colors in it, tiny, soft beams of just the same colors you can see in the dew sometimes. They’re in the petals of flowers, and they’re on a child’s skin. Your hair is straight and dark, and your skin is very fair. I suppose you’re not prettier than most children. You’re just a nice-looking boy, a bit slight, well-scrubbed and well-mannered. All that is fine, but it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined. I’m about to put on imperishability. In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye.
The twinkling of an eye. That is the most wonderful expression. I’ve thought from time to time it was the best thing in life, that little incandescence you see in people when the charm of a thing strikes them, or the humor of it. “The light of the eyes rejoiceth the heart.” That’s a fact.8
In many ways, the Gilead novels as a whole are a long reflection on givenness and the giftedness of his life. At the end of Home, Glory, Jack’s sister, reflects on her life—a life of struggle and regret, of wrestling with her brother Jack and caring for their dying father. And the last words of the novel are, “The Lord is wonderful.” Jennings and Marion will help frame such wonderfulness of the Lord through their descriptions of eros.
The Problem of Jack
As those acquainted with Robinson’s Gilead novels know, one of Jack’s prevailing problems is predestination. A Calvinist notion inherited from his Presbyterian father, the teaching goes that all humanity is born into sin. God, in his kindness, elects some to eternal glory. Others are destined to do evil and end up in hell. In one version of predestination, the doctrine implies both the deliberate choice to glory and his intentional nonchoice of others. There’s nothing that humanity can do by their initiative to change. In a theological conversation with Reverend Boughton and Reverend Ames, Jack found himself as a “son of perdition”—that is, one of the damned.9 The doctrine of reprobation, where he gets the idea of being a son of perdition, teaches that “God has condemned the nonelect to eternal punishment for their sins.”10 Jack seems to ask serious questions that annoy Ames. But Jack wants to know if people can change, or if there’s no hope. subsequently, he can’t change, or at least found himself unable to change. If that’s the case, then the most he can hope to do is be harmless, as his ethic appears in the novel bearing his name. “Dear Jesus, keep me harmless,” Jack reflects. “He knew what that meant. Keep me alone.”11
Jack is well-catechized as a minister’s child. He knows the doctrinal truth but finds himself on the wrong side of it. In Home, he confesses a spiritual hunger and admits to his sister, “It is possible to know the great truths without feeling the truth of them. That’s where the problem lies. In my case.”12 Indeed, my contention is that is where the problem lies. It’s not in knowledge but in desire. In other words, there’s an erotic problem—a problem of desire.
It’s not until the progressive revelation of his love story with Della that desire awakens him to life. Jack’s life becomes connected, and in his connection, he becomes indicted. The freedom he experiences in single life binds him. By limiting his freedom and responding in love to Della, he is set free. He begins to see the givenness of life and begins to desire a good life. In many ways, Jack exemplifies the Augustinian notion that to desire the aid of grace is the beginning of grace.13 Before Della, Jack’s only reason to live—to be—was not to eternally disappoint his father. He recognizes parental love, but such love did not change him. Unexpected love entered and awakened him to a fuller, meaningful life. Della, his African American lover, comes as Christ incarnate as the grace that makes him live. To understand how this grace functions, it is pertinent to clarify eros, desire, and the importance of love.
Clarifying the Erotic
Existence is erotic. That word—”erotic”—has come under scrutiny in modernity. Erotic does not refer to sexuality—at least initially. It also does not refer to a cate- gory of inappropriate films. (Those are perversions of eros. The term has become commercialized and sexualized as if eros is latent with promiscuity and sin.) To say existence is erotic means that life is pushed by urgent desire, the longing of the soul, and an embodied ache in reaching toward another. In other words, we are communal beings set within a web of wants and relationships. Humanity does not tend toward indifference and apathy but passion and affection.
Willie James Jennings writes that this erotic desire drives life together with God.14 That is a provocative claim. Erotic seems too sensual and too emotional in reference to God. But eros simply means a strong, passionate, physical desire— something like soul aching or longing—like being in love for the first time. Eros is desire—and desire can be sexual and bodily, but it also exceeds the sensual. At the center of every human heart is an erotic desire: to be known and to know others. Humanity has an appetite for knowledge and love, which is to say, we want something we do not have. Desire leads to seeking fulfillment: to be intimate with what one does not yet know.
This affectionate invitation usually makes academics uncomfortable. so often in the academy, the goal is to rid oneself of any desire at all. scholarship is about the absence of feeling. But this natural tendency to disconnect results in the dehumanization of others and their feelings or their desires to belong. “Just toughen up.” “Be stronger.” “Be a better individual.” It seeps through the academy and into casual and romantic relationships. It trickles down to Christianity as it morphs into some sort of stoic-Buddhist ethic. Orthodox theologian Christos Yannaros suggests two opposed attitudes or two cultures of Western versus Eastern mentality:
On the one side (East), life is based on truth as relation and as existential experience; truth is actualized as life’s social dynamics and life is justified as the identification of being true with being in communion. On the other side (West), truth is identified with intellectual definitions; it is objectivized and subordinated to usefulness. And truth as usefulness objectifies life itself.15
While perhaps overstating the case, by and large, these distinctions are present. To be fair, the dangers of emotionalism are strong and real, as well. Emotions are frequently manipulated and untrustworthy. But in the Western academy, the dangers of intellectualism or scientism are seldom cautioned. The way to think and the way to live is eros-less.
Willie James Jennings positions the erotic as an alternative to the Western (and largely white) academy. There’s something in the academic project that rejects the erotic in favor of objectivity. Detach from relationships. Don’t feel. Disconnect. Desire leads to delusion. Whereas whiteness presents the self as the destination at which one arrives, he argues that “ . . . theological education is to touch the divine reality of longing.”16 Jennings defines this affectional longing as erotic desire. Rather than personal networks for individual exchange and commodification, in the erotic economy, there are networks of relationality. What drives life together is a community of care and belonging, rather than objectification and abstraction. Erotic power becomes “pressed toward a gathering that breaks boundaries and crosses borders.”17 As the feminist theologian Rita Nakashima Brock has written, erotic power is “the power of our primal interrelatedness.”18 This primal interrelatedness is what Jean-Luc Marion develops in his explanation of the erotic reduction. Rather than intellectual, the primal impetus is affectional.
The Erotic Reduction
The erotic desire that Jennings proposes as the way of theological education, Jean-Luc Marion expounds in his philosophical treatise, The Erotic Phenomenon. Central to Marion’s phenomenology is the concept of erotic reduction. In essence, he flips Descartes’ essential question, “Who am I?” because before the question of being is one of value. Descartes attempted to doubt his way to cer- tainty, and thus, his famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am.” But for Marion, there is a previous question: “Does anyone love me?”19 In other words, what is the use of existing or being at all? To be or not to be is “reduced” even further to an erotic question and possibility. To not be open to the possibility that someone loves me is to be worse than human—animal or dead. Thus, Marion develops three further “moves” from “Who Am I?” to get to his ultimate reduction: the value of being loved by another, being one who can love, and the climax of the realization that there is a prior love that loves me to life. This end means, unfortunately perhaps, that we are radically dependent on another.
The requirements of eros boil down to a single requirement from which all the others flow: to arrive ahead of the other in love. Rather than presuppose or wait for another to show me love, I am called to love without reciprocity. An erotic life is not a demand to be loved but to give oneself as a gift. Eros functions by an economy of gift. On this element of gift, the phenomenological philosopher Claude Romano comments on his understanding of Marion: “Whenever an appearance occurs—whether of a human face to the eye, a ray of sunlight on the skin, the sharp acidity of lemon juice on the tongue, or a finely tuned distinction before the intellect—it is, thinks Marion, always an instance of something given: something unasked, unmerited, unanticipated, arriving before us from elsewhere as a gift.”20 This sounds like Marilynne Robinson when she writes toward the end of Gilead, “But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a willingness to see.”21 Life is extravagant. One’s goodness comes as a gift from the outside—a phenomenon of givenness.
Reduction 1: Am I Loved by Another?
Marion, unlike Descartes, is after assurance rather than certainty. While Descartes was concerned with the certainty of being (to be or not to be), Marion supposes the more important issue is the assurance of love. Love gives an assurance that the person matters. To be or not to be is not the central question. Marion’s project is more akin to a line from W. H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1946” in the aftermath of World War II: “We must love one another or die.”22 Marion writes,
Receiving assurance against the vanity of my certain existence does not depend upon me, but requires that I learn from elsewhere that I am and above all if I have to be. Holding out when faced with vanity, which is to say obtaining the justification to be from elsewhere, means that I am, not by being (even through myself, even as a privileged being), but insofar as I am loved (and thus chosen from elsewhere).23
In seeking an answer to the question “What matters about existing?”, Marion answers: to be loved. Love provides meaning to life, and only love from outside of oneself can bring assurance that existence is worth it.
Reduction 2: Can I love First?
But Marion reduces the dilemma even further. There is a third question to the reduction. The questions go from “Who am I?” to “Can anyone love me?” to “Can I love first?” The third question beckons a response, which says, “Here I am.” This love does demand reciprocity or exchange. One does not say, “Here I am as long as you are here.” In Marion’s words, “The lover appears when one of the actors in exchange no longer poses prior conditions, and loves without requiring to be loved, and this, in the figure of the gift, abolishes economy.”24 In other words, the only way to be in the world, so he argues from this erotic reduction, is to love without conditions or limits. This love is not without reason, as Marion insists, but “reason refuses to go where the lover goes.”25 In this sense, erotic love is supra-rational.
This pursuing, erotic love advances and is repeated. One is not a lover from an experience, but love is a promise of return. As such, the lover bears everything, believes everything, and loves without seeing. As Marion describes, “The winner is the last lover The lover loves to love for the love of love.”26 Furthermore,
To qualify as a lover, I do not have to perform love’s perfect advance: by definition no one can promise that, since it depends on no cause whatsoever, not even my will; but in order to be qualified as a lover, I have only to decide to perform love’s advance, a decision that depends only on me, even though it always plays out at the limits of my abilities. To decide to love does not assure loving, but it does assure deciding to love.27
This decision of love puts the responsibility and the agency on the individual: you are the only one who can decide if your existence is good and useful—and it depends on this erotic reduction: “Can you love first?”
Reduction 3: You Have Loved Me First
But Marion goes on. To be capable of such a love is only possible when one from the outside, some other, loves you first. “I discover myself loveable through the other’s grace; and if I finally risk loving myself, or at least no longer hating myself. . . . I dare it on the word of the other, through my confidence in her and not in me.”28 And again, “The lover only becomes himself because the other, the other lover, assures the first lover his own signification through hers.”29 Thus, love from another makes one alive to the fact that they can love. Therefore, the question is reduced even further to the fact that you are loved. Only when one is loved can one be capable of loving another. This love from another makes existence good because it awakens the person to the purpose of being.
In The Erotic Phenonomen, Marion argues,
I have learned that I never could have asked myself, ‘Does anyone out there love me?’ if another did not love me first. It was necessary that I enter into the erotic reduction and that I advance under the form of the lover in order that the logic of love lead me insensibly, but ineluctably, to comprehend that another loved me well before I loved her In fact, no one can claim, at least without lying to oneself or contradicting oneself, that no one loves him or has loved him.”30
Commenting on this passage, Catholic theologian Robyn Horner notes, “My capacity to love, to make an advance in love, is actually made possible by finding myself always and already loved.”31 Marion draws on the biblical passage from st. John the Apostle: we love because we have been loved first (1 John 4:10).
Result: Eternal Love
The natural result of such erotic love can be a third other, a child, which confirms the oath of love and carries the love into the eternal future where faithfulness exists. Marion writes, “In short, to be finished with the erotic reduction. . . . Conceived this way, the child makes manifest in her duration. . . what the oath signified but was unable to phenomenalize durably, or manifest to others than to the lovers themselves. The child saves the lovers’ oath first by making it definitely visible in her third face. . . . The oath makes the child possible, but only the child renders the oath actual.”32 The outcome of erotic love is the completion till eternity. The goal of erotic love is not just a moment of passion but the return of love again and again—past death. The child symbolizes this oath, because, in most instances, this third other outlives the first two in the erotic reduction. Thus, love passes the impossibility of faithfulness to eternity to the possibility of new erotic love in the child. This oath of eternal love becomes possible in the face of a child, the erotic result.
The Erotic at Work in Jack
With the philosophical baggage unpacked, the reader is ready to gaze at Jack. The novel works the same way as the erotic reduction. Eros enters into Jack’s experience, his phenomenon. He doubts his existence, and, on several occasions, is found debating on the costs and benefits of ending his existence. In those moments of despair, love wakens him to life through the love of another—namely, Della.
Am I Loved by Another?
Jack starts with a long, slow, meandering conversation in a graveyard between the novel’s main characters: Jack and Della. They had been on a date about a year before, but Jack left when the check came, so it didn’t end on good terms. Now, by chance encounter, here they are, unknowingly stuck in a graveyard as the gates were locked when dusk arrived. A graveyard is an interesting place— where many consider the phenomenological issue: to be or not to be? They also find themselves in the cover of darkness. Considering the theme of darkness, Jurgen Moltmann comments, “Darkness—night—these are always symbols for the God-forsakenness of the world . . . and for the lostness of men and women. In the darkness we see nothing and no longer know where we are.”33 In many ways, this is a proper starting point for Jack and Della. They are both in the dark—Jack concerning life, and Della about Jack. Reflecting on an encounter with a former teacher, Jack remembers, “What she actually said was ‘You are living like someone who has died already.’”34 In many ways, Jack was existing, but he was not living; at least, not living with any meaning. For Della, to ask about meaning—the phenomenological question—is to already surrender to meaning.35
As aforementioned, Robinson and Marion also have sympathies with the givenness of things. In this chance encounter between Jack and Della, the gift starts. The image of the given “crashing” into the patient is one that Marion constantly reinforces and extends: he speaks of the phenomenon that “explodes on the screen” in an instant. The phenomenon is given as an incident, or accident, defined as “a—small—event [or happening] that comes up.”36 This happenstance occurrence between Jack and Della—random at first glance—ends up being the gift that renews.
It’s through an interpersonal encounter—this given gift—that Jack awakens to life and light begins to seep in. Marion suggests this pattern: “If you have no need of more time to know the other, you are not directly committed to him. To love somebody is always to need more time to know him. You don’t have enough information about him. You will never have enough information.”37 For this couple, this long encounter in a graveyard is the beginning of a commitment where others become known.
In the graveyard, Jack comes alive to love. Throughout the novel, he asks the pre-erotic question: what’s the use of being? He wasn’t certain of anything or his place in the world, but assurance came from outside himself—from a given. And this gift was not satisfied in a moment. On reflecting on this erotic feeling of being together in a graveyard, he says emotions should give us things to look forward to, not just a casual encounter38 —reminiscent of Marion’s distinction of love being an eternal, lasting thing—something you return to. Jack wanted to let Della know, that even if he abandoned her at the restaurant in which the novel opens, he still had honorable intentions, and could be trusted to love her—that he was capable of an imperfect love, but he was resolute to love. He gives his oath—his loyalty—to keep on loving. He gets a job and goes from existing to living—hoping for another encounter with Della.
When he gets his next encounter with Della, he is walking by her house at night a few weeks later. He’s had a little to drink and wants to get a glimpse of her face, but to his surprise, as he walks by, Della opens the door. Della invites him in, and Jack, a bit intoxicated, falls asleep on the couch. The next morning, Della is making pancakes and asks Jack to pray. His first prayer is lines from a Paul Dunbar poem, a black poet. “Down to the grace will I take thee, / Out from the noose of the strife; / Then shalt thou see me and know me– / Death, then, no longer, but life.”39 Upon parting from her house, Jack thanks her for a place to sleep and a breakfast of pancakes. Her response was, “Just trying to keep you alive.” To this, Jack says, “You don’t have to do that. You keep me alive already. Just the thought of you.”40 Love gives Jack meaning to his existence.
The modern sensibility may be to suggest that Jack needed to love himself. He needed to accept himself to be capable of love and then a meaningful existence. But for Marion, for erotic love to matter, it must come from outside. As Hubbard suggests, “The love that assures me must outweigh the vanity that confronts me.”41 If I don’t regard the one who loves me, I ask, “Who cares?” It must be someone I have affection for to make love worth it—to give my existence meaning. There are plenty of characters in the Gilead series who love Jack—his father; his sister, Glory—but the erotic love needed to be desirable. Della is the person who loves beyond reason. As mentioned previously, Della, a black woman, becomes a Christ figure in the story.
Furthermore, Marion goes on to suggest that self-hatred is more likely than self-love in the issue of loving oneself.42 The clearest experience of our existence is that we are not worthy of love. Marion writes,
The greatest philosophies claim to attain to the love of self, but do not arrive at it—at least not enough to stop some men, or indeed the majority, not only from experiencing self-hatred, but from exercising it upon themselves. I do not argue here by invoking statistics or news items, but by asking each one who reads these lines if he or she has not had to brave, if only once in his or her lifetime, the almost irresistible impulse to punish himself, with full if not serene justification, because he confirmed himself in his own eyes to be a failure, a disappointment, or, as we often say, pathetic.43
And if we’re not worthy of love, then there’s no point in loving others, because they are as unworthy of love as us. In other words, they are as unworthy of our love as we are to love ourselves. so, we find ourselves stuck in a dilemma: we cannot love ourselves and any attempt to love ourselves leads to hatred of self and others. Jack regularly called himself denigrating names, because he knew, or figured, he was unworthy of love—until he found a love worth living for.
Can I Love First?
Robinson displays her Calvinist instinct of depravity through Jack: absent of love, he is incapable of good. However, Jack goes on to realize that he is not alone upon meeting Della, and he begins to ask, “Am I capable of love?” He was “oppressed by that old feeling that he was enmeshed in a web of potential damage that became actual.”45 Even with the potential of harm, Jack chose to love. He chose communion. From the graveyard scene, the relationship emerges, with the hope of being alive, and Jack was willing to reform his life to pursue this love.
When Jack is first rejected by Della’s visiting aunt, he sits on a park bench and “reconsiders his life again.”46 The erotic reduction of love does not seem to give way to meaningful living, so he reevaluates living again. He reflects on his father’s words spoken in church one morning.
His father would say, You are not good for your own sake. That probably isn’t even possible. You are good as a courtesy to everyone around you. Keeping a promise or breaking it, telling the truth or lying, matters to those around you. so there is good you can do and can always do again. You do not have to believe you are good in order to act well in any specific case. You never lose that option.47
In his reflection, he realizes the necessity of the erotic reduction. He shifts his focus inward to outward. It is not a matter of whether he is lovable; can he love first?
You Have Loved Me First
For Della, her erotic love leads her to see Jack differently. When her sister comes to talk some sense into them to end the relationship, one of the most searing critiques of Jack is when Della’s sister says, “Look at him!”48 He’s been called a lot of names. He gives himself lots of names: a bum, a thief, disreputable, Prince of Darkness. But the shrewdest blow: “Look at him!” The question is what do you see when you look?
Earlier, when Jack and Della pass each other after a previous confrontation with Della’s aunt, they are not talking or seeing one another. It is a glance that haunts Jack, and as he considers this glance, he considers himself: “What he was. When defects of character are your character, you become a what. He had noticed this. No one ever says, A liar is who you are, or Who you are is a thief. He was a what, absolutely.”49 Jack is depersonalized even from himself. He sees himself as an adjective. His state of perdition seems unescapable again.
For most of their relationship, Jack desired to be “honorable.” As the narrator describes Jack, “Keeping his distance was a favor, a courtesy, to all those strangers who might, probably would, emerge somehow poorer for proximity to him.”50 This distance that honor creates is based on the idea of harmlessness as previously mentioned. Throughout the book, that’s the sin that Jack avoids most: harm.51 You can’t harm someone if you never come close. Harmlessness was the principle of Jack’s ethics.
Robyn Horner aptly addresses the desire for the other in Jean-Luc Marion’s theology in Jean-Luc Marion: A Theo-Logical Introduction.52 Quoting Emmanuel Levinas:
so we read that desire for the other as Other . . . has another intention; it desires beyond everything that can simply complete it. It is like goodness—the Desired does not fulfill it, but deepens it. It is a generosity nourished by the Desired, and thus a relationship that is not the disappearance of distance, but a bringing together, or—to circumscribe more closely the essence of generosity and of goodness—a relationship whose positivity comes from remoteness, from separation, for it nourishes itself, one might say, with its hunger.53
The erotic draws the couple close. Love is never approached without risk. so, Jack and others worry about what this love will do to Della’s life. The relationship will ruin her. But in the erotic economy, the separation of people is harmful. The couple is being drawn together, and the most harmful thing is to stop love.
The reason Della gives for why this love is worth it—even in pain and loneliness and the inevitable hard life it will bring—is because she sees something else in Jack—a soul:
Once in a lifetime you look at a stranger and you see a soul, a glorious presence out of place in the world. And if you love God, every choice is made for you. There is no turning away. You’ve seen the mystery—you’ve seen what life is about. What it’s for. And a soul has no earthly qualities, no history among the things of this world, no guilt or injury or failure. No more than a flame would have. There is nothing to be said about it except that it is a holy human soul. And it is a miracle when you recognize it.54
She does not see the Prince of Darkness or a degenerate bum. She sees the mystery. She sees, in Marion’s words, personal flesh. In another place, she says, “I just think there has to be a Jesus, to say ‘beautiful’ about things no one else would ever see. The precious things should be looked to, whatever becomes of the rest of it.”55 Della has eyes to see. Her time in church has given her the courage to see even as it costs her—even when her family can’t see what she sees. Her erotic affirmation (you are loved) changed Jack. In many ways, this first act of love awakened him to begin to love in return. The eros of another reorders his vision, even the vision of himself. Desire takes him outside of himself to another and helps him know, and love, himself. According to Marion, “The lover makes appear the one whom she loves, not the reverse. she makes him appear lovable (or despicable) and thus visible within the erotic reduction.”56
For Marion and the character of Jack, to be able to love is to realize that you are already loved before. Eros for another takes him to the unification of the other. In Jack, the book ends in the form of faithfulness: love’s only form. Robinson writes, “Or he could consider the sweet marriage that made her a conspirator with him in it, the loyalty that always restored them both, just like grace.”57 The erotic reduction came down to knowing who I love and who loves me. For Jack, he notices this possibility, this love, as it is: grace. In the end, the love that bears Jack is named grace. In Marion, he gives grace a name: God.
Eternal and Faithful Love
In Marion’s account, “love requires distance and the crossing of distance.”58 In Jack, we see this love at play crossing the distance of racial difference. Jack wondered if he could bring Della and the child to Gilead if Gilead would accept them. Della’s own family, adherents of Marcus Garvey’s Black Nationalism, wanted Della to stay within her own heritage.59 Jack and Della desire to cross the distance of family lineage and temporal acceptance. The erotic draws them together in a healthy way that others were blind to. Interestingly, both families come from Christian heritage, but it’s in this non-ecclesial relationship where the right erotic desire emerges.
Their love gives way to eternity. Della describes her desire this way: “I just mean it’s strange that there is nothing more I want from life. If I could imagine an eternity of sitting here with you talking nonsense, there’d be nothing more I would want from death.”60 That’s the way the erotic talks: love that makes life worth living even past death.
To the Christian ear, this erotic draw that leads to infidelity sounds unfaithful. It’s full of passion but not commitment, so therefore it negates the command of love. Love is committed. But for Della and Jack, they were not after a hook-up but an illegal marriage. Before they consummate, that’s what they call it. “A lonely marriage”61 but a marriage nonetheless.
Loyalty or faithfulness is something Jack considers: “How could anyone promise to be loyal to anyone? Loyalty was fragile.”62 The African-American minister where he had been attending church told him the same: “And what can you do for her? You can be loyal to her. That’s worse than useless in the circumstances, unless you decide the loyal thing would be to leave her alone.”63 But his consideration led to a commitment: “I’m going to be loyal to her. she has my worse-than-useless fidelity, death do us part.”64
At the end of the novel, Jack goes to Memphis to be with Della. He’s tried to keep his distance, but he can’t. Upon meeting Della’s father, Della comes and stands beside him “somehow affirming every vow he could ask of her, as if every promise was as good as kept before it was ever made. Forsaking all others, remarkably enough.”65 It’s here that he discovers that Della is with child: the third other that is proof of their love and will live past their love.
For Jack, his goodness came from outside himself. Like all of his life, he was dependent. He lived outside of his control (like all of us do). In many ways, Jack’s life was set to receive the gift. No one had to tell him he had no control. When love came in the form of Della, his life takes a turn toward the renunciation of self-sufficiency. All he could do in being loved was love loyally in return.
To end, and to return to Jennings, he tells a story in After Whiteness about an interreligious mountain retreat of sharing, singing, laughing, and understanding. He describes this mountain as “a place where we can linger in a surprising desire for one another where stories and hopes bound up in dreams might be shared and we have time . . . to learn more deeply of a God who dreams a mountain for all to make a home together.”66 What we see at the beginning of Jack is a foretaste of that lingering. In the graveyard for the first 90 pages, we see a mountain-like time-lapse: where races are mingled and love abounds.
In the “Letter to a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. laments the white moderates in the civil rights era.67 While the black church was motivated by eros, desire, and longing for justice, the white moderates were objective, reasoned, and distant. Like the Western academy, love and desire need to be put aside. Distance and space are necessary for right thinking. However, as Jennings suggests, Marion describes, and Robinson narrates, the desire for justice, like Jack’s longing for Della, is right.
The ending lines of Jack seem like ending lines for the erotic reduction: “Or he could consider the sweet marriage that made her a conspirator with him it in, the loyalty that always restored them both, just like grace.”68 This loyalty that came as grace led to communion rather than separation. Communion is the goal of the erotic reduction and makes life worth living.
Cite this article
- Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York, NY: Picador, 2004).
- Marilynne Robinson, Home (New York, NY: Picador, 2008).
- Marilynne Robinson, Lila (New York, NY: Picador, 2014).
- Marilynne Robinson, Jack (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2021).
- Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things (New York, NY: Picador, 2016).
- Jean-Luc Marion, Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness, trans. Jeffrey L. Kosky (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002).
- Marilynne Robinson, What Are We Doing Here? (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2018), 48–49.
- Robinson, Gilead, 53.
- see Robinson, Gilead, 149ff.
- W. s. Reid, “Reprobation” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1984), 1012.
- Robinson, Jack, 85.
- Robinson, Home, 104.
- See Augustine, “On Rebuke and Grace,” Peter Holmes and Robert Ernest Wallis, Benjamin B. Warfield, from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 5, ed. Philip Schaff (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing, 1887), revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1513.htm.
- Willie James Jennings, Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2020), 11.
- Christos Yannaros, Person and Eros, trans. Norman Russell (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2007), 23.
- Jennings, After Whiteness, 143.
- Jennings, After Whiteness, 148.
- Rita Nakashima Brock, Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power (Eugene, OR: Wipf & stock, 2008), 26.
- Jean-Luc Marion, The Erotic Phenomenon (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 20.
- Claude Romano, “Can Concepts Capture Love,” Notre Dame’s Church Life Journal, October 8, 2020, https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/can-concepts-capture-love/. Robinson, Gilead, 245.
- Robinson, Gilead, 245.
- W. H. Auden, “September 1, 1939,” Poets.org, https://poets.org/poem/September-1-1939.
- Marion, The Erotic Phenomenon, 23.
- Marion, The Erotic Phenomenon, 78.
- Marion, The Erotic Phenomenon, 79.
- Marion, The Erotic Phenomenon, 87.
- Marion, The Erotic Phenomenon, 91.
- Marion, The Erotic Phenomenon, 213.
- Marion, The Erotic Phenomenon, 184.
- Marion, The Erotic Phenomenon, 215.
- Robyn Horner, Jean-Luc Marion: A Theo-Logical Introduction (Oxfordshire, UK: Routledge, 2005), 141.
- Marion, The Erotic Phenomenon, 201–202.
- Jurgen Moltmann, In the End-The Beginning: The Life of Hope, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004), 86.
- Robinson, Jack, 72.
- Della says, “Meaninglessness would come as a terrible blow to most people. It would be full of significance for them. so it wouldn’t be meaningless. That’s where I always end up. Once you ask if there is meaning, the only answer is yes. You can’t get away from it.” see Robinson, Jack, 36.
- Horner, Jean-Luc Marion: A Theo-Logical Introduction, 112.
- Jean-Luc Marion, “The Face: An Endless Hermeneutics,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin 28, no. 2–3 (1999): 9–10.
- Robinson, Jack, 16.
- Robinson, Jack, 97.
- Robinson, Jack, 98.
- Kyle Hubbard, “The Unity of Eros and Agape: On Jean-Luc Marion’s Erotic Phenomenon,” Essays Philos 12 (2011): 137.
- Marion, The Erotic Phenomenon, 151ff.
- Marion, The Erotic Phenomenon, 55.
- But here, with Della, eros takes Jack outside of himself to reveal himself in love. Here is one who loves him, and he says “Here I am”—the erotic response. He begins to ask the question, “Can I love first?”
But harm—this thing that has plagued him for his whole life—comes slowly, creeping into his consciousness. Marion wrote, “To love requires loving without being able or willing to wait any longer to love perfectly, definitively, and forever.”44Marion, The Erotic Phenomenon, 211.
- Robinson, Jack, 110.
- Robinson, Jack, 110.
- Robinson, Jack, 244.
- Robinson, Jack, 118.
- Robinson, Jack, 119.
- Jack summarizes his ethic this way: “I suppose sinning is doing harm” (Robinson, Jack, 44).
- Horner, Jean-Luc Marion: A Theo-Logical Introduction, 108.
- Emmanuel Lévinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Ann Arbor, MI: XanEdu Publishing, 1969), 34, emphasis added.
- Robinson, Jack, 208.
- Robinson, Jack, 74.
- Jean-Luc Marion, The Erotic Phenomenon, 80.
- Robinson, Jack, 309.
- Marion, Erotic Phenomenon, 46.
- Robinson, Jack, 269.
- Robinson, Jack, 204.
- Robinson, Jack, 210.
- Robinson, Jack, 220.
- Robinson, Jack, 227.
- Robinson, Jack, 230.
- Robinson, Jack, 298.
- Willie James Jennings, After Whiteness, 155.
- Here is King’s most direct confrontation on white moderates: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” . . . Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” From Martin Luther King, Jr, “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. ed. James Washington (san Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1986), 295.
- Robinson, Jack, 309.