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On Textbook Characters

There’s a scene in the opening pages of Marilynne Robinson’s most recent novel, Jack, where the eponymous protagonist has contributed to an unpleasant dinner experience with a certain bishop’s daughter named Della. The walk home is tense and the dialogue is strained. Jack has, evidently, really stepped in it:

She said, “I have never been so embarrassed. Never in my life.”
He said, “Well, you haven’t known me very long.”

Jack’s response is darkly hilarious. It speaks to what he considers to be his unique and singular ability to screw things up. And, of course, anyone familiar with the character of Jack from Robinson’s previous novels (Gilead, Home, and Lila), will know that Jack isn’t trading in hyperbole or shock value here. As one reviewer put it, Jack is, at various times, “a thief, unbeliever, drunk, cheat, liar, deadbeat dad, and crushing disappointment to both his family and himself.” Jack is a mess. There’s plenty of potential for more spectacular embarrassments down the road.

I read an interview with Robinson the other day where the question of a possible diagnosis for Jack’s character came up. How else to account for his “neurotic manner?” Had Robinson considered this question? I found her response to be a fascinating one:

I never think in terms of diagnoses. They disallow nuance. They see people as types. I would never impose such constraints on characters. I also feel that their usefulness when applied to human beings can be grossly overstated. A character who feels real never comes from a textbook.

I agree. While I believe that diagnoses have their place, and while I believe that they can be useful tools, and while I believe that they are a source of freedom for many, and while they open the door to helpful treatment options in many cases, and while [insert any other omitted obligatory caveat here], Robinson’s response struck me as a wise and desperately necessary response for our cultural moment. Indeed, I think her wisdom could be applied far beyond the realm of psychological diagnoses into the endless identity markers that we seem so fond of using to carve up human existence and experience.

To start with the obvious critique, I am aware that my preference to see people as individuals with nuance and particularity as opposed to inflexible and essentialized “types” might be exactly what you would expect a middle-aged white male to say, particularly one who was formed and educated in a context that prioritized classical liberal values. I get it. I have never occupied any marginalized group that was oppressed in any way. I know little of the lived experiences of those who struggle with psychological disorders. I know that my resistance to subsuming the individual under the category could easily be viewed as evidence for the argument. Isn’t this exactly what you would expect from someone with his particular constellation of identities? There is, I suppose, no way out of this wearisome loop.

And yet even after acknowledging all of this, I still strongly resonate with Robinson’s resistance to thinking in terms of “diagnoses.” What she says about “textbook characters” applies to how any kind of essentialized types are used in popular discourse. They don’t feel as real. They often reduce complex and multifaceted human experience to very simplistic categories, as if all black people or indigenous people or gay people or straight people or white people or female people think (or ought to think) in precisely the same way—as if we are all textbook characters that have to stay on script.

I was speaking with a friend recently who teaches in a post-secondary context. They said something to the effect of, “It’s kind of exhausting to have every statement in the classroom these days prefixed by some kind of a statement of identity marker (“as a queer, Latinx… as a conservative… as an indigenous person… as a recent immigrant, etc). I’m often more curious to hear what people say as individuals.” I would say the same is true based on my experience as a pastor. Individual’s stories and spiritual journeys are often far more complex and interesting than any category they might inhabit. Each one is precious, joyful, tragic, and fascinating in utterly unique ways, if I take the time to listen and to learn.

I genuinely think that something important is lost when our default is to see people as types first, and individuals a distant second. Maybe it’s as simple as just getting the order wrong. Instead of the “diagnosis” (or identity marker) being used add texture and shape and explanatory depth to the individual, we too often do the exact opposite. We start with the diagnosis and then force individuals, sometimes quite awkwardly, to fit into the category. It’s not that the types don’t matter or that they don’t highlight crucial aspects of human experience. They do. I just think that a view of human nature that sees us as individuals first and types second is ultimately more dignifying, more interesting, and more hopeful.

Perhaps, in the end, my reasons for joining Marilynne Robinson in resisting the “textbook character” is irreducibly personal. Even though I happen to occupy all of the least sexy identity markers of our time, I am still pleased to think that I am not fully defined by any of them. Yes, my maleness, my whiteness, my straightness, my age, and my Christianity all say something about who I am, but I still harbour this quaint notion that there is something unique about me that can’t be reduced to these things. I think that at least on some level, many of us resist being reduced to the constraints of our various categories. We somehow feel like we are more than this. Perhaps it’s hubris. Or, perhaps it tells an important truth of what it means to be a human being, created in the image of God.

Image source.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Natalie Warkentin #

    Well said Ryan. Thanks

    April 19, 2021
  2. Eradicating sub groups of people deemed a threat to the new moral and ecological order, will fall somewhere on a spectrum between, “tragically justifiable” and a “patriotic obligation”.

    Eliminating billions of people you conceive of as, “unique individuals” makes the murder charge a lot trickier to rebut.

    April 19, 2021
  3. Sharon Hentze #

    Sounds like something an enneagram type four would say 🙂
    I totally agree though!

    April 19, 2021

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