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  • "Looking Back from the Grave":Sensory Perception and the Anticipation of Absence in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead
  • Laura E. Tanner (bio)

In the final weeks of his life, John Ames, the elderly and critically ill protagonist of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead (2004), finds himself caught between the urgent experience of painful embodiment and the psychic negotiation of anticipated absence; he comes increasingly to experience a world he cannot fully inhabit. The novel takes the form of a journal written by Ames to his young son, a journal that becomes both a narrative of Ames's inevitable movement toward absence and a collection of images and memories that would resist such progress by rendering the temporal form of narrative spatial and countering embodied absence with representational presence. Confronted with the knowledge of his imminent death, Robinson's protagonist writes to his son, "I'm trying to make the best of our situation. That is, I'm trying to tell you things I might never have thought to tell you if I had brought you up myself, father and son, in the usual companionable way. When things are taking their ordinary course, it is hard to remember what matters" (102). Haunted by a past of uncommunicative fathers and emotionally damaged sons, Ames turns from the world to the pen in an attempt to salvage "what matters" for his little boy through a journal filled with history, reflection, and knowledge.1 Even as he [End Page 227] opposes the process of "telling" with the "usual companionable" forms of lived experience, however, Ames's representations return his stream-of-consciousness narrative again and again to its origins in embodied sensory perception. Acknowledging that fact, reviewers who read Gilead as a celebration of the force of human consciousness in the face of death located the novel's power not just in its philosophical and religious vision but in its immersion in the sensory details of lived experience. In highlighting the way that Ames's heightened perception of the moment holds future loss at bay, however, they risk ignoring the novel's inquiry into how the anticipation of "looking back from the grave" (141) shapes the somatosensory experience of the novel's protagonist in the narrative present. The cultural force of Robinson's text, I will argue, stems not only from its lyrical rendering of quotidian experience but from its powerful unveiling of how dying shapes the sensory and psychological dynamics of human perception. Gilead localizes Ames's psychic struggle with his own death in acts of perceptual processing which it both depicts and thematizes; the novel pushes existential concerns back into the realm of lived experience to explore the way that Ames's experience of dying traps him in the collapsing space between perception and representation.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio is well known for his cogent articulations of current scientific understandings of the neurobiology of consciousness. His descriptions of the process of how perception operates locate the way that perspective is constructed through a variety of sources, including not only the perceptual apparatus (such as vision or hearing) and consequent adjustments in the muscular and vestibular systems of the perceiver, but also signals derived from the observer's emotional responses to a particular object (146). Depending on the object, that emotional component may assume greater or lesser significance, but it is always present, belying the notion that there is any "such thing as a pure perception of an object in a sensory channel" (147). Instead, in the model that Damasio develops, "Consciousness begins as the feeling of what happens when we see or hear or touch. . . . It is [End Page 228] a feeling that accompanies the making of any kind of image. . . . The feeling marks those images as ours" (26). Breaking down what Damasio describes as "the multidimensional, space-and time integrated image" (322) that we experience in perception thus returns us—in scientific as well as humanistic terms—to the situatedness of perspective not only in the body but in the emotions of the perceiver.

In Ames's memory, heightened moments of interaction between father and son mark the intermingling of emotion and perception. Ames's images of such moments render significance not merely through...


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pp. 227-252
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