OLD BOOKS, Part III: Standing by Words, by Wendell Berry

In this series on Old Books, I’m choosing books with these questions in mind:

What questions do they answer?

What problems do they correctly diagnose?

What wisdom do they provide that is lacking in today’s discourse?

What metaphysics do they propose or expose?

Every book I’m examining may not necessarily answer each of those questions, but they generally raise questions and propose arguments that I think we need to consider today. (At the risk of being cheeky, I’m considering an “old book” to be any one that was written before I was born —or around that time.) For the sake of orientation, I begin with a short introduction to the work, then list a number of important quotes from it, and conclude with my response to the work. 

When you read Wendell Berry, you get the distinct and refreshing feeling that you are in the presence of sanity. Berry sounds sane in a way that few modern writers do. Why? His ideas come across as good, beautiful, and true, and he stands by what he says. In all his works (poetry, essays, criticism, fiction), he brings us back again and again to what it means to be human and to live in a way that is fitting and true to what humanity is

Berry lives and works on a small farm in Kentucky. He’s had his hands in the dirt daily for decades. He’s allowed the dirt and the animals and the seasons and his neighbors to teach him about his place in the world. And he finds myriad ways of showing us, reminding us, that humans have a place in the “Chain of Being,” as he calls it. That place is between the angels (or gods) and animals. In other words, there is an ordered hierarchy. There is a structure to things. How counter-cultural is that? 

People who care about the earth’s survival and flourishing love Berry. If you find yourself reorienting your purchasing to buy local, or excited about small urban farms cropping up in cities across the US, chances are you would like Berry. Chances are, you might also be surprised by Berry, particularly by some of his arguments in this book of essays.

In Standing by Words: Essays (1980), Berry argues for the beauty, goodness, and inherent truth of form, hierarchy, limitations, fidelity to people and places, and seeing the world and ourselves as it and we truly are. He argues that poetry ought to be about what is true and universal and that a poet must bring his or her whole life to the world of the poem. He argues against the “specialization” of poetry. He uses poetry to help us understand and even love the givens—the things we didn’t choose: people, land, and community. He shows us how poetry and marriage call for similar approaches of fidelity, time, and attention to the beloved (person or poem), and how this is also true of our fidelity to a certain place.

In reading these essays, we get a sense for what poetry can be and should do for us. We also begin to see what we really are as humans, and how we can live in ways that correspond naturally and truthfully to our human nature within the “Chain of Being.” 

Quotes from the Book

On the “fantastical” nature of the modern world:

            “Contemporaneity, in the sense of being ‘up with the times,’ is of no value…. But what we call the modern world is not necessarily, and not often, the real world, and there is no virtue in being up-to-date in it. It is a false world, based upon economics and values and desires that are fantastical—a world in which millions of people have lost any idea of the materials, the disciplines, the restraints, and the work necessary to support human life, and thus have become dangerous to their own lives and to the possibility of life. The job now is to get back to that perennial and substantial world in which we really do live, in which the foundations of our life will be visible to us, and in which we can accept our responsibilities again within the conditions of necessity and mystery.” (from “The Specialization of Poetry”)

On fidelity to words, place, and marriage:

            “For when we promise in love and awe and fear there is a certain kind of mobility that we give up. We give up the romanticism of progress, that is always shifting its terms to fit its occasions. We are speaking where we stand, and we shall stand afterwards in the presence of what we have said.” (from “Standing by Words”)

On the goodness of limits:

            “The real—the human—knowledge is understood as implying and imposing limits, much as marriage does, and these limits are understood to belong necessarily to the definition of a human being.” (from “People, Land, and Community”)

            “But if one’s sight is clear and if one stays on and works well, one’s love gradually responds to the place as it really is, and one’s visions gradually image possibilities that really are in it.” (Ibid.)

            “Before the specialization of the disciplines that accompanied the Industrial Revolution, one of the dominant strains of Western culture was a concern for the limits of responsible action. And those limits were defined primarily by the human place, below the angels and above the animals, in the hierarchy of created things.” (from “Poetry and Place”)

On what poetry is for:

            “In contemporary writing about poetry there is little concern for either workmanship or the truth of poems—in comparison, say, to the concern for theme, imagery, impact, the psychology of ‘creativity’—because there is so little sense of what, or whom, the poems are for. When we regain a sense of what poems are for, we will renew the art (the technical means) of writing them. And so we will renew their ability to tell the truth.” (from “Notes: Unspecializing Poetry”)

            (Note: All the following quotes are also from the essay “Poetry and Place”)

            “I believe that at the source of our poetry is the idea that poetry must be used for something, must serve something, greater and higher than itself. It is a way to learn, know, celebrate, and remember the truth—or, as Yeats said, to ‘Bring the soul of man to God.’ And Yeats was never ‘silly’ or eccentric when he said that; he was speaking out of the traditional mainstream.”

On the peril of ignoring moral/natural law:

            “Though most of us know that it is moral law—which is finally apt to look surprisingly like natural law—that visits our sins upon our children (and other people’s children), still to the worst side of our nature, deferred justice is no justice; we will rape the land and oppress the poor, and leave starvation and bloody vengeance (we hope) to be ‘surprises’ or ‘acts of God’ to a later generation.”

On hierarchy in the natural order:

            “The ideal has always been a just hierarchy, not no hierarchy…. But the hierarchy of power is not the same as the hierarchy of value…. Something may be lower on the hierarchy of value or power, but may still be indispensable and valuable.” 

            “[T]he old sense of hierarchy that defined our power in terms of responsibility has been lost. The comely and becoming belief in the orderliness of creation has been fretted away by the contentions of egotistical passion and its inevitable result, egotistical despair. The individual has moved, so to speak, between himself and the world.”

“When humans keep their proper place in the Chain [of Being], the connections are unbroken from the microorganisms to God. When humans abdicate their proper place, either by pride of self-abasement, they blaspheme God and brutalize nature. So [Alexander] Pope argued, and he spoke for the great poets who preceded him.”

“And down at least through the work of Pope, one of the necessary services of the poets was to reunderstand and renew this idea [that humans are neither gods nor beasts], reimagine its human embodiments and catastrophes, and keep it alive. Poetry, then, was—and it may be—a part of the necessary cultural means by which we preserve our union, the possibility of harmony, with the natural world and ‘higher law.’” 

On the tyranny of a “human-mind-centered” world:

            “From about [Percy Bysshe] Shelley’s time the world—for artists, scientists, industrialists, and consumers alike—has not been God-centered, nature-centered, or human-centered; it has been human-mind-centered.”

“When mind predominates…then the individual is ‘liberated’; all his or her wants and wishes are made equal to any other wants and wishes and assume the status of legitimate values or goals. The usefulness of this state of affairs to an economy based on consumption is obvious.”

            “[C]ommunity is replaced by law, because when all wants and wishes are equal, law must be externalized.”

            “Access to that world [of creatures, forms, and powers that we did not make] is sanity. To be trapped in one’s mind is insanity.”

My response 

Why do we need this little book of essays by Berry? Here are a few reasons.

He shows us that limits are essential to what it means to be human—and that they can be good. We don’t necessarily want to hear this in our “therapeutic culture” that seeks to escape anything that would bind us to something or someone that we didn’t choose. He reminds us of Macduff’s remark that “Boundless intemperance / In nature is tyranny” (Macbeth, Act IV, sc.iii). Berry links the wisdom of accepting our limits to the idea of temperance—temperance that can inform, for example, our ecological intelligence, and that reminds us of the interdependence of all things. We have a place in the “Chain of Being,” and it is a good place, a place between angels and animals. We are at our best as humans when we accept this place and its implications.

In Berry’s essays we are shown another truth about the world that perhaps we would rather not see: there is structure everywhere in the created order. “Structure is intelligibility,” he writes, meaning that we can learn things that are true about the world by recognizing and reflecting on structure in the natural order. Writer John R. Erickson fleshes this out: 

“Children see structure in the world around them. It provides coherence from one day to the next. It reveals beauty and meaning. They consider structure normal and take it for granted until, as adults, they are taught that it isn’t there. I could never accept that it wasn’t there…. ‘Beauty’ is one of those words we use every day but seldom have to define. We see beauty in a sunset, in a forest, in the architecture of a church, in music, and in a human face. We may not have an exhaustive explanation of beauty, but one of the defining qualities seems to be structure.” (from Story Craft: Reflections of Faith)

Berry wants us to ask of art and literature a shocking question: “Is it good?” By this he means that we need to ask questions of value, such as:

            What does this work reveal about the writer’s/artist’s view of life, and is it true to the way things are?

            What is left out or neglected in this narrative of the world?

            How will this piece of literature or art teach someone to see the world, or to act?

            Is it good (in terms of ideas/content, not just in terms of technique/craft/innovation), or is it merely clever?

Finally, Berry grounds us in reality: real places, people, and things. Do we even remember what daily life felt like before constant mediated connectivity? Do we remember the rhythms of moving among people, waiting in line, experiencing lulls in conversation? Is there a way back to a more human way of being in the world, and specifically, in our local communities? Berry not only reminds us of that kind of groundedness—he helps us to long for it. 

Artist Aaron Rosen said that in our mediated worlds [on screens], if we can focus on and appreciate one small, tactile, real object, it can connect us to what we’re losing. Poet Czeslaw Milosz holds onto this hope in his poem “Realism”, which he begins this way: 

“We are not so badly off, if we can 

Admire Dutch painting. For that means

We shrug off what we have been told

For a hundred, two hundred years. Though we lost

Much of our previous confidence.”

I know that some of us despair these days over the declining number of people who read books, let alone a book of essays. But if you’ve read this far, chances are you’re a book reader, and I hope you’ll give this one a go!

Do you have a favorite work by Wendell Berry? Drop the title in the comments.

Go to OLD BOOKS Part IV: On Moral Fiction by John Gardner

What do you think?

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