Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Weds. with Words - Berry's Quantity vs. Form

A few weeks ago I checked out a stack of books from my alma mater, including Wendell Berry and Norms and Nobility.  So, they were all due back Saturday and I had barely touched the stack - it's all those lectures people keep on recommending!   I decided to read some of the Wendell Berry essays - never a bad choice.  I was struck by a few thoughts from Quantity vs. Form from the collection The Way of Ignorance.

My purpose here is only to notice that the ideal of a whole or a complete life, as expressed in Psalm 128 or in Tiresias' foretelling of the death of Odysseus, now appears to have been replaced by the idea merely of a long life.  And I do not believe that these two ideals can be reconciled. 
But we are already in the thick of the problem when we have noticed that there does seem to be such a thing as a good life; that a good life consists, in part at least, of doing well; and that this possibility is an ancient one, having apparently little to do with the progress of science or how much a person knows.  And so we must ask how it is that one does not have to know everything in order to do well? 
We come to form, we in-form our lives, by accepting the obvious limits imposed by our talents and circumstances, by nature and mortality, and thus by getting the scale right.  Form permits us to live and work gracefully within our limits. 
The wheel of human - that is of fully human - life would consist over the generations of birth, growth, maturity, ripeness, death and decay.  
He finds the idea of ripeness in Shakespeare
By "ripeness" Edgar means a perfect readiness for death and his sentence echoes "The readiness is all" in act V, scene 2, of Hamlet.  
After the addition of "ripeness", "decay" acquires the further sense of the "plowing in" of experience and memory, building up the cultural humus.  The art of living thus is practiced not only by individuals, but by whole communities or societies.  It is the work of the long-term education of a people.  Its purpose, we may say, is to make life conform gracefully both to its natural course and to its worldly limits.  
This insatiable desire for more is the result of an overwhelming sense of incompleteness, which is the result of the insatiable desire for more.  This is the wheel of death.  It is the revolving of this wheel that now drives technological progress.  The more superficial and unsatisfying our lives become, the faster we need to progress.  When you are skating on thin ice, speed up.  
This last quote really hit home.  By not understanding or accepting the "form" of my life I have a desire for more and it truly does turn into a "wheel of death".   What I really need to do is remember what he highlights earlier

What is the goal of our life and work?  This is a fearful question and it ought to be fearfully answered. Probably it should not be answered for anybody in particular by anybody else in particular.  But the ancient norm or ideal seems to have been a life in which you perceived your calling, faithfully followed it, and did your work with satisfaction, married, made a home and raised a family; associated generously with neighbors; ate and drank with pleasure the produce of your local landscape; grew old seeing yourself replaced by your children or younger neighbors, but continuing in old age to be useful; and finally died a good or a holy death surrounded by loved ones. 
Now we seem to have lost any such thought of a completed life. 

There is more to illustrate how the cycle of life should be lived out more fully.  I do recommend this short essay to help you appreciate what life well lived looks like.   

See what others are reading at Ordo-Amoris

1 comment:

  1. Berry makes it sound so simple and I guess it is. We do live and die. How to live well can never be wrapped up in striving for more of nothing, that is the things that are going to end.