Sunday, April 4, 2010

Wendell Berry on restraints in art and life

A few nights ago I was re-reading Wendell Berry's essay "Faustian Economics" (Harpers, May 08), which I've assigned my composition students the last few semesters, and it reminded me of why you should never apologize for being a poet. My feeling was reinforced the next day after reading an absurd email from Temple's provost (to the entire university) claiming that an adjunct union isn't necessary. I've come to live my life in opposition to the thinking that characterized that email, a way of thinking that rests on the assumption that what's best for the privileged is best for everybody else, and that freedom is something granted to an individual for working hard and remaining loyal to people with more money. Wendell Berry, a farmer and poet, argues for a better definition of freedom than the traditional American one that foregrounds the individual's inherent license to do business at whatever cost to land, resources and other people:

"In our limitless selfishness, we have tried to define 'freedom,' for example, as an escape from all restraint. But, as my friend Bert Hornback has explained in his book The Wisdom in Words, 'free' is etymologically related to 'friend.' These words come from the same Indo-European root, which carries the sense of 'dear' or 'beloved.' We set our friends free by our love for them, with the implied restraints of faithfulness or loyalty. And this suggests that our 'identity' is located not in the impulse of selfhood but in deliberately maintained connections."

It's the thought of faithfulness and loyalty as restraints that caught me this time. I'd never really thought of them as restraints. That is, I've never felt restrained by being faithful or loyal to someone. That's always come natural to me. But I think I'm understanding Berry's point more deeply now. When you're free, you aren't aware of restraints. When you're free you're creating, and you do so hardly knowing. You don't experience restraint as restraint.

Maybe I'm somewhat free in regard to friendship and community then. Certainly I'm not free in other ways. Anyway, Berry believes these restraints are the root of a potential paradigm shift. What about the more obvious restraints--say the restraint of that which does not believe in you--the world that worships efficiency and fashion, that will suck the boss to be the boss? Berry suggests that those restraints are broken by bypassing them for truer restraints, by subscribing to another model and living it.

What's hard, for me, is locating the right restraints, ones that are "not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning." This has to be case by case. It can't be as simple as be a good neighbor or love is all you need. For example, what about my wariness of people (and institutions) that want from me without intent to give back? What about my broken heart? Those too are restraints you have to work within. There are competing restraints on an individual level that seem to make progress impossible. Berry suggests the answers to our problems, individual and collective, are in our cultural heritage, in the products of real freedom; there's nowhere else to go. So back to books and trying to be like Jesus and buying fair trade coffee, I guess.

Out of loyalty to Berry, who's the kind of writer I tend to trust (because he's been around), here are more of his words:

"It is the artists, not the scientists, who have dealt unremittingly with the problem of limits. A painting, however large, must finally be bounded by a frame or a wall. A composer or playwright must reckon, at a minimum, with the capacity of an audience to sit still and pay attention. A story, once begun, must end somewhere within the limits of the writer’s and the reader’s memory. And of course the arts characteristically impose limits that are artificial: the five acts of a play, or the fourteen lines of a sonnet. Within these limits artists achieve elaborations of pattern, of sustaining relationships of parts with one another and with the whole, that may be astonishingly complex. And probably most of us can name a painting, a piece of music, a poem or play or story that still grows in meaning and remains fresh after many years of familiarity.

"We know by now that a natural ecosystem survives by the same sort of formal intricacy, ever-changing, inexhaustible, and no doubt finally unknowable. We know further that if we want to make our economic landscapes sustainably and abundantly productive, we must do so by maintaining in them a living formal complexity something like that of natural ecosystems. We can do this only by raising to the highest level our mastery of the arts of agriculture, animal husbandry, forestry, and, ultimately, the art of living."