A Reflection on Berry
I hadn’t read Boethius or Petrarch in 1967. If I had, I may not have been so taken, when one late spring afternoon, I read Wendell Berry’s two-sentence poem “To Think of the Life of a Man.” I read it standing alongside the shelf of literary journals in the Johns Hopkins bookstore. I had come to be there by a circuitous route. I had dropped out of college, been rejected by the draft, returned to college, married and with my wife risked all we had to attend the Hopkins Writing Seminars on the chance that I might become a poet and novelist. Each morning my wife went to her job and I went to my desk. Afternoons I went to the library or the bookstore where I read but rarely bought. In nearby Washington, the first protests against the Vietnam War disturbing the public and the Johnson administration, but their immediate effect on me they might have occurred a continent away. Still, because my fellow students were often involved, I was aware of the violence of the feelings, and when I read:
In a time that breaks
In cutting pieces all around,
When men, voiceless,
Against thing ridden men,
Set themselves on fire
I saw in my mind the flaming Buddhists monks and cringed at the reminder of the recent self-immolation of a young Catholic CO. These self-destructive actions seemed to me a strange way to call for peace. I was sure that though the way to peace might require sacrifice, it did not require violence against the self. What was needed was then (and is still needed in this the age of Afghanistan) is an example of wholeness, a better way of living.
I stood to attention as I continued through the first sentence, which Berry completed with a thought similar to mine. (Or is mine similar to his having grown out of my having lived over forty years with his poem in my imagination?) He wrote of the difficulty imaging a whole person at place in the world.
As much as I resonated with the first sentence, it was the second that burned itself into my mind so that I later found I had without any conscious effort memorized the poem. Berry set down a simple declarative statement:
…having thought of it [the life of a whole person]
I am beyond the time
I might have sold my…
…voice and mind
to the arguments of power…
I knew, standing there in the bookstore, that I had stepped across some divide. Still, for many years, recognizing the force of the poem, I struggled with the movement from the thought of wholeness to an obligation to seek it. I did not understand the source of my sense of moral obligation. Some years later I asked Berry about that movement. He answered, “I don’t think my use of the word “whole” in that poem was fully conscious—as, of course, it isn’t yet. Now it seems a matter of wonder to me that we humans, in our fragmentariness and imperfection, could have conceived the desire to become whole. Or that, troubled and violent as we are, we could have imagined peace. We have heard, anyway, on good authority, that we are made whole by faith and that our peace is in God’s will—which means that we can’t by our own doing, be whole or at peace. And so… I was defining myself as a human being in terms stricter probably than I realized. But the terms, and the direction, were right. And the change the poem records, I still think, is the right change.” Berry’s answer deflected me from my inclination to read the poem as an argument. I read it now as a testimony.
Recently, however, I’ve been rereading Francis Petrarch’s My Secret Book. In that imaginary dialogue with St. Augustine, Petrarch laments his unhappiness and is told in no uncertain terms by Augustine that his unhappiness is his own fault, that he is unhappy because he prefers unhappiness to change. Over three days of conversation Augustine slowly strips Petrarch of his treasured self-deceptions. At the beginning of the third day, Augustine tells Petrarch, “Anyone who wants a certain result, but is quite happy with the absence of what would bring it about, has obviously no understanding of either causes or effect” (translator, J.G. Nichols). Desire itself is the cause. Desire for wholeness is built into the human character.
If we are to realize the fullness of our nature as beings created in the image of God, then the obligation is clear. We must begin the work of wholeness. The alternative is to cease to exist as Boethius argues in book IV of The Consolations of Philosophy. Lady Philosophy tells Boethius “It seems puzzling, perhaps, to say that we should say of evil men—who are the majority of mankind—that they do not exist. But that is how it is. The evil are, indeed, evil and I can’t deny that, but I do deny that they are purely and simply evil. You would say of a corpse, for instance, that it was a dead man, but you could not call it simply a man. And for evil men, the same thing holds, that they are evil, but not simply evil. Those things exist that maintain their order and nature, and whatever falls away from this abandons its existence, which depends on its nature” (translator, David R. Slavitt).
Berry’s little poem stands in a long tradition. It is both testimony and argument. The movement from its first to second sentence is faith. It source is nothing less the desire of the Creator to know us as he made us.