Man and His Eschatological Destiny
Wendell Berry is a writer/philosopher who has taken up his pen to examine the question, what is the purpose of human existence? He succeeds at his art because he possesses “a self-reflective, open consciousness” that rejects the temptation to embrace ideologies. Berry adamantly refuses to be seduced by rationalism or to desensualize the Christian myth; rather he examines the meaning of human existence outside the “symptoms” of “movements and great wars.” He is searching for God’s order, seeking man’s proper place in the tension between the immanent world-reality and the transcendent.
Berry is a philosopher who utilizes the essay, poem, and most importantly, the novel to express his observations of the concrete human being and his life in community. It is in his novels, purposefully located in an agrarian setting, where he depicts the intrinsic harmony among the individual, the family, and the community dwelling in a precarious harmony with nature and nature’s God. In the environs of the fictional Port William, Kentucky, among the Port William membership, the author is free to explore what may be the only viable philosophical system: “a metaphysics that interprets the transcendence system of the world as the immanent process of a divine substance.”
In his fictional work, Berry has established a meta-narrative that adheres to the Hebrew-Greek-Christian world-view and reflects the anxiety generated by the great intellectual and spiritual crises: Plato’s dichotomy in response to the polis, and the rise of the Enlightenment and its abortive efforts to establish a symbolism separate from the traditional structures of human society. In his prose and poetry, he has successfully created and maintained the symbols of his mythopoesis, explicating the confrontation between postmodern man in egophanic revolt against God’s will and the dwindling remnant who are dwelling in a near theophanic harmony with their families, community, and land.
In his latest offering, Andy Catlett: Early Travels, Berry continues his systematic study of human consciousness from an agrarian perspective. This perspective, born of Berry’s own life as a working farmer, encourages a “meditative complex of experiences in which the reality of the ground of being reveals itself. . . .” The novel is a memoir of an aged Andrew Catlett looking back on his youth. The year is 1943, the war continues unabated, and nine-year-old Andy is bundled up and placed aboard a bus to begin his ten-mile odyssey from Hargrave to Port William. Andy will spend a few days with both sets of grandparents, the Catletts and the Feltners.
Juxtaposed within the story are the antipodal world-views, the conflict between the “old” ways of mule and wagon that are passing away and the encroachments of modernity, of progress. The author explores the seminal question, what are the effects of progress, of unbridled market capitalism, upon the individual and society? “Andy” observes this conflict reflected in the attitudes of communities: “Hargrave, though it seemed large to me, was a small town that loved its connections with the greater world, had always aspired to be bigger, richer, and grander than it was. When school was out, I lived mostly in the orbit of the tiny village of Port William, which, so long as it remained at the center of its own attention, was entirely satisfied to be what it was.”
Berry has not created in Port William a utopian metaphor. Evil exits there as it does in all human environs, whether it is the evil of the individual, as is the case of one Mr. Hackman, a gentleman whose sobriquet is “Hawkman,” or simply “old man Hawk,” known far and wide as a chicken thief, a no account, and “a dangerous fellow,” or the burgeoning evil of modernity with its assault on the family and community. The author understands that the truth of existence is not established on rules or commandments, “nor a retreat from the complexities of the world, nor a contraction of existence into eschatological expectation or readiness,” but is found in the “reality of action in concrete situations.”
The Port William membership (which is how they refer to themselves), then, are literary characters who act reflexively by the desire and necessity to dwell in accordance with the will of God, characters who make the “right” decision as a matter of course because they have been raised to seek that which is right by nature; given their physical circumstances, this concrete action is necessary to survival both in the physical and spiritual sense. For the Feltners, Catletts, Coulters, and Wheelers to act outside of that which is right by nature would be for them to destroy themselves and their community.
And within this fictional community the author places much emphasis on the elderly, as if warning us that in our proclivity to warehouse the aged we are precipitating our downfall. In describing his grandfather, Andy watched him “studying” one evening during his visit, “He thought of the people he remembered, now dead, and of those who had come and gone before his knowledge, and of those who would come after, and of his own place in that long procession. Looking at me, he must have remembered that his own grandfather had been the first of our name to come into this place, in a time that had seemed ancient to him once, that he now knew to have been almost recent, and that the time from his grandfather to his grandson had been short. . . . As he studied his memories and thoughts, I studied him, so that I have not forgotten him.”
And yet, in the tobacco barn when Andy had an opportunity to sit and just listen to Uncle Jack Beechum and grandpa talk of mules, horses, “and men and days,” he did not stay. “Now I wish,” Andy tells us, “that I had stayed and listened and tried to remember. Now I can wish I had foreseen then what I would want to know now, and had asked the questions I now wish I had asked.”
Andy’s belated desire to know the familial “stories” underscore the inherent desire in man to connect with his past, to come to some understanding of his history, because of its significance in determining “who we are” in terms of being and world-reality. In the postmodern world we do not require the past but look toward the future in appreciation of the Hegelian idea of a progressing world that is always and everywhere improving, though “improvement” is nebulous and accepted as a matter of secular faith. It is, perhaps, here that Berry most clearly elucidates his postmodern apostasy, rejecting the moribund values of the secular world, while critiquing the supposed material benefits of technological society.
Consequently, Berry is at his best in differentiating the “old economy” and modernity’s version. In the old economy there was little physical difference between the poor and the “rich.” People of all classes, at least in a rural setting, established their households on “the power of the sun, on thrift and skill, and on the people’s competence to take care of themselves.” And, while there was some dependence on manufactured goods (wood burning stoves, utensils, plows, etc.) they were perfectly capable of surviving, of growing their own food, of raising their livestock and surviving in good health for another season without support beyond their own community. Few of us today have the skills and knowledge that our grandparents had, and few of us today could survive even another economic depression.
For the author, the “old” ways exemplify “the true world,” while modernity with its “cheap energy, and even cheaper money . . . is mostly theater.” And, in this expression, Berry achieves a truth in reality, the conflation of reason and revelation, for we find in Genesis, Chapter 3, verse 19, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground.” Here, then is the fundamental dichotomy that contrasts the world reality of the Judeo-Christian myth with the progressive doctrines of modernity.
Over and over again Berry describes his characters at work. He takes delight in explaining the complexities of what many consider the mundane aspects of “manual” labor, and the importance of doing “a good job.” He does so to illustrate that all work has merit, that in doing “a good job” we are defining not only who we are as being in reality but engaging in an acknowledgement—in the worship—of the divine. When we are at work—in the act of doing “good work”—we are in the natural condition of prayer, engaged in communication with God, submitting to His will and acknowledging His sovereignty. In contrast modernity establishes its purpose on the idea of “progress,” whose goal is ease, comfort, and, as the English philosopher Roger Scruton tells us, “fun.”
This duality sets up a reckoning in which Berry (Andy) adumbrates, “This new world seems a jumble of scenery and props never quite believable, an economy of fantasies and moods, in which it is hard to remember either the timely world of nature or the eternal world of the prophets and poets. And I fear, I believe I know, that the doom of the older world I knew as a boy will finally afflict the new one that replaced it.”
On the last evening of Andy’s memorable visit to Port William, New Year’s Eve of 1943, he walked over to Jasper Lathrop’s store where his grandfather and some friends were playing cards. It came to young Andy “that they were waiting: Granddaddy and Frank Lathrop, each with a son in the army; Grover Gibbs, whose son, Billy, was in the air force; Burley Coulter, whose nephews, Tom and Nathan, had gone off to the army, and who now could hope that Nathan might return; Jayber Crow, whose calling seems to have been to wait with the others. They were suffering and enduring and waiting, waiting together, joined in their unending game, submitted as the countryside around them submitted. We had come into the silence that is deeper than any other—the silence of what is yet to come, the silence of one who is waiting for what is yet to come.” Andy tells us that this visit was the “first steps to manhood,” but it was also when Port William and its people became part of him, a part that he would never forget.
In his essay, Being and Becoming, philosopher Christopher Macann asks the question, what is the ultimate point and purpose of being human? For Macann the answer is, “Self-actualization, Art and Religion. Becoming who one is, is a matter of developing oneself existentially, of expressing oneself artistically, and entering into a kind of relation with Being (God) which alone offers the prospect of salvation.”
In Andy Catlett, Wendell Berry captures the essence of Macann’s definition of being human in his simple and profound characters, characters who know themselves and accomplish the art of “good work.” But it is in the pneumatic (spiritual) irruption, that moment in time and being when one is in the presence of the Creator, with the possibility of moving toward his eschatological destiny, that represents Berry’s final literary challenge. Indeed, no author has adequately captured in prose this most intimate of human actions.
Perhaps it cannot be done. To define the Soul in communion with Being (God) may be as impossible as proving or disproving the existence of a transcendent God within the immanent world-reality. But, if it can be done, it may well be Wendell Berry who accomplishes the task.
Robert C. Cheeks writes from Ohio.
Posted: December 12, 2007
A Call to Timelessness
Volume 5, Number 1 (Autumn 1964)