Friday, June 19, 2015

Wendell Berry on Necessity, Mystery, and Ignorance

     I have been reading recently in the book, Wendell Berry, which was published in 1991 by Confluence Press as part of its "American Authors Series," edited by Paul Merchant.  It includes an interview with Wendell Berry.  In this book, he is asked the following question:

     "In 'The Specialization of Poetry,' you wrote of the need for writers to return to the real world in their poetry -- a world in which values are not dated by fashion and older writers live on into the present with the values that endure.  As you have done elsewhere, you mention the importance of 'necessity,' which precedes right action in the world.  But what is the 'mystery'?"

He replies:

     "In that passage I'm not using the word in a theological sense.  I mean by it simply everything that we do not know.  It is now more or less routine, I think, to fear that humans won't acquire or understand human knowledge.  But even more fearful, to me, is the human failure to understand human ignorance.  Not to know that we are ignorant, or to feel it, is to be dangerous, the danger increasing in direct proportion to whatever power an individual may have.  'A little learning is a dangerous thing,' Pope said, and our history has begun to suggest that 'a little learning' means any amount that a human may have.  From a human point of view, the difference between the mind of a human and that of a mountain goat is wonderful; from the point of view of the infinite ignorance that surrounds us, the difference is not impressive.  Indeed, from that point of view, the goat may have the better mind, for he is more congenially adapted to his place, and he would not endanger his species or his planet for the sake of an idea.  As I see it, then, the condition of mystery inescapably implies the necessity of restraint. The great events of our era may all have to do with the democratization of aristocratic vices.  We have now completed the democratization of ostentation and hedonism, and we are well advanced in the democratization of hubris.  A lot of people are now acting on the assumption that they are gods.  Industrial acts of power that seem ordinary to us would have astonished Zeus.  The Pentagon and the Kremlin have far outmoded Milton's war in Heaven.  Dabblers in atoms, genes, toxic chemicals, social, psychological, and anatomical engineering all have promoted themselves far above their intelligence.  One must hope for the democratization of a fear appropriate to the danger, and of a courage appropriate to the fear."

     It has been about a quarter of a century since those words were published, and I here suggest that the situation has not greatly improved.  We do now have the internet available to us (for the moment -- that could change), which has allowed at least a democratization of conversation, which is, in my thinking, a good thing.  I have found blogging and facebooking beneficial in this regard.

     But in a time (the present), in which our world-girdling media have greatly misled us, and in which we have greatly lied to ourselves, I find in his warning about our essential ignorance -- he calls it "the infinite ignorance that surrounds us" -- something that we must take truly to our own hearts.

     And it may be a warning that, having absorbed it ourselves, we ought to pass on -- quietly, perhaps, or firmly, but probably persistently.


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