The Miracle of Gravity

You have likely already heard two things about the space-epic, Gravity. You have heard that it is a visually stunning, anxiety-inducing thriller that immediately absorbs you into its world and does not release you until the credits roll. That is largely correct. You have also heard that Gravity is not really about space. It is really about the inner struggles of the main character, Dr. Ryan Stone played by Sandra Bullock. This is also true enough. But what exactly is Gravity trying to tell us about this inner human struggle being played out against sublimely rendered vistas of earth and space?

As Matt Thomas astutely noted, Gravity trades in both the natural sublime and the technological sublime. The first of these is a common enough notion: it is the sense of awe, wonder, and fear that certain natural realities can inspire in us. Gravity gives us plenty of opportunities to experience the natural sublime as our gaze alternates from the meticulously wrought surface of the earth to the starry, cavernous darkness of the space which envelops it.

The technological sublime is a concept developed by the historian David Nye to describe the analogous feelings of awe, wonder, and fear that we experience in the presence of certain man-made realities. Nye documented a series of human technologies that inspired this kind of response when they were first developed. These included the Hoover Dam, skyscrapers, the electrified city-scape, the atomic bomb, and the Saturn V rockets. In Gravity, depictions of the space shuttle, the International Space Station, and the Hubble telescope — even after they have been pummeled and shredded by space debris — also manage to evoke this experience of the technological sublime.

Against this double sublime, Gravity unfolds its plot of disaster and survival. [Yes, spoilers ahead.] Within minutes, Dr. Stone and Matt Kowalski (played by George Clooney) find themselves adrift after a field of space debris strikes the shuttle and kills the rest of the crew. Kowalski is preternaturally calm in the face of this unthinkable catastrophe. After he recovers Dr. Stone, the pair begin making their way to the ISS in hopes of using the station’s Soyuz capsule to return to earth. Had that initial plan worked, of course, it would have been a very short film.

Upon arriving at the ISS, Kowalski is lost in an act of heroic self-sacrifice and the capsule turns out to be too damaged to survive re-entry. Before he is lost, Kowalski lays out a plan of action for Dr. Stone. She is to take the battered capsule to the Chinese space station and then use their emergency capsule for the journey home. Stone manages to follow this plan, but one near catastrophe after another ensues maintaining a feverish pitch of suspense, or, as some critics have noted, threatening to steer the film into melodrama.

It is in the midst of one of these crisis that Stone is tempted to give up altogether. She finds that the Soyuz capsule does not have enough fuel to get to the Chinese station and so she opts to turn off the capsule’s life support systems and float off into that other dark abyss. This scene is pivotal. We have already learned that Stone lost a daughter in a painfully random playground accident. Ever since, she has lost herself in her work and driven aimlessly at night to assuage her sorrow. She is alone in space now, but she realizes that she is alone on earth as well. No one would mourn her loss, she realizes.

As she begins to doze into unconsciousness, however, Kowalski reappears, chatty and calm as always. He acknowledges that there is something appealing about the escape she is about to make, but he encourages her to reconsider and suggests a strategy that she had not yet considered. And then he disappears. We realize that she had been hallucinating, but she rallies nonetheless and determines to not give up on the hope of return quite yet.

If Kant and Nye help us to describe the sublime scenery against which Stone’s struggle is set, I’d like to suggest that Wendell Berry and G.K. Chesterton can help us make sense of the struggle itself.

Stone must learn to see life on earth — with both its heartache and tragedy, its joys and delights — as a gift, and it is through a kind of death that her perception begins to be realigned. Wendell Berry has beautifully captured this dynamic in his reflections on a wonderfully poignant scene in Shakespeare’s King Lear involving the blinded Earl of Gloucester and his son, Edgar. Gloucester is in despair, and seeks to take his life. The life he thought himself the master of has unraveled, and he has compounded this troubles by falsely accusing Edgar and driving him into exile. But Edgar, disguised as a beggar, has returned to his father to lead him out of despair so that the old man may die in the proper human position, “Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief …”

As Berry puts it, “Edgar does not want his father to give up on life. To give up on life is to pass beyond the possibility of change or redemption.” So when Gloucester asks to be taken to the cliffs of Dover so that by a leap he may end his life, his disguised son only pretends to do so. The stage directions then indicate that Gloucester, “Falls forward and swoons.” When he awakes, his son now pretends to be a man who has seen Gloucester survive the great fall. Gloucester is dismayed. “Away, and let me die,” he says. But Edgar, narrates what he has “seen” and proclaims, “Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.”

It is that line, that realization that brings Gloucester back from despair. Having passed through a kind of fictive death, he has been brought once more to see his life as a gift. And so it was with Stone. Kowalski plays Edgar to her Gloucester and having flirted with death, she is recalled to life. No longer does she long for the escape into death that the dark, harshness of space represents in this film. She now determines to find her place again on earth, with all of its attendant sorrows and joys.

So much for Berry, what of Chesterton? Chesterton famously came to faith through an experience of profound gratitude for the sheer gratuity of being. While she ponders the possibility of death and laments that there will be no one to mourn her, Stone also says that there will be no one to pray for her. She confesses that she cannot pray for herself. She was never taught. When, finally, she has reentered the earth’s atmosphere and her capsule splashes down in a murky lake, Stone must make one more fight for her life. The capsule is inundated and she must swim out for air, but she is forced to struggle with her space suit, which threatens to sink her. Once she has fought free of this last obstacle, she makes her way to a muddy shore and, cheek to clay, she exhales the words, “Thank you.” She has, I take it, learned to pray. 

This film about space ends on earth as Stone struggles to her feet under the pull of gravity. But by the composure of her posture and the joy of her expression, we are encouraged to conclude that now, finally, Stone is not only on earth, but she is also at home on earth. She no longer seeks an escape. She is prepared to live with both grief and joy. She knows too that for all of the sublime splendor of space, it is her life that is the most profound miracle for which the instinctive response can only be gratitude.

Home

little way“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” – T. S. Eliot

Home. It’s a mythic notion. Two of the three great epics of the Greco-Roman world trade explicitly in its associations. Odysseus and Aeneas each journey homeward – the former back toward the home he left that yet remains, although not unchanged; the latter, his home destroyed, moves forward toward a home yet to be found. The Odyssey, then, is a story about those who have a home to go back to, and the Aeneid is a story for those who long for home but have no place that answers to the name.

And then there is the story of Cain in the book of Genesis. After Cain murdered his brother, he was condemned to be a wanderer, forever alienated from God and family. His plight presents itself as an allegory of the human condition. But then there was a twist. Cain, we are told, went on to build a city, he would not be a wanderer after all; and his descendants are reckoned the founders of agriculture, metallurgy, and the arts – in short, of human civilization. Out of the dissatisfactions of homelessness, we are led to conclude, flowed the great achievements of human culture. But the narrator has the last word. He tells us that Cain built his city in the land of Nod, a name that echoes the Hebrew word for wandering. It is a touch of literary artistry which poignantly suggests that, even when it is surrounded by the accouterments of civilization, the human soul wanders lost and alienated … homeless.

Reflections on the theme of home and homelessness are not the preoccupation of ancient writers alone. They persist because the condition with which they wrestle persists. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Rod Dreher’s recently published book about his sister’s untimely death and his subsequent return to rural Louisiana, takes its place within this ancient literary tradition, and admirably so.

Rod and Ruthie Dreher grew up in the same small Louisiana town that had been home to the Dreher family for generations. During his high school years, Rod felt increasingly alienated from his family and his small town, so he left to pursue what would turn out to be a successful career in journalism that took him from one metropolis to another. Ruthie stayed. She married her high school sweetheart, became a beloved middle school teacher, and cultivated enduring relationships with family and friends.

Then Ruthie was diagnosed with a nasty, virulent form of lung cancer. It was a devastating and inexplicable diagnosis for the young mother of three who had never once smoked. For the next several months, her small hometown rallied around Ruthie and her family in countless precious ways. Rod witnessed all of this, and it changed his heart. He was moved by the generosity and love that surrounded his suffering family, and he was impressed anew by the beauty of Ruthie’s seemingly simple, but wonderfully rich, life. Then he moved his family back to Louisiana to be a part of the same community he had escaped so many years before. Without illusions, he chose to return home.

Dreher’s book has received numerous, invariably favorable, reviews, so I’ll only repeat what others have more eloquently observed. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is a beautiful mediation on family, place, fatherhood, ambition, love, sacrifice, and much else that is a great human consequence. It is a moving book, but it is not sentimental. It praises the virtues of community without being blind to its vices. It raises all sorts of terribly important questions that we should all consider with great seriousness, but that we too often bury and supress. It deserves to be read widely, and I hope that it is. And I hope that it generates conversation, discussion, and debate about the assumptions that order our lives.

My Home and Homelessness

Little Way made me think again about my own identity. I grew up the son of Cuban immigrants living in South Florida. I spent the first 19 years of my life there, and then I moved away. Consequently, there are two ways in which Dreher’s story addressed my experience. I remain away from the place where I grew up, where most of my family still resides, and, as a first generation American, I inherited, at a certain emotional remove, my family’s status as aliens in a land not their own.

For reasons that remain opaque even to myself, and to the chagrin of my family, as a child I readily identified with American culture. Spanish was my first language, and I grew up in Miami where one can spend a lifetime without recourse to English.  When I was four, I was sent to school knowing only one English phrase:  “Where is the bathroom?” But within a very short period of time, and without retaining any conscious memory of the transformation, I was speaking English with ease. Today I cannot remember ever thinking in Spanish. And so it was with most every other cultural marker.

From a very early age, then, I came to feel that somehow I was out of step with my family and its heritage. It was just the way it was, and I didn’t think too much about it.  In time, that became my identity: I was the one who didn’t fit in. In fact, when I was very young, I entertained something verging on scorn for my Cuban background. Over the years, this mellowed into indifference. But more recently, I’ve noticed the stirrings of affection for certain aspects of my Cuban culture. Perhaps it is a function of growing older and coming to a better understanding of who I am. It is most evident to me in the unexpected pleasure that comes from meeting someone who also speaks Spanish and then stumbling through a conversation in the language with which I first confronted this world.

It would be disingenuous to say that I now finally feel myself to be fully at home in Cuban culture; that is simply not the case. But in ways that I would not have anticipated even a few years ago, I’ve learned that my family’s culture is very much a part of who I am. From time to time, certain cultural chords are struck that reverberate in my heart and remind me that identity is not merely a performance or a choice. Reading Little Way led me to think again about how an immigrant family can remain homeless even when they have made a new home for themselves. Aeneas will, after all, always be a Trojan. But it did something more, although I’m not quite sure I can capture it. Let me just say that it came to me at the right time. The story it told shed light on my own experience. The grace to which it bore witness helped me see the grace present in my own life.

My interests being what they are, Little Way also set me to thinking about how it might speak to our digitally augmented lives. Here again I turned to my own experience. I realized that my digital life could be read as a refusal of limits: the limits of time and place, my time and my place. The Internet — or better, those interests who create the experience we simply gloss as “the Internet”  – promises the world, all of it, now. That is especially appealing to someone who may be nursing dissatisfaction with their current state of affairs or harboring ambitions that outstrip their current place. This is not necessarily a complaint against the Internet itself or the ubiquitous devices through which we access it. Rather it is a complaint, against my own use of the Internet – or at least the shape it sometimes takes.

The Internet can be that bigger, more welcoming, more exciting reality that we seek when we are dissatisfied with the constraints of our present circumstances. It trades in possibilities and the fantasy of limitlessness. It is no longer that the big city lures the small town child with its expansive horizons; it’s that the Internet lures us all, for all of our lives seem quaintly provincial when set against the digitally augmented realities on offer, and aspects of life that are not subject to digital augmentation may begin to appear impoverished.

I want to be careful on this point. I do not want to deny that the possibilities created by the Internet are sometimes genuinely good. I am very glad, for instance, that it provides the means to easily keep in touch with friends and family that are scattered all over the country and beyond. But scattered they are and scattered they will likely remain. The comforts of social media are real, but they are at best partial and they have their very real limits which must be acknowledged. Dreher’s story reminds us that all of the affordances of communication technologies are a poor substitute for the aid and comfort that can only be offered in person.

As I’ve written before, the problem is not so much with the technology under consideration as it is with us. After all, Dreher, who makes his living as a blogger, could not have come home  without the work made possible by the Internet. The problem arises when we make the Internet an unhealthy escape from the sometimes difficult realities that confront us as we do the hard work of living and loving. It arises when our digital practices amount to a refusal of responsibility and a perpetual deferment of commitment. But these problems are not created by the Internet, they are a function of our own disordered loves.

Limits

Some have complained that Dreher naively offers up the mythic small town as the cure for all that ills our weary souls. These people, it seems to me, have missed the point. It is true that Dreher came to see the remarkable love and support one small town offered up to a family that had long lived in that place and cultivated those relationships. The city may offer some unique challenges to the cultivation of such a community, and so may the suburbs, but they do not render community impossible. The real enemy of community is the refusal of limits on our ambition, the unchecked pursuit of autonomy, and the narrowly construed quest for personal fulfillment. These are the ideals that must be, to some degree, sacrificed if we are to build abiding communities with the resources to sustain its members through times of sorrow and suffering and provide the deep social context in which joy and meaning are possible.

While reading Little Way, I thought often of something Wendell Berry wrote a few years ago:

“… our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning. Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible … A small place, as I know from my own experience, can provide opportunities of work and learning, and a fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure—in addition to its difficulties—that cannot be exhausted in a lifetime or in generations.”

That is so well put I can hardly improve on it. This is what Ruthie Leming practiced.

Most of us live as if we believe that the surest path to happiness is that which spins out endlessly and offers up the least resistance, but traveling that path is a futile business. I’ve confessed elsewhere my assumption that the highest form of freedom is not the ability to pursue whatever whim or fancy may strike us at any given moment, but rather the freedom to make choices which will promote our wellbeing and the wellbeing of our communities. And such choices often involve sacrifice and the curtailment of our own autonomy. To put this another way, happiness, that elusive state which according to Aristotle is the highest good we all pursue, lies not at the end of a journey at which every turn we have chosen for ourselves, but along the path marked by choices for others and in accord with a moral order that may at times require the reordering rather than immediate satisfaction of our desires.

This vision of the good life does not play well in the society we have made for ourselves. In fact, it has become counter-intuitive. If it is ever to gain any traction, it cannot be merely preached. It must be lived, and its beauty must of its own mysterious accord draw us in. This is, I believe, Dreher’s great accomplishment. He has faithfully and honestly written that beauty into his story so that it may speak to his readers, may they be many.

Love

The search for home is, finally, an eschatological quest. For many, this means that it is an impossible quest, or even that it is no quest at all, but a tragic and pitiable misunderstanding of the nature of things. For others, like myself, it means that it is quest whose end will not be found within the horizons of this life. We are always on the way and it would be the gravest mistake to think that what we long for, truly, when we long for Home is tied without remainder to any one place. But that does not mean we cannot, in our present experience, seek good approximations of that Home which our hearts seek.

Talk of love, like talk of home,  always threatens to spill over into triteness and cliché. But as David Foster Wallace has reminded us,  “clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth.” Centuries earlier, St. Augustine wondered, “What do we love when we love our God?” This is an endlessly useful formulation. What do we love, we might now ask, when we love Home? What desire really drives our pursuit for the ideal of Home? Have we merely incorporated the search for Home into our project of self-fulfillment? If so, we’ve likely undermined the quest from the outset.

The quest for Home, like the quest for happiness, is such that, if it is to yield even its modest and partial fulfillments, cannot be undertaken for its own sake. Its success is premised on our loving something other than the idea of Home. We must love our place and we must, to borrow Auden’s apt phrasing, love our crooked neighbor with our crooked heart. We must abide. We must lay aside our self-interest and the project of self-fulfillment. We must be willing to sacrifice. We must give up our comfort. We must invest ourselves in the lives of others. And in so doing, we will find that we have been all along building a good and modest home for our pilgrim souls.

This is what the life of Ruthie Leming teaches us, and I’m grateful to Rod Dreher for writing this book that tells her story, and his.

I’m grateful to my parents for the home they made for me.

I’m grateful to my wife for the home we are building, and I’m grateful for the friends who are a part of it.

Deo gratias.

Excerpt from The Little Way of Ruthie Leming

“‘When a community loses its memory, its members no longer know one another,’ writes the agrarian essayist Wendell Berry. ‘How can they know one another if they have forgotten or have never learned one another’s stories? If they do not know one another’s stories, how can they know whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover they fear one another. And this is our predicament now.’

Those of us who have moved away are not necessarily callow and ungrateful people. We live in a time and place in which we are conditioned to leave our hometowns. Our schools tell our young people to follow their professional bliss, wherever it takes them. Our economy rewards companies and people who have no loyalty to place. The stories that shape the moral imagination of our young, chiefly by film and television, are told by outsiders who were dissatisfied and lit out for elsewhere to find happiness and good fortune.

During the decade leading up to Ruthie’s death, I had spent my professional life writing newspaper columns, blog posts, and even a book, lamenting the loss of community and traditions in American life. I had a reputation as a pop theoretician of cultural decline, but in truth I was long on words, and short on deeds. I did not like the fact that I saw my Louisiana family only three times a year, for a week at a time, if we were lucky. But that was the way of the world, right? Almost everyone I knew was in the same position. My friends and I talked a lot about the fragmentation of the modern family, about the deracinating effects of late capitalism, about mass media and the erosion of localist consciousness, about the consumerization of religion and the leviathan sate and every other thing under the sun that undermines our sense of home and permanence.

The one thing none of us did was what Ruthie did: Stay.

Contemporary culture encourage us to make islands of ourselves for the sake of self-fulfillment, of career advancement, of entertainment, of diversion, and all the demands of the sovereign self. When suffering and death come for you — and it will — you want to be in a place where you know, and are known. You want — no, you need — to be able to say, as Mike did, ‘We’re leaning, but we’re leaning on each other.’

I deeply believed then, and believe today, that one day I will be asked to give an account of my life to my Maker. That fateful week in Louisiana I wondered: When I meet the Lord, will I be able to say that my life had been about giving, not just taking? Would being able to discern the difference between a Bordeaux and a Burgundy bring me any closer to tasting the cup of salvation?

In short: Did I have love?”

Wendell Berry On “Camera Eye”

Came across the following this morning. Posted for your consideration.

The Vacation
by Wendell Berry

Once there was a man who filmed his vacation.
He went flying down the river in his boat
with his video camera to his eye, making
a moving picture of the moving river
upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly
toward the end of his vacation. He showed
his vacation to his camera, which pictured it,
preserving it forever: the river, the trees,
the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat
behind which he stood with his camera
preserving his vacation even as he was having it
so that after he had had it he would still
have it. It would be there. With a flick
of a switch, there it would be. But he
would not be in it. He would never be in it.

(1994)

After Stories (and Poems): The Forgotten Aesthetics of Persuasion

In the Old Testament, or the Hebrew Bible if you prefer, there is a story about a king and his excesses and a prophet who, as we would say today, spoke truth to power. The story is found in the book attributed to Samuel and the king was David, the most famous and revered of ancient Israel’s rulers. As is almost to be expected of men in power, David was infected with the notion that he might, with impunity, take all that his eyes desired, including the wife of another man — a good and loyal man who served David honorably. The king sleeps with Bathsheeba, the man’s wife, and she becomes pregnant. Hoping to cover up his rapaciousness, David recalls the husband, Uriah, from the battlefield and allows him the night with his wife expecting that he will do what all soldiers home from war would do given a night with the woman they love. Uriah would suppose the baby his, and all would be hidden from sight. Unfortunately for David, Uriah cannot bear the unfair advantage he has been granted over his comrades at the front and refuses to sleep with his wife. Getting Uriah drunk made little difference; he was a rock. So David had him killed.

Again, following an all too familiar pattern, David refused to acknowledge his guilt and his power shielded him from consequences and shame. That is until he meets with a prophet named Nathan. Nathan claims to bring news of a great injustice that had been perpetrated in the land. He tells David of a poor shepherd whose lone sheep was seized by a wealthy man in order to feed his guests, and this despite owning a great number of his own sheep. David is outraged; he demands to know who this man is that he may be brought to justice. Nathan, having artfully laid the trap, replies, “You are that man.” With that simple story Nathan bypassed David’s arrogant blindness and brought him to a startled recognition of the vileness of his actions.

I recount this well-known story because I have, in recent conversations, found myself expressing the need to gracefully articulate the virtue and necessity of making what would be very hard and unpopular choices for the sake our own personal well-being and the health of our society. Much of what I write, whether on matters relating to technology or in my occasional ramblings on other diverse topics, is premised on the assumption that human flourishing demands the recognition and acceptance of certain limits. I assume that the highest form of freedom is not the ability to pursue whatever whim or fancy may strike us at any given moment, but rather the freedom to make choices which will promote our well being and the well being of our communities. And such choices often involve sacrifice and the curtailment of our own autonomy. To put this another way, happiness, that elusive state which according to Aristotle is the highest good we all pursue, lies not at the end of a journey at which every turn we have chosen for ourselves, but along the path marked by choices for others and in accord with a moral order that may at times require the reordering rather than immediate satisfaction of our desires.

Put more practically, perhaps, the health of our society may now rest on our learning to live within constraints — economic, political, natural — that we have spent the last few decades ignoring or otherwise refusing. But no sooner do those words cross my lips or appear before my eyes as I type them, than I realize that they are likely to be unwelcome and unappealing words. And concurrently I realize that the language of limits may be misconstrued to mean that we must not pursue legitimate forms of material and social progress. On this point I endorse once more the distinction made by Albert Borgmann between troubles (read limits) that we accept in practice but oppose in principle, and those troubles (limits) we accept both in practice and in principle because we are ultimately better for accepting them. But this is all a hard sell.

On more than one occasion I have referred to an essay by Wendell Berry that appeared in Harper’s three years ago. The essay was titled “Faustian Economics: Hell Hath No Limits.” I refer to it often because I believe there are few writers who articulate the case for limits so well as he. Berry succeeds because he is able not only to criticize the ideology of limitlessness and point to its often disastrous consequences, but also to make a positive case for the possibilities of beauty and flourishing that arise from a life that embraces rather than refuses certain kinds of limits. Berry frames our limits as “inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning.” And it is this framing that is essential to the public case for any reorientation of our thinking and living in and with this world.

With her recent essay in The Nation, “Night Thoughts of a Baffled Humanist,” Marilynne Robinson matches Berry’s gift for speaking hard words with a grace that allows them to be heard, even if they are finally rejected. As I read Robinson’s words I marveled at what was unfolding line by line. Here she was dismantling our idols and stripping our altars, speaking to us with a seriousness and gravity that is wholly absent from our political and cultural discourse, and yet it was all done with mesmerizing artfulness. It was pungent medicine going down with sweet delight.

We need more writers, thinkers, and leaders in the mold of Berry and Robinson. It is a testament to their winsomeness and wisdom that both articulated essentially conservative (although not Republican) and religiously intoned visions which were published in decidedly left-of-center publications. It is, of course, also a testimony to the poverty of our categories.

It occurred to me, then, that it was little wonder they were able to make their case so well since both were novelists and one a poet as well. Little wonder because it seems to me that the case for limits is best shown rather than told. In other words, it is best conveyed by a story rather than a lecture. Like David, we need our prophets to weave their critique of our deeply entrenched disorders into a narrative that would bypass our self-righteous defenses. Moreover, these narratives need also to capture, in the manner that only a story can capture, the beauty and love that attend to lives lived by the counterintuitive logic of restraint, moderation, self-sacrifice, and regard for neighbor and place.

That it is the novelist and the poet that is best positioned to make such a case is also not surprising since their work is a constant affirmation of the inexhaustible beauty that arises from the formal elaboration of endless possibilities within a field of real and imposed limitations. Consider language itself as the primordial model of a limited and bounded but inexhaustible resource. The use of language is bounded by the grammar that allows for intelligibility and poets have since times immemorial bound themselves to structures that have called forth rather than foreclosed boundless creativity. Little wonder then that daily finding and making beauty within the limits of language, novelists and poets are best positioned to articulate the fulfillment and joy that may arise from the refusal to prioritize personal autonomy and the unencumbered life. After all, just as the frictionless life is also a life without traction, the life that refuses all burdens and attachments is, to borrow a phrase, unbearably light.

My hope is that we have not altogether lost our taste for stories and poems, that the sun has not yet set on literary sensibility. It would be tragic if for clarity and simplicity’s sake we sought our answers from technocrats with bullet-points and found that we could not hear or be moved to action by what they had to say. Although, perhaps that would be for the better since the technocratic logic that refuses complexity is more a part of the problem than of any credible solution. Worse still would be to find that our habits of attention, as some of our more pessimistic critics have warned, had become so attenuated that we could not follow an artful plot nor give a poem the loving, patient care that it demands before it will yield its wisdom.

Reviewing Robert Bellah’s “Religion in Human Evolution,” sociologist David Martin summarizes the book’s central message as follows: “‘We’ are inveterate story tellers as well as theoreticians … As ever in Bellah, his rigorous commitment to objectivity emits a normative aura: it is not a matter of putting stories behind us as childish but of telling the best stories to frame our collective existence.”

Indeed, and we might even put the matter more urgently. “It is difficult to get the news from poems,” William Carlos Williams admitted in a line from “Asphodel,” “yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

Alasdair MacIntyre famously concluded his ground breaking After Virtue by leaving us waiting “not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict.” It would seem, however, that we would do better to wait for another, doubtless very different, Nathan to penetrate through our blindness and awaken us to the possibilities offered by St. Benedict.

Conviviality and Friendship: Ivan Illich and Wendell Berry on the Virtues of Limits

At the start of this year, I was reading through Ivan Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text and posting a few excerpts. That book, which paid an acknowledged debt to Walter Ong, focused on developments in the evolution of the book around 1200 and subsequent consequences for literacy and society. (You can visit those posts beginning here.) Illich’s focus on literacy, however, came rather late in his career. He had earlier become well known for his writings, largely critical, on industrialized schooling. His work on schooling established a pattern of critique that he then applied to other institutions of industrial society and its tools. Illich was, by most measures, compassionately radical in his critique.

Among his works in this vein was Tools for Conviviality. Below, I’ve excerpted four paragraphs from the opening chapters of the book which give a sense of the main themes: balance, scale, and limits. Central to Illich’s critique is the notion that there are certain thresholds that, when crossed by production and institutions, result in counter-productivity. Benefits accrue on one side of the threshold, but on the other gains are outpaced by losses. Mostly these losses manifest themselves in the realms of individual self-determination and independence as well as in the social fabric of communities. In the very last line quoted, Illich gives a concise definition of what he means by conviviality.

“I here submit the concept of a multidimensional balance of human life which can serve as a framework for evaluating man’s relation to his tools. In each of several dimensions of this balance it is possible to identify a natural scale. When an enterprise grows beyond a certain point on this scale, it first frustrates the end for which it was originally designed, and then rapidly becomes a threat to society itself. These scales must be identified and the parameters of human endeavors within which human life remains viable must be explored.

Society can be destroyed when further growth of mass production renders the milieu hostile, when it extinguishes the free use of the natural abilities of society’s members, when it isolates people from each other and locks them into a man-made shell, when it undermines the texture of community by promoting extreme social polarization and splintering specialization, or when cancerous acceleration enforces social change at a rate that rules out legal, cultural, and political precedents as formal guidelines to present behavior. Corporate endeavors which thus threaten society cannot be tolerated. At this point it becomes irrelevant whether an enterprise is nominally owned by individuals, corporations, or the slate, because no form of management can make such fundamental destruction serve a social purpose.”

And …

“It is now difficult to imagine a modern society in which industrial growth is balanced and kept in check by several complementary, distinct, and equally scientific modes of production. Our vision of the possible and the feasible is so restricted by industrial expectations that any alternative to more mass production sounds like a return to past oppression or like a Utopian design for noble savages. In fact, however, the vision of new possibilities requires only the recognition that scientific discoveries can be useful in at least two opposite ways. The first leads to specialization of functions, institutionalization of values and centralization of power and turns people into the accessories of bureaucracies or machines. The second enlarges the range of each person’s competence, control, and initiative, limited only by other individuals’ claims to an equal range of power and freedom.

To formulate a theory about a future society both very modern and not dominated by industry, it will be necessary to recognize natural scales and limits. We must come to admit that only within limits can machines take the place of slaves; beyond these limits they lead to a new kind of serfdom. Only within limits can education fit people into a man-made environment: beyond these limits lies the universal schoolhouse, hospital ward, or prison. Only within limits ought politics to be concerned with the distribution of maximum industrial outputs, rather than with equal inputs of either energy or information. Once these limits are recognized, it becomes possible to articulate the triadic relationship between persons, tools, and a new collectivity. Such a society, in which modern technologies serve politically interrelated individuals rather than managers, I will call ‘convivial.’”

Illich’s focus on scale, limits, and what he calls conviviality is a more theoretical articulation of major themes in the writing of Wendell Berry. Writing in Harper’s in 2008, just as the financial crisis was unfolding, Berry makes the following observations:

“Our national faith so far has been: “There’s always more.” Our true religion is a sort of autistic industrialism. People of intelligence and ability seem now to be genuinely embarrassed by any solution to any problem that does not involve high technology, a great expenditure of energy, or a big machine. Thus an X marked on a paper ballot no longer fulfills our idea of voting. One problem with this state of affairs is that the work now most needing to be done—that of neighborliness and caretaking—cannot be done by remote control with the greatest power on the largest scale. A second problem is that the economic fantasy of limitlessness in a limited world calls fearfully into question the value of our monetary wealth, which does not reliably stand for the real wealth of land, resources, and workmanship but instead wastes and depletes it.

That human limitlessness is a fantasy means, obviously, that its life expectancy is limited. There is now a growing perception, and not just among a few experts, that we are entering a time of inescapable limits. We are not likely to be granted another world to plunder in compensation for our pillage of this one. Nor are we likely to believe much longer in our ability to outsmart, by means of science and technology, our economic stupidity. The hope that we can cure the ills of industrialism by the homeopathy of more technology seems at last to be losing status. We are, in short, coming under pressure to understand ourselves as limited creatures in a limited world.

This constraint, however, is not the condemnation it may seem. On the contrary, it returns us to our real condition and to our human heritage, from which our self-definition as limitless animals has for too long cut us off. Every cultural and religious tradition that I know about, while fully acknowledging our animal nature, defines us specifically as humans—that is, as animals (if the word still applies) capable of living not only within natural limits but also within cultural limits, self-imposed. As earthly creatures, we live, because we must, within natural limits, which we may describe by such names as “earth” or “ecosystem” or “watershed” or “place.” But as humans, we may elect to respond to this necessary placement by the self-restraints implied in neighborliness, stewardship, thrift, temperance, generosity, care, kindness, friendship, loyalty, and love.”

Clearly, Illich and Berry are working against the social and cultural grain. Although, recently, in certain moments, it has seemed to me that we are as a society more open to talk of limits and scale than we have ever been. This may, of course, be merely a passing phase. But perhaps not. Maybe we have passed another sort of threshold, one beyond which we begin to see the roots of our discontent. After all, if for all of our prosperity and technology, a fundamental lack still persists, then perhaps we may reconsider the foundations upon which we have staked our hopes.

In the same essay Berry writes,

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.

If, finally, a life of limits yields, among other benefits, meaningful friendships and their attendant satisfactions, then perhaps the sell may not be quite so hard as it appears.