Saturday, August 22, 2009

Wendell Berry Is a Genius, Part Two

In his essay "Quantity Vs. Form" Wendell Berry contrasts a long life, which biotechnology and commercialism have made the presumed norm, with a whole or complete life, which is more communal and aspirational.

Berry leads off with a discussion of an old friend well into her "latter years," whose degenerative illness had led to great pain. The doctor's course of treatment was to withhold pain medication that was inhibiting her appetite, with the goal of "getting her back on her feet." Berry contrasts this medical bias toward longevity with the experience of Lord Nelson, who died in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and whose death was eulogized by his biographer, Robert Southey, with the pregnant phrase "He cannot be said to have fallen prematurely whose work was done."

Embedded in this eulogy is a sense of vocation, of life purpose, that is subverted by a bias toward longevity. Berry is wise to say explicitly that he's opposed to euthanasia and assistend suicide, because neither is the point. The point is that, as he alludes to elsewhere, we become more and more parasitic and consequently less and less virtuous as a species when we see life as something to be consumed, and longevity as proof of success, rather than life as something to be embodied, and success as defined by the way we conduct ourselves from age to age. This corrosion of our vision is an accident of our hubris; we see the potential within our grasp to overcome the constraints that life necessarily entails for us--among which are the infirmities and limitations that descend on us as we age and the death than none of us can ultimately avoid. Medication has become the silver bullet we use to defeat the bogeyman of death ("Death no apparently is understood, and especially by those who have placed themselves in charge of it, as a punishment for growing old, to be delayed at any cost"), and we discover too late that this bogeyman is actually our friend, that as the Bible and other ancient wisdom asserts, the progression of life through death is part of what defines us and frames who we were meant to be. Berry addresses this succinctly in the middle of the essay:

We come to form, we in-form our lives, by accepting the obvious limits imposed by our talents and circumstances, by nature and mortality, and thus by getting the scale right. Form permits us to live and work gracefully within our limits. . . . The art of living thus is practiced not only by individuals, but by whole communities or societies. It is the work of the long-term education of a people. Its purpose, we may say, is to make life conform gracefully both to its natural course and to its worldly limits.

3 comments:

Macon said...

On an individual level, this makes much sense to me.

But on a societal level, I wonder if not striving to extend longevity is still a good idea.

[warning, SciFi excursis]

What about extending lifespans to enable space travel, or productivity/invention that comes from being able to have 80 years of experience under your belt before you have the "aha!" invention moment?

Is there room for extending our biological limits for those reasons?

I am genuinely ambivalent about it. What do you think?

It makes good SciFi novels, anyway. :-)

David A. Zimmerman said...

Leave it to Macon to go wildly contrapuntal on me. Great points. I might argue on Berry's behalf that, for example, if space travel is indeed the vocation of a person, then the corollary of Southey's statement probably applies: He can be said to have fallen prematurely whose work was not yet done. However, Southey's statement isn't in the abstract, it's a particular assessment, grounded in virtue and value, of the life of Lord Nelson. As for seeking ways of tapping the untapped potential, which I suppose is the net effect of extending the lifespan to allow for the possibility of eighty-year-old innovations, I think Berry might argue that aspiring to anything includes making oneself vulnerable to something, and to date medical technology neglects the one in its pursuit of the other. However high and far we reach, we can't lose sight of our finiteness, which is the framework within which we discover whatever greatness lies within us.

Macon said...

Dave, thank you for such a wonderful answer!

"However high and far we reach, we can't lose sight of our finiteness, which is the framework within which we discover whatever greatness lies within us."

Truly.