Limitless, Prodigal, and Dispersed

art of loading brushOne does not have to read far into an essay written by Wendell Berry to sense deep loss, a kind of sadness that both tugs and pulls.  As he acknowledges in his introduction to his most recent collection of writings, The Art of Loading Brush, his writings “have often repeated certain movements of thought” that are rooted in a particular experience in a particular place that echoes with the experiences of many, even those of us who hear what he says as an echo of an echo (of, perhaps, an echo).  Consider this from “The Thought of Limits in a Prodigal Age.”

The old complex life, at once economic and social, was fairly coherent and self-sustaining because each community was focused upon its own local countryside and upon its own people, their needs, and their work.  That life is now almost entirely gone.  It has been replaced by the dispersed lives of dispersed individuals, commuting and consuming, scattering in every direction every morning, returning at night only to their screens and their carryout meals.  Meanwhile, in a country everywhere distressed and taxed by homelessness, once-used good farm buildings, built by local thrift and skill, rot to the ground.  Good houses, that once sheltered respectable lives, stare out through sashless windows or have disappeared.

As one might guess from the title of the essay, the issue of limits and extravagance are at the heart of Berry’s thinking . . . and sadness.  To follow Michael Harris’s train of thought, Berry would see us unwittingly trading a healthy sense of limits with a sense that the world, its resources and possibilities, are limitless (and therefore worthy of our prodigal dispositions towards it).

Later in the essay, Berry comes to conclusions similar to Patrick Deneen concerning our contemporary approach to freedom:

We have the liberal freedom of unrestrained personal behavior and the conservative freedom of unrestrained economic behavior.

All of which puts us in a dangerous position as prodigal people in a prodigal culture.

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And so something about the way forward involves limits.  That’s not something that is easy for most of us to hear.  We would reject the sky if we were forced to believe that the sky really is the limit.  Berry is invested, though in both sky and sea, land and the life they bring together.  And if you’re going to talk about limits, you have to talk about the art of economics.  And, Berry asserts, the arts.

The good care of land and people . . . depends primarily upon arts, ways of making and doing.  One cannot be, above all, a good neighbor without such ways.  And the arts, all of them, are limited.  Apart from limits they cannot exist.  The making of and good work of art depends, first, upon the limits of purpose and attention, and then upon limits specific to the kind of art and its means . . .

Enduring structures of household and family life, or the life of a community or the life of a country, cannot be formed without limits.  We must not outdistance local knowledge and affection, or the capacities of local persons to pay attention to details, to the “minute particulars” only by which, William Blake thought, we can do good to one another.  Within limits, we can think of rightness of scale.  When the scale is right, we can imagine completeness of form.

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There is, of course, a danger in nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake.  But something should be said for understanding that what has gone before us has great value.  And that size does matter.  If nothing else, Berry’s sobering picture of “the dispersed lives of dispersed individuals” should give us pause and lead us to think seriously about the corner we have backed ourselves into.  A proper return to scale, and a kind of rejection of our twisted limitlessness, can provide some kind of road sign for a way forward.

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