Sunday, January 09, 2011

Grief and Belief: Three Pages from Wendell Berry
(reflections on A PLACE ON EARTH by Wendell Berry, published by Counterpoint.)

Today I was surprised by grief, a sudden tipping from contentedness to tears. Wendell Berry's compassionate but measured writing was a catalyst that unleashed feelings I've held in since Dad died.  [See my personal guide to Berry's Port William fiction.]

This cold Saturday morning, I opened A PLACE ON EARTH to a dogeared page where I'd left off last weekend, midway through the book. Though it has no plot, this book does have a story: the young men of the town are away at World War II, and Virgil Feltner is missing in action. Now, in a section called "A Comforter," the town's preacher calls on the home of Mat and Margaret Feltner, Bible in hand, to speak the expected words of comfort for a family in mourning. Virgil's wife Hannah is there, too, living with her husband's parents.

It's almost a comedy of manners, because the comforter is the one who needs to be put at ease. We see how his arrival interrupts the family's daily work, as Margaret puts aside the dishes, and Mat has to shed muddy boots and to wash up before he can come join the family. Until all of the family can sit down, talk is of the weather, of the day, of anything but Virgil.

Berry doesn't play it for laughs, though. We see from the preacher's point of view. "The preacher feels himself drawn again, helplessly, into the stream of pastime conversation, which moves by no force of its own but by a determination in all of them against silence." With every new turn of the conversation, he feels his own failure. But when he does announce why he has come, talk stops, and Margaret "touches the tips of her fingers lightly to the side of her face." He speaks at them... a man walking before a strong wind, moved no longer by his intention but by the force of what he is saying. ...But beneath the building edifice of his meaning, he is aware of something failing between them. ...He feels that the force of his voice is turning back toward himself, that he is fleeing into the safe coherence of his own words....(98)

Then focus shifts to the father, Mat. He has kept at bay the knowledge that his son is lost, and the preacher has let it loose. The preacher speaks of heaven, a hope beyond their lives, and that's where the preacher's mind is as he speaks.

But in this hope--this last simplifying rest-giving movement of the mind-- Mat realizes that he is not free, and never has been. He is doomed to hope in the world, in the bonds of his own love. ...His hope of Heaven must be the hope of a man bound to the world that his life is not ultimately futile or ultimately meaningless, a hope more burdening than despair. (99)

That hope can be more burdensome than despair -- that strikes me as true, a theme that ennobles Berry's works.

When this ordeal of social awkwardness is over and the preacher leaves, Mat touches Hannah's shoulder and asks, "All right?" She smiles and says she's all right.

Then she cries, "No! I'm not all right! I'm not!"

That's where I lost it. The dogs were there, comforting and funny in their concern. I've recently been in that same kind of room with the same kind of chit-chat, with the same cast of characters.

I've written about Berry many other times: See my personal guide to Berry's Port William fiction.

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