Against Essay Life Miracle Modern Superstition

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Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition

Wendell Berry, Author Counterpoint LLC $13.5 (124p) ISBN 978-1-58243-058-4
Living for almost 40 years on a family farm in Kentucky has led Berry to place a high value on local knowledge born of a long and affectionate engagement of the intellect and imagination with a particular place. To readers of his poems, novels (Memory of Old Jack, etc.) and essays (The Unsettling of America, etc.), it will be no surprise that in his latest essay collection, he argues cogently and passionately against the proposition E.O. Wilson puts forth in Consilience, that our best hope for preserving the biosphere lies in linking facts and fact-based theory across disciplines under the hegemony of the natural sciences. Though a conservationist, like Wilson, Berry strongly believes that the materialist prescription for what ails us--ecologically, culturally and spiritually--will simply bind us more tightly to the often destructive, profit-driven triad of science, technology and industry. It will also move us further away, avers Berry, from what he sees as the sense of propriety that calls on us to base our thoughts and actions on our inescapable interdependency with the planet's other life forms. Berry also opposes the belief underlying Consilience, that scientific analysis can ultimately explain everything: ""to reduce the mystery and miracle of life to something that can be figured out is inevitably to enslave it, make property of it and put it up for sale."" In opposition to this view, Berry proposes evaluating our behavior and work on how they affect ""the health and durability of human and natural communities."" To do that, he contends, we must go beyond Wilson's empirical knowledge to imaginative knowledge--to knowing things ""intimately, particularly, precisely, gratefully, reverently, and with affection."" Agent, the Spieler Agency. (June)
Reviewed on: 05/29/2000
Release date: 06/01/2000
Paperback - 153 pages - 978-1-58243-141-3

A strong polemic, in which Berry (Another Turn of the Crank, 1995, etc.) takes a wrecking ball to E.O. Wilson’s Consilience, reducing its smug assumptions regarding the fusion of science, art, and religion to so much rubble.

Berry does not see life as mechanical or predictable or understandable, and he does not believe it possible to reduce it to the scope of our understanding. This would be to “give up on life, to carry it beyond change and redemption, and to increase the proximity of despair.” For Berry, “life is a miracle” (as Edgar said to King Lear), and it is not containable in Wilson’s empiricism or his reductionism or his subordination of art to science—particularly as Berry sees science currently under the sway of corporate interests. Berry advocates intellectual standards that “shift the priority from production to local adaptation, from power to elegance, from costliness to thrift. We must learn to think about propriety in scale and design.” Despite Wilson’s “pretensions to iconoclasm,” Berry sees orthodoxy and the hand of politics: “for the putative ability to explain everything along with the denial of religion (or the appropriation of its appearances) is a property of political tyranny.” The obtuse nature of the scientific attitude is crudely suggested in Berry’s caricature of Wilson responding to the prophet Isaiah in the following dialogue: “The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as a flower of the field.” To which Wilson replies, “But, sir! Are you aware of the existence of the electromagnetic spectrum?” Somewhat lame, to be sure, but it illustrates Berry’s point: “I have been trying to learn a language particular enough to speak of this place as it is and of my being here as I am. . . . And then is when I see that this life is a miracle, absolutely worth having, absolutely worth saving.”

Berry has earned these lofty sentiments about life’s abiding mystery and beauty. He has lived close to the earth, pressed his ear to the ground, and been rewarded with doubt and discernment.

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