Friday, September 29, 2006

Advice To A Prophet -- and the economics of use.

I've been finishing up Joseph Sittler's "The Care of the Earth." The book is really a collection of essays on literature and some reflections on church and society. One essay (which shares the title of the book) has this statement by Sittler who is discussing a poem by Richard Wilbur.

"The substance [of the poem] is this: annihilating power is in nervous and passionate hands. The stuff is really there to incinerate the earth-and the certainty that it will not be used is not there.
"Nor have we anodyne to hush it up or power to run away from it. We can go skiing with it, trot off to Bermuda with it, push it down under accelerated occupation with the daily round, pour bourbon over it, or say our prayers-each according to his tactic and disposition. But it goes along, survives, talks back

And then he quotes the poem: (Advice to a Prophet, Wilbur 1959)

"When you come, as you soon must,
to the streets of our city,
Mad-eyed from stating the obvious,
Not proclaiming our fall but begging us
In God's name to have self-pity,

Spare us all word of the weapons, their

force and range,
The long numbers that rocket the mind;
Our slow, unreckoning hearts will be left
Unable to fear what is too strange.

Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death
of the race.
How should we dream of this place without
The sun mere fire, the leaves untroubled
about us,
A stone look one the stone's face?

Speak of the world's own change. Though
we cannot conceive
Of an undreamt thing, we know to our cost
How the dreamt cloud crumbles, the vines
are blackened by frost,
How the view alters. We could believe,

If you told us so, that the white-tailed deer
will slip
Into perfect shade, grown perfectly shy,
The lark avoid the reaches of our eye,
The jack-pine loose its knuckled grip

On the cold ledge, and every torrent burn
As Xanthus once, its gliding trout
Stunned in a twinkling. What should we be
The dolphin's arc, the dove's return,

These things in which we have seen
ourselves and spoken?
Ask us, prophet, how we shall call
Our natures forth when that live tongue is
Dispelled, that glass obscured or broken,

In which we have said the rose of our

love and the clean
Horse of our courage, in which beheld
The singing locust of the soul unshelled,
And all we mean or wish to mean.

Ask us, ask us whether with the wordless
Our hearts shall fail us; come demanding
Whether there shall be lofty or long
When the bronze annals of the oak-tree
close. "

After this lengthy poem Sittler replies with his usual ability to relate literature to the real world:

"By sheer force of these lines my mind was pushed back against the wall and forced to ask: is there anything in our western religious tradition as diagnostically penetrating as that problem, as salvatory as that predicament?"

Sittler was an environmentalist -- and so was Richard Wilbur. Throughout his work, and especially in this poetic essay, Sittler is relating the environmental/ecological cause and the cause of usefulness to that of the cause of the Christian. We seek Redemption.

"God is useful. But not if he is sought for use. Ivan, in The Brothers Karamazov, saw that, and Dostoevski meant it as a witness to the holy and joy-begetting God whom he saw turned into an ecclesiastical club to frighten impoverished peasants with, when he had his character say, "I deny God for God's sake!

"All of this has, I think, something to say to us as teachers and students to whom this university is ever freshly available for enjoyment and use. For consider this: the basis of discovery is curiosity, and what is curiosity but the peculiar joy of the mind in its own given nature? Sheer curiosity, without immediate anticipation of ends and uses, has done most to envision new ends and fresh uses. But curiosity does this in virtue of a strange counterpoint of use and enjoyment. Bacon declared that "studies are for delight," the secular counterpart of "glorify God and enjoy him forever." The Creator who is the fountain of joy, and the creation which is the material of university study, are here brought together in an ultimate way. It is significant that the university, the institutional solidification of the fact that studies are for delight, is an idea and a creation of a culture that once affirmed that men should glorify God and enjoy him forever. Use is blessed when enjoyment is honored.

"Piety is deepest practicality, for it properly relates use and enjoyment. And a world sacramentally received in joy is a world sanely used. There is an economics of use only; it moves toward the destruction of both use and joy. And there is a economics of joy; it moves toward the intelligence of use and the enhancement of joy. That this vision involves a radical new understanding of the clean and fruitful earth is certainly so. But this vision, deeply religious in its genesis, is not so very absurd now that natural damnation is in orbit, and man's befouling of his ancient home has spread his death and dirt among the stars. "


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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