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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher

When Cruelty Reigns

Sometimes I have to work pretty hard to tie the laces between a Wendell Berry essay and the news of the day. But that wasn’t going to be a problem with the penultimate piece in Imagination in Place. My pulse quickened when I glanced at the title: “The Uses of Adversity” -- an essay for today, surely.

I dove in. What I found was a whole lot of Shakespeare and the comfort of perspective that is probably only possible from across the centuries.

This one is Wendell at his professorial best. There’s no Kentucky in it, no take-down of our exploitative economy, no farming or farmers. This was the essay that reminds you why literature is taught in school, and how wonderful it feels to be really taught. I’ve always struggled with Shakespeare, and am struggling mightily with what’s happening to this country. The Uses of Adversity, as the title suggests, instructs us that struggles can be restorative. I badly need that reminder. The month has chopped me down image by image: letter bombs, monster hurricanes, synagogue murders and images of children walking out of Central America away from hopelessness straight into helplessness.

The essay looks closely at two plays, As You Like It and King Lear. Don’t succumb to your knee-jerk Shakespeare-response, whatever it might be. These are stories about political decay. Berry opens the essay with a concise description of the archetypal narrative shared by both plays:

In the instituted life of a society “things fall apart” because the people of power have grown selfish, cruel and dishonest. The effect of this is centrifugal; the powerless and disempowered are sent flying from their settled domestic life into the wilderness or the world’s wildness – the state of nature. Thus deprived of civil society and exposed to the harshness of the natural world and its weather, they suffer correction, and their suffering eventually leads to a restoration of civility and order.

This is Wendell doing literary inquiry. He is reading these plays in search of answers. He wants to understand: do all societies have the seeds of failure within them, and are these seeds the dishonesty of the dominant people? Does the failure of the society reduce it, and the people in it, to some version of a more “natural” state? Can this reduction be instructive or restorative?

In 2006, when he wrote this, Berry observed that we never consider our own potential failure, only that of other societies. “We have pretty much made a virtue of selfishness as the mainstay of our economy, (and) of our entire dependency on cheap petroleum.” In the main, nothing has changed in 12 years. But in my circle, and in my own imaginings, the last 24 months changed everything. A societal breakdown that I never thought to imagine suddenly seems very much at hand.

And so it’s the last of his questions that interests me most of all – which is the same question that most interests Berry and Shakespeare: How can a degenerate civil society be reconstituted?

In both plays, “good” people are exiled – forced to flee the court under threat by corrupt rulers. As You Like It is set in the Forest of Arden, where a handful of characters – a few silly but most honorable, find one another. The main plot is a love story, but Berry doesn’t go in for the frivolity. He sees, in act two especially, a seriousness of thought and action missed by many directors and readers.

Left to their own devices in the uncivilized woods, the exiles begin to enact their own tiny society. Through service and selflessness, they eventually remake the decadent power center that infects society as a whole. It’s suggested that the forest itself might be magical, but it’s in the human relationships where the alchemy of transformation definitively occurs.

In the forest, the “natural” order of society is upended. Masters end up pledging service and allegiance to their servants. A pathetically frail old man is tenderly ministered to by a stalwart prince. Women become men by disguise. (It’s Shakespeare, so of course that). The sophisticated and cynical characters are disarmed by the simple and the decent. In the end, kindness and benevolence converts the exiles and the “bad” guys as well. The return from exile is into a reformed society, with everyone “renewed in their specifically human nature, their civility and charity, by this time of adversity in the natural world.”

The work of service can be to redeem the fallen or the unfortunate back to a dignified state, as happens in As You Like It. We want to believe that’s the whole point of service – to help “good” triumph and to see health restored. Sometimes endings can be made happy because the human predicament is more ridiculous than anguished – more troubled than tormented. We might call this the comic aspect of service. But service can have a tragic aspect also where its function is not redemption but witness.

Witness means standing by. It means seeing, looking on, abiding that which you cannot change. Good and faithful service, Berry observes in his reading of Shakespeare, is not just loyalty. It also holds within it a measure of truth-telling, which often requires opposition. In witnessing we do not surmount but neither do we turn away. It is, more often than we wish, all that can we can do. It may be all we will be able to do in the coming years, and the difficulty of doing this shouldn’t be underestimated.

Six years after writing As You Like It, Shakespeare evidently wanted to explore the tragic aspect of the archetypal theme and the harsher side of selflessness and service. Transformation of the wicked and powerful, we know, happens erratically and often not at all. In King Lear he does away with the relatively benign sylvan setting and in its place sets a much darker story about adversity’s grip on human affairs. As before, it will take exposure to the elements for the characters to learn what they must.

The King Lear story, same as As You Like It, originates with corruption at the center of wealth and power. King Lear is Donald Trump, addled by self-complacency, self-indulgence, self-ignorance and the lack of critical self-knowledge. Berry writes “Because Lear is king, his self-absorption becomes in effect state policy. Like any head of state he is able, temporarily, to invest his fantasies with power.” Ruin and decay inevitably follow, as people in other times and places must have understood, and which we are rapidly learning as well.

Like in the earlier play, the evil sewn by Lear’s selfishness casts the powerless and defeated characters out into the wild, where, as before, they constitute a countermovement against the workings of violence at the center. Here too the movement is made of good and faithful service, exactly in the Christian tradition. (Berry takes several pages to educate readers about the biblical context within which Shakespeare set the work, and points to numerous scriptural references in the play’s poetry to buttress his interpretation). Good is set against evil. The morality play is on.

In act two, Lear himself is victimized by the events let loose in the kingdom by his own selfish hand, and he too is driven out, and eventually driven mad, by his power-lusting daughters. It is only then, half out of his wits and all but abandoned on the pitch black heath in a pitiless storm, that Lear finally utters his first words of kindness and human decency, asking the fool, his companion, if he is okay. Then, upon being ushered to a tiny bit of shelter, the character and the play reaches a turning point. This is the moment when Lear recognizes that he has been helped to safety and relief in a demonstration of a charitableness that he, the King, never showed for his subjects. He cries out in regret.

So, can we conclude that the storm/nature reformed the Kingdom of Lear just as the forest/nature remade the As You Like It society? Can a little bit of Outward Bound shake out the corruption from mens’ hearts? Good god no. The truth is more awful and elusive, and also necessary to acknowledge.

Tragedies like King Lear have unhappy endings. The element we’d like to ignore, but which the Lear story, especially, won’t allow, is the presence of suffering, loss, and even lost cause, within the epic struggle. Service, kindness, help and affection (the cardinal Berryist virtues, you might say), are put forth against evil forces, and it isn’t enough. Life isn’t a fairy tale or allegory, and neither are these plays. Good service in King Lear is more costly than in As You Like It, and also less effective. Wendell writes:

Lear and Gloucester in their selfishness are too vulnerable, and the wickedness of their adversaries is too great, to permit the good servants any practical success. They can give no victory and achieve no restoration, as the world understands such things. Their virtues do not lead certainly or even probably to worldly success, as some bad teachers would have us believe. They stand by, suffering what they cannot help, as parents stand by a dying or disappointing child.

If this seems cold comfort, that’s because it is, and King Lear is intent to show how tragic outcomes that befall a “self-covered” society. In this play (and even more so in Macbeth, which is still a few years off), Shakespeare dramatizes how evil, once consented to on a small scale, enlarges to an unforeseen perfection of itself – taking down not just the evildoers but everything else in their surround. Like the storm on the heath, the corrupt band of self-interested people will eventually extinguish, but not without collateral damage.

The party of evil is by definition out of control from the start. Its members are out of control as individuals dedicated to self-interest. People who are united by the principle of unrestrained self-interest have inevitably a short-lived union. However large and however costly to their victims their successes may be, their failure is assured. But their espousal of evil as a deliberate policy assures also that they will be unrelenting while they last.

I remember saying something similar just after the 2016 election: “Trump won’t last. But will we survive him?” I must confess two years later, with voter suppression approaching official sanction in Georgia and Fox News becoming indistinguishable from Breitbart, I worry that this evil might last longer than I had imagined.

Wendell Berry probably has to answer as many questions about his hopefulness as on any other topic. His has been such a long, lonely, unsuccessful fight, one might be tempted to call it tragic. And yet it is obvious when you see Wendell speak, that he is not defeated or broken by his ineffectiveness, or by the current state of our union. Berry does have hope, and he has never had a problem returning to hope, either through his arts, or because of them. Or, not unrelatedly, because of his spirit.

And so Berry, unlike many readers of King Lear, is able to pull a sorrowful hopefulness out of it. Yes, the party of evil and greed consolidate power, but only to have it disintegrate. The second group of characters -- the party of good, slowly cohere from their individuated exiles, though at first they are widely scattered. (Common. Commune. Community.) In the end, the villains are all dead, and not by chance but as a logical consequence of their wicked (that is, unnatural) ways. The good people, on the other hand, are not inevitably destroyed. At least a couple of them have survived. They have found each other. Civil order has a reasonable hope of returning.

Berry also points to the work of forgiveness, and of witness, that can waken men to love, to their true human nature. This is what the servants did for Lear and Gloucester, and in Berry’s reading of it, what occurs in Lear, the grief-struck man, in the play’s final scene where he holds the deceased body of his one true daughter, Cordelia:

Cordelia, the play’s only wholly undisguised character, has been disguised to Lear until the end by his self-preoccupying pride, anger, outrage, guilt, grief, and despair; and that, when his vision clears at last and he can see her as she was and is, he is entirely filled with love and wonder. And so the play may be said to show us at last a miracle: that Lear, dying, is more alive than he has ever been until this moment.

This is not the traditional interpretation of the play’s ending, but in it, and through all of The Uses of Adversity, we can make out Wendell's answer to the question of societal restoration.

When things fall apart in the instituted life of society because of the selfishness and cruelty of the dominant people, suffering will happen and regular and decent people (and values) will be exiled. A countermovement should accompany this degeneration, at first scattered but growing more organized over time, energized by the hardship of weather or nature’s mercilessness, to eventually “clear the vision” of society through acts of love, kindness and service. It may not be a grand narrative like I’m describing it. It might be that this countermovement is, for a long while, an assiduous witnessing and speaking truth to power that breaks through the madness slowly, and only with great sacrifice.

And as I write this, I’m left to wonder if it’s correct. Because if I was black, I think I might want to argue that it doesn’t happen this way – or it hasn’t happened this way. Not yet at least. Not in America.


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