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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher

Fishing for Grace

Art made a big comeback in my house the last few months and it's wonderful. I have nothing to do with it, really. It's Katie who has recommitted to long forgotten paintbrushes and "just right" sketchbooks. She's even dancing again. She makes little drawings and I look on amazed. It's like watching a French pastry chef press out macarons -- each one lovely and at the same time, no big deal.

What's best isn't how she makes art, though. It's how the art makes her. She's better when she's creating -- more connected with herself, in better contact with the parts of herself she most needs, happier. I'd like to say I have the same experience when I'm blogging (which is as close as I get to art-making). But I don't think so. It's true I feel ionized when working on a WWW post, and it is delectable to dive deep, deep down into material that's so personal. But I'm more of an art appreciator. I don't actually feel myself changed by the creative process. The true artists, like my wife and Wendell Berry, enter the mystery and use their artistry to capture a glimpse, a moment, a flash. They recognize, in a way that I resist, that that's all there is. Moments and glimpses. Me? I'm always wanting the whole banana.

Wendell Berry begins the essay "Style and Grace" in What are People For with the simple but profound observation that works of art participate in our lives -- we aren't just distant observers of their lives. A human life is partially formed by what art has had to say to it, and what we've said back. Only a true artist would ever say that -- would even think that.

The art form that Wendell has had the longest and richest conversation with is literature, and the subjects under his gaze in this essay are two famously beloved stories about fishing, Hemingway's "Big Two Hearted River" and Norman Maclean's classic "A River Runs Through It." The first, he says, is the subject of a long conversation he's been in, and the second, a more recent and clarifying interlocutor. These aren't just stories he's enjoyed -- though that he has, and immensely. They are works of art at work on him. Like so many Berry essays, "Style and Grace" is damn fine criticism, but more so, it's a kind of telling -- a small reveal about who Wendell Berry is, and, should we want it, a lesson for us about humility.

The Hemingway story is a masterpiece for its clarity and the descriptive detail that, as Wendell puts it, is spoken by Hemingway directly into the reader's imagination. What's on the page is a tour de force. But Wendell's long conversation with this piece is about what's off the page, what's omitted. The story ends with Nick Adams electing not to follow the river to its end -- to where it leaves the sunlight and enters a heavily wooded swamp. There, Hemingway writes, "in the fast deep water, in the half light, the fishing would be tragic." And that's that.

Tragic? It's a word choice from a genius storyteller that gives Wendell great pause. Why tragic? Why would Hemingway truncate his story here, upriver from the swampy darkness, and declare that doing otherwise would be a tragedy?

Wendell has a theory He believes that Hemingway's stylistic high-command post won't allow entry to the darkness. "What's called 'tragic' is really messiness or unclarity, and that it refuses out of a craftsmanly fastidiousness." Hemingway's stylistic triumph, writes Wendell, is like that of the victorious general; it imposes its terms on its subject. Hemingway won't take his story into the darkness because of what might happen there. Of course we can't know what that could be, but neither can the author, and under his stylistic terms of engagement, that cannot abide.

If you're a Wendell Berry student, you know why this won't wash. Rivers cannot be divided from their dark places any more than people, and neither can be separated from their histories. Hemingway's story then is a triumph of style that Wendell calls "pure" or "purifying." "It minimizes to avoid mystery. It deals with what it does not understand by leaving it out." You could say it's a triumph of left brain style, which we've written about here (Thank you Iain McGhilcrist).

"Big Two Hearted River" admits no tragic element because Nick is a solitary character, without memory or people, fishing for a perfectly pure and individual purpose. He's connected to nothing, and so nothing is at stake with him. A bit like his creator I suppose, from the little I know about Ernest Hemingway. Not so "A River Runs Through It." That whole story, says Wendell, "takes place in (its own) dark swamp of sorts: the unresolvable bewilderment of human conflict and affection and loss." Everything is connected to everything and events are in control. The tragedy of the story is of the Greek kind; the implacable arrival of loss which is seen coming and remains unavoidable.

If you recall the story or the film, it's about two brothers in Montana and their fly-fishing, minister father who teaches that "all good things come by grace...and grace comes by art and art does not come easy." (A Wendell aphorism if ever there was one). Much of the grace and art and pain in the story are found on the Big Blackfoot River, where the boys fish and where the one brother in particular, Paul, becomes the very best version of himself, through a god-given genius for merging with the flow of water, current, air, line, fly, and fish. Off the river, sadly, he's a consummate drinker, gambler and brawler, and beyond saving.

I love "A River Runs Through It." I read it as a young man with fly-fishing dreams of my own, and am reading it anew with many of those dreams fulfilled, and many still held tight. I saw the movie at least twice. My old paperback sports a sticker with the purchase-date on it -- 1993, a time when books like this one were fueling my imagination for a life I would soon make for myself out west, on huge rivers, under miraculous trees. But I can't claim to have stayed in conversation with this work all these years. I needed Wendell to remind and teach me that Maclean's story, unlike Hemingway's, is a work of art suffused with this quality called grace -- something I'm searching desperately for these days, wanting badly to obtain.

The relentlessness of the tragedy that is "A River Runs Through It" is redeemed, according to Wendell, by the persistence of grace. What is Wendell getting at here? What is "grace" anyway? It isn't a Jewish idea, nor a Buddhist one, and so my sense of the thing is dim.

I've been studying this essay, "Style and Grace," and I think Wendell uses this word "grace" to describe that part of us, and of life, which we cannot account for -- and which we accept, willingly. The part that's sometimes called divine, though that word has a lot of god hiding in it, and probably too much halo. Because the hard-to-accept thing for so many of us less artistic types, or less religious types, is that the mystery of our lives, the parts we can't account for, are often the worst parts. The things about ourselves we wish we could change but can't. The things that happen to us that we never wanted. The unfairness of it all. Not always, and not only this, but from time to time, we must confront loss -- tragedy even. And this story, in how it's told and how it unfolds, reminds us what Hemingway won't: our lives are not stories, written in terms dictated by us. We are not accountable only to that which is understandable. To be in the world and to be in love -- to be love, is to be a fragment in a pattern that contains us. Not the other way around.

Those last words are Wendells', not mine, but I'm borrowing them whole cloth because I need them. The last couple years, and couple months in particular, have had me at sixes and sevens over this very thing, showing me how much I'm in need of real grace. I've been filled with worry and been crazy with thoughts: what will I do when tragedy comes, when suffering comes, as it has for so many innocents in Ukraine, and as it surely will, and hopefully not soon, for my loved ones and me? How will I come to solace? How will I come to faith? Will I find grace? Will it find me?

I believe grace must be a way of remembering before the suffering arrives. I think it's a way of being that is not righteous, but is right, for a human life. By not leaving out the parts we don't understand, that we can't control, that we'd rather never face, we come into wholeness. We come into art. We participate in the art of living.

Wendell's closes this essay with the only simile possible. Maclean's art, he says, "is modest, solitary, (and) somewhat secretive -- used, like fishing, to catch what cannot be seen."

And if I reflect on that -- on fishing -- then I do know something of all this. Moments and glimpses. I've had that on rivers. I've seen trout flashing from pools. I've said prayers of thanks for fish that have come to my fly. I've felt fear on rivers also, from wading in too-strong currents and staying out past reasonable light.

It's not grace I felt out there. I wouldn't say that. But I do know this: the terms of engagement, when fly-fishing these western rivers -- they aren't mine. And I know that conversations await me on rivers, when my inevitable time to suffer arrives. I don't want to leave out what I don't like. So I wish for grace. How hard, a life without it.


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