February 22, 2012

What I Learned about Whitney Houston from Wendell Berry

From his book "Life is a Miracle", thoughts that are very Steven Riddle-ish it seems to me:
The Bible says that between all creatures and God there is an absolute intimacy. All flesh lives by the spirit and breath of God (Job 34:14-15). We "live, and move, and have our being" in God (Acts 17:28). In the Gospels it is a principle of faith that God's love for the world includes every creature individually, not just races or species...God's love for all things, for each thing for its own sake and not for its category.

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Explanation is reductive, not comprehensive; most of the time, when you have explained something, you discover leftovers. An explanation is a bucket, not a well. What can't be explained? I don't think creatures can be explained. I don't think lives can be explained. I don't think pictures or stories or songs or dances can be explained. The arts are indispensable precisely because they are so nearly antithetical to explanation.

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The power of art tends to be an individuating power, and that tendency is itself an affirmation of the value of individuals and of individuality...However much these characters may "stand for" us humans in our quests, flights, trials, and follies, they are each also intransigently themselves, and are valued as such. They all come out of the common fund of human experience, and so we recognize them, but not one of them is the same as anybody else.

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Blake's lines remind us again of the miraculousness of life. This news has been delivered to us time after time in our long tradition. It cannot be proved. It only can be told or shown.

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The better artist a woodworker becomes, the more aware he or she becomes of the individuality of boards and of the differences between them. The increase of art accounts for the increase of perception.

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The value of Huckleberry Finn is not in its motive or moral or plot, but in its language. The book is valuable because it is a story told, not a story explained.

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A work of criticism is not equivalent to a work of art and cannot replace it. The English departments and the biology departments and all other would-be consilient departments can spend the next millennium interpreting King Lear, and at the end of all that work the interpretation will still be one kind of thing and King Lear will still be a thing of a different kind.

So I've been thinking about the difference between the Bible and the Catechism, and of seeing Whitney Houston's life not as a symbol or an allegory or a "cautionary tale" but as something uniquely individualistic. With Houston I find myself in a reductionist mindset, in wanting to make her life - uniquely hers - into an allegory, into a mere lesson.

Wendell Berry writes that a work of art - a story - cannot be encapsulated in criticism or reductionist few lines. A story needs to be told as it is and not simply reduced to a "moral of the story". Perhaps that's a reason to never see the Bible in competition with the Catechism - so often I think that the Catechism as a distillation of what is an oftentimes confusing library of books into a neat, clean "here's what it all means". But however helpful and wonderful as the Catechism is, by Berry's lights a work is more than a sum of its parts and of course the Bible is a work of art different from all others in that it's God's word.

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