Wendell Berry has written of “the storyteller’s need to speak wholeheartedly however partial his understanding.” You might find it hard to know what to do with a claim like that. I know I do. Is it not incumbent on writers to bring expertise and authority—mastery—to their subject matter, to their readers? As a reader, I often find it reassuring when a writer comes across as masterful. But as a writer, I am familiar with enough of the tricks to know that a lot of what passes for mastery is really sleight-of-hand.
Since last month’s Habit Writers’ Retreat, the theme of which was play and creativity, I’ve been pondering the childlike vision of reality that finds voice in Psalm 139:6: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it.” Children (for the most part) know that they don’t know much about how the world works. But they engage the world anyway, largely through play. They play dress-up. They play Legos. They play the piano. They play astronaut. They play school. They play roles in plays of their own devising. Their understanding is partial, but they are wholehearted in their engagement with things that are too wonderful for them.
Most of us grownups, on the other hand, have learned not to engage the things that are too high for us. Where we can’t have mastery, we tend not to go voluntarily. Or we shrink our world down to something that we can have mastery over.
In an essay called “Style and Grace” (it’s in the collection What are People For?) Wendell Berry contrasts two fishing stories–Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” and Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It—as a way of looking at the difference between mastery and mystery. Heminway’s story, according to Berry, is “a triumph of style in its pure or purifying sense: the ability to isolate those parts of experience of which one can confidently take charge.” Hemingway’s descriptions of the open river and its inhabitants truly are beautiful and masterful. To wit:
As the shadow of the kingfisher moved up the stream, a big trout shot upstream in a long angle, only his shadow marking the angle, then lost his shadow as he came through the surface of the water, caught the sun, and then, as he went back into the stream under the surface, his shadow seemed to float down the stream with the current, unresisting, to his post under the bridge, where he tightened, facing up into the current.
Nick’s heart tightened as the trout moved. He felt all the old feeling.
According to the story, the open river gives way to a dark swamp downstream. But Hemingway never takes us there. According to Berry, it is a “craftsmanly fastidiousness” that keeps the story from going into the swamp. The story “will not relinquish the clarity of its realization of the light and the river and the open-water fishing. It is a fine story, on its terms, but its terms are strait and limiting.” Berry goes on to say, “It deals with what it cannot understand by leaving it out.”
A River Runs Through It, on the other hand, is “not so neat and self-contained” as Hemingway’s story. This is a story, after all, about a father and sons who completely misunderstand one another, but fully love one another nevertheless. Maclean’s style, as Berry argues, “is a style vulnerable to bewilderment, mystery, and tragedy–and a style, therefore, that is open to grace.”
As beautiful as Hemingway’s story is, it represents an attempt to create a world where grace isn’t necessary. It only asks questions to which it has the answers. Maclean’s story is comparatively messy; the narrator doesn’t claim to understand the other characters, or what happens to them. He leaves room for grace to exert itself. To quote Berry again,
The story’s fierce triumph of grace over tragedy is possible, the story “springs and sings,” because of what I earlier called its vulnerability. Another way of saying this is that it does not achieve—because it does not attempt—literary purity. Nor does one feel, as one reads, that Mr. Maclean is telling the story out of literary ambition; he tells it, rather, because he takes an unutterable joy in telling it and therefore has to tell it. The story admits grace because it admits mystery. It admits mystery by admitting the artistically unaccountable. It could not have been written if it had demanded to consist only of what was understood or understandable, or what was entirely comprehensible in its terms.
There is little room for grace in a story—or a life—that is devoted entirely to mastering subject matter. Especially when you consider the fact that “mastery,” in our lived experience, is largely a matter of simply leaving out those things we don’t understand. Or to put it in other terms, “mastery” mostly means simplifying the complexities of our experience down to something we can master, but which may not look very much like the world we actually experience.