Wendell Berry Reads ‘The Objective’
by Terry Heick
I recently attended a screening of a documentary on Wendell Berry at the Louisville Speed Art Museum.
Drew Perkins and I took in what was then called ‘The Seer’ back in July. Now titled ‘Look & See” out of, if I’m not mistaken, Berry’s reluctance to be the centerpiece of the film, by far the most moving bit for me was the opening sequence, where Berry’s sage voice reads his own poem, ‘The Objective’ against a dizzying and fantastic montage of visuals attempting to reflect some of the bigger ideas in the lines and stanzas.
The switch in title makes sense though, because the documentary is really less about Berry and his work, and more about the realities of modern farming–key themes for sure in Berry’s work, but in the same sense that farms and rustic settings were key themes in Robert Frost’s work: visible, but most powerfully as symbols in pursuit of broader allegories, rather than destinations for meaning.
See also Learning Through Humility
Anyone who has read any of my own writing knows what an extraordinary influence Berry has been on me as a writer, educator, and father. I created a kind of school model based on his work in 2012 called ‘The Inside-Out School,’ have exchanged letters with him, and was even fortunate enough to meet him last year.
Right, so, the film. You can purchase the documentary here, and while I think it misses on framing Berry for the widest possible audience, it is a rare look at a very private man and thus I can’t recommend it strongly enough if you’re a reader of Berry.
The problem of combining consumerism (ads, selling DVDs, selling books) isn’t lost on me here, but I’m hoping that the theme and distribution of the message outweigh any inherent (and woeful) irony when all of the pieces here are considered in sum. Also, there is a stanza that seems to be missing from the voice-over that I included in the transcription below.
The poem is taken from ‘A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems’ 1979-1997 published by Counterpoint Press in 1998.
by Wendell Berry
Even while I dreamed I prayed that what I saw was only fear and no foretelling,
for I saw the last known landscape destroyed for the sake
of the objective–the soil bulldozed, the rock blasted.
Those who had wanted to go home would never get there now.
I visited the offices where for the sake of the objective,
the planners planned at blank desks set in rows.
I visited the loud factories where the machines were made
that would drive ever forward toward the objective.
I saw the forest reduced to stumps and gullies;
I saw the poisoned river–the mountain cast into the valley;
I came to the city that nobody recognized because it looked like every other city.
I saw the passages worn by the unnumbered footfalls of those
whose eyes were fixed upon the objective.
Their passing had obliterated the graves and the monuments
of those who had died in pursuit of the objective
and who had long ago forever been forgotten,
according to the inevitable rule that those who have forgotten
forget that they have forgotten.
Men and women, and children now pursued the objective as if nobody ever had pursued it before.
The races and the sexes now intermingled perfectly in pursuit of the objective.
The once-enslaved, the once-oppressed,
were now free to sell themselves to the highest bidder
and to enter the best paying prisons in pursuit of the objective,
which was the destruction of all enemies,
which was the destruction of all obstacles,
which was to clear the way to victory,
which was to clear the way to promotion,
to the completed sale,
to the signature on the contract,
which was to clear the way to self-realization, to self-creation,
from which nobody who ever wanted to go home would ever get there now,
for every remembered place had been displaced;
every love unloved,
every vow unsworn,
every word unmeant
to make way for the passage of the crowd of the individuated,
the autonomous, the self-actuated, the homeless with their many eyes
opened toward the objective which they did not yet perceive in the far distance,
having never known where they were going,
having never known where they came from.
From ‘A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems’ 1979-1997, by Wendell Berry, Counterpoint, 1998
‘The Objective’ As Read By Wendell Berry