Perhaps Kentucky’s most famous living writer, Wendell Berry, has created in his Port William stories a rural community of folks trying to make sense of the modern world. Berry’s tales are inhabited by farmers and shopkeepers leading lives that are at once filled with struggle and fulfillment. I have read Berry’s stories during some of the most challenging times of my life: while my mother lay dying and then following my open heart surgery in 2010.
In the days and weeks before my mother’s death in the summer of 2006, I sat with her in the hospital room, reading the Bible, the daily newspaper or the stories of Wendell Berry. That summer, I read all the Port William stories straight through, many of them for a second time. The stories gave me then, and give me still today, a sense of peace amidst hardship that I rarely find in literature; I continue to return to the Port William stories again and again when I need to check my priorities or purpose.
In addition to his fiction, Berry also writes beautiful poetry and meaningful essays, and it is one of his essays, “Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition,” that I refer to today. In this essay, Berry writes about his favorite Shakespeare play, “King Lear.” Berry refers to the subplot in “King Lear” in which “the Earl of Gloucester is recalled from despair so that he may die in his full humanity.” The old earl has been blinded for his loyalty to the king, and his son Edgar, disguised as a beggar, leads his father to the cliffs of Dover where Gloucester intends to kill himself.
Instead of leading his blinded father to the edge of a precipice, however, he only tells his father that he is at the cliff. There, “Gloucester renounces the world, blesses Edgar, his supposedly absent son, and, according to the stage direction, ‘Falls forward and swoons’” (IV, vi, 41 in the Pelican Shakespeare). When Gloucester comes to, Edgar, pretending to be a passerby at the bottom of the cliff, goes to the earl. Gloucester is dismayed that he is still alive, and, refusing Edgar’s help, tells him, “Away, and let me die” (IV, vi, 48).
But Edgar does not leave, and instead he utters the line in the play that is the subject of Berry’s essay as well as the topic of this column. Edgar assures his father that instead of dying, he still has some living to do. “Thy life’s a miracle,” Edgar tells him. “Speak yet again. Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.” (IV, vi, 55)
In his essay, Berry concludes that the fact that all of our lives are miracles does not mean that we have it all figured out. To experience life is not to “figure it out” or “even to understand it,” but instead “to suffer it and rejoice in it as it is.” “In suffering it and rejoicing in it as it is,” Berry writes, “we know that we do not and cannot understand it completely.” According to Berry, the issue “is not knowledge but ignorance.” And as Berry puts it in his own self-deprecating way, “in ignorance I believe I may pronounce myself a fair expert.”
Me too. The more I learn about life, the more I realize how little I really know. Along with Berry and Shakespeare, however, I do know this. “Life is a miracle.” I am trying to figure out why I am still here to experience the miracle of life. You must realize this too, dear student. Your life is a miracle, and the words that you speak, the ideas that you put forward in class or in your residential college or at a corner table at Mr. J’s might be as profound as those of any professor or administrator. Your “life is a miracle; speak yet again.”
Column by Duane Bolin, professor of history