Modernity and Wendell Berry’s “Making it Home” – Part 1

Just below the surface of Wendell Berry’s story “Making it Home,” a short story in his collection titled Fidelity,[1] is a critique of modern warfare and its unreserved and thoughtless destruction of people and propert51vIZtb1D+L._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_y. The story is about a man, Art Rowanberry, who survived World War II, though wounded, and experienced all the war’s death and destruction. The war shaped him. During those three years of training and warfare, his sense of the permanence of things was shattered, and all things, places and people, became nothing more than mere obstacles to his army’s goal; everything was subject to destruction for simply being in the way. All things and people were particle-ized, not only by bombs, but in the minds of Rowanberry and his fellow soldiers. During those years, Rowanberry’s world lost its meaning.

Berry’s story is more than an anti-war story and it is more than Hemmingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” reimagined, as some have argued. It is, in its depths, a subtle and yet profound critique of modernity. The story juxtaposes the meaninglessness and the inevitable destructive tendency of modernity’s radical nominalist and disenchanted world with a world of enchantment through attachment and affection, rooted in a people’s history, way of life, and their cultural imprint on the landscape and their connection with the soil. In an enchanted world, the intimacy of people and land has made a place in space. Life is not merely the occupation of a site or geographic coordinate. Nor is one’s property merely an asset and government-determined residential lot. Life in places has a fundamental temporal connection between people and between people and things. Modernity, on the other hand, is a utopia (lit. no-place) of competition and progress with no thought of or respect for permanence, historical and temporal meaning, and the interconnectedness of people and their things and places. Modernity, in both its ideal progressive forms and its goals of market-driven consumption, view the current world and its connection with the past as in the way.

Rowanberry is walking home to the place that made him both a farmer and a man. He is still in uniform as he walks, though it is now loose and ready to be closeted. As he walks, he recalls some of his experiences in war. He thinks to himself, “Everything was only pieces put together that were ready to fly apart, and nothing was whole” and “there was nothing you could look at that was whole—man or beast or house or tree—that had the right to stay whole very long” (88). And why would such things have a right to stay whole? After all, a soldier’s purpose was to champion over his opposition. Anything that stood in the way of the goal was fit for destruction: “Farms, houses, whole towns—things that people had made well and cared for a long time—you make nothing of” (86). As Rowanberry walked (not marched) home, as his uniform is almost shedding off, he finds himself caught between the world of meaninglessness and the world of meaning. He recognizes the farms and its farmers, the same type of farms and farmers around which he grew up and became a man. Yet now, after being totalized and homogenized for destructive action by the military, there is the lingering possibility in his mind that all things are meaningless, that everything is merely a collection of bits of matter. His world was once this place. Now it is one among many or, rather, one big world resting in a void. Indeed, he now thought of himself as “walking on the whole round world. He felt the great, empty distance that the world was turning in, far away from the sun and the moon and the stars” (85). All that provided him meaning and purpose is called into question. Being itself is called in question.

Rowanberry is caught between two worlds—a world reducible to bits and a world irreducibly complex, the latter being a world of relations or, put differently, an organic reality. War made this former reductionism possible; it was presented to him as a possibility of existence. But the story is not simply about war and its effects on those who participated in it. It is about how the reduction of the world to bits of matters forming one world in a void destroys attachment to particulars, and with it, meaning. It is about a man enlisted in a project, one that gave him the “right to destroy” that which was in the way of his assigned goals. Berry’s point in the story is that the modern march to the future has made the past and present subject to destruction, and with this destruction goes any hope for the future. Modernity presses upon us that eerie possibility that it is all meaningless, a possibility hidden in past ages. And after rejecting the likelihood of the possibility, it still lingers as if trying to master you and your view of the world. Even after Rowanberry is united with his family, he has to shake his head to suppress the call to meaninglessness, for he thought that “somewhere off in the distance, [he heard] the heavy footsteps of artillery rounds striding toward them” (103). He is a changed man. The possibility for meaninglessness will never leave him. War disclosed it to him, and now he must learn again to dwell on his land with his people.

Part 2

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[1]  I cite the text parenthetically.

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One thought on “Modernity and Wendell Berry’s “Making it Home” – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Modernity and Wendell Berry’s “Making it Home” – Part 2 | Lovely Country

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