Flight from Babel
Standing by Words
reviewed by Robert Grano
In Standing by Words, first published in 1983 but out of print for over 15 years, Wendell Berry examines the state of language in our culture, finding it wanting in many ways and in many areas. The book contains four short essays on language, marriage, modern poetry, and the relationship between land and community, as well as one collection of “notes” and one long essay, “Poetry and Place,” which takes up almost half of the book.
The title essay makes the case that language must be “accountable” to itself both internally and externally. Berry explains this by using a pair of economic concepts: “internal accounting,” which considers costs and benefits in reference only to a business itself, and “external accounting,” which considers costs and benefits to the “larger community.” Language must connect and balance both kinds of accounting.
An unbalance towards internal accounting will result in a subjective and meaningless language. The speaker is aware of what he means, but he fails, either wittingly or unwittingly, to communicate it to the reader or hearer. An example is the extremely subjective nature of much modern poetry, which is often so “internal” that the reader has no idea what the poet is trying to say.
Language that is unbalanced towards external accounting results in an overly objective and confusing language. It can be seen in those bureaucratic pronouncements that are so precise and technical that they fail to take the audience’s understanding into consideration at all, or in pronouncements that exhibit an intentional discrepancy between the speaker’s true thoughts and what he is saying.
As an example of this type of discrepancy, Berry gives an account, with quotations, of conversations with members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission during the Three Mile Island crisis of 1979. The bureaucrats seem to dance around the subject—the threat of a meltdown—using vague terms and scientific jargon, but never actually admitting that a meltdown is what they are talking about.
Public figures today seem to tend toward one extreme or the other. Berry wants to see the balance restored by the use of language that is both intelligible and reliable, that is, language that is both clear in meaning and honest in intent.
In the long essay “Poetry and Place,” Berry looks at various poets, including Dante, Milton, Pope, and Wordsworth, to argue for the necessity and goodness of hierarchy:
It is only within a hierarchy that anything, including language itself, can have lasting value. There is no such thing as order without hierarchy, and it is a given in both nature and human society.
Mankind, Berry argues, must realize that it is dominant in the hierarchy of nature, and this dominance “defines the need for forbearance, temperance, reverence, self-control,” and all the other virtues, for without them mankind will destroy that which is below it. “Hierarchy” has become a bad word, but the problem is not with hierarchy as such, but with unjust hierarchies.
This is true for hierarchies in the natural world, and it is also true of various aspects of human society, strictly speaking. A hierarchy implies rights and duties, which serve to inhibit the rise of the powerful over the weak, and the destruction of old hierarchies can lead not to liberation but to the erection of new and more dominating ones based on power.
For example, “A national economy,” says Berry, “that regarded all people absolutely as equals would have the paradoxical result of making them more and more unequal,” because wealth and power would be accumulated by the “craftiest and strongest,” and that class would grow steadily less numerous but more powerful. Although the author does not say it, one can see this principle demonstrated in the former Soviet Union.
“Standing by words” seems to have two meanings for Berry. We need to stand by our words when we speak or write them, for this is what makes us principled and reliable, and we have to stand by the very concept of “words” itself, that is, the idea that language itself has meaning and that our use of it expresses who we are and what we want ourselves and our society to be.
What is needed is fidelity, both to our words and to the Word. Berry laments the fact that “we have seen . . . a gradual increase in language that is either meaningless or destructive of meaning” and that this “increasing unreliability of language parallels the increasing disintegration, over the same period, of persons and communities.”
A number of years ago, the late Southern Agrarian writer and Berry predecessor Andrew Lytle wrote that “words, deriving from the Word, still seek what truths we will ever discover. . . . Each day secular society debases its language, until one constant sound afflicting our hearing will be the dissonance of the new Babel.”
This is what Wendell Berry is warning us of in Standing by Words. Perhaps his sounding of the alarm can help us escape our contemporary version of the confusion of languages.
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