I work with some pretty incredible people at Classical Conversations. I often find myself entangled in a conversation where I am seriously outmatched, yet I covet these interactions as they help me to grow in my own understanding. Many times, I find that they have a way of describing something that is a vast improvement on my own thoughts and words.
Lately, we’ve been discussing forms. One co-worker, Denise, reminded us of Wendell Berry’s words, from his essay, “The Specialization of Poetry” in Standing by Words.
Formlessness is, after all, neither civilized nor natural. It is a peculiarly human evil, without analogue in nature, caused by the failures of civilization: inattention, irresponsibility, carelessness, ignorance of consequence. It is the result of the misuse of power. It is neither house nor field nor forest, but rather a war or a strip mine, where the balance between stability and change has been overthrown. The reason we need to have our false certainties shaken is so that we may see the the possibility of better orders than we have.
Berry, of course, has his own way with words, and makes an interesting point here. Shelly, another co-worker, asked the question. The good of forms, or boundaries is self-evident. For example, “When we choose to stay within the boundaries of mathematical laws to solve problems, we get answers that are true and right. Often there are multiple ways (choices) to solve or approch a problem within those governing laws. Do you think God is revealing to us something about His character when He shows us that boundaries do not limit freedom, but enhance it?”
So why do we reject forms and boundaries? Jennifer C., another co-worker, thinks we reject them because of false notions about creativity. She points out:
In contemporary society, we think of creativity as a mysterious gift that descends from on high to specially gifted people. Because it is a mysterious gift with no rules, there is no way to teach it. You’ve either got it or you don’t. This is a very new way of viewing creativity. In the past, artists, composers, authors, and dancers understood that they must learn from those who went before them. Composers mastered the styles and forms of those who went before them. Then, and only then, could they break forth with something new. Authors read and copied the style of great writers of previous generations and then wrote the great novel of their own time.
My own notion is that forms provide us with the security, confidence, and courage to strike out into new, uncharted territories. They give us enough information to know what to do to be successful, or to strive for excellence. If we teach our sons the protocol of fine dining and formal events, they will be confident enough to willingly participate in them. If we teach our children the tools of rhetoric, the meter and forms of poetry, the forms of musical composition, or the forms that make baseball baseball, we give them the confidence to step out into life and tackle any of these tasks. Not just one of these tasks, but a willingness to take on any and all of them. Without the knowledge of forms, we find that they will limit themselves to only that task which interests them enough to face it without the form. With the knowledge of forms, we will find that they can see enough interest in all of them to take them on.
Forms, then, provide freedom to my children precisely because my child is not enslaved to the fear that prevents him from dabbling in art, poetry, writing, music, athletics, or formal dinners. As he matures, he learns when to break and when not to break the forms, and his own creativity may lead to new forms. Form is freedom, formlessness is void, is chaos, is slavery.