Eric Gill and the Integrity of Work.

AuthorBerry, Wendell
PositionHoly Tradition of Working: Passages from the Writings of Eric Gill

Eric Gill (1882-1940) was a versatile English sculptor, printmaker, typeface designer, and thinker who left a complex and troubling legacy. His religious views were often at odds with his apparent inability to control his sexual appetites, which included incestuous relations with at least one of his sisters and the sexual abuse of his two oldest daughters, as revealed in a 1989 biography by Fiona MacCarthy.

These revelations have exposed Gill's bad character, but have not ended the urgency of his work. As Jeffrey Polet, a professor of political science at Hope College in Michigan, concluded in a lengthy essay, "The Problem of Eric Gill," in the magazine Local Culture this past March, "Our sinfulness may taint our art or industry, but it doesn't destroy it. The radiance of his sin should not blind us to the clarity of understanding he brought to the sins of modernity, nor to the plausibility of some of his creative responses."

One of Gill's preeminent concerns was the dehumanizing impact of industrial capitalism on workers, a theme explored at length in a collection of his writings, A Holy Tradition of Working: Passages from the Writings of Eric Gill, first published in 1983. A new edition of that book has just been published by Angelica Press, with a preface by Wendell Berry that finds a contemporary context for Gill's ruminations. We present that preface here.

We live in the age of scientific and technological genius, as we have confirmed by a literature of self-congratulation. For the sake of this-as a payment in advance-we had to overrule any concern for long-term consequences, mainly because of our inability to foresee at any distance the consequences of the innovations made by this kind of genius.

We have not yet measured the full extent of the results of the decision, hardly by plebiscite, to burn the fossil fuels, which was the first step in our present direction. The step beyond that was also taken, on behalf of all of us, by a gifted few. The genius of the makers of the first atomic bomb was undoubted by themselves, and it was proven by their success: It worked! But it was soon evident from their very success that they had worked with a radically foreshortened sense of time and history, and, except in terms of the crudest, most immediate utilitarianism, they did not know what they were doing.

After seventy-five years, we can only fear any further revelation of what they were doing. We know moreover that we now are living...

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