The Art of Repairing

Repairing is not only practical but also ethical

18 February 2020

The Benedictine monk Jean Leclerq, towards the end of the last century, stated that "Repairing is a natural fact of universal order and consists in making anything pass from a state considered less good to a better state". I like this definition and I am fascinated by the gesture of reparation, because in it I see the intention to remedy a situation of degradation, restoring in the object what it had previously lost.

It is all about respecting the value of things and people who over time have made those things with dedication and love.

In a Bible verse the prophet Isaiah says to the people of Israel repatriated from Babylon: "Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins, you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in".

The high significance of repair - which goes far beyond the instrumental purpose of being able to continue to use a particular object - lies in the human value and dignity of all those who have lived to give us the goods we use. Repairing is praxis but it is also a symbol.

John Ruskin, a great figure of the nineteenth century, used to say that we must accept the end of things. A building, an item of clothing, anything that is part of our life will sooner or later cease to exist, taking a part of us with it. For this reason, added Ruskin, we must do everything to extend its life. How? By maintaining it through small, constant works of repair: repositioning a tile that the wind has moved, plugging the hole in a water pipe, replacing a broken window; all this, if combined with cleanliness and desire for beauty, will prolong the existence of an object in a natural way.

If, on the other hand, we let every object of ours, as soon as it is defective, be discarded, with it we will throw away a small or large part of our memory, because in the objects of our life resides not only our matter, but also our spirit. To remember, in Latin, means "to recall to the heart".

Sometimes I think that the fervor for repairing has some kind of sacredness, and the gestures that belong to it, as a whole, make me think of an endearing form of liturgy, of ritual.

We grant ourselves, when it is fair to do so, the possibility of repairing the mistakes we have made. I find this a very human intention and the foundation of human respect. I approve of someone who, once a mistake has been made, is so cautious as to take note of it and start again, transforming that experience into individual growth. That is, we "repair" ourselves. Why shouldn't we treat our things in the same way?

These have been good habits for centuries, and it seems to me that they have always worked not only for the benefit of individuals, but also for society. Perhaps, however, something has changed in recent times, and slowly the action of discarding faulty things has become widespread, to the point of replacing, in certain cases, the act of repairing. I do not want to express any judgments I do not have the right to make. After all, sometimes in high-tech the complexity of the object makes repairing it a very unviable solution. On the contrary, I believe that such a solution, if applied in the constant awareness of the human benefit to which the object itself is aimed, is to be commended. Therefore, I never believe a straight "yes" or "no" to be a suitable attitude. But the fact that repairing, as an integral part of life, does not disappear, seems to me the most lovable way to tend to the dignity of the human being – it is an action carried out "according to nature".

More generally, "acting according to nature" is an expression that I like, because it is kind and at the same time rich in meaning. Acting according to nature signifies using natural means as far as possible, employing mechanical tools or technology with wisdom and prudence and only if the need might arise. Growing wheat without using chemical fertilizers or herbicides does not produce an "organic" wheat, but a natural wheat. Natural is the action of the plough that opens the furrows for sowing. Of course – I remember this well – natural wheat didn’t grow very tall and was harvested only once or twice a year. But the earth had time to rest, and remained alive; we had time to rest, and the nourishment that mother earth gave us was the right one.

I do not neglect progress, on the contrary, I consider it the salt of the future; but I like to emphasize the meaning I have always attributed to this term, that is, human progress. Confucius' actions always followed the rule: "I hand down, I do not create". Even if it may seem at odds with the idea of progress, perhaps, on closer inspection, it is not; perhaps it is what actually enables progress, precisely because it preserves its own tradition, the one that, among other things, is maintained by repair.

But if, on the one hand, we must preserve, I have always been convinced that a radical approach to preservation leads to paralysis, and that preservation exists only, and precisely, when changes are accepted. Another philosopher, closer to us, Voltaire, thought that embracing change is very useful, because "those who do not embrace change, will also miss out on any benefit that would result from it".

Imagining a place where preservation and change harmoniously blend together may be the right way to achieve healthy, balanced and sustainable progress.