Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Letting His Words Trouble Our Thoughts: On How to Read Wendell Berry, Modern America's Prophet of the Evitable


Wendell Berry inspires emotional responses. Though from all appearances a fairly reserved man, a long-married father of two, a Kentucky farmer whose parents and grandparents tilled the same soil, he simply does not seem to elicit lukewarmness in those who read or listen to him. There seem to be two equally passionate reactions: evangelistic discipleship, and virulent dismissal. To read the man is to know where one stands: further entrenched, or on his side.

A recent piece written in response to Berry's work as a whole is an excellent example and a helpful reminder. It is an example of the sort of "all or nothing" mindset that usually characterizes an initial or sustained confrontation with Berry, and a reminder both of why that ought not to be our mindset when approaching his work and of how to go wrong when evaluating his thought.

I happened to be rereading one of Berry's essays when I came upon that piece (found by way of the premier online resource for all things WB), and fortuitously it quite nearly directly addresses many of the issues brought forth; more importantly, however, it leads us to a healthier, less polemical place, in which we may find solid ground on which to listen openly and graciously without feeling the need merely to Agree-or-Disagree.


Put succinctly, Wendell Berry is a spokesman for the evitable. We usually only put those letters together when speaking, reading, or writing "inevitable," and that fact is not a coincidence. As I have written elsewhere, we live in a world of the inevitable: there is without question no other choice than to live and do and buy and be this way and not that way. If derivation from the accepted way comes to be, it will first be labeled as relative to individual choice and then be commodified, marketed, and sold as a product -- finally returned to the natural way of things. Thus it is impossible to imagine having no television, or no car, or no job outside of the home, or more than two children, or merely one sexual partner, or no computer, or no iPod, or no Twitter account, or.... That is the age we belong to; there is no other way.

Wendell Berry believes otherwise. He says so, too. Thus he is modern America's prophet of the evitable, of the avoidable, of that which is not required or fated or demonstrably bigger or better. Put positively, for all of his Mad Farmer anger, all of his incisive critiques of the industrial machinery of unfettered capitalism, all of his protests against the ever-growing destruction of the land and loss of small farms -- Berry is a prophet of hope. He confirms his hopefulness explicitly in numerous essays, because in contrast to optimism or assurance or statistical probability, whether the signs are looking up or down, all he can do is hope, because hope does not presume knowledge outside of the limits of oneself; rather, hope is an act of faith.

The essay I found myself reading is entitled "Feminism, the Body, and the Machine," found in The Art of the Commonplace but originally written in 1989 as a follow-up to a prior essay, published in Harper's, explaining why he was not going to buy a personal computer. The outrage, as we might expect, was vehement, and Berry felt compelled to write a response addressing not just criticisms and concerns, but also articulating more fully the issues and questions and problems at stake.

"The feelings expressed seem to be representative of what the state of public feeling currently permits to be felt, and of what public rhetoric currently permits to be said" (p. 66), for "[s]ome of us, it seems, would be better off if we would just realize that this is already the best of all possible worlds, and is going to get even better if we will just buy the right equipment" (p. 65). With those two programmatic statements, Berry sets the tone and direction of the entire essay: That there would or could be explosive outrage upon reading the choice of one man not to buy a computer and his reasons for it, reveals a great deal about the society and culture that would inculcate, incubate, and foment the mindset behind such a reaction.

Berry spends a great deal of time discussing marriage, feminism, and the corporate economy -- all of which wonderful stuff! -- but I want to focus on the second half of the piece. After naming the "higher aims of 'technology progress'" as "money and ease" (p. 73) -- our perverted vision of what it means to offer a "better future" to our children -- he says:
The question of how to end or reduce dependence on some of the technological innovations already adopted is a baffling one. At least, it baffles me. I have not been able to see, for example, how people living in the country, where there is no public transportation," can give up their automobiles without becoming less useful to each other. And this is because, owing largely to the influence of the automobile, we live too far from each other, and from the things we need, to be able to get about by any other means. Of course, you could do without an automobile, but to do so you would have to disconnect yourself from many obligations. Nothing I have so far been able to think about this problem has satisfied me. (p. 74)
However, regarding "the influence of the automobile on country communities ... we should have acquired some ability to think about it." The same goes for the purchase and use of a computer, or for that matter, any new piece of technological machinery. What is the net result of this new thing on the environment, on culture, on children, on my work, on my art, on my family, on me? Does it offer a solution to a need I was formerly unaware of, a need I will continue not to have unless I own the solution? Does it in any way compromise the forms of life and contingencies involved in human interaction? How is it built, and by whom?

Such questions, Berry argues, are simply not thought important enough to take up regarding modern technological innovation. To do so is to "fly in the face of progress" or not to "get with the times." Berry's reply? "Do I wish to keep up with the times? No" (p. 75).

Of course, one man's decision not to own a computer -- or other such easily dismissed options as a television, "a motorboat, a camping van, an off-road vehicle, and every other kind of recreational machinery," alongside a "second home" and "colas, TV dinners, and other counterfeit foods and beverages" (p. 79) -- is not, by the world's terms, "significant." And this is a primary place where others' anger seems to rest and recoil: Such an insignificant decision isn't going to stay the tide of history! If so, why do it at all?
Thoreau gave the definitive reply to the folly of "significant numbers" a long time ago: Why should anybody wait to do what is right until everybody does it? It is not "significant" to love your own children or to eat your own dinner, either. But normal humans will not wait to love or eat until it is mandated by an act of Congress. (p. 79)
He reiterates that such things as a computer or TV are "easy" decisions; like so many others, though, he is "still in bondage to the automobile industry and the energy companies, which have nothing to recommend them except our dependence on them." Airplanes are "inconvenient, uncomfortable, undependable, ugly, stinky, and scary," but their singular fact -- speed -- entails in itself their demand and their dominance.

Regardless, it is necessary, if we want to pass this world on to our children in a livable and sustainable condition, to begin to find lines to draw that are not easy, lines that will seem at the time as if they cut us off from what we have learned to call a "need." One man he knew that had made such a decision lived "in the age of chainsaws," but "went right on cutting his wood with a handsaw and an axe" (p. 80). Such a model is exemplary and necessary: "He was a healthier and a saner man than I am. I shall let his memory trouble my thoughts."


Therefore, writes the blogger on his MacBook. It is at this moment that most writers I have seen address or engage Wendell Berry on the internet apologize, rationalize, justify, cower, or explain why it is or how it is that they may quote or employ Berry to their own ends without disqualifying their own integrity. The problem, to be sure, is there; as Patrick Deneen writes on Front Porch Republic,
There is something inauthentic about propounding a life of localism and community on the internet....

[W]e live deeply enmeshed in the world shaped by an itinerant economy and rootless journeymen.... It has been noted on more than one occasion that most of the rest of us writing here lack the authenticity of the likes of Berry. Because of this, we can be dismissed all the more easily as, at best, intellectual romantics of a Rousseauvian mien, and at worst, as hypocrites who would call on others to live a life that none of us have ever shown any real capacity to live.
However, the problem is almost certainly exaggerated, at least most of the time. This leads us to the essential lesson: Wendell Berry has no interest in remaking Americans into a nation of Wendell Berrys. He is not interested in clones, literally or figuratively. He is not even interested -- though many seem to think so -- in abolishing cities, or businesses, or commerce, or trade, or technology. He has highly critical views of various of those institutions and realities, and clearly desires a radical transformation in the way we engage, encounter, embody, and participate in those and other mediums and forms of human life and community. But farms only exist in relation to cities. Food is only sold (or traded) to people who don't grow it. No, Wendell Berry does not live in 1812: he owns a car, uses a chainsaw, has a refrigerator, flies on airplanes. He does not make his own clothes or shoes, and his children and grandchildren likely do and will use and own technology he does not.

None of those things is the point.

Because the point is neither determining for others what they should do, nor (God forbid) lining up behind the master, ready in perfect obedience. The point, put as succinctly as possible, is health. (Another word might be wholeness, and if we were to use Scripture's language, we would say shalom.) Wendell Berry is concerned with health holistically: communal, cultural, local, global, natural, artistic, familial, mnemonic, traditional, bodily, spiritual. And to care for health is to see the disease, and to diagnose it, and to do one's best to identify the remedy. Wendell Berry sees the state of American life in cities, in towns, in rural areas, in farming, in families, in churches, in government, in laws, in entertainment, and he sees sickness. Most of this sickness has been brought on by our own choice or by passivity or submission to radically destructive power. It is brought on whenever we sit slack-jawed through a commercial instead of taking a walk; whenever we buy something we could have made or didn't need merely because it was there or someone told us we ought to; whenever we enter into relationships as if they are contractual, easily broken, conditional, or centered on ego.

The remedy is simple: remove or refuse what has brought on the malady. Berry sees the culprits here as needless technology, wanton disregard for the earth, giving highest value to size and speed over against the beautiful or useful, and so on. Thus he does not own a television or a computer, lives and works on a farm, makes and keeps a household together with his wife, seeks to be in harmony with his environment, and writes poetry and stories and essays demonstrating and praising and embodying the virtues he esteems.

But he is not perfect, and does not claim to be. Nor, then, should we expect him to be. Thus we may say in all grace and in all charity: Wendell Berry is not right about everything. He is right about some things, perhaps many things, but not all things. Therefore when we read him, when we hear him, when we see his words used or enjoyed by others, at times we may and ought to disagree with him. I do so implicitly right now as I write this blog post. That is fine. What is important, what is most important, is that I do not dismiss him because he does not match my preconceived or presently conjured standards for how a man who writes what he writes ought to be or live. To react in such a way only confirms the disease: Don't tell me what to do; I'm my own person; I can do what I want! Instead, let us approach Berry with the cautious humility and deep reverence with which he approaches his chainsaw-eschewing friend: letting his words, and in time his memory, trouble our thoughts, as long as we live and as long as we seek to live our lives as well as we can. That is the only response both healthy and faithful to the challenge Wendell Berry invariably, and stubbornly, and joyfully presents to us.


  1. This sort of trouble. Good.

  2. Beautifully written & finally I see how to fully engage with Berry without despairing. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for the comments, gentlemen. Always good to pass along the helpful, Wendell Berry sort of trouble.

  4. A thoughtful and vigorous response to the notions I shared from the terrierman on the WB Yahoo group earlier this week. A little defensive and protective, and quite preachy but very useful to me and it seems the larger community. Your 'rhetorical florishes' conveyed exactly what my simple act of sharing the ideas of another was intended to do - get some return to active thinking and sharing of ideas on Brother Tom's group.