Recently I spent some hours visiting Mr. Wendell Berry of Kentucky. It was a day I will never forget - he is a man of character, a raconteur, a poet, a person who knows how to be silent and how to converse, and someone who has seen farther and deeper than most of us. His essays - collected in such books as "Home Economics," "Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community," "The Way of Ignorance," and "Citizenship Papers" - are among the truest writings I have ever encountered.
In light of some concerns of my previous post, I asked him how he has managed to diagnose the depths of the problems that humankind now faces without falling into a kind of despair. He replied, "despair is a kind of relaxation." This he said to me, sitting in utter repose on the swinging seat on his front porch overlooking the Kentucky river. But, I knew what he meant, and nodded.
He reflected, too, on the course of his career. When he began writing, he noted, he was widely ridiculed. However, now even his "enemies" - various industrial farming organizations - are now inviting him to give lectures, invitations that he finds hard to decline. He noted that something is now happening - "incrementally" - in the gradual and almost imperceptible accumulation of realizations that seems to be rising to consciousness of an ever-greater number of people. He compared it to attending meetings: "I've never been to a meeting where anything worthwhile ever seems to have been said" (I replied that it sounded like academic committee meetings), but still, over time, something has happened. More people - but still too few - are becoming aware of the unsustainability of our way of life, of the isolation resulting from the way we've organized our living space, of the loss of patrimony and the disruption of cultural transmission that used to be part of the obligations of one generation to the next. He seemed hopeful, and it was hard not to agree with him, sitting with him on his front porch, orioles flitting in and out of view above the river, on that beautiful day.
He had some harsh words for academics, as he's always had - the "itinerant vandals" of intellectual life, too often shills for the "absentee economy." People go to college and are given reasons not to return home, as Hannah Coulter points out in Berry's eponymous novel. Yet, I was there with some very good fellow academics - Jason Peters of Augustana College, editor of the forthcoming collection of essays on Berry entitled "Wendell Berry - Life and Work" and a man with an infinite supply of bad (but funny) jokes and good humor; Norman Wirzba of Georgetown College, editor of "The Art of the Commonplace," a fine collection of Berry's agrarian essays; and Steve Wrinn, Director of University Press of Kentucky, a man of passion, appetite, and immense talent. While one could only nod at Berry's characterization of the "idiocy" of higher education, still, on that day, academics seemed wholly, if momentarily, sane.
Before leaving, I tenatively asked Mr. Berry to sign my copy of his latest novel, "Andy Catlett." He signed it, "To Patrick Deneen, with gratitude, with appreciation. Wendell Berry." It is, and will remain, a prized possession.