Thursday, May 3, 2007

My Afternoon with Mr. Berry

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.


Anonymous said...

I certainly share your admiration for Wendell Berry. He is a novelist, poet, essayist, and moralist of the highest caliber, while also maintaining a farm and remaining (by all accounts) a genuinely decent human being.

As you know, I wrote a brief essay on Berry's 'The Unsettling of America' which was published in the late and lamented 'New Pantagruel'. I sent a copy to Mr. Berry and he sent me in return a very kind note, which is posted prominently on my office wall and shown to all visitors.

Unknown said...

Thanks for posting this touch of beauty so close to your last, a rank and odorous reality.

I incorporated UNSETTLING into a college paper and it seeped into my outlook unobstrusively and unannouced. Thanks for raising the obscured source.

Anonymous said...

I can't say I have a lot of respect for the man. He spouts a de facto pacifism while sitting in his little valley in Kentucky, surrounded and protected by those who have the courage to defend themselves and him.

Not sure how he is a "man of character"...

Russell Arben Fox said...

What a splendid recollection, Patrick. Thank you for sharing it. What a fine afternoon that must have been.

Christopher, if you're at all familiar with Wendell Berry's writings, than you know that his pacifism is hardly a self-centered, cowardly, knee-jerk sentiment, but rather emerges organically from his absolute commitment to the land, to the pure Christian religion, and to protecting local communities and families against industrial and corporate powers which, in his view, destroy the lives of ordinary people in their pursuit of oil, democracy, or anything else you can imagine. You can call it a simplistic view, you can call it incorrect, but what you cannot call it is something lacking in "character." On the contrary, Berry's absolute integrity in his views is something beyond the reach of many of us more compromised folk.

Black Sea said...

There's a distinction to be drawn between rejecting the rather suspect appeal of global imperialism - which requires us from time to time to invade and occupy somebody else's homeland - and "de facto pacifism."

I think Berry astutely points out the gaping disparity between our ethically indefensible global military undertakings and the needs of legitimate self-defense.

". . . people in great numbers - because of their perception that the government serves not the country or the people but the corporate economy - do not vote.

Our leaders, therefore, are now in the curious - and hardly legitimate - position of asking a very substantial number of people to cheer for, pay for, and perhaps die for a government they have not voted for."

He wrote those words 15 years ago. Sadly, they seem ever more relevant to the nation we have become. Berry is one of the most useful - and perhaps prophetic - writers in America.

Bob said...

Enjoyed your report of your visit with Mr. Berry of the Port William membership. I'm a member myself, I visit often.

Anonymous said...

Hum, so we are "compromised" if we do not share his worldview, or his flavor of Christianity? Sounds like a win win for him - how can he be without "character" in such a definition?

No, he is without character. Absolute consistency is not "integrity" or "character".

Also, I think it is silly to say that people in "great numbers" don't vote because of this rather purist view of government and it's corruption. Most of the non voters are such for much more mundane reasons - something that his Christianity might inform him on if it too was not so "pure", as in ideological...