In a couple of weeks I hope to hear Wendell Berry give a couple of talks, and there’s a small chance I might get to meet him as well. So I added a few more of his books to my stack and am working to read through them before then.
I’ve written before about my Wendell Berry “problem,” here and here. Mostly it’s a happy problem to have. When I read someone congenial to me, like Gene Logsdon or Jacques Ellul, I spend a good part of my reading time daydreaming about living life as the author describes it. But Berry’s thinking is too abstract and austere to get me fired up—which leaves me free to focus on hearing exactly what he says.
Berry’s recent collection of essays, The Way of Ignorance, challenged me in two ways. First, he still sees some small hope that political action can put right some of the many things that agrarians think have gone wrong. His occasional discussion of current politics mostly reminded me that I no longer have hope but even interest in politics of any flavor. In a way it helped that Berry’s politics is unapologetically Democratic; I found it easier to see the flaws, flaws which I might have passed over if he were writing from a Republican viewpoint. I have such respect for Berry as a thinker that each time he hints at a political solution I have to put aside my gut reaction against it and think carefully about what he is saying, and why he is saying it. Over time I’ve concluded that my disagreements with him in this area are not profound; I mostly agree that the problems he names are problems, and I mostly agree that the changes he suggests are needed changes. We only disagree on the chances that politics might have a positive effect in these areas—he thinks slim, I think none. That’s hardly enough to break fellowship over.
(And it may be that Berry puts even less faith in politics that I think. He rarely floats concrete proposals for political change or throws his weight behind the proposals of others. I’m beginning to suspect that he talks about politics simply because that is where the conversation is taking place on certain matters, and that his political suggestions are meant not to be taken as plans of action but as aids for understanding the issues more clearly.)
The second challenge came, as it always does, in trying to figure out what to do with what I was learning. Most of what I read in this area leads me to conclusions about what to do—eat better, raise my own food, detach from the media, live peaceably with others, live locally, avoid profiting from the misery of others. Even Jacques Ellul, maddeningly abstract at times, has taught me specific things about how to conduct myself as a Christian and how to protect myself and my family from the onslaught of modernity. With Berry, though, I often find myself thinking: he’s right, and what he says is important, but what exactly do I do with it? For now I can’t do much more than read him, understand him, and store up the things I learn against the day when I’ve learned enough else to connect them with everyday life.
All that said, there are some very good essays in this book. My favorite is probably “Imagination in Place,” in which Berry explains why his fiction writing is focused on a town and a set of people even smaller than the very small town and set of people he lives among; it gives a clear statement of an idea that he often returns to, namely that important truths can’t be found in generalities but only in deep understanding of particulars—this farm, this herd, this flock, this hillside, this river, this friend, this relative. A related idea that Berry explores repeatedly is that our knowledge is naturally limited and incomplete, and many of our difficulties arise from trying to deny that. This comes up when he ponders the limitless arrogance of the modern mind in “The Way of Ignorance,” and also when he ponders the difficult sayings of Jesus in “The Burden of the Gospels.” And in “Charlie Fisher,” an article about a father and son who use draft horses for logging, there is a welcome reminder that Berry is a great journalist, precise and unpretentious and empathetic in his writing.
I’m afraid this post is less about Wendell Berry’s book than it is about my own struggles, and I apologize for that. Waiting on my stack are a number of his novels, and since I find fiction even more difficult reading I may just have to keep my thoughts to myself on those.