The Way of Ignorance, by Wendell Berry

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.

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7 thoughts on “The Way of Ignorance, by Wendell Berry

  1. I enjoyed your post . I agree with this thought very much….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…. to often we read generalzations in agraian blogs that just are to broad.. thanks for a thought provoking look!

  2. I also struggle with Wendell Berry, but I figure that it has a lot to do with my own mental laziness and unfamiliarity with his style of writing. I have on my bedside table a half read The Gift of Good Land. I bought it especially for the last chapter, “Seven Amish Farms,” but found myself getting a little bogged down in the early chapters. Now you have inspired me to take it up again and persevere. Thank you!

  3. Funny, I just received *The Way of Ignorance* in the mail today. I had ordered Berry’s books though the library before in order to see if I liked them, but finally just decided if I was ever going to get through one, I’d have to own it. Thanks for the review; perhaps it will help me to break into the book.

  4. Rick,

    I don’t know you, i just came across your blog and enjoyed reading what you were writing about Wendell Berry his writing on politics.
    Although he wrote some advice to John Kerry, I noticed in a previous election he put his name in support of an alternative candidate, outside the main two parties.

    Cheers….

  5. I think with abstract ideas, you just have to let them do their own work in your mind without trying too hard. The fruit comes later and often not directly.

    I think the thing that got me about Berry especially in Jayber, is that Jayber doesn’t have a big community always a very small one and of course he doesn’t even have a family and children which simplifies the narrative, I think.

  6. Rick, I’ve only recently discovered your blog; I appreciate very much your putting your thoughts out in the blogosphere, so folks like me and others can be inspired by them.

    Regarding Berry, I think it’s appropriate to think of him as a saint–that is, as someone who has managed to live his life in accordance with virtures that are just not within the range of options available to most people. That’s not an excuse–on the contrary, it’s so much the worse for me and most other people. Still, I have to live my life as best as I can work it out, and saints rarely provide the sort of immediate, practical guide to that working. Rather, they inspire and enlighten (and even intimidate) us into making the effort in the first place. And not just those of us trying to make localist resolutions, I suppose; I have a friend–a lawyer, a philosophical liberal and convinced cosmopolitan–who thinks Berry’s vision of an alternative way of life is inhuman and profoundly wrong, yet he loves his poetry and fiction, because it reminds him of the value of place, something which he recognizes that his own profession doesn’t give him much of.

    Where and when might you see Berry? We live in Kansas now, in Wichita; he comes out to the Land Institute in Salina every year, and I’d really like to get there one of these days.

  7. Cindy,

    The fruit comes later and often not directly.

    You’re right about that. A few days ago I was asked to say a few things about how Wendell Berry has influenced me, and so I’ve been thinking back about the role of his writings in leading us down this path. Other writers have been directly influential, but I think it may be Berry who has had the deepest and most profound effect, even though I’ve only just begun to digest what he has to say.

    I just started reading Jayber Crow last night, the first fiction I’ve read by Berry. I tend to shy away from fiction, at least good fiction, because I find it so much harder to understand. But in Berry’s case this was probably a mistake; I’ve enjoyed it so far, find it to be much more congenial than his essays, and understand very well what he is saying about being placed.

    Russell,

    I’m sure that in the beginning I viewed Wendell Berry as the sort of saint you describe, inspiring in a remote and unapproachable way. But the real struggle began when I realized that life as Berry describes it was not only desirable but a much more realistic option for me and my family than I wanted to believe.

    Such a life is within reach of the average person; in fact, it helps a lot in walking this path to be able to see yourself as nothing special. In the past few years I’ve met quite a few people and read of many others who live just as Berry describes, some who made a conscious decision to do so and some who just continued the traditions of their longstanding community. All of them are inspiring to me, but none of them strike me as heroes.

    Wendell Berry is speaking at King College in Bristol, Tenn. in a couple of weeks. My friend DJ Hammond will be going to see him, and he encouraged me to come along. He didn’t have to try hard to persuade me.

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