On Wendell Berry, the Ideal, and the Real

In ‘The Loss of The Future’ (from The Long-Legged House, Shoemaker and Hoard, 2004 (1965), New York, p. 48) Wendell Berry writes:

One of the most damaging results of the loss of idealism is the loss of reality. Neither the  ideal or the real is perceivable alone. The ideal is apparent and meaningful only in relation to the real, the real only in relation to the ideal. Each is the measure and the corrective of the other. Where there is no accurate sense of the real world, idealism evaporates in the rhetoric of self-righteousness and self-justification. Where there is no disciplined idealism, the sense of the real is invaded by sentimentality or morbidity or cynicism and by fraudulent discriminations.

Berry seems to employ both meanings of ‘idealism’ here. It may be understood as ‘systems of thought in which the objects of knowledge are held to be in some way dependent on the activity of mind’ and, of course, ‘the practice of forming or pursuing ideals, especially unrealistically.’

Read the whole post by Samir Chopra HERE


On Wendel Berry at The Circe Institute Conference

The event described here took place on Friday, January 20, 2017.

Author Wendell Berry doesn’t leave his Kentucky farm often, but this past weekend he agreed to be our honored guest at the Classical Consortium Conference in Louisville, Kentucky. Amid the gilded cornices and sumptuous chandeliers in the historic Seelbach Hotel, Berry graced us with a delicious reading of passages from his magical novels. Like obedient children we sat, tired, invigorated from a day of stimulating sessions, eager to step into the world of his rich imagination.

The conference on the theme Truth or Nothing marked the first joint event of a group we loosely call the Classical Consortium: Classical Academic Press, CiRCE Institute, Institute for Excellence in Writing, Memoria Press, and Professor Carol. This three-day conference celebrated the quest for Truth in our spiritual endeavors, teaching, and learning. Speakers, break-out sessions, delicious meals, and non-stop, passionate conversation abounded in the corridors, the elevators, the coffee table, and virtually everywhere the rays of those beautiful chandeliers would reach. A magnificent reception welcomed us at the esteemed Highlands Latin School, sponsored by Memoria Press. Then two full days of plenary talks (one by yours truly), breakout sessions, and panels, filled out the next two days. The crowning moment, of course, was the dessert reception and reading of Wendell Berry. Ah yes, life is very good.

Berry understands so much about American culture through his mastery of rural life. He has his finger (and heart) on the pulse of what once were the driving forces of American life. He knows what it means to plant various crops so as to withstand the caprices of nature, to rely on one’s gut and gumption, and to turn to one’s neighbors as they turn to you. He can paint any character you ever could imagine with a fine, gentle brush, and yet these characters are so strong as to be unforgettable.

Read more of this reflection by Carol Reynolds at Professor Carol.


Thoughts on Wendell Berry, that Film, and His Not-Quite-Rockstar Status

Three years ago I had the pleasure to attend a talk between Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson at Cooper Union in New York City (my first time in New York City as an adult, which was a story in itself), moderated by New York Times columnist Mark Bittman. Wanting to quote a particular exchange between Berry and Jackson for a recent post here on From Filmers to Farmers I listened to the audio recording of the event to transcribe what I was after. While I was able to locate the sought after passage, I was aghast to find out that my favourite portion of the entire event was absent from the publicly available recording, something that was relevant to this post you're currently reading. So not only do I unfortunately not remember the lead-up to the particular exchange between Berry and Bittman, but I'm also forced to quote from memory. As I recall:

Bittman: You're a rock star.

Berry [quietly and sombrely]: No.

That got a bit of a giggle out of me. But as my sense of humour's fortune would have it, Bittman wasn't about to give up so easily.

Bittman: Yes, yes! You're a rock star, you're a rock star!

Eschewing an elaborate retort or explanation, and even more quietly and sombrely the second time around, Berry lowered his head, ever so slightly shook it, and once again simply said –

Berry: No.

Well that was just too much for me, and as I kid you not that that was one of the funniest things I'd ever seen and heard in my life, I couldn't help but instantly burst out with an appropriately over-the-top boisterous laugh. Thing is, and as I just as quickly noticed, not a single other person in the entire audience was laughing as well – not even a peep. So just as fast as I started laughing I somehow managed to contain my convulsions, kind of clearing my throat and sheepishly hoping that my tiny outburst could somehow be disguised and confused for a weird sounding cough.

While I of course wondered to myself why nobody in the entire audience seemed to have even snickered (Cooper Union – and the rest of New York City – was full of rock stars?), and more recently have wondered why said portion was edited out (I wanted to see if I could hear my "cough" and what it sounded like!), the more pertinent question is, Why did Berry disagree with being called – appropriated as? – a "rock star"?

This is just the beginning. Read the complete essay by Allan S. Christensen HERE.


And Yet More on The Wendell Berry Critique

Jake Meador at Mere Orthodoxy is the latest to add his thoughts to an ongoing critique of Wendell Berry's thought as embodied in his fiction. This round of writing began with Tamara Hill Murphy, was seconded by Rod Dreher, countered by Jeffrey Bilbro, and reasserted and extended by Matthew Loftus. Meador begins his own response to Murphy with this: 

Plough has recently published one of the better versions of a critique of Wendell Berry that is fairly common and fairly tiresome. The author, Tamara Hill Murphy, has a great many kind things to say about Berry but then says that Berry’s work is characterized by a naive idealization of the agrarian past and a romanticism about it that obscures the dark corners of that world.

Murphy makes the critique helpfully concrete (and stark) when she writes,

The dissonance with Berry occurs when I consider other family tales buried under the agrarian beauty. These are stories of shattered relationships, addiction, job loss, abandonment, mental illness, and unspoken violations that seem to separate my kinfolk from the clans in Port William. In Berry’s fictional village, readers occasionally witness felonies, infidelity, drunken brawls, and tragic deaths, but all of them seem to be told in a dusky, warming light. …

Berry’s body of work lauds an unadulterated ecosphere. How does he reconcile glossing over (or at least hiding from his reader’s view) the ugly dysfunctions that often prosper alongside the natural beauty of such villages and pasturelands? The stories I grew up hearing and observing provide an alternative cast of characters to the Port William community. I’ve seen firsthand not only the ornery nature of such characters but also the ingrown thinking that sometimes flourishes in out-of-sight locales. For example, there’s the good country farmer I watched with my own eyes fist-beat his son. They seemed to keep their farm by the mad farmer’s standards, but that did not make them good. I tiptoe around extended family members who fought their whole lives like Jayber Crow to avoid answering to “the man across the desk,” yet leave a trail of fractured relationships in their wake.

To be sure, if this critique were an accurate portrayal of Berry’s fiction, it would be rather devastating. But it fails on two fronts. First, it simply doesn’t account for the body of Berry’s work. Second, it fails to recognize the underlying philosophical critique Berry is making which is basically the same critique made explicitly by Lewis in The Abolition of Man and implicitly by Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings.

See, again, all of "The Abolition of Troy Chatham" by Jake Meador at Mere Orthodoxy.

UPDATE (1.9.17) See, also, Rod Dreher's response to Jeffrey Bilbro in "Defending Wendell Berry" at The American Conservative

UPDATE (1.14.17) Tamara Hill Murphy responds to all of the above in "A Few More Words on the Hole in Wendell Berry's Gospel."


On Wendell Berry's "Way of Ignorance"

Novelist, poet, farmer, and environmental activist Wendell Berry (b. August 5, 1934) is the closest thing our era has to Thoreau — a magnificent writer whose poems and essays remind us, over and over, what it means to be awake to the world, inner and outer. Whether he is contemplating solitude and the two great enemies of creative work or examining how poetic form illuminates the secret of marriage, Berry breaks through even our most hardened ego-shells and beams into the cracks enormous warmth and wisdom.

That’s precisely what he does in The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays (public library) — a masterwork of luminous lucidity on our civilizational shortcomings, delivered with the intelligent hope necessary for doing better.

Read it all at Maria Popova's BrainPickings.


Wendell Berry and Life's Small Battles

Berry masterfully crafted these stories to be honest about the human condition with its complex mixture of triumph and sorrow. In so doing, he managed to communicate powerful and eternal truths about the importance of community, kinship, and love.

Just look at Uncle Peach and Wheeler Catlett. Uncle Peach is an estranged family member who makes poor life choices. Wheeler chose to push him away for many years. Broken families are no doubt a reality in this sinful world and perhaps among all of us. But Berry, through Wheeler’s mother, shows the importance and responsibility of love for those whom we call family. The human condition is messy and full of failure, but that does not excuse us from entering into the messiness.

A similar lesson is taught through Mat Felner and his mother. Sickness and pain is a reality with which all of humanity is familiar. Mat encountered this frailness first hand with the hurt man that stepped into his door. He was afraid and shocked by this man. We are all discouraged by the challenges of our world, but Mat’s mother was “a woman who did what the world put before her to do.” In another story, Elton Penn and the community showed love to the sick and desperate Mary Penn. Berry recognizes the realities of man’s fears, but encourages us to break free and love the world in small and ordinary ways, especially through our family members and neighbors.

Read the whole piece by Eric Peterman at The Washington Institute.


On Wendell Berry, Farming, and Churches

In his book Remembering, Wendell Berry tells the story of two farmers. The first has acquired 2,000 acres through a patient buying out of his neighbors’ farms. He converted all 2,000 acres to corn fields, because corn produces the most cash. In order to farm all of those acres, he went into debt so as to have the necessary machinery and so as to buy all of the necessary chemicals, and “farms” from his plush office while the stress of his vocation slowly eats away at his body in the form of an ulcer.

The other farmer is Amish, and farms his 80 acres with plough horses. This farm is diversified, and is an economy unto itself, for the fertilizer comes from the animals, and the work is no more or less than can be accomplished by the farmer, his wife, and their children and neighbors. This farmer does not have an easy life, but has an ease born of the freedom of a right-sized agricultural enterprise.

(Somewhere, I’m told, Eugene Peterson has written that when Wendell Berry speaks of farming we are to think of the church. No matter if Eugene ever really said this, as my friend Andy Nagel has encouraged the same correlation, and his advice is more important to me than that of North America’s favorite grumpy pastoral theologian. No matter, too, if Berry himself would approve of the correlation. My hunch is that he wouldn’t, and would rant and rave–and who can rant and rave like Berry?–that he was talking about farming, da_ _’t! We are impervious to this rant because of that handy tool of postmodernity, the intentional fallacy.)

Read the complete article by Jeff Hoffmeyer HERE


On Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow and Donald Trump

Jayber Crow must answer the question “How does one keep faith when a place is killed by urbanization and industrialism?” Many of us are faced with a different and possibly more difficult question: “How does one keep faith when a place succeeds according to the terms of urbanization and industrialism?” To keep faith with Port William, Jayber must simply go on living as he always has in the town, honoring its life and caring for its dwindling number of members. And when Jayber departs from the world, so will much of the memory of Port William save what lives on in the work and life of the Branch family who are, in most ways, the sole modern heirs of Port William in Berry’s fictional universe.

But most of us have not been tied to places like Port William. We are not members of the small towns, neighborhood churches, and small local organizations that have been driven into extinction by the cruel forces of capitalism unhinged from anything save greed and ambition. Rather, we are tied to the sorts of places and communities that have often grown and become more successful (in a manner of speaking) thanks to those things.

Read the whole, thoughtful piece by Jake Meadow at Mere Christianity


Reading Wendell Berry in the Classroom

A week ago we took up Berry’s “That Distant Land,” 25 or so short stories about the Port William “membership,” a life together in and around a small town on the banks of the Kentucky River. In their different ways the stories are each a window into the glory and the ruin of the human heart. The most remarkable, unexplainable kindness and honor and generosity, and the worst sort of indifference and malice and selfishness— all mixed up together, in your heart and mine.

Because of course, that is the gift of a good story– we see ourselves in it. We recognize the characters because they are like us, able to do good and able to do bad at the same time. But that is where the words “meant” and “supposed” and “ought” become problematic. Whose to say what is good and bad? A supposedly moral majority? Perhaps we protest loudly, “Good is just a social construction.” Or maybe it is only me and mine, because justice is only and ever “just us”?

I offer them Berry as a way into this conversation about complex things. I want them to read and reflect, addressing Walker Percy’s argument that “Bad books lie. They lie most of all about the human condition.” What do you see in Berry’s fiction that gives you eyes to see more clearly into the human condition? That is my question.

Read more at The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture.


Wendell Berry's "Our Only World" reviewed

Berry’s bread and butter is in his arguments for taking care of the land. When he writes about his sustainable farming practices it makes me want to get a team of horses and farm. There is a sense of beauty in Berry’s description of life on his small acreage farm. His writing evokes a desire for a sense of place, a sense of belonging somewhere and to a group.

Even in the first, somewhat disorganized essay, which is aptly called “Paragraphs from a Notebook” there is a sense of beauty and balance in the writing. Though there is no direct link between the blocks of text that splash in sequence across the page, there is a cohesion of thought to it.

Berry writes, “We need to acknowledge the formlessness inherent in the analytic science that divides creatures into organs, cells, and ever smaller parts or particles according to its technological capacity.” This idea is the link between his paragraphs. It is the idea that animates his worldview.

Read more at Ethics and Culture.