Solving the Wendell Berry/Ralph Ellison quotation mystery

Dear Quote Investigator: The nature writer and activist Wendell Berry has been credited with a statement about knowing one’s place in the world:

If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.

Yet, this saying has also been ascribed to the novelist and critic Ralph Ellison. Would you please help clarify this situation?

Quote Investigator: In 1952 Ralph Ellison published the landmark novel “Invisible Man”. During one key episode in the book an old gentleman approaches the narrator to ask directions. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:

Perhaps to lose a sense of where you are implies the danger of losing a sense of who you are. That must be it, I thought—to lose your direction is to lose your face. So here he comes to ask his direction from the lost, the invisible. Very well, I’ve learned to live without direction. Let him ask.

As the forgetful gentleman approaches, the narrator recognizes him as Mr. Norton who has asked for directions in the past, and the two converse:

“Because, Mr. Norton, if you don’t know where you are, you probably don’t know who you are. So you came to me out of shame. You are ashamed, now aren’t you?”

“Young man, I’ve lived too long in this world to be ashamed of anything. Are you light-headed from hunger? How do you know my name?”

Read the complete article at Quote Investigator.


Wendell Berry and others inspire songs

The Vision was inspired by a powerful poem written by Wendell Berry that speaks deeply to my feelings about the earth, in all of its destruction and possibility. Upon meeting Wendell two times at his farm, I was amazed at how comfortable I was sitting with him and his amazing wife Tanya. I enjoyed his simplicity and how he cuts to the quick with no hesitancy or apology.

I looked this poem over and again the words that would become a song came to me and I arranged it without much effort. I usually channel poetry arrangements, but since Wendell is alive and well, I wanted to honor him and what I perceived to be his intention as clearly as I could. I did work on it more than other poems, nonetheless, it pretty much arranged itself.

I tend to select poems, melodies, and arrangements that are complex and a bit gut-wrenching and hard to sing. This one takes a lot of air! It also takes a bit of courage to sing because of the state of the world. I love the harmonies John and I do on this one.

Listen to the music and read more by Donna and John Paul Wright at The Thread in the Quilt.


On Wendell Berry and Orthodox Christianity

Wendell Berry confesses the Christian faith, but it is nevertheless an easy task to find criticism of Christianity in his writings.  In one place he even suggests that Buddhism is superior to Christianity in how it approaches man’s relationship to the creation:  ‘Buddhism, for example, is certainly a religion that could guide us toward a right respect for the natural world, our fellow humans, and our fellow creatures.  I owe a considerable debt myself to Buddhism and Buddhists’ (‘Christianity and the Survival of Creation’, p. 306).  He has stuck with Christianity, though, but not, seemingly, because its teachings contain more of the truth than Buddhism or any other religion, but mainly because he was born into it.  It is his ‘native religion, for better or worse’ (ibid.).  Such statements are no doubt a cause of consternation to the tradition-minded folk of the South, who see Christianity, agrarianism, and the South as being closely intertwined, if not inseparable.  What can be done, then, to heal this rift that exists between Mr Berry, Christianity, and his native land.

The first thing that can be done is to realize that the Christianity Mr Berry is at odds with is not the genuine Christianity found in the Orthodox Church, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, but rather its Roman Catholic and Protestant forms (what we shall call Western Christianity from here on), which, like other sects that have gone into schism from the Orthodox Church, like the Nestorians, Monophysites, or Iconoclasts, have added to and/or taken away from the Apostolic Tradition she retains unimpaired.  When he says, for instance,

Throughout the five hundred years since Columbus’s first landfall in the Bahamas, the evangelist has walked beside the conqueror and the merchant, too often blandly assuming that their causes were the same.  Christian organizations, to this day, remain largely indifferent to the rape and plunder of the world and of its traditional cultures.  It is hardly too much to say that most Christian organizations are as happily indifferent to the ecological, cultural, and religious implications of industrial economics as are most industrial organizations.  The certified Christian seems just as likely as anyone else to join the military-industrial conspiracy to murder Creation (ibid, pgs. 305-6).

he is speaking of Western Christianity (as we shall see).

Read the complete article by Walt Garlington at Confiteri.


Quoting Wendell Berry in and out of context

But the misappropriation of the Wendell Berry quote takes the cake, which comes at the summation of Walcher’s column, in which he correctly identifies Berry as “one of conservation’s most prolific and gifted writers” and pastes:

“To put the bounty and the health of our land, our only commonwealth, into the hands of people who do not live on it and share its fate will always be an error. For whatever determines the fortune of the land determines also the fortunes of the people. If history teaches anything, it teaches that.”

The quote is a misappropriation because it ignores all context and the body of Berry’s life and work. And because the ‘absentee’ authority Berry decries that are holding rural communities back are not the environmental agencies or the pubic health officials–in Frankfort or in DC. No, Berry’s criticisms are directed at the absentee coal baron, the Texas oil man, the faraway capitalist figuring on a ledger sheet that human health and local wealth is less important than what shows up on his side of the balance sheet, that are holding rural communities, too long shackled to boom and bust volatile economies, back.

If there is to remain any hope at all for the region, strip mining will have to be stopped. Otherwise, all the federal dollars devoted to the region’s poor will have the same effect as rain pouring on an uprooted plant. To recover good hope and economic health the people need to have their land whole under their feet. And much of their land has already been destroyed.

Read the complete article by Pete Kolbenschlag at Colorado Pols.

The article by Greg Walcher to which Mr. Kolbenschlag refers can be found HERE.


Thinking along with "Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

But Look and See is not about Berry as much as it is about what Berry can teach us about seeing. To underscore this point, Berry himself is noticeably unseen in the film, though he is heard throughout. Much of the film consists of voiceovers from Berry, often reciting his own poetry as we see images of trees, dirt, streams, skies, all beautifully shot by cinematographer Lee Daniel, who previously shot films like Boyhood and Before Sunset.

A motif and guiding frame of the film is the forty-pane window that Berry sits before as he writes. From his desk, he looks out through this window and sees tobacco fields and the Kentucky River. He describes the window as “a graph” that structures our seeing but nevertheless cannot contain the wild, organic, and unstructured life on the other side of the glass. “The window has forty / panes, forty clarities,” we hear Berry read, from his “Window Poems,” describing how the “black grid” frames the wilds of nature beyond: trees, rivers, slopes, clouds.

To learn to see, we must learn to love windows as Berry loves his, to love them for their “clarities” in spite of their smudges and dust. To see well is to position ourselves before windows but to also recognize their limits. Any given window can only frame part of reality, just as any given photograph or film shot can only glimpse a fraction of what is seeable. A window helps us see because it fosters curiosity. Its limits and boundaries beckon us to explore beyond, to imagine where the river bends next and from where the wind blows.

Read the whole article by Brett McCracken at The Other Journal.


On Wendell Berry in California

The fact remains that Berry spent a meaningful part of his life in California, and we might not have Wendell Berry, Kentuckian, without Wendell Berry, Californian. This suggestion requires some extrapolation and we need to pry a little. It is true that he has lived most of his life in Kentucky and written almost all of his published work there. He has been reluctant to write extensively about other places. In the context of his lifelong endeavor to know and belong to his place, this reluctance to write about other places is consistent. He has refused literary tourism and travel writing. He has also refused the notion that travel is essential for broadening horizons: “I myself have traveled several thousand miles to arrive at Lane’s Landing, five miles from where I was born, and the knowledge that I gained by my travels was mainly that I was born into the same world as everybody else.”

But there are exceptions to this. He wrote parts of his first novel, Nathan Coulter, while on fellowship at Stanford from 1958-1960. He wrote an extended essay, The Hidden Wound, over the winter of 1968-1969 while a visiting professor at Stanford, and he wrote his short novel Remembering during winter 1987 while writer-in-residence at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

It seems fitting that of the other places he has lived, California is the place where he has spent the most time. He lived in the place that has sung the sirens’ song for so many migrants’ hearts for over two centuries, and is the place that represents American wanderlust more than any other. It is an exaggeration, but still illuminating to compare Berry’s return to Kentucky after tasting California’s sweet shores to Odysseus’ choice to return to Penelope and to Ithaca, made more poignant by the choice’s being resolved on Calypso’s island with a goddess, an island, and immortality on offer.

Read the complete article by Matthew D. Stewart at Boom California.


A critique of Wendell Berry's theology via Twitter

I don't think I've directly referenced Twitter here before, but today Steven Rodriguez posted a very long thread in which he lays out four objections to Mr. Berry's theological foundations. Those four objections are: 1) the idolization of the local; 2) the severance of Sabbath from soteriology; 3) a collapsed eschatology; and 4) the idolization of the past. Each of these is discussed in a series of tweets, beginning HERE.

SrWB-twt-82917

Again, see the complete thread HERE at Twitter.

Mr. Berry has commented on questions related to his theology in Sabbath poem VII from 2008:

Having written some pages in favor of Jesus,
I receive a solemn communication crediting me
with the possession of a "theology" by which
I acquire the strange dignity of being wrong
forever or forever right. Have I gauged exactly
enough the weights of sins? Have I found
too much of the Hereafter in the Here? Or
the other way around? Have I found too much
pleasure, too much beauty and goodness, in this
our unreturning world? O Lord, please forgive
any smidgen of such distinctions I may
have still in my mind. I meant to leave them
all behind a long time ago. If I'm a theologian
I am one to the extent I have learned to duck
when the small, haughty doctrines fly overhead,
dropping their loads of whitewash at random
on the faces of those who look toward Heaven.
Look down, look down, and save your soul
by honester dirt, that receives with a lordly
indifference this off-fall of the air. Christmas
night and Easter morning are this soil's only laws.
The depth and volume of the waters of baptism,
the true taxonomy of sins, the field marks
of those most surely saved, God's own only
interpretation of the Scripture: these would be
causes of eternal amusement, could we forget
how we have hated one another, how vilified
and hurt and killed one another, bloodying
the world, by means of such questions, wrongly
asked, never to be rightly answered, but asked and
wrongly answered, hour after hour, day after day,
year after year — such is my belief — in Hell.

(2008, VII)

 


Lawyer reflects on Wendell Berry and "The Age of Divorce"

It seems like nowadays all I hear about is how the country is heading in the wrong direction. Wendell Berry, a writer, philosopher, farmer and father of the locally grown food movement, has been saying this far before it became fashionable.  Since the 1970s Berry has written unceasingly about how an unhealthy culture is at the root of most of our world’s problems – everything from our growing isolation to global warming.  To Berry, a healthy culture is a sort of fabric that is connected by many threads made up of ideas and practices.  He sees that these connecting threads have been severed in the industrial and technological age. It is this breaking apart of the fabric of our culture that causes Berry to call this “the age of divorce”, where “things that belong together have been taken apart. And you can't put it all back together again.

Read the post by Sean Cleland at Cleland Collaborative Solutions.


Reading Wendell Berry's "Roots to the Earth"

I just read Roots to the Earth, a collection of Wendell Berry’s poetry and prose on American rural life. It is a meditation on living well.

The book first appeared a quarter century ago in a portfolio illustrated with Wesley Bates’ woodcuts. Three years ago, Larkspur Press released a limited edition of one hundred copies. Last year, Berkeley’s Counterpoint Press made the book available to the general public.

Even at one remove from a letterpress printing, this affordable volume is lavish. Bates’ illustrations recall the work of Rockwell Kent, Lynn Ward, and other midcentury traditionalists. However, while Kent and Ward foregrounded their figures against midnight-dark skies, Bates opens his to the light. That echoes the generosity of Berry’s poems and recalls as well some of the cheer found in children’s books, which may explain why Skylight Books displayed the copy I bought in the store’s kiddie section. I think that’s a mistake. True, there’s no reason that older children can’t read Roots to the Earth. Yet it’s adults who are likely most receptive to Berry’s themes of faith, frugality, steadfastness, dignity and humility. Adult experience often teaches something about the cost of abandoning traditional values.

Read the whole article at Left, Write & Centaur


Why We Need Wendell Berry

For a healthy discourse, voices from all across the country are needed. These distinctions occur not just along the lines of race and gender, but class and region as well. Much of literature and cultural taste, like the forces of political change and economics, are dictated by those in the cities, leaving behind those in rural and farming counties. One of the most important literary voices of rural America today, telling the stories and bringing to light the issues of a forgotten region, is Wendell Berry, an author of poetry, fiction, essays, and more.

What distinguishes Berry’s talented, over half-century-long career is his sincere commitment to activism. Since the late '60s, when Berry was a professor and incipient writer, he protested the war in Vietnam. Berry has put his opposition to nuclear power plants, and his support behind small farmers. Berry still lives in Port Royal, Kentucky, on a farm he moved to with his family in the '70s. His experience on the farm has given richness to his vision for a better future and has bestowed authority to his sympathetic calls for an America that stays in touch with the land and agrarian culture that is integral to its character.

As the country’s urban-rural divide has shown itself to have ever-growing and serious consequences, Berry has emerged as a sympathetic, assertive voice for the region. Berry is an especially necessary figure in the current American literary community, in a time when most of the author bios on recent hardcovers seem to contain the sentence “... lives in Brooklyn.”

Read the complete article by Matt Reimann at Books Tell You Why.