In his book "Home Economics," farmer-poet Wendell Berry writes, " ... it may be that our marriages, kinships, friendships, neighborhoods, and all our forms and acts of homemaking are the rites by which we solemnize and enact our union with the universe. These ways are practical, proper, available to everybody, and they can provide for the safekeeping of the small acreages of the universe that have been entrusted to us."
Although he doesn't mention it in that context, I would include the church, synagogue and mosque in that list of "forms and acts of homemaking." After all, these institutions are a kind of home, too; and in them, I like to think, "we solemnize and enact our union with the universe." Of course, that is the ideal toward which we strive; and, of course, Berry is talking in "ideals" as well.
It goes on like that, with Franck denouncing Berry’s words as “a sparkling example of an ideological mind at work.” Let me say that it’s actually refreshing to read something critical of Berry; I say that as someone who is rather worshipful towards him, and who downplays, at least in my mind, the fact that Berry’s stern moralism often doesn’t give one much direction in what a sympathetic person could practically do to live out his ethical and philosophical code in a non-agrarian world. As a lefty pal sympathetic to Berry once said to me, “The problem with Wendell is nobody is pure enough for him.” Then again, the lack of a prescription doesn’t necessarily compromise the diagnosis.
Having written favorably on Wendell Berry, and having edited a collection of essays on his work, I would like to respond to Matt Franck’s critique of Berry’s Jefferson Lecture.
I share Matt’s disappointment with the lecture. I found it to be uncharacteristically long, at times redundant, and overall unbalanced in its treatment of corporations.
Berry’s listeners heard the angry Wendell Berry, defending the things he loves that have been lost, or are in danger of being lost. But like the speech of the angry and wounded Andy Catlett to an agricultural conference in Berry’s novel Remembering, this was not Berry’s finest moment.
Can one have an off day in giving the Jefferson Lecture (an off week or month in writing it)? I’d like to think so. For judging by the text of the lecture Berry gave in Washington at the beginning of this week, his thinking can be fairly repellent. Titled “It All Turns on Affection,” his lecture is chiefly a catalogue of Berry’s hatreds. He hates wantonly destructive land use, soil erosion, mountaintop-removal mining. So far so good.
He hates “agribusiness” and large-scale farming, though it is a great success story in the battle against hunger. He hates “corporations” and derides the notion that they are “persons” in the law, sounding as much like a wise man as the average backbench Democratic hack in the U.S. Congress. He hates “industrialism,” “plutocracy,” and “capitalism,” explaining why his thought is popular among a certain breed of college professors. He hates “materialism” but seems unable to transcend it at any point in this lecture.
Taking a breather from his litany of loathing, he indicates that he loves Nature, which he capitalizes, and draws attention to capitalizing, just in case we might be too slow to miss his implicit pantheism. He loves the local, and he loves the land, and he loves the impressive but largely vacuous sentences he composes about them. He loves E.M. Forster, a minor novelist of the last century who is remembered today chiefly for providing the raw material for some rather precious motion pictures.
After 2012 Jefferson Lecturer Wendell Berry, of Port Royal, Kentucky, received a standing ovation, the chairman of the National Endowment for Humanities Jim Leach rose to remind the audience that Mr. Berry's words did not reflect the official policy of the U.S. government.
Like we needed to be reminded.
After all, Berry's is one of the wisest and sanest voices in America today. His more than 50 books of poetry, fiction, and essays are full of bitter medicine for what ails American society, and the only sweetener is his earthy prose. I challenge you to find one kind word about Washington in any of his works.
As the drawling spokesman for everything local and regional, Berry's affection thins as it widens. He cherishes first and foremost his family and family farm. The town of Port Royal and Henry County figure somewhere a little further down the list. But the entity known as the USA is about as significant to Berry as Timbuktu. As for our nation's capital: "[I]n my best moments I am not aware of the existence of the government."
According to Berry, if only we all grew up in such conditions of a Jeffersonian freehold whereby stewardship of the land was a reality to make for republicanism then we would all be okay. For all of Berry’s wisdom, this is simply utopianism. He keeps talking about land, land, land, but only those as contingently blessed as his own inheritance actually have land to speak of as their own. Warren places these questions in contemporary terms. We don’t own freeholds nowadays, and we find ourselves living already insignificantly in industrial (nowadays post-industrial) capitalism. But we must make a case for our own impoverishment nonetheless.
Tory and I made this video a few years ago based on work by Wendell Berry from 1968. The great thing about brilliant and forward thinking authors/thinkers is that their work becomes MORE relevant as time goes on.