The Challenges and Challenge of Wendell Berry's Community
I’m not quite sure what’s been blocking my writing the last several weeks, but I have few theories. One is that Imagination in Place, my current Berry read, is wearing me out. The latest chapter is yet another tribute to yet another influential writer (James Still). Imagination in Place is a “writer writing about writers” book and, given everything that’s happening in the country right now, it’s making me a little restless.
Another possibility is that a creeping despair (which I’ve been barely keeping at bay), is weeping away my motivation. A nagging question – “is it silly to be walking with Wendell while America burns?” is never far from thought. Even though I started this whole thing to have a place of refuge in a collapsing country – I must admit it’s lonely out here. It still feels like it’s just me. I thought, when I started, I would find the others: people who understand that Wendell Berry offers a model for how to work and live, and that now more than ever, we should be running toward his example.
It now appears that no one thinks that. Just me.
Then there’s the plain fact of politics. Our messes right now are legion, and certainly they are political. So too are a good number of options for doing something about them. Of these, including speaking out, helping out, or resisting – blogging is a questionable choice. Seriously, there a billion blogs out there, and this one has no real readership, mainly because I refuse to pump up its visibility by paying for Facebook marketing (which is how it’s done). There’s also the problem of my subject himself. Wendell Berrys’ politics and personality are decidedly low wattage: long lasting and useful, but hard to see by.
A simpler explanation for my writer’s block would be the World Cup. Yeah, I watched it. All of it.
One last admission: I continually run across people and ideas that I want to write about in WWW. I do regularly learn about people and ideas that plainly intersect with Mr. Berry. There are a lot of parallels to draw between Wendell Berry and humanism, conservatism, communitarianism, mysticism, Buddhism, and plenty of other “ism’s.” But I never quite pull it off. By the time I get to the writing, the connective filaments are gone, like how strands of a spider web detach and then disappear. I’m not really a writer, am certainly not a professor nor am I even a very critical thinker; the kind of blog post I wish I could write is in fact being written all over the internet by honest-to-goodness intellectuals. I’m lately mired in the discomfort of what I can do here.
So there it is. A bit of a rough patch out here on the trail with Wendell Berry.
The thing is though, there continues to be quite a lot on offer in these pages of his – even in the James Still essays, which aren’t trying to say too much other than how James Still is a nearly perfect, and perfectly neglected, writer. I notice that even in literary thank you notes like these, Berrys’ politics have a tendency of surfacing.
For Wendell Berry, there is a Principle against which everything else takes its measure, and it is Community. When he describes his home place, when he fictionalizes, when he argues, when he observes natural systems – he is always, entirely, absolutely sharing his observations of our inter-relatedness, which is the organizing principle of community and the basis of every religious tradition I know of. Mr. Berry’s great gift – his genius -- is his near-perfect attunement to this principle. It is life’s first feature – this “everything working together-ness.” His politics, like his fiction, arise from here. He is at pains to show us how this principle is not human-chosen but rather earth-given, and that our human designs succeed or, more typically, fail to the extent that they do or don’t accord with this truth.
Amazingly enough, the idea is actually trending. One of those woebegone ideas that I have not blogged about is the exaltation of Community everywhere in our increasingly technology-obsessed culture. In most every technology-based discussion you’ll hear, whether the tech framing is positive or negative, the concept of Community is thrown down as the antidote and alternative to the tech effect. If people are excited about a new technos – it’s because it’s going to help us connect. If people are worried about it – it’s because it threatens to (further) alienate us. It’s as though our technology obsession is bringing our social nature and social needs into high relief.
But for all this talk, and there is a lot of it, no one has much to say about making community. Or at least, not real community – the kind that makes you feel secure and familiar and comfortable in your belongingness -- the kind that you readily feel and imagine (and maybe remember) when you read Berry. That is to say, not a community of mutual dependence and shared fate. The concept that’s parading around these days as Community can be better understood as Interest Group.
But then again, and this too has contributed to my lethargy of the past several weeks, I’ve begun to wonder if it’s possible for Wendell Berry to be both right and anachronistic. It might be that Wendell’s genius for discerning our inter-dependencies, staking them so convincingly to the ground plane, allows his readers to transport themselves right into an avatar of Community that he calls Port William. And it could also be that there have been actual Port Williams throughout America’s history, and small slices of genuine local community persisting here and there even today. The Community of Wendell Berry resonates. It is part of our American experience.
But in the main, here in the U.S., place-based, land-dependent, culture-preserving and generation spanning Community is a thing of the past, and was probably a historic flash in the pan when it did arise. Which leads me to ponder if Berryism shouldn’t be viewed so much a study in nostalgic historicism as utopian future-casting.
Though there is a lot to admire about Wendell Berry, including his artistry, his devotion to friends, family and place, his caretaking of – and teaching about, ecological systems, and his quixotic hacking away at some of the sturdiest pillars of capitalism, his work beckons more than our admiration. My argument is that we should concern ourselves unrelentingly with his politics so that we might learn how to make this Community that is on everyone’s mind but no one’s work program. Those of us who carry Community in our hearts, we should take it upon ourselves to tease out a political coherence in Wendell Berry’s life and work. For if it’s in there (and I believe it is), it isn’t going to lead us back to the farm; it’s going to put us into Community.
It’s a tall order, and I’ve already shared my own sense of failure at this job. I wish I knew more about the great political traditions onto which Wendells’ ideas might be projected and assayed. I wish I had the patience to read and test the Berryist ideas of people like Patrick Deneen, a professor of political philosophy at Notre Dame, who I think is already on this job. And how many others like Mr. Deneen are also out there, perfectly capable of proffering a cogent picture of the politics of Wendell Berry? There must be others. (See: Front Porch Republic to start).
Alas. It’s my walk to make.
So, with apologies to Mr. James Still, to whom I’ve given extremely short shrift in this post, I would like to recount a story that Berry closes the second of his two Still essays with, as it evidences how people like James Still fit together with Wendell Berry, as well as something important about Mr. Berry’s political philosophy.
The short story by Mr. Still is called “A Master Time,” and it tells of a snowball fight that breaks out between six couples – husbands versus wives – at the end of a long day in which the participants carried out a hog-killing, which is hard work and also a social event. The work done, a great deal of cooking and eating having taken place, with evening falling, the men retire to the smokehouse where they enjoy a churn of whiskey. The women eat and laugh in the kitchen. Soon enough, and aided by the whiskey, “a little estrangement grows between the husbands and wives.” It is resolved, “deliciously and convincingly too,” with a snowball fight.
That's it. That’s the story.
What’s the significance of this? Why is this the story Berry chooses as his closing tribute to James Still?
Well, to listen to Wendell explain, it’s because Mr. Still is a master craftsman, and the story is “absolutely lovely, quick and alight with shifting tones. It is a little globe. A world called into existence, reality and joy…”
As always, we’ll take his word for it. Neither you nor I have read “A Master Time.”
But let’s not stop with Berry’s appreciation for exemplary writing. Let’s instead do as I’ve said: let’s try to understand the political idea that Berry is making here.
There is one sentence of commentary in the middle of the storytelling in which Berry reveals the story’s deeper meaning:
This is very much the story of individual people, but it is also a sort of ritual drama in which the community first expresses and then dissipates an old discord that it knows will go on interminably.
His interest you see, is not in the men’s behavior nor the womens’, nor the respective role of the sexes as carried out in the scene, or as inherited a priori. He is thus out of step with the identity politics that so dominate today’s discourse.
No, his interest is in how a third character, always his main character, the community is able to hold and neutralize a tension which Berry believes is natural and eternal, between men and women. Married men and women will struggle with their confinements; alcohol will sharpen differences; lines of loyalty between vows and nature will test us. How will the center hold? Snowball fight!!
He explains himself directly in a parenthetical sentence just before recounting the story. First he says he wonders “what modern feminists and antifeminists would make of “A Master Time” in which there is sexuality and sexual contention but no sexual politics.” And then he elaborates, and in so doing, makes an unvarnished political assertion:
Where there is no thought of a “public,” the private cannot become political.
I think what Berry wants us to understand is that there can be (and has been) a third way – a mesospheric zone called “community” that is neither private nor public. When properly intact, we can rely on this third zone to resolve human affairs that we have come to decide are public matters simply because we’ve lost (destroyed, rather) the only effective court in which such things can be legislated, which is the functional, healthy community.
The communities that Berry writes about, both in his fiction and non-fiction, are both burdened and liberated by their isolation from larger, distant entities. The people in these places are on their own to manage whatever life throws at them, come what may. If this sounds familiar, it’s because (I think), it’s an important part of conservatism – the liberty to determine, free from undue influence, how to live one’s life. But with one critically important distinction: in Berryism, the subject to whom liberty is afforded is not the individual. No, the subject is, of course, Community. It is the group and always the group -- aware of its history, its limitations, its sources of sustenance, and its account of resources, that is deserving and needy of liberty.
Instead of continually pointing to the concept of community as the elixir for everything that ails us and everything we worry about, we might instead ask ourselves a couple of hard questions about our readiness and willingness to move toward real Community.
Are we part of a group that can mitigate our political fights? Are wil prepared to have a group trim the sails of our cherished individual liberties?
If the answers are no, then are we prepared to enter a dialogue about why not, and more importantly, at what terrible cost? This is scary stuff to the liberal mind, and, it must be said, the seed bed for plenty of bad history. But it is also the shadow that we had better begin exploring if we ever hope to experience even a little of what we all say we want.