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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher


How many times a week do I hear someone declare that “communication” or “education” is the silver bullet that, if only done better, would cure whatever particular problem we happen to be discussing? It might be peculiar to my field, but predictably, when the bottom is finally struck in a “getting-to-the-bottom-of” session, this is the stopping place. Almost ritualistically, heads nod assent and ideas go off the boil. “Better communication” is the answer to every problem.

I have to admit that, in a week when a handful of powerfully entitled white men viciously coldcocked their own mothers, daughters and sisters back to the 1800s -- yes, we have communication problems to say the least. And indeed, I am aiming this cannon fire at the professional liberal class that I am a part of and observe from up close. I’m not suggesting that education and communication aren’t essential to a working democracy and a workable life. Only that we should examine our biases more carefully.

Every problem between humans contains, or is defined by, mismatched viewpoints. When points-of-view align, we don’t have problems. Teamwork, affinity, cooperation and even love happens when people share a general point of view. Of course so much interaction occurs in the absence of this consilience. Viewpoints between people are almost always misaligned, causing conflict, misunderstanding, an everyday sense of separateness and not infrequently, violence. There’s nothing profound in this; the work of human problem-solving is, in the main, the work of alignment. (That used to be the work of our Congress but no longer).

But the compulsion to declare that “communication” or “education” is the key to achieving alignment strikes me as naive, lazy or even duplicitous. This instinct, I believe, is grounded in a wish: the hope and belief that conflict can be channeled into cooperation simply by changing someone else’s viewpoint. It allows us to drop anchor on our point of view while still working for “change.” It gives us a double shot of virtue: we get to persist in our righteousness while laying claim to progressiveness. When we teach better, they will finally learn. When we communicate better, they will come aboard. When we successfully engage them, a coalition will form.

We don’t quite realize the flaw in this thinking, or we don’t admit to it. On the contrary, we skate along professing our faith in universal “goods” like communication and education, regardless of the shallowness of our approach. A little more honesty is in order.

For a long while I’ve been contemplating a passage in the Wendell Berry talk given almost 40 years ago at the EF Schumacher Center called People, Land and Community. It’s a remarkable lecture on several scores, but one of my indelible impressions is Berry’s critique of knowledge. It’s astonishing, because like education and communication, "knowledge" is a holy writ for modern, liberal people.

But Berry’s take is that we overestimate the value of knowledge because we confuse it for information (which is not the same thing), and we always think we know more than we actually do. Facts are endlessly used to justify other facts, ad absurdum. It is far better, he says, to try to grasp the limits of knowledge than to accumulate information, for we are always making decisions based on incomplete knowledge no matter what we know, and to act wisely in the face of ignorance requires a knowing of a different sort. A good agriculture teaches this, and has always taught this, Berry reminds us, but of course everyone has dropped that class.

Even when information can be turned into knowledge (which it isn’t always, anyhow), there is nothing to guarantee that the newfound knowledge will be fitted to its purpose or its place. Knowledge can be abused, misused. The times we’re living through are showing just how easily and how frighteningly this is so. (Think Facebook hacks, data farms, surveillance drones, algo trading, etc). Pointing to lessons from the great books, Berry cautions there are certain things we should not learn -- possibilities we should not explore. “If we want to get safely home, there are certain seductive songs we must not turn aside for.”

What I’m trying to tease out here, is just how difficult it is to see through our societal norms -- like how even essential values like communication, education and knowledge can become excuses for laissez faire behavior, or weak crutches for a necessary kind of human development. Meditation, to give one counterexample, is a subtractive art which, paradoxically, can fulfill a person without communication, education or knowledge. Poetry, our oft-visited subject here at WWW, is another art form that edifies without explanation.

Kathleen Raine, the subject of Berry’s essay Against the Nihil in Imagination in Place studied botany, physiology and chemistry at Cambridge. Her renown, however, is for her poetry, which Berry interprets in this essay to show how one liberal, educated person successfully let go of the reductionism of scientific materialism so that Imagination could instead be her guide. It took “half a lifetime,” Ms. Raine said, to free herself from the “complex, tight, unfeeling objective little poems” that arose from the orthodoxy of her university training.

The freedom she needed to escape these confines, it turns out, was already in her. As a girl, she spent time in rural Northumberland, which was Edenic for her. Later in life, she said that the place, and her idyllic experience of it, was the basis for every poem she ever wrote. Wendell comments on how her parents loved poetry and read it aloud in the home, along with the Bible (much of which memorized by Ms. Raine), and how her Scottish mother knew and sang the border ballads. “She freed herself of the influence of materialism by remaining under the influence of her past,” writes Berry. Ms. Raine concurs: “(At Cambridge) I didn’t distinguish my love of flowers from the point of view of studying poetry and beauty, and studying botany.”

The essay celebrates Ms. Raine as a rare poet, capable of poems that are at once scientifically incarnate and metaphysically inspirational. I shall not attempt to reduce Wendell Berry reducing Kathleen Raine, which would be about as ridiculous as writing headlines about the CliffsNotes for King Lear. Suffice it to say that Berry wants us to see what Kathleen Raine saw: a world of common sparrows, flowers, cats, shabby carpets, books, and the rest of her daily scene in busy London suffused with Spirit, wondrous in its ordinariness, replete with revelation.

What is the trick here? How did she do it? How does Wendell Berry?

Well the two of them, and all the other authors that come under Berry’s treatment in Imagination in Place, have something in common: the experience of a place that enchanted their young souls and seared them with a lifelong attachment that proved to be the strongest force in their lives, matched only, in some cases, by their kinships. Ernest Gaines, Wallace Stegner, John Haines, Hayden Carruth, James Still, Donald Hall, Jane Kenyon -- they are the stars of this book, the characters of WWW this year, and many of the finest teachers and friends that Wendell Berry ever knew. It’s no coincidence. These are “placed” writers, to use Stegner’s descriptor, who, along with a few others like Gary Snyder, have lived in intimate relationship to physical places that they know as unique, sacred, and beyond all human valuation.

It’s easy to see this thread, and Imagination in Place is clearly a book that was written to make the common denominator easy to see.

But, if this “placed-ness” is what it takes to see through the lie of scientific materialism and the liberal conventions that uphold its status, some questions go begging -- the kind that my oldest son asks. What’s the prescription for the hundreds of millions who don’t have a relationship with a New Hampshire pasture, or western rangeland, or Louisiana bayou, or even London garden? What then could lift the veil on the causes that turn land into capital, and its human members into labor, or resources?

Wendell Berry’s experience, and that of his ilk, is matter-of-fact gorgeous -- these lives that draw nourishment from home soil and yield over a lifetime, exactly like a tree crop, a bountiful and beautiful fruitage of poems, books, ideas. But peering beyond the loveliness of their individual output reveals questions about collective action, and political movements -- questions that deserve answers if the truths these lives tell are to provide any help to those who are unplaced, displaced or dispersed. On matters of social justice, Berry seems to prefer to let his first principles do the talking, hoping, I suspect, that a better economy, a better peace, a better land use, and a better politics will serve everyone and not just the lucky few.

Though not a feature of Imagination in Place, Mr. Berry has written hundreds of essays and stories that attempt to depict how his values might be taken up by a collective. In fact his own life and life-view owes its greatest debt to the tobacco farm cooperative that his father and brother ran in central Kentucky for more than fifty years. Wendell Berry is no stranger to political action or political writing. It’s just that his localism is so deviant from our modern ways, and his ideas so unpinnable to the left-right ideology, that he remains a perplexing figure for anyone interested in extending his views, and an irrelevant one for those who don’t.

There is one additional thing, I think, that puts Wendell Berry far outside the zeitgeist, and also helps explain how people like him, and Kathleen Raine, are able to find Paradise right out their kitchen windows.

Wendell’s views on Christianity are pretty well documented, and, judging from the number of sermons I come across quoting him and pointing to his example, they appear to be taken, on the whole, as supportive of that faith. I think he is viewed as a Christian thinker and a praiseworthy keeper of that faith. But his incisiveness has not spared the church, and he has, from time to time, dismissed the “hereafter” and “other-worldliness” of a Christianity which has utterly mistaken and ultimately failed the conservation principle that trusses his entire philosophy.

Which is why I was surprised when I realized, on my second reading of Against the Nihil, the religiosity of Berry's diagnosis for what ails us. Back to Kathleen Raine -- a poet of Imagination, Wendell calls her -- a poet with religious vision. Raine’s poetry tries to describe things in their eternal aspect. Like Blake and Yeats, she is trying “to know the timeless as it moves through time.” So she’s a visionary poet, trying to catch the ineffable in language, which can only happen through inspiration -- something that cannot be conjured but must be awaited, and with great alertness and readiness.

Berry says that having to wait on inspiration presents a predicament for a visionary poet. And difficult as it is to glimpse the eternal, he says that it is even harder in a post-industrial age, “consigned (as poets are) to a way of images in a time of the desecration of all images.”

What follows is as religious a statement as anything I’ve read in Berry so far, which offers an answer to my questions and so will quote in full to conclude this post.

The most fundamental of those desecrations has been the reduction of the human image, which we once understood as the image of God, to an image merely of humanity itself as a “higher animal” -- with the implied permission to be more bewildered, violent, self-deluded, destructive, and self-destructive than any of the animals. From the desecration of that image, the desecration of the world and all its places and creatures inexorably follows. For it appears that, having once repudiated our primordial likening to the maker and preserver of the world, we don’t become merely higher animals, merely neutral components of the creation-by-chance of the materialists, but are ruled instead by an antithetical likeness to whatever unmakes and fragments the world.

It might be that we really are fallen, in the Christian way, but not for the Christian reasons. It might be that there is a straight line the runs through how we understand what we are as human beings, to how we understand the world and all its creatures, to the violence that we cannot seem to ever wash from our hands.

I began this blog with an observation about how education and communication are not the only answers, nor even the best answers, to the problems that arise between people. Might religion -- that unwelcome, old morality code -- be a far better bet for getting along, and mending a sickened society? Because, despite its record, what Wendell Berry is suggesting here is that what’s happening to us is actually diabolical.

Our obsessions with education and communication are nice and secular, which is why we’re comfortable obsessing over them. Accordingly, even as they are part of the solution, they are also part of our problem. Religion on the other hand?

Well we're not going to go there. We won't go back. God help us, I suppose.

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