Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: Wendell Berry (page 1 of 1)


Wendell Berry, from The Unsettling of America

Whereas the exploiter asks of a piece of land only how much and how quickly it can be made to produce, the nurturer asks a question that is much more complex and difficult: What is its carrying capacity? (That is: How much can be taken from it without diminishing it? What can it produce dependably for an indefinite time?) The exploiter wishes to earn as much as possible by as little work as possible; the nurturer expects, certainly, to have a decent living from his work, but his characteristic wish is to work as well as possible. The competence of the exploiter is in organization; that of the nurturer is in order — a human order, that is, that accommodates itself both to other order and to mystery.

What Berry has done both as a farmer and a writer is to practice this nurturing; and I have tried as both a writer and a teacher to do the same, within my rather different sphere of effective action.

Since I do not have a farm I am more of a hunter-gatherer — my practice of nurture is perhaps better described by Ursula K. LeGuin in her essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”:  

If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it’s useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people, and then later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a solider container or put it in the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred, and then next day you probably do much the same again — if to do that is human, if that’s what it takes, then I am a human being after all. 

And for me the challenge has always been to become more cunning in my gathering, more scrupulously attentive to objects and ideas that others have discarded as worthless. To nurture the neglected, the forgotten. 


It is noteworthy, and not in a good way, that an essay by Wendell Berry called “Peaceableness Toward Enemies” — written in response to the 1911 Gulf War — is relevant to the divisions that now exist among Americans. Two passages in particular stood out to me. The first:  

Peaceableness toward enemies is an idea that will, of course, continue to be denounced as impractical. It has been too little tried by individuals, much less by nations. It will not readily or easily serve those who are greedy for power. It cannot be effectively used for bad ends. It could not be used as the basis of an empire. It does not afford opportunities for profit. It involves danger to practitioners. It requires sacrifice. And yet it seems to me that it is practical, for it offers the only escape from the logic of retribution. It is the only way by which we can cease to look to war for peace. 

Notice how in all these ways peaceableness escapes the abuses inherent in hatred, which always is used for bad ends, always does offer opportunities for profit, etc. 

The second should be read with the thought that there are non-physical forms of violence: 

Peaceableness is not the amity that exists between people who agree, nor is it the exhaustion or jubilation that follows war. It is not passive. It is the ability to act to resolve conflict without violence. If it is not a practical and a practicable method, it is nothing. As a practicable method, it reduces helplessness in the face of conflict. In the face of conflict, the peaceable person may find several solutions, the violent person only one.

These passages should be read in conjunction with a poem Berry wrote around that time, called “Enemies.” 

beyond grumpiness

I suspect you have noticed that many old people are grumpy. I think the explanation for such widespread grumpiness is fairly simple.

Perhaps you’ve been in a relationship — with parents or siblings or spouses or even friends — in which the little foxes spoil the grapes. It’s not the big foul acts or horribly cruel words that do you in, it’s the slow drip drip drip of little annoyances that become over time a vast sea of frustration. Surely you’ve been there? You become exasperated by someone’s passing comment and when they are genuinely puzzled by your anger over so trivial a matter, you try to explain (apologetically, penitently, I hope) that it wouldn’t be a problem if this thing had happened once but it has happened a thousand times. It’s the repetition that kills you.

I think that’s how it is for old people — not only on a personal but also on a cultural level — and I speak as someone who is, I suppose, entering that territory. Take for instance the debates over the last few years in the academy about whiteness, representation, cultural appropriation, the Western canon, the classroom as a venue for social justice, etc. etc. These are precisely the arguments that roiled the academic humanities in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The vocabulary can differ slightly, but otherwise we who were alive and alert then know the script. Heck, the arguments of thirty years ago often echoed arguments of a quarter-century earlier, those that arose in the student-protest era of the late Sixties and early Seventies.

This is not to say, of course, that everything is the same. For instance, in the Sixties the student protesters wanted to dismantle the existing institutional structures, whereas today’s protesters usually just want management to take their side. But the overall terms of engagement are remarkably similar, and that’s frustrating for an older person, for the same reason (ironically enough) that it’s frustrating to hear grandpa tell the same story over and over again. It’s a maddening repetition — the first time as farce and the second as farcier.

And then you reflect that not only has no one learned anything from the previous instantiation of these debates, most of the people shouting at each other today don’t even know that the debates took place. They’re mouthing the words of their predecessors — in some cases they’re even mouthing the words of their earlier selves — but the relentless presentism of our social media environment creates what I have called the Ministry of Amnesia. You can’t learn from the past if you don’t know what happened in it. So yeah, I’m gradually turning into a grumpy old man. Because nobody learns anything.

The only thing that anybody knows how to do when a new conflict arises, and this is just as true of the conflict in Ukraine as it is of any other, is to insist that these tragic events only prove my politics. That’s it, that’s all anybody has got. There are no circumstances, no matter how dreadful, sufficiently dramatic to make anyone fall off of their hobbyhorse. (That site hasn’t been updated in a decade, because what would be the point?)

So they were as far as I can tell two ways to go. One is increasing frustration and the other is detachment. Or … perhaps I should say that there are three possible responses: frustration, nihilistic detachment, and the detachment that seeks peace.

These are precisely the concerns of T. S. Eliot’s valedictory poem, “Little Gidding,” in which he makes a version of my threefold distinction:

There are three conditions which often look alike
Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:
Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment
From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference
Which resembles the others as death resembles life,
Being between two lives — unflowering, between
The live and the dead nettle.

Of course, “attachment” is not the same thing as frustration — but frustration arises from attachment. If you didn’t care you would walk away or tune a person out rather than hanging around to be an asshole. You would be indifferent (and maybe the targets of your frustration would prefer that). A little earlier in “Little Gidding,” when Eliot encounters

some dead master
Whom I had known, forgotten, half recalled
Both one and many,

he learns what that particular variety of attachment leads to:

“the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Then fools’ approval stings, and honour stains.”

Is there a way to avoid this dark fate? Yes:

“ From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.”

Until you submit to that refining fire, your frustration, your impotent rage — no matter how correct you are — does nothing to help others and brings only misery to you. That your frustration has a legitimate cause means nothing when seen from this perspective. So I’ve been thinking about this passage regularly for more than a decade now — since I wrote my treatise “Against Stupidity” a decade ago, a treatise in which I argue for the canonization of Jonathan Swift. (I still advocate that elevation, by the way.)

And there’s a passage from another work that I often think of in this context: Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow. It involves an encounter between Jayber, the barber in the small town of Port William, and a neighbor named Troy Chatham, who sees the world rather differently than Jayber does. In this scene the men in Jayber’s barbershop discuss the then-current protests against the war in Vietnam.

One Saturday evening, while Troy was waiting his turn in the chair, the subject was started and Troy said — it was about the third thing said — “They ought to round up every one of them sons of bitches and put them right in front of the damned communists, and then whoever killed who, it would be all to the good.” […]

It was hard to do, but I quit cutting hair and looked at Troy. I said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.”

Troy jerked his head up and widened his eyes at me. “Where did you get that crap?”

I said, “Jesus Christ.”

And Troy said, “Oh.”

It would have been a great moment in the history of Christianity, except that I did not love Troy.

That’s quite a sting in the tail of that anecdote.

The first step, I guess, is to know what the Bible teaches, what the Lord commands of us. The second step is to understand that if I can shame and silence my neighbor with a Bible verse but have not love, I am no better than a clanging cymbal. The third step, the terrifying step, is to hold my tongue until I can love the Troy Chathams in my life. Else I will end up in the condition prophesied for Eliot by his master’s admonitory ghost.

It’s a hard path to walk, this Way of avoiding both indifference and “the conscious impotence of rage / At human folly.” But the hard path is the only real Way. (All the others circle back on themselves.) So I try every day to follow it. I don’t think I could manage even that if I did not have an Advocate to accompany me, to encourage me, and to guide me.