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Wendell Berry, Hater and Ideologue

So says Matthew Franck, based on the man’s Jefferson Lecture. Excerpt: 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, […]

So says Matthew Franck, based on the man’s Jefferson Lecture. Excerpt:

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.

He loves the “stickers” and he hates the “boomers,” terms he borrows from his teacher Wallace Stegner. Boomers are mobile creatures, moving from place to place and seizing opportunities—presumably like the first Berry who came to America centuries ago. Stickers are the ones who stay in place and sink roots in the land. Is there room in Wendell Berry’s moral imagination (he loves that word, “imagination”) for a good word to be said about each of them?

Not on your life, you boomer you. “The boomer is motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power. . . . Stickers on the contrary are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it.” The Berry family is a bunch of stickers, and Wendell is the Poet of Stickers. There is nothing redeeming or redemptible, not one thing, to be found in boomers. They’re hateful. So there.

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.

But this essay? Feh. Franck’s essay is one long neoconnish sneer at Berry, without any evident attempt to grasp the man’s thought. “Implicit pantheism”? I’m pretty sure Franck is a Roman Catholic. Berry, who is some sort of Protestant, is talking about the sacramental quality of the created world — which is not the same thing as pantheism. His book against scientism, “Life Is a Miracle,” is a profoundly Christian statement of intellectual humility and the sacramental worldview. “Pantheism”? Good grief. That’s on the same level as saying that Catholics worship statues.

About the Boomer-Sticker thing — and really, read the lecture itself to get a fuller understanding of what Berry said — Berry is making the perfectly reasonable, very conservative, point that there is something morally derelict in being the sort of person who doesn’t stay put to tend and to build, but rather in being the sort of person who sees the world — Nature, human communities — as disconnected from ourselves, spiritually and morally, and only there to be exploited.   His slam on James B. Duke has to do with Duke — and by extension, the capitalist — not seeing how his own decisions, indeed his own prosperity, depends on the well being of all the little guys under him. If Duke had affection (in the philosophical sense Berry means it, not mere emotion) for these people, he wouldn’t see these farmers as objects, mere entries on an accounting ledger, but as stewards of the common good, to whom he is obligated, as they are to him. Berry’s argument is that our entire way of living is narcissistic and materialistic, and only asks, “What’s in it for me?”

Does Berry undervalue the creative aspect of capitalism, and the goods inherent in mobility? I believe he does. That said, everything in American popular culture tells us that we should always move for better jobs, move to fulfill desires, that we should place the pursuit of happiness (versus virtue) as the absolute telos of our personal and communal lives. That we should be acutely conscious of our rights, but disdainful of our responsibilities. Berry really does speak prophetically about these things, and from a deeply conservative, traditionalist worldview — one that leaves very few people, on the left or the right, unimplicated in our predicament. What Berry asks, ultimately, is: What is a person? What does it mean to be fully human? What does our humanity, under God, require of us? What are our limits?

The fact that contemporary conservatives like Franck can only condemn Berry as a tree-hugging crypto-commie is by no means an indictment of Berry, but a rather stark example of the rigidity of the contemporary American conservative philosophical and theological imagination.

To be fair, though, if the Jefferson Lecture was one’s first exposure to Berry’s thought — and Franck has indicated elsewhere that for him, it was — then it’s understandable that one would be more dismissive of Berry and his vision than the overall facts warrant. Here’s Nathan Schlueter, responding to Franck’s polemic. Schlueter agrees that the Jefferson Lecture wasn’t Berry at his best. But:

Unfortunately, Berry’s almost complete silence about government in his lecture almost undoubtedly led many of his listeners to a conclusion he did not in fact make, that government is the solution. It is very difficult to believe that this was Berry’s intention, and it certainly cannot be deduced from his other writings, where governments are as guilty as corporations. Port William, his model of a community based on “membership,” has neither corporations nor a government.

In the end, I would strongly encourage people not to judge Berry based upon this one lecture. He fully deserved the honor of the lecture. His body of work in fiction, poetry, and essays constitutes the most impressive effort in our time to protect, preserve, and deepen the knowledge of the human person that lies at the heart of Western civilization, and to oppose the corrosive influences (utilitarianism, individualism, scientism, industrialism, etc.) that threaten to destroy that knowledge. His life itself is a testament of fidelity to that knowledge, worthy of acknowledgment, recognition, and celebration.

True. My defensiveness of Berry against Franck’s attack, I think, has to do with the fact that I’ve been reading Berry for years, and knew when I read this lecture that it was basically just Berry saying the same things he’s been saying for years, in a highly abbreviated form. It’s hard for me to read it with the eyes of someone who knows nothing of Berry.




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