Sunday, January 13, 2008

Paleos try to annex Wendell Berry

Scott Richert represents the paleo kind of conservatives, those who realize that capitalism is not their friend. Writing in The University Bookman (h/t Jameson Campaigne), he gives a friendly review to Eric Freyfogle (a University of Illinois law professor who has long argued that the environmental crisis requires a rethinking of private property rights in a more communal direction) and to a collection of essays about the Kentucky agrarian poet and essayist Wendell Berry.

Berry has long escaped partisan categorization (over the years he's been featured in Mother Jones and Mother Earth News) and the paleos' clumsy efforts to appropriate him as some kind of conservative Catholic are a stretch that would be funny if Richert weren't so invincibly earnest. There seems to be a boom in books by and about Berry these days, and I'll be interested to see if any of them can take him on his own idiosyncratic terms, horse farming and all, without trying to assimilate him into traditions (like Catholicism) that are many thousands of years younger than his agrarianism.

4 comments:

ExecutiveEditor said...

Harold, thanks for the mention of the review. I'm a little puzzled, though, by your comments. My review may be clumsy (though I don't think it is), but it's certainly not an effort to "appropriate" Wendell Berry. Instead, I take Mr. Berry on his own terms, and even offer some criticisms of him.

On the other hand, it seems to me that you may be trying to box Mr. Berry in. It's true that he's written for Mother Jones and Mother Earth News; it's also true that he's been a longtime contributor to our magazine, Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and he accepted the T.S. Eliot award from our parent organization, The Rockford Institute. In fact, in my review, I quote from a lengthy interview that he gave to Chronicles a couple years back.

Apparently, Mr. Berry feels more comfortable with us than you seem to think. That's not surprising: Of all significant American publications on the right, Chronicles has been perhaps the most consistent supporter of agrarianism, having even published pieces (and not just by Mr. Berry) in defense of horse farming (and, more broadly, traditional family farms over against agribusiness).

As for the question of my portraying Mr. Berry as "some kind of conservative Catholic," you might want to read the piece again. In fact, I quoted Jason Peters, who claimed that Mr. Berry has developed "an essentially Catholic orthodoxy," but then I wrote that: "Berry has never quite been able to unfold its consequences—by which I do not mean to become a Catholic per se, but to embrace the non-dualistic historical mainstream of liturgical Christianity, which encompasses traditional Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and non-Calvinist mainstream Protestantism."

Furthermore, I argued that Mr. Berry's "piety—and I use the term in its broadest sense—does not allow him to abandon entirely that version of Christianity that he inherited (despite his discomfort with its dualism), or, at least, it does not allow him to adopt another that lies outside of his inheritance. To embrace Catholicism or Orthodoxy, for instance, would be, in some sense, to turn his back on his family and community, something that is abhorrent to his thought."

It seems to me that the argument I'm making is precisely the opposite of the one that you claim I have made.

Harold said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, executiveeditor. It may be I'm the clumsy one here, and I certainly wouldn't dare sit in judgment of what Berry should or should not be comfortable with. And if I were as well read as some people imagine that I am, I'd already have known about Chronicles and agrarianism (although that affinity certainly fits with how I characterized y'all in general). I'll try to keep up better.

My refined paraphrase of your argument, though, would still be that if Berry really understood the logic of his own beliefs (or, were able to unfold their consequences) he would be a Catholic, and that it's precisely his own localism and traditionalism and agrarianism (now I'm prolix instead of clumsy!) that may prevent him from following his own logic to its conclusion.

I'd still call that annexation, but it is more nuanced than I gave you credit for. And more interesting.

...But still, if one species of traditionalism is to annex another, shouldn't the agrarian be annexing the Catholics, simply by virtue of seniority? Not that he would...

ExecutiveEditor said...

" . . . if Berry really understood the logic of his own beliefs (or, were able to unfold their consequences) he would be a Catholic . . . "

No, because there's no necessary connection between understanding and action. What I was trying to get across is that the Christian answer to Mr. Berry's concern about the radical dualism of the variety of Christianity that he inherited is found in "the non-dualistic historical mainstream of liturgical Christianity, which encompasses traditional Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and non-Calvinist mainstream Protestantism."

(As for why it has to be a "Christian answer": Mr. Berry raised this question in his interview in Chronicles in the context of stating that he is a Christian, but that he's never been comfortable with the radical dualism of his particular strain of Christianity.)

"it's precisely his own localism and traditionalism and agrarianism . . . that may prevent him from following his own logic to its conclusion"

Not at all, because localism, traditionalism, and agrarianism are all completely compatible with the historical mainstream of liturgical Christianity. None of those is the obstacle; his piety--by which I do not mean the narrow sense of religious piety, but what the Romans called pietas--is. And please note: I'm not saying that's a bad thing; I'm simply offering it as an explanation.

"if one species of traditionalism is to annex another, shouldn't the agrarian be annexing the Catholics, simply by virtue of seniority?"

If we had but world enough and time, we might begin to unpack that one. As a Catholic, I believe that all truth is God's truth, and thus the question of seniority means nothing in this instance.

But there is a more interesting question, which I was just able to address very briefly in the review but which I addressed at much greater length at our 2006 Summer School on agrarianism, in a lecture on the work of Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson, namely "whether an agrarian worldview can continue to survive in the modern world without an explicit connection to Christian belief." As I wrote in the review (discussing a third book, by Gene Logsdon), "the very forces that have devastated the countryside, besieged agrarian communities, and attacked representational art and literature have the Church in their sights, too. Man is body and soul, flesh and spirit, and the reintegration of the two—the destruction of the fierce dualism that so bothers Berry—cannot be accomplished by agrarianism alone."

It may have been better to write that, in the modern world, it cannot be accomplished by agrarianism alone, but I think you understand my point, even if you do not agree.

Harold said...

Most interesting. I passed too quickly over that passage, "the very forces that have devastated the countryside, besieged agrarian communities, and attacked representational art and literature have the Church in their sights, too."

Have you identified those forces by name in other writings?