Wendell Berry is a philosopher, and an important one in this postmodern era, who utilizes the essay, the poem, and, most importantly, the novel, to express his observations of concrete human beings and their life in community. It is in his novels, purposefully located in an agrarian setting, that he depicts the intrinsic interdependency of the individual, the family, and the community dwelling in a precarious harmony with nature and God. Here, within the society of Port William, the author is free to explore the only viable philosophy: “a metaphysics that interprets the transcendence system of the world as the immanent process of a divine substance,” as Eric Voegelin once expressed it.
Berry has established a meta-narrative that adheres to the Hebrew-Greek-Christian worldview and reflects the anxiety generated by its great intellectual and spiritual crises: Plato’s dichotomy in response to the polis, and the rise of the Enlightenment and its abortive efforts to establish a symbolism. In his prose and poetry, he has successfully created and maintained the symbols of his mythopoesis, explicating the confrontation between postmodern man in egophanic revolt against God’s will and the dwindling remnant who are dwelling in a near theophanic harmony with their families, community, and land.
In his latest offering, Andy Catlett: Early Travels, Berry continues his systematic study of human consciousness from an agrarian perspective, which, unlike the urban perspective, encourages, to use Voegelin’s phrase, a “meditative complex of experiences in which the reality of the ground of being reveals itself…” The novel is a memoir of an aged Andrew Catlett looking back on his youth. The year is 1943, the war continues unabated, and nine year old Andy is bundled up and placed aboard a bus to begin his ten-mile odyssey from Hargrave to Port William. Andy will spend a few days with both sets of grandparents, the Catletts and the Feltners.
Juxtaposed within the story are the antipodal world-views, the conflict between the “old” ways of mule and wagon and the encroachments of modernity, of progress. The author explores a seminal question: what are the effects of material progress upon the individual and society? “Andy” observes this conflict reflected in the attitudes of communities: “Hargrave, though it seemed large to me, was a small town that loved its connections with the greater world, had always aspired to be bigger, richer, and grander than it was. When school was out, I lived mostly in the orbit of the tiny village of Port William, which, so long as it remained at the center of its own attention, was entirely satisfied to be what it was.”
Berry has not created in Port William a utopian metaphor. Evil exits there as it does in all human environs, whether it is the evil of the individual, as is the case of one Mr. Hackman, a gentleman whose sobriquet is “Hawkman,” or simply “old man Hawk,” known far and wide as a chicken thief, a no-account, and “a dangerous fellow,” or the burgeoning evil of modernity with its assault on the family and community. The author’s erudition reveals his understanding that the truth of existence is not established on rules or commandments but is found in the “reality of action in concrete situations.”
The Port William society, then, is peopled with characters whose actions reflect the desire and necessity to dwell in accordance with the will of God, characters who make “right” decisions as a matter of course, because they have been raised up to seek that which is right. Given their circumstances, this concrete action is necessary to survive both in the physical and spiritual sense. For the Feltners, Catletts, Coulters, and Wheelers to act outside of that which is right by nature would be for them to destroy themselves and their community.
Within the Port William community, the author places much emphasis on the elderly, as if warning us that in our proclivity to warehouse the aged we are precipitating our downfall. In describing his grandfather, as Andy watched him “studying” one evening during his visit,
“He thought of the people he remembered, now dead, and of those who had come and gone before his knowledge, and of those who would come after, and of his own place in that long procession. Looking at me, he must have remembered that his own grandfather had been the first of our name to come into this place, in a time that had seemed ancient to him once, that he now knew to have been almost recent, and that the time from his grandfather to his grandson had been short…As he studied his memories and thoughts, I studied him, so that I have not forgotten him.”
And yet, when Andy had an opportunity to sit and just listen to Uncle Jack Beechum and grandpa talk in the tobacco barn of mules, horses, “and men and days,” he didn’t stay. “Now I wish,” Andy tells us, “that I had stayed and listened and tried to remember. Now I can wish I had foreseen then what I would want to know now, and had asked the questions I now wish I had asked.”
Andy’s belated desire to know the family “stories” underscore the inherent desire in man to connect with his past, to come to some understanding of his history, because of its significance in determining “who we are.” Consequently, Berry is at his best in differentiating the “old economy” from modernity’s. In the old economy, there was little physical difference between the poor and the “rich.” People of all classes, at least in a rural setting, established their households on “the power of the sun, on thrift and skill, and on the people’s competence to take care of themselves.” And, while there was some dependence on manufactured goods (wood burning stoves, utensils, plows, ect.) they were perfectly capable of surviving, of growing their own food, of raising their livestock and surviving in good health for another season. Few of us today have the same skills and knowledge that our grandparents had, and few of us today could survive a deep depression without savings or public assistance.
For the author, the “old” ways exemplify “the true world,” while modernity with its “cheap energy, and even cheaper money…is mostly theater.” And, in this phrase, Berry reaches a truth, an expression of both reason and revelation, for we find in Exodus, Chapter 3, verse 19, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground.”
Over and over again Berry describes his characters at work. He takes delight in explaining the complexities of what many consider the mundane aspects of “manual” labor, and the importance of doing “a good job.” He does so to illustrate that all work has merit, that in doing “a good job” we are defining not only who we are as being in reality but engaging in an acknowledgement —in the worship— of the divine. When we are at work —in the act of doing “good work” — we are in the natural condition of prayer, engaged in communication with God, submitting to His will and acknowledging His sovereignty.
In contrast modernity establishes its purpose on the idea of “progress,” whose goal is ease, comfort, and as the British philosopher, Roger Scruton, tells us, “fun.”
This duality sets up a reckoning in which the character Andy observes, “This new world seems a jumble of scenery and props never quite believable, an economy of fantasies and moods, in which it is hard to remember either the timely world of nature or the eternal world of the prophets and poets. And I fear, I believe I know, that the doom of the older world I knew as a boy will finally afflict the new one that replaced it.”
On the last evening of Andy’s memorable visit to Port William, New Year’s Eve of 1943, he walked over to Jasper Lathrop’s store where his Granddaddy and some friends were playing cards. It came to young Andy “that they were waiting: Granddaddy and Frank Lathrop, each with a son in the army; Grover Gibbs, whose son, Billy, was in the air force; Burley Coulter, whose nephews, Tom and Nathan, had gone off to the army, and who now could hope that Nathan might return; Jayber Crow, whose calling seems to have been to wait with the others. They were suffering and enduring and waiting, waiting together, joined in their unending game, submitted as the countryside around them submitted. We had come into the silence that is deeper than any other —the silence of what is yet to come, the silence of one who is waiting for what is yet to come.”
Andy tells us that this visit was the “first steps to manhood,” but it was also when Port William and its people became part of him, a part that he would never forget.
In his essay, Being and Becoming (Philosophy Now, Issue61, May/June, 2007), philosopher Christopher Macann asks the question, what is the ultimate point and purpose of being human? For Macann the answer is, “Self-actualization, Art and Religion. Becoming who one is, is a matter of developing oneself existentially, of expressing oneself artistically, and entering into a kind of relation with Being (God) which alone offers the prospect of salvation.”
In this novel Wendell Berry captures the essence of Macann’s definition of being human in both his simple and complex characters, characters who know themselves and accomplish the art of “good work.” But, it is in the moment of grace when one experiences the presence of the Creator that represents Berry’s final literary challenge.
Perhaps it cannot be done. To describe the Soul in communion with God may be impossible, but if it can be done, it may well be Wendell Berry who accomplishes the task.
Wendell Berry has taken up his pen to examine the question: what is the purpose of human existence? He succeeds at his art, because he possesses “a self-reflective, open consciousness,” in Voegelin’s phrase, that refuses to be seduced by rationalism or to deconstruct the Christian myth; rather, he examines the meaning of human existence outside the “symptoms” of “movements and great wars.” He is searching for God’s order, seeking man’s proper place in the tension between the immanent world-reality and the transcendent.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This article originally appeared on Metapsychology Online Reviews and is reprinted with the gracious permission of the author.