Review: The Achievement of Wendell Berry
Fritz Oehlschlaeger. The Achievement of Wendell Berry: The Hard History of Love. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2011. 322 pp. ISBN 978-0-8131-3007-1.
The most recent book-length work on Wendell Berry includes one co-authored and two edited volumes. Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life, by J. Matthew Bonzo and Michael R. Stevens, appeared in 2008. Wendell Berry and Religion, edited by Joel James Shuman and L. Roger Owens, followed a year later. And now, in 2012, we have what is probably the most substantial of the three: The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry, edited by Mark T. Mitchell and Nathan Schlueter.
There is sometimes a certain unevenness to such books, likely though not inevitable, that makes Fritz Oehlschlaeger’s even and even-tempered Achievement of Wendell Berry a welcome addition to the growing corpus of secondary literature on Berry—who, as the 2012 National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecturer may at last be emerging from neglect into his rightful position as one of America’s preeminent men of letters. Critic, biographer, novelist, poet, and essayist, Berry is, as Ed McClanahan has written, a writer of many parts. And if in bellicose times peaceable men may be accounted patriotic, Berry may well be, as Bill McKibben has said, our greatest patriot.
But Professor Oehlschlaeger, to his credit, makes no such claims. The Achievement of Wendell Berry is a modest but intelligent and deeply informed book. It proceeds from the quiet sensible premises that have been implicit in Berry’s own work from the beginning: that placelessness is corrosive to social stability, whether local or national; that abstraction and oversimplification are devoutly to be avoided; that liberty is better-served not by wealth but by competence in fundamental tasks; that the desecration of nature is only the most obvious consequence of our presiding other-worldly religion; and that one responsibility of criticism is that it be useful—that it teach us to learn not only about but also from our books.
Oehlschlaeger makes this point early. Just as Berry acknowledges that there is a useful role for criticism—though he is usually distrustful of the literary explainers—so Oehlschlaeger attempts what used to be called a “practical criticism.” To it he adds “two further precepts,” also derived from Berry: “Part of the critic’s charitable practice is to enlarge the contexts in which a writer’s work can be considered” and “to point out directions for its further use” (5). Also to Oehlschlaeger’s credit is the fact that he makes no apologies: Berry “has given us what we rightly expect from a writer of his stature: a serious moral vision of life rooted in care, affection, and honesty. The critic’s task is not so much to ‘explain’ that vision—certainly not in any reductive way—but to point out ways in which it might be used kindly” (8).
Anyone attempting to explain Berry’s polemical work must find himself in a very uncomfortable position. Why clarify what is already clear? Why explain in less disciplined prose what is already perfectly intelligible in exacting prose? Oehlschlaeger’s command of Berry’s thought is good enough that he must certainly have found himself so positioned. So the task he proposes to himself in the book’s first three chapters, which deal with Berry’s essays, is to situate rather than delineate Berry’s governing themes. (Oehlschlaeger regards Berry’s agrarianism, properly, as “the implicit—and often completely explicit—context and condition” for all that the book attempts .) Oehlschlaeger proceeds in the first of these chapters by pointing to Berry’s emphasis on the natural limits that govern human practices and disciplines. He would have us—after Alasdair MacIntyre—understand those disciplines in the context of virtue and what Berry himself calls “kindly use.” In the second of these chapters Oehlschlaeger concerns himself with much of what, in Berry’s view, undermines American life: perpetual war sustained for economic growth; a corrosive division between politics and ecology (not to mention political discourse reduced to such useless distinctions as “red” and “blue,” which are wholly insufficient to the complexities of civic life); the power wielded by a national policy of endless debt; and the surrendering of self-rule by those who, unable to procure anything except by purchase, will in consequence do anything for money. Oehlschlaeger hears in Berry echoes of, among others, Alexis de Tocqueville, who worried about the fate of subsidiary institutions should democracy incline toward despotism, and also Christopher Lasch, who saw with particular clarity the assault perpetrated against the family by the modern planners. The value here, again, is not so much in clarifying Berry, who does not need clarifying. The value is Oehlschlaeger’s ability to enlarge the contexts in which to consider Berry’s work.
The third chapter is driven by a question that certainly needs asking—and then careful answering—namely, whether or not Berry’s ideas depend “on Christianity or at least a religious view of the world” (77). Oehlschlaeger confesses to have answered the question in class once with “considerable equivocation” (77). And by the end of the chapter he says, “I offer no definitive answer, only a little more complex story” (115). But the story he offers does add up to something like a definitive answer, and Oehlschlaeger handles it deftly. The answer for Berry lies in “our most important freedom”: freedom from ourselves (116). “Learning this is the lifelong work of love, the everyday practice of resurrection in making the self a gift” (116). Oehlschlaeger admits that he does not know “[w]hether self-overcoming in self-giving is a peculiarly Christian practice,” but he does claim that “wherever such self-overcoming is practiced, there something very like Christianity is being practiced” (116).
If that is principally an ethical pronouncement, it is not for this reason theologically uninformed. Oehlschlaeger again enlarges the context, situating Berry’s religious thought firmly within a decidedly anti-gnostic Trinitarian Christian orthodoxy. He rightly sees Berry’s dissatisfaction with a strand of Christianity that is merely “a technique for individual salvation [and] whose language is also available, when needed, for pious consecration of national purposes” (89). Oehlschlaeger is especially good (as is Berry) on the problem of religious complicity in the desecration of nature. He persuasively argues that there is a distinctly “biblical quality” to Berry’s thinking (108). Oehleschlaeger notes the importance for Berry of the Sabbath, both as idea and practice, and also to those passages, principally in Isaiah, that concern right land use and ownership. All of this requires delicacy, for Berry is not comfortable being called a religious writer; he is, as Berry himself has said, a writer who is interested in religion or one for whom religious concerns are important. Oehlschlaeger does not state his case in exactly these words, but he captures their spirit. I should add that Oehlschlaeger goes so far as to show how Berry’s thinking intersects with such documents as the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968) and also with such Eastern Orthodox emphases as theosis and ecstasis. Oehlschlaeger’s handling of the topic is skillful and very broadly informed.
The remainder of the book is devoted to Berry’s fiction and poetry, with one chapter on the short stories (the “overall arc” of which is a movement “from hurt to charity” [6-7]), one on the five shorter novels (the theme of which is memory, which receives its “fullest treatment” in The Memory of Old Jack ), one on the three longer novels (stories of “love in a time of war” ), and a final chapter on the poetry.
The chapters on Berry’s fiction constitute, in my judgment, the main strength of this book. Except perhaps for finding a bit more seriousness in those places where Berry appears to be going mainly for laughs (and there are many such places in the fiction), Oehlschlaeger is carefully attuned to the underlying charity, to the rich sense of family, community, and place, and to the complexities and afflictions—such as internal disaffection and external predation—that characterize the Port William membership and that in sum compose the “hard history of love,” a phrase Oehlschlaeger borrows from “The Hurt Man” and uses as his subtitle. He sees Berry’s fiction—the long novels, especially—as “accounts of practical peace-making” (198). They invite us “to ask whether the nation cynically uses local fidelities for ideological purposes quite alien to the reasons young Americans enter military service. How legitimate is it,” Oehlschlaeger asks, “to depend on the commitment of young people to their own places on earth to wage wars for such abstractions as the extension of democracy or free markets?” (197).
The novels expose the dangers of a Protestantism that devalues the body. They show us that we suffer not only because of loss but also, perhaps especially, because of our incorrigible selves. They are governed, says Oehlschlaeger, by a Johannine sense of love and understanding, showing us the operations of kindness, the force of local life in work, and the salutary nature of local memory in the old local practice of story-telling. And, again, the context is large. Oehlschlaeger directs our attention to the biblical narratives that underwrite much of Berry’s fiction; he also brings to bear such disparate thinkers as Hans Urs von Balthasar, René Girard, and Søren Kierkegaard. All of this is done with a proper respect for the perils—ranging from the uncharitable to the tyrannical—attendant to literary criticism, of which Berry has often voiced his suspicion.
We await, still, a treatment of Berry’s poetry that is concerned principally with form. Oehlschlaeger’s final chapter attends to the task of poetry, which on Berry’s account, he says, is to preserve the particular and to uphold and remember goodness. We all know “that our language is never fully commensurate with what it seeks to describe or convey,” Oehlschlaeger writes (238). “Our descriptions are always abstractions from all that is, and thus the need is for responsive and responsible ones. Keeping language responsible is an ever more difficult task, and it is preeminently the task of poetry, as Berry sees it, to be the last refuge of the particular” (238). And it is appropriate to a book with the subtitle Oehlschlaeger has given his that it move toward this: “The Word for Berry is Love, there at the beginning and the end, standing over all, entering into all. The end for the poet, then, paradoxically, is to arrive at a kind of speechlessness, a silence before the Word that creates and sustains everything” (264).
Whatever minor quibbles I have with The Achievement of Wendell Berry are so small that they merit a kindred silence. This is a right-minded and intelligent book, one likely to draw a mixed audience but aware of this readership throughout. And it is worth noting that the Culture of the Land series to which it belongs, edited by Norman Wirzba (Duke University) and published by Steve Wrinn, is one of the best ongoing projects in the current world of academic publishing.