Friday, February 5, 2010

Imagination in Place

Imagination in Place, by Wendell Berry, Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2010.

This is a coherent collection of essays, mostly of literary criticism (and, because of the author's person, also of cultural criticism). Those who have read my previous reviews of collected works, especially those that are collections of previously published essays, will know that this is high praise indeed. The coherency apparent in this book is not one of shared subject matter (the subjects covered are quite diverse, from the Civil War to Fundamentalism to Shakespeare, to name but a few); and it is not an artificially imposed coherency papered over the surface of what is (if truth be known) actually disparate material. Rather, the coherency arises subtly but unmistakeably from the durable passions and consistent attentions of the author, passions and attentions that have been sustained over a lifetime of work and throughout a variety of relationships--personal, literary and agricultural. Moreover, you are not likely to have encountered many of these essays before--however devoted you are to reading Berry--unless you are a subscriber to The Sewanee Review or are a "professional" literature teacher, because of the places where the essays previously appeared (e.g., multi-author works, literary journals like American Poet, or news outlets like The San Jose Mercury News).

Let us start with a definition of "Imagination in Place" (title essay, 2004). According to Berry, imagination is the attempt to make whole what is experienced in part. "[W]orks of imagination come of an impulse to transcend the limits of experience or provable knowledge in order to make a thing that is whole." "Imagination 'completes the picture' by transcending the actual memories and provable facts" (pp. 3-4). Imagination is a gift, a transcendent gift. Berry says "[m]y experience with imagination has taught me to believe in inspiration, about which I think nobody can speak with much authority" (p. 6). This last statement is humbling for a preacher. According to Berry, it should be humbling not just for the preacher, but also for the atheist, scientist, engineer, economist and businessman, and the politician ("God, Science, and Imagination"). In his reprise of the litany of 20th century destruction in which everyone alive now participates, Berry convicts us first and foremost of a lack of imagination:

  • "not one person now living in the United States who, by a strict accounting, could be said to be living an exemplary moral life"
  • "implicated, by direct participation and by proxies given suppliers"
  • loss of half our topsoil and most of our forest and prairies
  • loss of mineral wealth and underground water
  • pollution of surface water and air
  • destruction of rural cultures
  • extinction of plants and animals
  • wastelands
  • landfills
  • industrial dumps
  • the turning of chemicals of warfare onto the soil in pursuit of efficient production

Berry's constant point seems to be that a moral imagination--one that works against the widespread destruction of our times--is an imagination grounded. The place from which imagination sees that which no eye can see is "irreducible" (p. 12) For Berry this place is the farm; that is where he exercises his imagination. The farm is the "irreducible" mundane or temporal just as God is the "irreducible" eternal (p. 183). Humans share with one another and with their place the same sort of relationship they share with their God. Neither the farm nor God can be simplified and thoroughly comprehended by human effort and human mind without remainder. The moral imagination is therefore an imagination vested in a particular place. But moral imagination requires of human vision not only realism (and its standard, "how things really are"), but also "how things will be, how you want things to be, how things ought to be." Moral imagination tries to envision the world "whole," a whole that is both temporal and eternal--to see how things really are and how they really should be. Imagine!

In "American Imagination and the Civil War" (2007) Berry suggests that ultimate cause of the Civil War (the reason it was not averted) was a failure of moral imagination, specifically a failure of "the prevailing virtue and efficacious operation of lenity" (quoting Burke about that other civil war, the American Revolution). With imagination--with "lenience or gentleness or mercy"--other possibilities than war, possibilities like "reconciliation on terms of justice or amicable separation" could have been opened up (p. 23). Berry says that we should consider not just North and South as parties to that war, but a "third side," that of the dead. Walt Whitman's imagination, as he comes at dawn upon three soldiers lying dead near a hospital tent, allows (requires?) him to see in the face of the third soldier "the face of the Christ himself, Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies" (p. 25). Berry says that our current civil war (that on agriculture, rural communities, and the land itself) is also a failure of imagination: "I have been describing an enormous failure, and to me this appears to be a failure of imagination." We are, Berry says, destroying our country because of our failure to imagine it. (p. 30; "it" being the destruction of our country. We seem to be blind to it.) It is here that Berry provides a working definition of that imagination of which he speaks: "I do not mean the ability to make things up or to make a realistic copy. I mean the ability to make real to oneself the life of one's place or the life of one's enemy" (p. 30). Generalization, like war, is destructive of particular people and local places, but a poet's or novelist's imagination tethered loyally to a particular place and to particular persons can speak also for me and my place (pp. 33, 37). And, exercised well, it may lead to love of neighbor and prayers for enemies.

What follows these two programmatic essays is a series of portraits of authorial imagination. There is no heavy hand here, but everywhere Berry searches the lives and works of writers--contemporary and hoary--for hints, clues, and traces of imagination and inspiration as he has defined it. He seeks in these authors an imagination grounded in place. The good news for us and for him is that it is everywhere in evidence here among these authors who have been most influential for Berry and, where we are conscious of it, also for us.

  • Wallace Stegner ("The Momentum of Clarity" and "In Memoriam")

  • John Haines ("Speech after Long Silence")

  • Hayden Carruth ("My Friend Hayden"). I could not help but chuckle at Berry's comment about North Winter that "[i]t told me, at a time when I greatly needed to hear it, that one writer may do life-sustaining work in a place that, to others, would be 'nowhere'" (p. 58). Writing from Indianapolis--long known as "Indiana-no-place" that comes as a relief.
  • James Still ("In Memory" and "A Master Language")

  • Gurney Norman ("My Conversation with Gurney Norman")

  • Jane Kenyon ("Sweetness Preserved"). Here Berry gives expression to what I have often wondered about the folks who would have us consider literature apart from the historical setting and biography of the author, "[h]ow then are we to help knowing what we know?" (p. 88) Here too he gives considerable attention to the notion of exile and place. Given the importance of exile both to biblical and literary themes, this essay in particular is worth some additional attention.

  • Gary Snyder ("Some Interim Thoughts about Gary Snyder's Mountains and Rivers without End")

  • James Baker Hall ("In Memory")

  • Kathleen Raine ("Against the Nihil of the Age") Berry rings the changes on this "poet of the Imagination"--both her own poetry and her interaction with the likes of Blake, Yeats, et al. This is an essay to which I shall return many times, Lord willing.

  • William Shakespeare ("The Uses of Adversity") comparison of "As You Like It" and "King Lear" with an eye toward their moral imagination, especially as it pertains to the "uses" of adversity.

I will treasure and return to this collection for what it reveals about Berry as much as its revelations about the authors whom he selects for review. It is a window into Berry's own spirit, into his inspiration, or at least into his imagination.

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