Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Imagine All the People: Good Art is Bad Politics

(reflections on Stephen L. Carter's book THE VIOLENCE OF PEACE: AMERICA'S WARS IN THE AGE OF OBAMA excerpted in NEWSWEEK, Wendell Berry's fiction, and a review by James Seaton in THE WEEKLY STANDARD, Dec. 20, 2010, of THE SOUTHERN CRITICS: AN ANTHOLOGY edited by Glenn C. Arbery.)

Imagine, John Lennon sings, no possessions, all the people living as one, in peace.  Or, with the essayists of the 1930s known as the Southern Agrarians, imagine...
...such things as attachment to place from generation to generation, the traditions and communities that sprang up around such attachments, attunement to the rhythms of nature and its contingencies, strong bonds of kinship, a sense of the sacred, and indifference to an abstract idea of wealth understood in terms of monetary values (Seaton 33).
That entire list of themes is detectable in Wendell Berry's wonderful fictions. Even in a single episode of A PLACE ON EARTH, kinfolk come to help a young mother rebuild after a violent rush of flood water has swept her little daughter away and after the father, having failed to protect her, has left in shame.  The mother continues to care for the animals alone while a cousin repairs the flood damage, and the town's lawyer frees her from the clutches of an absentee landlord who cared more about money than about his land or the people on it.

But, realistic as a fiction writer's style may be, attentive to minute details, evoking the most appealing ideals, it's still not reality.  We artists are gods to our characters, and we set the parameters for the choices they can make.  Our own preferences will shape their worlds.

That's why artists -- including essayists and those performance artists that we call "commentators" -- would be scary in political office.  In a book explaining how little difference there is between Obama and Bush on war and security issues, Stephen Carter writes...
The need to pick from among several unappealing ways to defend the nation is what separates presidents from pundits.  I believe that much of the virulent hatred directed at president Obama's predecessor, and at Obama himself, arises from a rejection of this proposition.  To the hater, the world is simple, not complex.  The answers are obvious.  "If the president were only as clear-eyed and wise as I am," the protester thinks, "he would see the world as it truly is, and make better decisions." (Carter 35).
The same principle applies to such political questions of the proper balance between individual responsibility and communal responsibility.  It's utopian to "imagine no possessions" and sharing among us all; but it's equally utopian to imagine that everyone who works hard can get ahead, or that, by denying help we are somehow preserving American virtues of hard work. Remember how Theodore Roosevelt modified his doctrinaire belief in laissez-faire policies when Jacob Riis took him on a tour through the squalid homes of immigrant families, who labored as hard as anyone and who yet could not catch up, much less get ahead. 

Besides, someone else's virtue isn't our business.  See how ridiculous it was for the Southern Agrarian Andrew Lytle to exhort all Southerners to give up "motor-cars, picture shows, chain-store dresses... [and] Sears-Roebuck catalogues" (33).    A modern day progressive wrote a book asking in the title, What's wrong with Kansas?  The perception of such a condescending attitude in Mr. Obama and more in his supporters, more than any policy, is what rankles conservatives. 

Seaton, regarding the Southern Agrarians, concludes that
it would be a mistake to take the guidance of literary intellectuals urging either a leap into an (imagined) utopia of the future or a return to a (largely mythical) past.... [They] are often wise when they write about literature and about family and personal relationships, but not so wise when they address large political and social questions (33).
 Ironically, just four pages after those words in this conservative news magazine,  we find another reviewer, Nathan Harden, approving author Charles Hill's idea that "blindness to literary insight is the Achilles' heel of pure political science" (37).  I suppose any kind of blindness is bad in political discourse.  Let the political leaders read literature, including the Bible, but let's not take the writers and priests for political leaders.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Grief and Belief: Three Pages from Wendell Berry
(reflections on A PLACE ON EARTH by Wendell Berry, published by Counterpoint.)

Today I was surprised by grief, a sudden tipping from contentedness to tears. Wendell Berry's compassionate but measured writing was a catalyst that unleashed feelings I've held in since Dad died.  [See my personal guide to Berry's Port William fiction.]

This cold Saturday morning, I opened A PLACE ON EARTH to a dogeared page where I'd left off last weekend, midway through the book. Though it has no plot, this book does have a story: the young men of the town are away at World War II, and Virgil Feltner is missing in action. Now, in a section called "A Comforter," the town's preacher calls on the home of Mat and Margaret Feltner, Bible in hand, to speak the expected words of comfort for a family in mourning. Virgil's wife Hannah is there, too, living with her husband's parents.

It's almost a comedy of manners, because the comforter is the one who needs to be put at ease. We see how his arrival interrupts the family's daily work, as Margaret puts aside the dishes, and Mat has to shed muddy boots and to wash up before he can come join the family. Until all of the family can sit down, talk is of the weather, of the day, of anything but Virgil.

Berry doesn't play it for laughs, though. We see from the preacher's point of view. "The preacher feels himself drawn again, helplessly, into the stream of pastime conversation, which moves by no force of its own but by a determination in all of them against silence." With every new turn of the conversation, he feels his own failure. But when he does announce why he has come, talk stops, and Margaret "touches the tips of her fingers lightly to the side of her face." He speaks at them... a man walking before a strong wind, moved no longer by his intention but by the force of what he is saying. ...But beneath the building edifice of his meaning, he is aware of something failing between them. ...He feels that the force of his voice is turning back toward himself, that he is fleeing into the safe coherence of his own words....(98)

Then focus shifts to the father, Mat. He has kept at bay the knowledge that his son is lost, and the preacher has let it loose. The preacher speaks of heaven, a hope beyond their lives, and that's where the preacher's mind is as he speaks.

But in this hope--this last simplifying rest-giving movement of the mind-- Mat realizes that he is not free, and never has been. He is doomed to hope in the world, in the bonds of his own love. ...His hope of Heaven must be the hope of a man bound to the world that his life is not ultimately futile or ultimately meaningless, a hope more burdening than despair. (99)

That hope can be more burdensome than despair -- that strikes me as true, a theme that ennobles Berry's works.

When this ordeal of social awkwardness is over and the preacher leaves, Mat touches Hannah's shoulder and asks, "All right?" She smiles and says she's all right.

Then she cries, "No! I'm not all right! I'm not!"

That's where I lost it. The dogs were there, comforting and funny in their concern. I've recently been in that same kind of room with the same kind of chit-chat, with the same cast of characters.

I've written about Berry many other times: See my personal guide to Berry's Port William fiction.