Wendell Berry Is a Tall Man

Bryan Wandel: Wendell Berry on the wisdom and humility of moral complicity.

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Wendell Berry is a tall man. It is hard to imagine any 77-year-old as tall, but Berry appears to be at least six feet. It’s often said of height that it bestows stature, which might be why we’ve only had one president under 5’11” ½ in the last 50 years (Jimmy Carter).

But I still don’t expect poets to be tall. The deep thinkers aren’t supposed to tower over us or remind us in any way of their physical superiority. It’s true that Thomas Aquinas was a “Dumb Ox” – but my mind won’t really let him be that big.

On Monday night, my wife and I attended a rare lecture given by Berry in receipt of an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The evening’s “playbill” contained the well-known fact that the agrarian “owns no television,” but also elaborated that he “says he is increasingly wary of screens.” And during Berry’s talk on the destructiveness of industry and statistical knowledge, it was hard not to notice (behind his tall figure) a 15’ by 30’ screen projecting his real-time image.

It felt a little awkward, really. The audience laughed at Berry’s wry quips, which interspersed his sober thoughts. We laughed because it is ridiculous to hear the story of a tobacco monopolist who held farmers under his thumb while disgorging himself of bags of cash as a “philanthropist.” But while intending the irony, it somehow seemed Wendell wasn’t in on the joke.

An earlier generation saw an event like this – an agrarian speaking at a glamorous opera hall, a localist accepting an award from the federal government – and convulsed the word, “hypocrisy.” Not that Berry appeared to be a hypocrite, but all of us in the audience did. We received his words with good humor. We made him into a caricature, so that we could call him “interesting.” Berry said, “To think one thousand square miles is one thousand times better than one square mile – that is no imagination.” But we all returned to our jobs where there is no upper limit for profit, for client base, for constituents and voters.

In the 1960s, they used the word, “hypocrite,” a lot. It was jejune, sure. What does a 23 year old know about life? But it was sensitive, and morally sensitive at that. I’m not calling hippies saints, but isn’t it the job of a prophet to call people hypocrites?

People who are quick to feel the contradiction of hypocrisy are searching for purity. In older age, they’ll find out that they are not pure, and the gateway will open to the wisdom that only old people like Wendell Berry know (really know): that with age comes acceptance, and acceptance learns moral complicity. This is not necessarily a surrender of ideals, as much as realizing that we must hold our ideals with the tightest grip because we are always transgressing them. As Berry said the other night, “We are all implicated. We all assent to it, whether or not we approve it.” Berry does not use a computer, out of moral striving for purity, but he also recognizes that he is constantly taking part in an economy that he calls sinful. You cannot buy a shoe or a shovel or a Golden Retriever without being complicit in the economy that ignores personal knowledge and alienates each member of the production cycle from each other. Every transaction is an interaction.

Wendell Berry’s conclusion was abrupt: “We do not have to live as if we are alone,” he said, without the audience knowing he was finishing. And he grabbed his notes and exited the stage, leaving us alone. Clearly it was time to applaud, and we did. With some prodding, Berry was coaxed back on stage while we stood in ovation. The tall, old man sheepishly smiled and then turned quickly for the door again, stage right.

After the Puritan roiling of England in the mid-1600s, the English people were exhausted. The three decades following the restoration of monarchy saw a huge slide in public morality and even aversion to religious purity. The promiscuity of King Charles II was open for all to joke about, and indeed it was a joke. It is not uncommon for cultures that have been heavily seized by accusations of hypocrisy and feelings of moral sensitivity to drop into the baseness of sarcasm. But it is Wendell Berry’s hope that we will not give up when we find out we are morally compromised, but find through the discovery the wisdom that will help us hold to ideals with equal parts firmness and humility, not decreasing the one in order to meet the other.

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