“Humility, Reverence, Propriety of Scale,
and Good Workmanship“
A Review of
Imagination in Place:
by Wendell Berry.
Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.
Imagination in Place.
Hardback: Counterpoint, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
In the last chapter of The Essential Agrarian Reader, Wendell Berry contrasts two types of minds, first the rational mind, “hell-bent on quantification,” failing to include “things that cannot be quantified – the health of watersheds, the integrity of ecosystems, the wholeness of human hearts.” As a corrective is the “affective or sympathetic mind,” which works in a particular context with a sort of creative sympathy towards places and communities. Furthermore, working in a context makes impossible the reductionism and abstraction of the rational mind, instead acknowledging that our “pictures of realities…are constantly subject to correction – by new facts, of course, but also by experience, by intuition, and by faith. We may say, then, that our sciences and arts owe a certain courtesy to Reality, and that this courtesy can be enacted only by humility, reverence, propriety of scale, and good workmanship.”
Berry’s newest book of essays, Imagination in Place, could be characterized as expanding the description of the ‘sympathetic mind’ as Berry has experienced it as a farmer and a writer, and even more as he has come to recognize and depend on that mind in the work and friendship of other writers. One mark of all these writers, Berry included, is that they are ‘placed,’ and not in the easy sentimentalization of ‘Place’ that seems to be floating around recently; rather, “to submit to the unending effort to change one’s mind and ways to fit one’s farm. This is a hard education, which lasts all one’s life, never to be completed” (10). This ongoing work, in which “nature [is] the inevitable mirror and measure of art” (11) is the work of imagination, as Berry will continue to make clear.
It is important that imagination – as it is fleshed out in Imagination in Place – becomes just that, a material thing, embodied in art and work in ways by which all things are made new; imagination moves us beyond our selves to see people and places, reality, as they really are. Imagination could perhaps help us to see that the economy of the Kingdom of God is at hand, as Berry has suggested before. This economy may be the greatest imaginative act of all, because it asks that we “include everything.” In addition, though, imagination is particularizing and local, “placing the world and its creatures within a context of sanctity in which their worth in absolute and incalculable” (32). For instance:
“My neighbors don’t look like Southerners or Kentuckians to me. The better I know them, the more they look like themselves. The better I know my place, the less it looks like other places and the more it looks like itself. It is imagination, and only imagination, that can give standing to these distinctions.
If imagination is to have a real worth to us, it needs to have a practical, an economic, effect. It needs to establish us in our places with a practical respect for what is there besides ourselves. I think the highest earthly result of imagination is probably local adaptation” (33-4).
This imaginative act of adaptation and empathy is seen in many writers about whom Berry writes stories, criticism, and a couple eulogies – Wallace Stegner, Hayden Carruth, Jane Kenyon, Shakespeare, and others demonstrate, and in some sense explain, imagination’s clarifying and transformative power. Although Berry writes in this volume primarily about writers, it should be understood that when describing ‘art,’ he just as often means ‘work,’ or the ways by which humans “imagine the experience, to see it clear and whole in the mind’s eye” (3-4); Berry describes in the first chapter the difficulty, and the problem, of separating out the place where he works from the work itself as a farmer and as a writer, and the circle of friends and influences in that work. The wonderful work of imagination – and the way it gets embodied in art and in places – is how all of the influences, contexts, and experiences are bound together in a cohesive whole.
This line of thought again clarifies the distinction between the rational mind and the sympathetic mind. The rational mind (described also in terms of fundamentalism in “God, Science, and Imagination” and in art as ‘realism’) “assumes the posture of absolute certainty and unquestionability” (185). The sympathetic imagination, it seems to me, is described most beautifully in “A Master Language”:
“There is, of course, a difference between realism and what [John Millington] Synge called ‘reality.’ Realism is the most fraudulent of literary illusions because it promotes in its theory the illusion that it is not an illusion. ‘Reality’ in art is life made immediate to the imagination. Like Synge’s plays, Mr. [James] Still’s stories feed on observation and hearing, but they give us, not what has been seen and heard, but what has been imagined. The story set before us moves us because it is imaginable as lived life; its language is imaginable as spoken speech. We do not read as observers of putatively ‘real’ events that have been observed, but rather as participants in events that have been so fully imagined that we too cannot help but imagine them” (79-80).
Berry suggests throughout Imagination in Place that, quoting from King Lear, “thy life’s a miracle.” Given that miracle, the appropriate response is “humility, reverence, propriety of scale, and good workmanship,” and it is by imagination – and by faith – that we come to see the gift for what it is. Berry’s stability in his place and to his work, described as it is for may of us by his writing, is certainly encouragement at this writing, even as he graciously acknowledges many others who are doing the good work of embodying imagination.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com