Imagination in Place, Wendell Berry (Counterpoint) $24
Wendell Berry’s latest collection of essays entitled, Imagination in Place, is one part celebration of life on the family farm, which he has consistently tended for years in his native Kentucky, and one part homage to a community of writers that have nourished his own imagination.
Berry, as his frequent readers know, speaks in the tradition of the ancient prophets, cautioning his contemporaries of the dehumanizing consequences of our unbridled consumption and inattention to local environments. Like the prophets, he is tempting easy to ignore as crazy, out of touch with modern life.
Berry speaks often of the importance of place; in particular, in this volume, he is concerned with the relationship between local context and his fiction writing. He reflects on how he and other authors have been influenced by their rootedness in the agrarian South.
While it may seems at times that Berry indulges a romantic idealization of agrarian life, he is really more interested in people living in deep connection and awareness of the uniqueness of the place where they are. He is opposed to abstraction, which is so prevalent in our world today, whether in the world of literature, religion, or politics. It is the particularity of daily life that interests Berry and that has been a staple of his writing. This particularity lends itself not to the cult of simplicity, but rather to what he terms “complexification.”
When I am called, as to my astonishment I sometimes am, a devotee of “simplicity” (since I live supposedly as a “simple farmer”), I am obliged to reply that I gave up the simple life when I left New York City in 1964 and came here. In New York I lived as a passive consumer, supplying nearly all my needs by purchase, whereas here I supply many of my needs from this place by my work (and pleasure) and am responsible besides for the care of the place…. It is the complexity of the life of a place uncompromisingly itself, which is at the same time the life of the world, of all Creation (12).
In the title essay he describes what he means by imagination when he writes,
There is, true enough, a kind of writing that has an obligation to tell the truth about actual experience, and therefore it is obliged to accept the limits of what is actually or provably known. But works of imagination come of an impulse to transcend the limits of experience or provable knowledge in order to make a thing that is whole. No human work can become whole by including everything, but it can become whole in another way: by accepting its formal limits and then answering writhing those limits all the questions it raises (3).
In the final essay, Barry applies this notion of imagination to science and religion, pointing out that both sides of the debate are populated by fundamentalists who claim more than they know. It seems an odd essay to include here but it does speak in a specific way to the theme of imagination that Berry is addressing. Imagination is a way of artistically completing the picture of what is unknowable and what Berry conveys, not only in his writing, but also by his life, is that a moral imagination is one that is grounded in place.