Wendell Berry’s Passion Play

I don’t hesitate to say that damage or destruction of the land-community is morally wrong, just as [Aldo] Leopold did not hesitate to say so when he was composing his essay, “The Land Ethic,” in 1947. But I do not believe, as I think Leopold did not, that morality, even religious morality, is an adequate motive for good care of the land-community. The primary motive for good care and good use is always going to be affection, because affection involves us entirely.  — Wendell Berry, “It All Turns On Affection”

The above quotation is a less insistently Jewish version of the case that I laid out in my earlier post on Wendell Berry’s recent Jefferson Lecture: that his case for and version of affection allows particular, rather than universal, truths to serve as arbiter of proper affection.  I suppose it’s my prooftext—and like any true prooftext, it’s worthy of close attention.

But Berry is writing here about motivation, not about cause or justification.  What will get us out of our beds and into the field with our mule, rather than our tractor-trailer?  “I care for this place, and the tractor, unnatural, man’s creation, harms it; using the natural [1] mule instead will help me to repair it and be a better husband to it,” is a simpler case to make—especially to another—than, “It is immoral to use this tractor-trailer.”  When challenged, “How do you know that?” the first question can be answered by, “I have used both; I have my experience as a farmer”; the latter, however, requires philosophical legwork and (perhaps) jujitsu to make it work.

The progression of affection-as-motive, then, is this: I live in a place.  I have, then, commitments to this locality.  This locality and my commitments/debt to it provide guidance to me.  The locality comprises both the human community and the natural system—that is, Nature.  To be guided, even in part, by a debt to the non-human, to Nature, is a realization and articulation of human limits.  This guidance that shows me my debts and my limits is affection.  It is always particular—to both the locality and, in increasingly small subdivisions, every community within the locality, down to the individual.  It is determined, at least in non-negligible part, by particular, individual experience.

So far, so good.  In a world without conflicts, this affection would suffice.  But if affection is particular, my affection can come into conflict with my neighbor’s.  This, I suppose, is easy enough to resolve through an appeal to communal experience as a means of determining a compromise or proper, affective, choice.  (One of us, after all, might have accidentally veered into a short-sighted affection that Berry acknowledges.)  Such a conflict could, that is, be resolved by recourse to affection itself.

Such is not (or not so easily) the case if my affection—or my community’s—comes into conflict with that of a distant, or non-local, community.  Can we divert water and build a dam that will help provide electricity for the region?  On the one hand, it will irrevocably alter—destroy, even—localities which some have affection for.  At the same time, it will benefit other localities, and other people—not just in that I can have, eventually, high-speed internet in my home, but in that my town can have a better doctor’s office, better schools, and so on.  Or: a scenario that calls for over-harvesting the land (or violating the limits set by Nature/affection) for a year or two to help alleviate famine elsewhere?  My point is not that affection would require one to side, always, with one’s own locality—but that these and similar scenarios would require recourse to a mediating principle other than affection.  At the limits of affection, one must turn to morality or turn inward.

So we can imagine a scenario where what affection prompts one to do and what morality prompts one to do might be in conflict; it may well not even take the local-universal dichotomy of my examples above.  While experience might be able to help me determine whether my affection is rightly or wrongly intuited, where there is no experience—or where there is no truly common, communal experience relevant to the conflict—affection would seem to be rightly intuited.  This is not the moment when, as Martin Buber acknowledged, one must ask whether the voice one hears is God or Moloch[2]—rather, it is the moment where, as in the Antigone, both sides claim accurately to have heard the voice of God.  The conflict in Sophokles’ play is driven by the absence of any mediating principle—Tiresias’ sixth sense, too, has gone blind.

Berry tells us, in such a scenario, to side with one’s own affection.  Morality is abstract, impersonal, and possibly poorly reasoned—ever revised philosophy and law!—but one knows, from one’s own experience, that affection is true.  When prompted toward two different directions, affection is the better judge.  It speaks to me, to my whole being.  It, unlike morality, “involves us entirely.”

But what is this Romantic sentiment that affection, unlike morality or ethics, involves the whole being?  Or this notion that such involvement of the whole being is itself a means of judging what is good or best?  It is enthusiasm; it is passion.  The former is, in its root sense, a possession by a god; the latter a suffering or physical impression received.  They are meant, in those senses, to be contained, whether by ritual or reason.  Unrestrained, they are closer to Nietzsche’s Dionysus than Apollo’s reason.  And let us be clear: by preferring affection to morality, one prefers particular, experiential prejudice to even a divinely-commanded moral reasoning.

(Some, of course, will not object to finding themselves in league with Nietzsche, Dionysus, and the quest for authenticity—but I do, and I do not think it is forward of me to suggest that Berry would as well.)

The fault lies not so much with the content ofBerry’s thought, but with its syntax.  Affection for the little platoons and treasured places of our lives is not in itself a problem—without it, one might even make the case that we wouldn’t get very far in implementing moral action.  Affection can provide a starting point or even, as Berry notes, an impetus.  But its moral syntax must be clear.  Contrast, for the moment,Berry’s passionate affection with the syntax of Levinas’ own consideration of affection for the particular (feel free to ignore or disagree with the decidedly Levinasian content):

I think that in the responsibility for others prescribed by a non-archaic monotheism it reminds us that it should not be forgotten that my family and my people, despite the possessive pronouns, are my “others”, like strangers, and demand justice and protection.  The love of the other—the love of one’s neighbour.  Those near to me are also my neighbours. [3]

Affection has its place in this framework—love and command, not reason, are the primary motivators here—but as clearly subordinate to a higher, controlling moral claim.  The syntax of Berry’s thought is not even the inversion of this—it is muddled and ambiguous.  This ambiguity, however, lends itself not to a subordinating of morality to affection when the two are found in competition, but a jettisoning of the former altogether.  Unchecked passion and affection can turn one inward; when the experience from which they argue slips from the particular into the private.  Berry’s insistent claim that man is not the measure of all things runs the ironic risk of claiming, by accident, in the wrong hands, that the individual is.

The solution, to my eyes, is simple.  It can’t all turn on affection.


NEXT: “Boomers” and “Stickers” in our lazy, hazy, crazy postmodern world?


[1] Mules, of course, are also unnatural and a human creation meant to make our physical labors more efficient and easy.  Not that I’d want to be that guy who raises his hand to challenge Berry about his preferred farm power-tool, but I would be interested to hear how he justifies one over the other—though I suspect it would be in pointing out that the mule, while not naturally occurring in itself, still remains part of the natural system; the tractor (like our human aspirations?) exists outside the natural system.

[2] Kierkegaard posed the dilemma well before Buber repeated it.  But while Kierkegaard implies that anyone who asks the question cannot give themselves over fully, Buber sees it as essential to faith.  A topic for another day, but Buber seems to view this dilemma as requiring resolution—and is, in one of the great discredits to his work, wholly unable to offer anything other than individual judgment.  He resolves the dilemma by taking us back to its first step.

[3] Beyond the Verse, p. xx.  I picked this passage not out of solidarity with my earlier post, but because I was thumbing through the book over the weekend.

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2 thoughts on “Wendell Berry’s Passion Play

  1. About one paragraph after I thought to myself that I should go back and reread Levinas, you got to Levinas. As for what Berry is saying, I’ve been thinking about this idea of certain truths being “written on the heart” lately- it seems like you could have an affection that was prime but also subordinate to a higher moral claim without it being explicitly articulated. Saul Bellow’s beautiful last line in Mr. Sammler’s Planet comes to mind: “For that is the truth of it—that we all know, God, that we know, we know, we know.”

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  2. Your post is a tad hard to follow. At least for me, but I will try to respond as best I can but summarizing what I think Mr. Berry means by affection and natural.

    By affection he means physical, emotional, cultural *investment* in a place. Ideally over generations. This investment tends to develop a culture that values that place and tends to choose environmentally and culturally healthier actions than an outsider (or transient or transplant) would.

    As for mules, and natural. Berry laments our drift away from “The Natural”. I.e., *living things* or *living systems*. Mules are natural (they actually would occur in nature, just rarely). But that is beside the point. *Agriculture* is man-made if you think about it. But it is a man-made process of working with living things. It is an action of nurture, harmony… and as he often says, “husbandry”.

    Now, a more local, transient population is still going to be using technologies that Berry scorns, but… that community will be more involved. More connected. More caring. More invested. And maybe, more “natural”.

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