Saturday, 13 March 2010

Wendell Berry on Contrarianism

I am done with apologies. If contrariness is my
inheritance and destiny, so be it. If it is my mission
to go in at exits and come out at entrances, so be it.
I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts,
and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing,
and reaped, as I knew, by luck and Heaven's favor,
in spite of the best advice. If I have been caught
so often laughing at funerals, that was because
I knew the dead were already slipping away,
preparing for a comeback, and can I help it?
And if at weddings I have gritted and gnashed
my teeth, it was because I knew where the bridegroom
had sunk his manhood, and knew it would not
be resurrected by a piece of cake. "Dance" they told me
and I stood still, and while they stood
quiet in line at the gate of the Kingdom, I danced.
"Pray" they said, and I laughed, covering myself
in the earth's brightnesses, and then stole off gray
into the midst of a revel, and prayed like an orphan.
When they said "I know that my Redeemer liveth,"
I told them "He's dead." And when they told me
"God is dead," I answered "He goes fishing every day
in the Kentucky River. I see Him often."
When they asked me would I like to contribute
I said no, and when they had collected
more than they needed, I gave them as much as I had.
When they asked me to join them I wouldn't
and then went off by myself and did more
than they would have asked. "Well, then" they said
"go and organize the International Brotherhood
of Contraries," I said "Did you finish killing
everybody who was against peace?" So be it.
Going against men, I have heard at times a deep harmony
thrumming in the mixture, and when they ask me what
I say I don't know. It is not the only or the easiest
way to come to the truth. It is one way.

Wendell Berry, The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer, The Mad Farmer Poems

[HT The Ochlophobist (]

Since moving and unpacking my books I realise that I have misplaced my copy of Wendell Berry's The Art of the Commonplace, which loss is causing me no small amount of consternation. For those unfamiliar with Berry, he is an American farmer, from Kentucky in fact, Henry County to be specific, who also happens to be a poet, a prolific and well-regarded novelist (Jayber Crow, Hannah Coulter et al), essayist and sometime philosopher and apologist for all things agrarian well as being a full-time contrarian (i.e., one who takes a view or action contrary to the majority of his contemporaries.)
Contrarians, who are by definition rare, are precious; we need more of them in the world (if that makes sense!). Some folk think contrarians are contrary just for the sake of it, whereas in actual fact they are more often than not contending for an important, life or death principle or truth that others have long since lost sight of. Without contrarians, the world would be even more dangerous and out of kilter than it is, for, as Kierkegaard, another contrarian, once noted: truth seldom resides in a majority.

As the pic of Mr. Berry shows, contrarians are not necessarily grumpy souls, but often as cheerful as those who are under the delusion that they are right simply because most everyone else thinks the same way they do. I ask you, how could you not like a man who wears a cardigan with such stylish aplomb?


David Cochrane said...

Ty for pointing this fella out. I am looking into his books.

acroamaticus said...

You're welcome, David.

Berry is a devout Christian, but one who resists easy categorisation, which is to say that while I don't agree with every position he holds I am still blessed by reading him.

An article in Christianity Today in 2006 pointed out that he is a very popular author among young college educated Evangelicals, and yet you will not find his books in Evangelical book stores - go figure.

He has also been a major influence on Eugene Peterson's writing on spiritual theology.


Matthias said...

i like his style. i thought he might have been a Christian when he wrote " Kingdom".And the response to God fishing in the Kentucky River,when He was meant to be dead(?!) perhaps had adouble meaning- no He's out fishign for the souls of men. Oh well just a thought.
well I ;m not off to Church today -it's my day of rest

acroamaticus said...


He may have meant, 'the redeemer as you conceive him is dead', meaning that they were worshipping an idol. I think he might be referring to a particular American take on God in the 1950s here, because the comment about God not being dead but down by the Kentucky River follows, which obviously refers to the 'God is Dead' theoogy of the 'generation of 1968'.

As far as I know Berry is quite an orthodox Christian, but he is anti 'the modern world', and hence also Christian adaptations to rampant capitalism, the 'military-industrial complex', etc. He was a conservationist beofre it was trendy, based on his background as a farmer. He's probably a Democrat too, rather than a Republican. He may even be Baptist, there are lots of 'em in Kentucky!

David Schutz said...

King Gama.
If you give me your attention, I will tell you what I am:
I'm a genuine philanthropist — all other kinds are sham.
Each little fault of temper and each social defect
In my erring fellow-creatures, I endeavour to correct.
To all their little weaknesses I open people's eyes;
And little plans to snub the self-sufficient I devise;
I love my fellow creatures — I do all the good I can —
Yet ev'rybody says I'm such a disagreeable man!
And I can't think why!
He can't think why!
Gama & Chorus.
I/He can't think why!

King Gama.
To compliments inflated I've a withering reply;
And vanity I always do my best to mortify;
A charitable action I can skillfully dissect;
And interested motives I'm delighted to detect;
I know ev'rybody's income and what ev'rybody earns;
And I carefully compare it with the income-tax returns;
But to benefit humanity however much I plan,
Yet ev'rybody says I'm such a disagreeable man!
And I can't think why!
He can't think why!
Gama & Chorus.
I/He can't think why!
King Gama.
I'm sure I'm no ascetic; I'm as pleasant as can be;
You'll always find me ready with a crushing repartee,
I've an irritating chuckle, I've a celebrated sneer,
I've an entertaining snigger, I've a fascinating leer.
To ev'rybody's prejudice I know a thing or two;
I can tell a woman's age in half a minute — and I do.
But although I try to make myself as pleasant as I can,
Yet ev'rybody says I'm such a disagreeable man!
And I can't think why!
He can't think why!
Gama & Chorus.
I/He can't think why!

W.S. Gilbert "Princess Ida"

Matthias said...

There is a very good profile of Berry on Wikpedia. He looks good for 76 years. I wonder if he and Mild Colonial Boy would get on?

acroamaticus said...

David, I'm not sure that's quite the type of contrarian I had in mind, such a type is better classified as a boor, yes?

Many happy returns, btw.

acroamaticus said...

He's led a good life! I don't know how much farming he still does; most farmers I know are worn out by about 60, but they seem to live to a ripe old age nontheless. Could be the outdoors life?

The Midland Agrarian said...

Hi Pastor,
Berry is being widely read among both evangelical and secular young intellectuals in America now, which is a very good trend.

I understand he attends a Baptist church on occasion, but does not quite fit into a typical orthodox believer. He has written on numerous occasions about not entirely approving of St Paul. On the other hand, as an "old western man" in the tradition of CS Lewis, he takes Scripture seriously. I suspect he engaged many of his theological questions through the former seminarian character Jayber Crow in the novel of same name. My favorite work of his in defense of the western humane learning tradition against scientific materialism is "Life is a Miracle"
He is also technically a Democrat, and a pacifist, based upon his taking the Bible seriously.
He is indeed a bundle of contradictions on the surface, but well worth reading. I think if our culture rescues itself from its current mire, Berry will be one of the reasons. If not, I hope his books survive to be read in a better day.


acroamaticus said...

Thanks so much for that extra information, Richard, and I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments re Berry's books.

Just think that when Berry left Columbia University (I think it was Columbia?) to go back to Kentucky and buy a farm his department head said it would be the end of him as a writer, and it turned out to be the making of him.

You might be interested to know, Richard, that we have a strong tradition of agrarianism here in Australia, but it tends to be very much at the popular level and without intellectual underpinning. I've always been fascinated by this stream of American thought, as it seems to me to represent the old American democratic ethos at its best.
Blessings to you!
(Btw, I'm linking to your blog, Richard.)

The Midland Agrarian said...

Thank you for the kind words and blessing. I am linking to you as well.

I have had the pleasure of getting to know an Australian family who own a small business near here. While they live in town now, they were smallholders in Australia. Once we got past the language barrier :-), we learned a lot from each other.

You might enjoy the writings of Allan Carlson. He is a Lutheran agrarian thinker of note here in the USA.


acroamaticus said...

Allan Carlson...thanks for the tip, Richard.

And for linking to me.

Good to hear you know some Australians over there, we have plenty of Americans over here, also in the Lutheran Church. In my previous parish I had an American farming couple who emigrated here c. 1970 from North Dakota -change of climate appealed, I guess! they have children in Cleveland, OH.

Melanchthon said...

I am going to post this to my e-mail list: Contrarian-L (it's a real list!)

We are proud to be contrarian, especially in the ELCA!

acroamaticus said...

Indeed! There is surely a special place in heaven for ecclesiastical contrarians, Jon.