Wendell Berry on Delight as a Force of Resistance to Consumerism, the Key to Mirth Under Hardship, and the Measure of a Rich Life
“The essential cultural discrimination is not between having and not having or haves and have-nots, but between the superfluous and the indispensable. Wisdom… is always poised upon the knowledge of minimums; it might be thought to be the art of minimums.”
By Maria Popova
“I have always had a quarrel with this country not only about race but about the standards by which it appears to live,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead as they sat down together to reimagine democracy for a post-consumerist world. A generation later, the poet, farmer, and ecological steward Wendell Berry — a poet in the largest Baldwinian sense — picked up the time-escalated quarrel in his slim, large-spirited book The Hidden Wound (public library) to offer, without looking away from its scarring realities, a healing and conciliatory direction of resistance to a culture in which our enjoyment of life is taken from us by the not-enoughness at the hollow heart of consumerism, only to be sold back to us at the price of the latest product, and sold in discriminating proportion along lines of stark income inequality.
It occurs to me that, for a man whose life from the beginning has been conditioned by the lives of black people, I have had surprisingly little to say about them in my other writings. Perhaps this is justifiable — there is certainly no requirement that a writer deal with any particular subject — and yet it has been an avoidance. When I have written about them before I have felt that I was doing little more than putting down a mark, leaving an opening, that I would later have to go back to and fill. For whatever reasons, good or bad, I have been unwilling until now to open in myself what I have known all along to be a wound — a historical wound, prepared centuries ago to come alive in me at my birth like a hereditary disease, and to be augmented and deepened by my life.
Berry recounts growing up around a black man named Nick, who worked for Berry’s grandfather. Nick, to whom he dedicates the book, was a benediction of presence during Berry’s most formative years — a hard-working man with a buoyant imagination and an uncommonly cheerful mindset. The small child befriended the large fifty-something man with the ardor of kinship chosen and not dictated by blood. Berry recalls his love of Nick with sweetness undiminished by the flight of decades:
One of my two or three chief ambitions was to be with him… I dogged his steps. So faithful a follower, and so young and self-important and venturesome as I was, I must have been a trial to him. But he never ran out of patience.
This bond had a deep impact on Berry as a writer and a human being, shaping both his poetry and the personhood from which it springs. He reflects:
The great benefit in my childhood friendship with Nick… was not an experience of sympathy, though that was involved and was essential, but a prolonged intense contact with lives and minds radically unlike my own, and radically unlike any other that I might have known as a white child among white adults. They don’t figure in my memory and in my thoughts about them as objects of pity, but rather as friends and teachers, ancestors you could say, the forebears of certain essential strains in my thinking.
From Nick, who had been working hard since childhood for the smallest of wages and with the slimmest of prospects for living any other way, Berry learned one of the hardest, most beautiful truths about living a rich life — a kind of existential contemplative practice of inclining the mind, whatever the conditions of the body, toward delight. A century after Hermann Hesse placed attendance to life’s little joys at the center of living with gladsome presence, Berry writes:
There were two heavy facts that Nick accepted and lived with: life is hard, full of work and pain and weariness, and at the end of it a man has got to go farther than he can imagine from any place he knows. And yet within the confines of those acknowledged facts, he was a man rich in pleasures. They were not large pleasures, they cost little or nothing, often they could not be anticipated, and yet they surrounded him; they were possible at almost any time, or at odd times, or at off times. They were pleasures to which a man had to be acutely and intricately attentive, or he could not have them at all. There were the elemental pleasures of eating and drinking and resting, of being dry while it is raining, of getting dry after getting wet, of getting warm again after getting cold, of cooling off after getting hot. There was pleasure to be taken in good work animals, as long as you remembered the bother and irritation of using the other kind. There was pleasure in the appetites and in the well-being of good animals. There was pleasure in quitting work. There were certain pleasures in the work itself. There was pleasure in hunting and in going to town, and in visiting and in having company. There was pleasure in observing and remembering the behavior of things, and in telling about it. There was pleasure in knowing where a fox lived, and in planning to run it, and in running it. And… Nick knew how to use his mind for pleasure; he remembered and thought and pondered and imagined. He was a master of what William Carlos Williams called the customs of necessity.
In a sentiment evocative of Kurt Vonnegut’s short poem about the secret of happiness and of Viktor Frankl’s hard-earned conviction that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances,” Berry adds:
In these times one contemplates it with the same sense of hope with which one contemplates the sunrise or the coming of spring: the image of a man who has labored all his life and will labor to the end, who has no wealth, who owns little, who has no hope of changing, who will never “get somewhere” or “be somebody,” and who is yet rich in pleasure, who takes pleasure in the use of his mind! Isn’t this the very antithesis of the thing that is breaking us in pieces? Isn’t there a great rare humane strength in this — this humble possibility that all our effort and aspiration is to deny?
Berry takes great care to address the reasonable objection that, given his position as a white man of moderately comfortable means, his portrait of Nick may be misconstrued as romanticizing poverty. (Baldwin acknowledged a kindred objection in contrasting the warmhearted poor of Istanbul with the wealthy but unsympathetic Swiss he had encountered during his relatively privileged life in Europe.) “I am uncomfortably aware,” Berry notes, “of the dangers and difficulties in a white man’s attempt to write so intimately of the life of a black man out of a child’s memories a quarter of a century old.” And yet, across this vast ocean of time and difference, Berry lands on shared shore of tremendous, boldly countercultural wisdom:
This much is clear to me: insofar as I am capable of feeling such pleasures as I believe Nick felt, I am strong; insofar as I am dependent on the pleasures made available by my salary and the things I own, I am weak. I feel much more secure in those pleasures for which I am dependent on the world, as Nick was for most of his, than in those for which I am dependent on the government or on a power company or on the manufacturers of appliances. And I am far from conceding anything to those who assume that the poor or anyone else can be improved by recourse to that carnival of waste and ostentation and greed known as “our high standard of living.” As Thoreau so well knew, and so painstakingly tried to show us, what a man most needs is not a knowledge of how to get more, but a knowledge of the most he can do without, and of how to get along without it. The essential cultural discrimination is not between having and not having or haves and have-nots, but between the superfluous and the indispensable. Wisdom, it seems to me, is always poised upon the knowledge of minimums; it might be thought to be the art of minimums.
Complement this excerpt from The Hidden Wound — a powerful, tenderhearted, and increasingly necessary read in its entirety — with Baldwin and Mead’s contemporary E.F. Schumacher’s paradigm-challenging vision for Buddhist economics and Bertrand Russell on the relationship between work, leisure, and social justice, then revisit Berry on how to be a poet and a complete human being and Amanda Palmer’s reading of his stunningly prescient poem “Questionnaire.”
Published November 17, 2019