Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

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.”

Wendell Berry on Delight as a Force of Resistance to Consumerism, the Key to Mirth Under Hardship, and the Measure of a Rich Life

“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.

Wendell Berry (Photograph: Guy Mendes)

Berry writes:

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.

Art by R. Gregory Christie from Freedom in Congo Square by poet Carole Boston Weatherford

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.

Art by Beatrice Alemagna from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

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.”

Thanks, Courtney

BP

Relationship Lessons from Trees

“I think of good love as something that roots, not rots, over time, and of the hyphae that are weaving through the ground below me, reaching out through the soil in search of mergings.”

Relationship Lessons from Trees

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way,” William Blake wrote in his most beautiful letter. “As a man is, so he sees.” Walt Whitman saw trees as the wisest of teachers; Hermann Hesse as our mightiest consolation for mortality. Wangari Maathai rooted in them a colossal act of resistance that earned her the Nobel Peace Prize. Poets have elegized their wisdom, artists have drawn from their form resonance with our human emotions, scientists are only just beginning to uncover their own secret language.

Robert Macfarlane — a rare enchanter who entwines the scientific and the poetic in his lyrical explorations of the natural world — offers a crowning curio in the canon of wisdom on human life drawn from trees in a passage from Underland: A Deep Time Journey (public library) — his magnificent soul-guided, science-lit tour of the hidden universe beneath our feet.

Art by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

Macfarlane writes:

Lying there among the trees, despite a learned wariness towards anthropomorphism, I find it hard not to imagine these arboreal relations in terms of tenderness, generosity and even love: the respectful distance of their shy crowns, the kissing branches that have pleached with one another, the unseen connections forged by root and hyphae between seemingly distant trees. I remember something Louis de Bernières has written about a relationship that endured into old age: “we had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossom had fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two.” As someone lucky to live in a long love, I recognize that gradual growing-towards and subterranean intertwining; the things that do not need to be said between us, the unspoken communication which can sometimes tilt troublingly towards silence, and the sharing of both happiness and pain. I think of good love as something that roots, not rots, over time, and of the hyphae that are weaving through the ground below me, reaching out through the soil in search of mergings. Theirs, too, seems to me then a version of love’s work.

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)

Beneath the canopy, Macfarlane marvels at the slim contour of empty space around each tree’s crown — a phenomenon known as crown shyness, “whereby individual forest trees respect each other’s space, leaving slender running gaps between the end of one tree’s outermost leaves and the start of another’s.”

In this, too, I see a poignant lesson in love, evocative of Rilke and what may be the greatest relationship advice ever committed to words: “I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.”

“Broken/hearted” by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

Couple this tiny fragment of the sweepingly wondrous Underland with Amanda Palmer’s lovely reading of Mary Oliver’s poem “When I Am Among the Trees,” then revisit Kahlil Gibran on the difficult balance of intimacy and independence in love.

BP

Bertrand Russell on How to Heal an Ailing and Divided World

“What is needed in our very complex modern society is calm consideration, with readiness to call dogmas in question and freedom of mind to do justice to the most diverse points of view.”

Bertrand Russell on How to Heal an Ailing and Divided World

“We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more,” Albert Camus wrote as he contemplated how to live honorably thorough shameful times at the peak of World War II, a quarter century before he became the second-youngest Nobel laureate.

It took another seer of uncommon insight and unrelenting humanism to consider this necessary mending work as the maelstrom of injustice was only just beginning to seethe in the entrails of the world. That is what Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970), who would himself receive the Nobel Prize shortly after the war for his “varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought,” examines in the preface to the 1935 edition of his book-length essay In Praise of Idleness (public library) — his insightful inquiry into the relationship between leisure and social justice.

bertrandrussell3
Bertrand Russell

Shortly after Germany withdrew from the League of Nations and Hitler instituted his most bigoted racial laws, Russell writes:

The world is suffering from intolerance and bigotry, and from the belief that vigorous action is admirable even when misguided; whereas what is needed in our very complex modern society is calm consideration, with readiness to call dogmas in question and freedom of mind to do justice to the most diverse points of view.

Three decades later, as his ideas matured under the ferment of a war-savaged world, Russell would acknowledge that certain points of view are so unjust as to be unworthy of consideration in his remarkable response to a fascist. But he devoted his long life to the peaceable conciliation of humanity’s most divisive and self-destructive impulses — nowhere more pointedly than in the manifesto he issued a decade after Hitler’s death, when an even more explosive threat was looming over Earth in the midst of the Cold War.

Art by Olivier Tallec from What If… — a child’s vision for a better, juster world.

Addressing the measureless danger of weapons of mass destruction, Russell enlisted a dozen of the world’s leading scientific minds in co-signing this document of reason and humanism, calling on world leaders to find peaceful paths to resolving international conflict. Albert Einstein signed the manifesto, now known as the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, days before his death in April 1955. It was presented at a London press conference on July 9, 1955, and became the guiding spirit of the inaugural Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, co-founded by Russell and held two years later. Its text contains an enduring appeal to our noblest nature, our deepest shared stakes, and the singular human faculty of foresight, evocative of Maya Angelou’s wakeful and mobilizing poem “A Brave and Startling Truth.”

Russell writes:

We shall try to say no single word which should appeal to one group rather than to another. All, equally, are in peril, and, if the peril is understood, there is hope that they may collectively avert it.

We have to learn to think in a new way. We have to learn to ask ourselves, not what steps can be taken to give military victory to whatever group we prefer, for there no longer are such steps.

[…]

There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.

A generation later, with our species having barely survived two World Wars and the Cold War, with the even graver new danger of planetary ecological collapse on the horizon, the great physician, etymologist, poet, and essayist Lewis Thomas would echo these sentiments in his inspiriting yet cautionary reflection on the wonders of possibility.

Couple with E.B. White on what it really takes to live in a peaceful world, then revisit Russell on our mightiest defense against political manipulation, the two types of knowledge that govern humanity, what makes a fulfilling life, why “fruitful monotony” is essential for happiness, and his immensely insightful Nobel Prize acceptance speech about the four desires driving all human behavior.

BP

Beginnings at the End of Love: Rebecca West’s Extraordinary Love Letter to H.G. Wells in the Wake of Heartbreak

“I am always at a loss when I meet hostility, because I can love and I can do practically nothing else.”

Beginnings at the End of Love: Rebecca West’s Extraordinary Love Letter to H.G. Wells in the Wake of Heartbreak

“If during the next million generations there is but one human being born in every generation who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of our universe,” the great English writer and feminist Rebecca West (December 21, 1892–March 15, 1983) wrote as she contemplated suffering, survival, and the will to keep walking the road to ourselves in her 1941 masterpiece Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

Three decades earlier, West had honed this heroic insistence on inquiry into suffering on the bludgeoning whetstone of her own heartbreak. At only twenty, after calling him “the Old Maid of novelists” in a scorching review of his novel Marriage, she had fallen madly in love with H.G. Wells — one of the era’s most venerated writers, twenty-six years her senior, married (to a woman who shared his skepticism about the institution of marriage), and the father of two young boys. The magmatic affair ended after several months, severed by Wells. At first attracted to West’s electric intellect, he cowered upon discovering that this selfsame electricity coursed through the whole of her being — she was too intense, her love too alive — affirmation of Henry James’s famous indictment of Wells: “so much life with (so to speak) so little living.”

In one of the most remarkable letters ever composed — a masterwork of inhabiting one’s multitudes and contradictions with the full dignity of each faction, the bold along with the desperate, the broken along with the whole — penned in March 1913 and found in Anna Holmes’s delicious Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters from the End of the Affair (public library), West channels the confused magnetic maelstrom of push and pull familiar to any rejected lover, but channels it with a level of lucidity and fiery self-awareness rarely accessible to the rest of us:

Dear H. G.,

During the next few days I shall either put a bullet through my head or commit something more shattering to myself than death. At any rate I shall be quite a different person. I refuse to be cheated out of my deathbed scene.

I don’t understand why you wanted me three months ago and don’t want me now. I wish I knew why that were so. It’s something I can’t understand, something I despise. And the worst of it is that if I despise you I rage because you stand between me and peace. Of course you’re quite right. I haven’t anything to give you. You have only a passion for excitement and for comfort. You don’t want any more excitement and I do not give people comfort. I never nurse them except when they’re very ill. I carry this to excess. On reflection I can imagine that the occasion on which my mother found me most helpful to live with was when I helped her out of a burning house.

I always knew that you would hurt me to death some day, but I hoped to choose the time and place. You’ve always been unconsciously hostile to me and I have tried to conciliate you by hacking away at my love for you, cutting it down to the little thing that was the most you wanted. I am always at a loss when I meet hostility, because I can love and I can do practically nothing else.

And then, in a passage that justifies Virginia Woolf’s later description of West as “hard as nails… a cross between a charwoman and a gipsy, but as tenacious as a terrier, with flashing eyes… immense vitality… suspicion of intellectuals, and great intelligence,” she adds:

I was the wrong sort of person for you to have to do with. You want a world of people falling over each other like puppies, people to quarrel and play with, people who rage and ache instead of people who burn. You can’t conceive a person resenting the humiliation of an emotional failure so much that they twice tried to kill themselves: that seems silly to you. I can’t conceive of a person who runs about lighting bonfires and yet nourishes a dislike of flame: that seems silly to me.

As the universal pendulum of the jilted swings from blame to self-blame, from self-righteousness to self-abasement, she throws herself from the clocktower of heartbreak into the always impenetrable unknown that follows the end of a great love:

You’ve literally ruined me. I’m burned down to my foundations. I may build myself again or I may not. You say obsessions are curable. They are. But people like me swing themselves from one passion to another, and if they miss smash down somewhere where there aren’t any passions at all but only bare boards and sawdust. You have done for me utterly. You know it. That’s why you are trying to persuade yourself that I am a coarse, sprawling, boneless creature, and so it doesn’t matter. When you said, “You’ve been talking unwisely, Rebecca,” you said it with a certain brightness: you felt that you had really caught me at it. I don’t think you’re right about this. But I know you will derive immense satisfaction from thinking of me as an unbalanced young female who flopped about in your drawing-room in an unnecessary heart-attack.

That is a subtle flattery. But I hate you when you try to cheapen the things I did honestly and cleanly. You did it once before when you wrote to me of “your — much more precious than you imagine it to be — self.” That suggests that I projected a weekend at the Brighton Metropole with Horatio Bottomley. Whereas I had written to say that I loved you. You did it again on Friday when you said that what I wanted was some decent fun and that my mind had been, not exactly corrupted, but excited, by people who talked in an ugly way about things that are really beautiful. That was a vile thing to say. You once found my willingness to love you a beautiful and courageous thing. I still think it was. Your spinsterishness makes you feel that a woman desperately and hopelessly in love with a man is an indecent spectacle and a reversal of the natural order of things. But you should have been too fine to feel like that.

I would give my whole life to feel your arms round me again.

I wish you had loved me. I wish you liked me.

Yours,

Rebecca

She adds a postscript of heartbreaking resignation:

P.S. Don’t leave me utterly alone. If I live write to me now and then. You like me enough for that. At least I pretend to myself you do.

But just as Wells had failed to account for the consanguinity of her character qualities, West too failed to account for his — the all-consuming love confessed in this letter, aimed at winning him back, was the very thing that had made him run in the first place. His curt three-line response, found in Lesley MacDowell’s excellent Between the Sheets: Nine 20th Century Women Writers and Their Famous Literary Partnerships (public library), made this painfully clear:

How can I be your friend to this accompaniment? I don’t see that I can be of any use or help to you at all. You have my entire sympathy — but until we can meet on a reasonable basis — Goodbye.

For all her passionate nature, West’s intellect was too great to let her make the same mistake twice. She issued no more personal appeals. Instead, she threw herself into what had brought them together in the first place — her professional devotion to her craft. And then the seemingly miraculous but not altogether unexpected happened. When she published a characteristically perceptive and lyrical essay about a Spanish café singer in the July issue of The New Freewoman, she received a letter from Wells that must have honeyed her soul both as a writer and as a lover, but also bittered with its confused mosaic of professional praise and misogynistic punishment. (It is telling that Wells found and read the essay despite its publication in a literary magazine that only existed for six months — he was clearly keeping a keen eye out for her work, perhaps the era’s equivalent of Instagram stalking.) He wrote:

You are writing gorgeously again. Please resume being friends… [Your essay] was tremendous. You are as wise as God when you write — at times — and then you are atortured, untidy… little disaster of a girl who can’t even manage the most elementary tricks of her sex. You are like a beautiful voice singing out of a darkened room into which one gropes and finds nothing.

West took her time to respond. No record survives of when and how she did. But by November, they were lovers again. In January, West found out she was pregnant and decided to keep the child. Wells would later blame himself for impairing her promising career with his carelessness:

It was our second encounter and she became pregnant. It was entirely unpremeditated. She wanted to write. It should not have happened, and since I was the more experienced person, the blame is wholly mine.

Their son, Anthony West, was born in the final months of World War I. West and Wells remained lovers for a decade, but grew increasingly unhappy in the relationship, both personally and professionally, until Wells was ready to admit that they “did harm to each other as writers.” Only when they separated did West’s career soar to its influential heights. They remained friends until Wells’s death. “We did at times love each other very much,” he reflected after the collapse of the romantic relationship. “We love each other still.”

West and Wells in 1923, just after the end of their romance. (Photograph: Alfred L. Shepherd)

Perhaps the rift came not from the absence of love but from the misalignment of values in what they both held at the center of their being: their identity as writers. Wells, by his own admission, would “rather be called a journalist than an artist.” West, in her trailblazing account of Balkan culture — the culture of which I myself am the product, — went on to pioneer a new aesthetic of journalism that was equally a work of truth and a work of art, animated by her fundamental conviction that “art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted.”

Complement with Rilke on how to break up with integrity and Van Gogh on heartbreak as a vitalizing force for creative work, then revisit Hannah Arendt on how to live with the fundamental fear of love’s loss.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price. Privacy policy.