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Writing about Wendell Berry

One of the best things about writing a paper on Wendell Berry, which I'm doing now, is having to read Berry closely. It's really a joy.

Perhaps the biggest rhetorical strength of Berry's essays are also their biggest rhetorical weakness: they're very poetic (or impressionistic,or allegorical). They're not particularly analytical or explicit. On the one hand, this makes them very inspiring for someone like me who reads Berry sympathetically. On the other hand, someone who isn't inclined to give Berry the benefit of the doubt is likely to dismiss his work as devoid of solid argument and evidence.

What I'm finding, as I work on my paper about Berry's relationship to the political philosophy called liberalism, is that a close, analytical reading makes his essays really sparkle. There is really a lot of solid argument in them, but those arguments are delivered poetically, which means the reader has to contribute a lot of himself if he's going to see what the argument is.

For example, I think Berry makes a powerful argument that the modern way of seeing the world makes it very difficult to take responsibility for our actions, and because of this it's dangerous. Of course, what exactly this "modern worldview" is takes some teasing out. Think of the uncritical enthusiasm for technology, the myth that pursuit of self-interest benefits the community, and the belief that the future will be better than the past. The modern worldview has historically led us to denegrate the merely local. It has encouraged hyperspecialization over generalization. And these two things -- globalization and hyperspecialization -- prevent us from even knowing the effects of what we do, let alone taking responsibility for them.

It's a profound critique of the way we aspire to live, that I think is largely correct. Puzzling through all of this is really, really fun.

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