Sunday, July 19, 2015

Book Review: "Our Only World" by Wendell Berry

Our Only World (2015)
Wendell Berry (1934)

 178 pages

… the industries of landscapes: agriculture, forestry, and mining. Once they have been industrialized, these enterprises no longer recognize landscapes as wholes, let alone as the homes of people and other creatures. They regard landscapes as sources of extractable products. They have “efficiently” shed any other interest or concern. (p. 6)
With this emphatic statement Wendell Berry introduces his central theme early in Our Only World, a collection of ten recent essays in which he returns to and further refines ideas with which he has been involved for many years as an author, activist and cultural critic. Over several of the essays Berry highlights the damage done to the land by our modern, industrialized approach to agriculture, which focuses largely, if not exclusively, on the efficiency of farming operations while ignoring the impact of this focus on the land and the people who live on it.

Berry goes on to deeply implicate our modern lifestyle as a key underpinning for the powerful grip that the industrialized approach holds on agriculture. Despite the grim picture he paints of the current state of affairs in our rural areas, however, Berry does also give examples of people developing and implementing ways to return to more sustainable methods of farming and working the land. He argues that these approaches most coalesce into a broader movement, if we hope to survive over the long term.

Reading these essays by Berry, I was reminded of a statement made by Colin Tudge in his 1996 book The Time Before History: 3 Million Years of Human Impact: “… the agricultural systems of the [modern] world are not actually designed to feed people.” A simple sentence on the face of it, but reading it I had both the feeling that it was an obvious and fundamental truth, and that I had a sudden, new-found understanding of reality; it radically altered my view of the world, well beyond agriculture. Tudge, like Berry, did not mean to imply that a particular farmer does not take pride in the food his work provides; his point was instead that agriculture as a system, as an industry, exists not to feed people, but rather, as Tudge goes on to say, “[has] been designed primarily to fit in with prevailing economic norms, or to justify some political conceit or other. Thus, western agriculture [for example] is designed in the end to maximize profit.” (p. 325)

Berry draws the same conclusion in his essays, but as part of a broader point. He argues that prioritizing profit-driven crop selection and efficiency-driven farming techniques, while ignoring the fitness of a particular piece of land to support these choices, causes modern industrialized agriculture to destroy the land, and so, ultimately, all of us. Fritjof Capra makes a similar point in his book The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living: “our complex industrial systems … are the main driving force of global environmental destruction, and the main threat to the long-term survival of humanity.” The destruction may be more gradual in some places, more rapid in others, but the end result is in either case inevitable.

Berry notes that this destruction occurs both directly, say in the erosion of the soil through industrialized farming practices and the degradation of surrounding waterways and forests from the run off of the herbicides and fertilizers needed to sustain these techniques, and also indirectly, through the loss of the historical knowledge of place fundamental to both good land management and a close monitoring of the health of the land. He borrows from the environmentalist and author Wes Jackson the concept of the “eyes-to-acres ratio.” Thus, Berry observes, as farms become more industrialized operations requiring far fewer workers, both farmers and those who support farm-work leave their rural hometowns to find work; and, as these small towns decline in population, they also lose the knowledge that had protected the land for generations. This removes yet another restraint on the implementation of efficiency-focused improvements that result in destructive farming practices, and thus further hastens the ruination of the land.

To counter this growing calamity, Berry calls for a return to a less industrialized form of agriculture, to farming done with an understanding of which crops and techniques best suit the particular land being farmed. This would lead to a shift from a regime in which profit stands alone as the sole priority, to one in which sustainability --- of the land and the people on it --- plays a significant role. He describes nascent, locally-centered approaches to growing food that he says mark a return to smaller farms and markets that operate through a deep knowledge of the land being worked, and he calls for these efforts to be supported and expanded. He describes the 50-Year Farm Bill, legislation that he notes currently has little chance of passing in Congress, but has as its goal a complete revamping of our agricultural systems into a more sustainable direction.

The challenge, as Berry recognizes, is to create the space to implement these more locally-organized, and so sustainable, approaches --- the economic space not present in modern, industrial agriculture. Berry’s solution, in proposals described across several of these essays, is a return to an earlier form of working and living on the land. He acknowledges that for this to be possible, however, we must all of us turn away from a profit-driven society and toward a much simpler way of life, with the ultimate goal of having a significantly reduced impact on the world, and a much closer connection to the land. This ultimately means leading a less energy intensive way of life, one more centered on our local communities, our neighbors and the land on which we live.

At one point he concedes that
It may be that we can keep without harm some industrial comforts: warm baths in wintertime maybe, maybe painless dentistry.
One can read this as a bit tongue-in-cheek, but certainly it’s intended to confront us not only with the extent of his proposal, but also the generally unacknowledged, and often unrealized breadth of connections between our industrialized society and our daily lives, and so the impact of our life-styles on the world. It is not just in the ever more wondrous techno-toys offered us; our industrialized society touches nearly everything we do in a day, unless we are simply out for a walk near our homes, or working in our gardens. His prescription can seem, and in fact is, a tall order. But, as his review of the ecological damage wrought by industrialized agriculture --- on our land and so on us ---- makes clear, such a change of living standards may eventually be “forced upon us” by environmental events. (p.150-151)

One essay in this collection deviates from the topic of land use and sustainability. In Caught in the Middle, Berry opens with the observation that
in the present political atmosphere it is assumed that everybody must be of one of only two sides, liberal or conservative, … [that] we appear thus to have evolved into a sort of teenage culture of wishful thinking, of contending “positions,” over-simplified and absolute, requiring no knowledge and no thought, no loss, no tragedy, no strenuous effort, no bewilderment, no hard choices.(p. 73-74)  
He then goes on to write a brilliant and stirring plea for the recognition of a middle ground, a place where complexity is embraced, and easy, thoughtless answers are shunned. He grounds the discussion in what have been, and remain, two highly controversial subjects: abortion and homosexual marriage. On abortion he points out fallacies and inconsistencies in the arguments on both sides of the debate, and, after clarifying his own personal view, makes a strong case for a clear political solution to the issue. On homosexual marriage, too, he debunks the most commonly heard arguments, and concludes by going back to the Bible to define and defend the rights that, two years after his essay was first published, have now been secured by the Supreme Court.

Largely, however, these essays examine the damage our modern way of life is doing to the land, and as a consequence to all of us as individuals on that land and in society. Together Berry’s writings make a forceful call for each of us to embrace a simpler, quieter life, to become more attuned to the land we live on and its needs, and so to play a critical role in stopping the destruction that we, most of us, now contribute to when we ignore the impact our lifestyles have on our planet.

Other reviews / information:

Along with the Colin Tudge quote I referenced above, reading these essays reminded me also of something from an article  by Bill Kauffman, for the Utne Reader (linked to here),
For almost 60 years, the placeless have waged war on the rooted, stealing their children, devastating their neighborhoods, wiping out local peculiarities and idiosyncrasies. … What we have is class war --- though this war has never been acknowledged because the casualties are places and attachments and sentiments, nothings really, everythings, in fact --- waged by the mobile against the rooted, and the winners are the professionals, people so depraved that they would actually move to a different place for mere money. How bizarre.

I recently saw a bumper sticker relevant to this topic: “There is no Planet B”

I have also read by Wendell Berry --- though before I began writing this blog of reviews:
  • In the Presence of Fear: Three Essays for a Changed World [2001]: essays that touch on our modern corporate and political society, and also on the importance of moving to more local economies.
  • Citizenship Papers [2003]: 19 essays on a range of topics from the national security response to 9-11, to issues related to the agrarian and local economy themes of Our Only World.

Read quotes from this book

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Book Review: "The Man of Feeling" by Javier Marías

The Man of Feeling (1986)
Javier Marías (1951)

Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

182 pages

As Javier Marías’ novel The Man of Feeling opens, the narrator addresses the reader directly, questioning whether he should tell us about his dreams, concerned that there isn’t a coherent story to be made of them. He assures us, however, that the dream he has just awoken from was different, that it was based on actual events from some years before. He then describe the moment when, while on a train to Madrid to perform in an opera, he raised his head from the book he was reading and took notice of the three strangers sitting across from him in the compartment --- two men sitting on either side of a woman.

In the dream, at least, the opera singer recalls feeling that it had taken him “a while to notice them, as if something were warning me or as if, unwittingly, I wanted to delay the danger and the happiness involved in noticing them.” (2) With this hindsight the reader proceeds forewarned of the conflicted relationship that will grow out of this chance meeting on a train. Indeed, the narrator then goes on to recall a moment, “shortly afterwards,” in which he is with the woman in a hotel room, telling her of his fear of dying alone.

Marías has structured the novel as a kind of letter or recollection, written by the opera singer over the course of a single day, in which he recounts the events from four years before that came back to occupy his dreams of the previous night. During his telling, the opera singer repeatedly warns us that he cannot always be sure whether he is remembering the actual events, or instead the interpretation of them in his dream. Thus we are left to rely on a narrator of uncertain fidelity, his doubts about the accuracy of his memories coloring both for us, and for him, the understanding of those events, and of the motivations and sincerity of those he meets.

After the initial description of noticing the trio of strangers on the train, and of his later conversation in a hotel room with the woman, the opera singer goes on to explain how he had met up with the three again in Madrid. By coincidence, the opera singer encounters one of them in the hotel bar a few days after the train ride, a man named Dato, and ends up in conversation with him. The opera singer soon learns that Dato’s two fellow travelers are a married couple, that Dato works for the husband, and that he has as his principal duty to act as a companion for the woman, Natalia, as she accompanies her husband on his business trips.

Having captured the opera singer’s interest, Dato goes on to explain that the woman is not very happy in her marriage, and that on these trips his job is to keep her from getting bored during the day, while her husband carries out his business activities. He confides to the opera singer that though “it’s completely illogical” (44), Natalia has never taken a lover. When Natalia enters the bar a few moments later, the opera singer finds himself, not unwillingly, co-opted by Dato into helping keep Natalia happy during their stay in Madrid.

We already know the opera singer and Natalia will end up in a hotel room together, and not so very long after their first meeting, thus the eventual outcome is not in doubt. Instead the mystery of the story lies in these four personalities circling one another, trying to divine one another’s feelings and intentions: the opera singer, who falls so precipitously in love with, Natalia, a woman he hardly knows; Natalia, apparently committed to her marriage, though, as the opera singer recalls from his first glimpse of her on the train, appearing to be “afflicted by a kind of melancholy dissolution” (9); Dato, who may be simply looking for some help in keeping Natalia busy, but could also be instigating an affair for her with the opera singer; and finally Natalia’s husband, who the opera singer describes as cold and exploitive, and who apparently has a powerful hold over his wife.

Though he serves as our narrator, we never learn the opera singer’s name, and, of the four main characters, his intentions remain at once the most banal and the most mysterious. He tells us about his life as a singer, traveling from city to city, constantly on the move, and of his success in his occupation, but he seems judgmental and utterly shallow in his observations about his own life and about the lives of the people he meets and interacts with. He complains about the loneliness and lack of stability associated with his constant traveling, but he clearly enjoys his success and is accustomed to pursing and getting what he wants. And, during his stay in Madrid, his attentions turn to capturing Natalia from her husband.

In his recollections of the events that brought him together with Natalia, he tends to describe the pursuit not in terms of his love for her, but rather the challenge of winning her from her husband. He recalls his struggle to understand the couple’s life together, based on the strange and cryptic information Dato has provided him, the pas de deux he watches play out between Dato and Natalia as he accompanies them on shopping trips and other excursions around the city, and brief encounters with Natalia’s husband. In an extended thought-scene that is vintage Marías, the opera singer imagines Natalia returning to her hotel room in the late evening, after having spent the day with him and Dato, and meets up again with her husband; jealously playing out different scenarios of this reunion, he creates versions alternatively hopeful and damning to his intentions to win her. Oddly, however, even looking back four years later, he seems unable to articulate what drew him to Natalia in the first place.

The novel, in fact, though nominally a love story, does not present the typical encounters and physical interactions of attraction and love one might expect. In the opera singer’s telling, he describes his pursuit of Natalia, but we hear little about moments when they are actually together. Natalia and her husband share a hotel room, but after the initial train ride we only briefly see them together; we are left to learn about their relationship second hand.

Marías engages the reader here not with physical action, but rather with the labyrinthine psychology of desire. The drama plays out in the mind of the opera singer as he recalls, through an uncertain mix of his memories and his dreams, the sudden appearance of three strangers into his life, and how this meeting led to unexpected changes in his life. In a subtle and compelling approach to storytelling that Marías has perfected, we recognize in the opera singer’s reminiscences --- in what he highlights and what he ignores, in how he interprets and is affected by what he has experienced --- our own insecurities, quirks and obsessions.

Other reviews / information: Other works I have read by Marías, though I read all but two before I began this blog of reviews:
 • The Infatuations: A woman learns that the male half of a couple she has seen repeatedly at a café has been killed, and she becomes involved in trying to understand what happened to him; my review here.
• While the Women are Sleeping: A collection of short stories; my review here.
• When I was Mortal: A collection of short stories.
• A Heart so White: A novel of a man who upon getting married reconsiders his past.
• Dark Back of Time: A novel written as a kind of imagined biography; a study of human nature that will pull you in deeply and force you to consider ideas and fears you had tried to leave buried in your subconscious.

You can find quotes from some of these works, and from The Man of Feeling here.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf