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The Farmer and the Don

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C.S. Lewis and Wendell Berry, though personally very different, are united in their understanding of mankind as creatures subjected to healthy limitations by a loving God.

C.S. Lewis is one of those authors who has admirers in strange places. David Foster Wallace, for example, said Lewis’s Screwtape Letters was one of his favorite books. Also among Lewis’s fans, apparently, is the Kentucky farmer and author Wendell Berry. In an interview—recorded in Matthew Dickerson and Jamie O’Hara’s excellent Narnia and the Fields of Arbol: The Environmental Vision of C.S. Lewis—Berry describes his understanding of Lewis’s thought and how it relates to his own:

I am an admirer of C.S. Lewis and I love a lot of the things he wrote. Especially I love his literary scholarship… He did and said some things that are incalculably beyond my reach because of the way his life was and the way his persuasion led him… And he was a superb steward of the things that he was given to take care of… He was a great servant, C.S. Lewis was… The fundamental difference between [C.S. Lewis] and me is probably not one of belief but one of life. He was a scholar, a man whose life was devoted almost exclusively to books. And I’m an agrarian and a farmer.

Interestingly, in all the scholarship on both men—and recent years have seen a number of books published about each of them—this is one of the few mentions of the similarities between the Oxford Inkling and the Kentucky agrarian. Given the differences in their writing and personalities, that is perhaps understandable. Lewis wrote fantasy stories; Berry writes realist fiction about a town heavily modeled on his small-town home, Port Royal, Kentucky. Lewis wrote many works of devotional literature; Berry has written many polemics against industrialization. Lewis wrote works of literary scholarship; Berry has written stripped down poetry that can reasonably be compared to deep image poets like James Wright.

The differences only become more apparent when you turn from their oeuvre and to the men themselves. “Jack” Lewis was John Bull embodied— a garrulous, ale-loving, pipe-smoking, stout-bellied Englishman. In one of his letters, Lewis’s friend J.R.R. Tolkien made this clearer than anyone: “Lewis is as energetic and jolly as ever, but getting too much publicity for his or any of our tastes. ‘Peterborough,’ usually fairly reasonable, did him the doubtful honor of a peculiarly misrepresentative and asinine paragraph in the Daily Telegraph of Tuesday last. It began ‘Ascetic Mr. Lewis’—–!!! I ask you! He put away three pints in a very short session we had this morning, and said he was ‘going short for Lent.’”

Berry, in contrast, represents an odd mixture of the extremely well-educated cosmopolitan writer of the 20th century—he studied at Stanford with Pulitzer-winner Wallace Stegner and then spent a year in Florence, Italy before taking a teaching post in New York City—with the old Southern gentleman farmer. He speaks in a slow, even southern drawl and dresses in the unassuming style of a rural farmer. For all these reasons, I suspect, we’ve largely missed the overlap between these two great thinkers. But then how do you account for the similarities Berry seems to think are so present in their work?

To get at the tie that binds these two unlikely allies, we need to begin by considering an oft-quoted remark Walter Hooper made about Lewis. Hooper, Lewis’s secretary late in life, said that, “Somehow what he thought about everything was secretly present in what he said about anything.” There was a remarkable unity to Lewis’s thought. If you ever get the chance, go on a Lewis reading binge, but dramatically mix up the books and genres—read a few essays from God in the Dock before moving to a Narnia book. Then pick up The Great Divorce and follow it up with The Abolition of Man. Then wrap things up with one of his science fiction books. You’ll be amazed by the internal consistency of the man’s mind.

What you’ll find over and over again in his books is that great Chestertonian theme of the beauty of living under the creaturely limits given to us by a kind creator. In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton defended the limits imposed by God’s law by noting that only being allowed to have sex with one person is a small price to pay for being able to have sex with one person. That same idea shows up over and over in Lewis’s work—not being allowed to shoot one of the hross of Mars is a small price to pay for being able to live amongst them and learn from them. Being a king or queen of Narnia under the rule of Aslan is a small price to pay for being a king or queen of Narnia.

This mysterious blending of gratitude, mystery, and healthy limitations is central to Lewis’s entire social vision. Consider this telling excerpt from the end of The Abolition of Man: “For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solu- tion had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious.” That excerpt is one of the most precise distillations of Lewis’s mind in all his works. For Lewis, the fundamental fact about human beings is that we are creatures, which implies a creator. And so in our creatureliness, we live under the merciful limits—to borrow and slightly modify a phrase from Lewis’s friend Sheldon Vanauken—of our creator. But those limits are a small price to pay for experiencing all the joys and wonders of his creation.

The best narrative illustration of this characteristic of Lewis’s thought is That Hideous Strength. There is a strong anti-industrial bent to the novel, as there is in most of Lewis’s fiction, but the criticism Lewis is making turns less on technology itself and more on the understanding of technology’s place in creation. Lewis is rejecting the authoritative role that science is claiming for itself and the fruit of that authority. He is criticizing the fact that scientists refuse to understand their discipline as one performed by creatures.

This sort of thought and argumentation sets the table beautifully for Berry. Berry’s thought is similarly dependent upon the idea that man is a creature living within the healthy limitations set by a benevolent creator. Like Lewis, Berry sees the industrial project as being marked by man’s lust for a power he was never meant to possess. Accepting the limits inherent in creation is pivotal, because acknowledging our finite creatureliness allows us to most fully and healthily revel in the goodness of God’s world. This is the whole point Berry is making in his marvelous work Life is a Miracle. This book is Berry’s response to E.O. Wilson’s Consilience, a book in which Wilson argues that science ought to function as the unifying branch of knowledge under which all others are subsumed.

This same regard for creaturely limits is the driving force behind Berry’s environmentalism as seen in his works The Unsettling of America and What Are People For?. It’s also very much at the forefront in his sex ethics, a point often neglected in analyses of his work. Consider this poem that Berry wrote for his wife Tanya:

How hard it is for me, who live in the excitement of women and have the desire for them in my mouth like salt. Yet
you have taken me and quieted me. You have been such light to me that other women have been
your shadows. You come near me with the nearness of sleep.

And yet I am not quiet.
It is to be broken. It is to be torn open. It is not to be reached and come to rest in ever. I turn against you,
I break from you, I turn to you. We hurt, and are hurt,
and have each other for healing. It is healing. It is never whole.

Note the tension here. There is an initial desire that Berry feels on a visceral level for women, not Tanya in particular, not a particular sort of woman, but women in general. Yet Berry finds an imperfect healing (the only sort of healing we can hope for in this world) in Tanya, in the way that she has “taken [him] and quieted [him].” It is in his special marital knowing of Tanya and all the limitations that such a knowing implies that Berry has been given a light and has found healing. This principle of health through the acceptance of creational limits is deeply embedded in Berry’s broader corpus.

In his essay “Poetry and Marriage,” he said that marriage is a form and that “a form is a way of accepting and living within the limits of a creaturely life.” For Berry, there are two different sorts of sexuality that mirror the two sorts of human economy. The first exists chiefly for profit and self-gratification, and so it sees fellow human beings and creation itself as existing largely for those ends. It knows nothing of accepted limitations, but only the zero-sum game of competition. The second sort “exists for the protection of gifts… and this is the sort of economy of community, which now has been nearly destroyed by the public economy.” Berry continues to say, “The marriage of two lovers joins them to one another, to forebears, to descendants, to the community, to heaven and earth. It is the fundamental connection without which nothing holds, and trust is its necessity.”

The essence of Berry’s vision is of a unified community comprised of all the life and land in a local place united and preserved through their embrace of natural limits. And there’s a subtlety to this vision that can sometimes be missed. Berry’s critique has obvious physical applications in our relationship to nature and to one another. But there’s a spiritual dimension to it as well. Consider one of Berry’s most famous characters, the bachelor barber Jayber Crow. Jayber’s story is told in both A Place on Earth and Jayber Crow, though the latter is obviously a more in-depth treatment of his character. What is most interesting about Jayber is the way Berry draws contrasts between Jayber Crow’s villain, Troy Chatham, and Jayber himself.

To set the scene a bit, at this point in his life, Jayber is in his early thirties and is finally beginning to settle down in the small town of Port William, Kentucky, where he has taken up work as its barber. Looking for a little excitement, Jayber decides to purchase a car that he uses to drive to the neighboring town of Hargrave, where he would go drinking and dancing and occasionally meet women. He has an ongoing sexual relationship with one woman, a waitress named Clydie. Their relationship goes on for several years before Jayber abruptly breaks it off in what becomes the fulcrum of the novel. There is a woman in Port William named Mattie Keith who Jayber has admired for many years, ever since her adolescence. Jayber admires her contentment, forthright- ness, and the way she could be fully present wherever she was.

In time, Mattie marries a man named Troy Chatham, the book’s villain and a man unworthy of Mattie’s love. One night while in Hargrave, Jayber is dancing with a woman when he notices Troy dancing with another woman there. A woman he is not married to—and Jayber knows that Mattie is back in Port William, tending to the farm and the couple’s growing family. But what destroys Jayber is what Troy does when they make eye contact. Troy winks and grins at Jayber before gesturing to him with his thumb and index finger form- ing a circle, and Jayber feels ill leaves the dance floor:

I wasn’t, as Clydie thought, sick at my stomach. I was sick at heart, and I don’t mean that just as a manner of speaking; I was seriously afflicted. Do you know what picture came fly- ing into my mind when I looked up and saw Troy Chatham looking at me over the head of whichever Other Woman that was? Not of Mattie at home with the children, wondering where Troy had gone off to and who with. Not that picture (which came to me clearly enough, later), but the memory of Mattie as she had been on that day when I knew I loved her. I had thought many times of her as I had seen her then, with the children so completely admitted into her affection and her presence—as, I thought, a man might be if he wholly loved her, if she wholly trusted him, a man who would come to her as trustful and heart-whole as a little child. I had thought of a flower opening among dark foliage, and of a certain butterfly whose wings, closed, looked like brown leaves but, opened, were brilliant and lovely like nothing but themselves.

Jayber reflects on Troy’s action: “But I was thinking too, as Troy winked at me and raised his sign: ‘We’re not alike!’ And that was what sickened me, because I wasn’t sure.”

From that point on, three things hap- pen. First, Jayber never sees Clydie again, nor does he ever sleep with another woman. Second, Jayber dedicates him- self to being Mattie’s faithful, and in this case, chaste “husband,” even if she can’t be his wife. Third, Jayber begins to heal, turning slowly from the lovable rover of the book’s first half into the wizened sage he becomes as the book progresses. His love for and commitment to Mattie gives him the “form” that he needed to live well in the world. But why? Why did Troy’s gesture to Jayber make him “sick as a dog”? Why would Jayber think they’re the same? Jayber was not married, was faithful to the one woman he was involved with, and doesn’t seem to have a trace of the vanity and discontentment that marks Troy. So why did Jayber think they were the same?

The key is the character of Mattie. Anthony Esolen has already highlighted the ways that Mattie is a Beatrice figure in Jayber Crow. She’s the heart of the book. And what marks her out for praise more often than almost anything else is her contentment and her presence. Unlike her husband, she’s not driven by an unquenchable appetite.

Nor is she longing for a better place somewhere else, like Cecilia Overholt. Mattie has received her life as a gift and receives it as it is presented to her. But far from making her passive, the limitations of her life provide a framework in which she is free to love her neighbors, her place, and to give herself to the bet- terment of the community. Indeed, the character of Mattie Chatham brings us back to Lewis, to Screwtape’s warning to Wormwood to always keep his patient from focusing on the present:

The humans live in time but our Enemy destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them.

Strikingly, if you continue in that same letter, you find an equally apt description of Troy and the young Jayber:

It is far better to make them live in the Future. Biological necessity makes all their passions point in that direction already, so that thought about the Future inflames hope and fear… Hence nearly all vices are rooted in the future. Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead. Do not think lust an exception. When the present pleasure arrives, the sin (which alone interests us) is already over. The pleasure is just the part of the process which we regret and would exclude if we could do so without losing the sin; it is the part contributed by the Enemy, and therefore experienced in a Present. The sin, which is our contribution, looked forward.

Jayber was like Troy because they were both unlike Mattie: both unable to live in the present. After the incident at the bar, he learns to become grateful for the present gifts available to him in his local community. He sells the car and gives himself more fully to the life of Port William. In time, this leads to his becoming a part of Mattie’s family in very limited ways—going down to the Keith place to cut her father’s hair after he becomes too weak to make it into Jayber’s shop, paying bail for Troy and Mattie’s son who ended up in jail, and going for unplanned walks with Mattie in the beloved forest near her family’s land, the Nest Egg. When Mattie takes ill and is moved to a nearby hospital, it is Jayber, not Troy, who goes to see her. The book ends with Jayber describing her death scene and in the one moment when she smiled upon him as her beloved, “and it covered me all over with light,” the book ends.

The central animating feature in the thought of both Lewis and Berry is this basic idea of man as a creature living under the gracious limitations set by their creator. In an age of industrialization and technology that knows few, if any, limits, such a thought is radical, subversive, and profoundly healthy. Whether we learn of it from the Oxford fantasist Lewis or the Kentucky agrarian Berry is not the point, but we must learn of it from somewhere, lest we too are swept up in the exploitive spirit of the age.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador lives in Lincoln, Nebraska with his wife and three children. He is an editor at Fare Forward and editor-in-chief and lead writer at Mere Orthodoxy. You can find him on Twitter at @jake_meador.