In these days of resurgent nationalism and violent xenophobia in the West, it is common to feel anxiety, if not outright despair, over the future of pluralistic democratic societies. The possibility of a fruitful human sociality depends on our capacity to face up to the world in its complexity, to the nuances of other lives. This capacity feels especially at risk today, when populist leaders capably mask fear of difference as a strength, dismissing complexity (e.g., immigrants, protesters) with a satisfying aggression. The resultant feeling of power threatens to make our fear invulnerable to rational correction. What are we to do when we find ourselves in its grip?
One of the primary reasons to be grateful for Joseph Wiebe’s The Place of Imagination is that it helps us think about moral re-formation in nonideological ways. Wiebe argues that healthy community depends on incarnate human affections, awakened via the imagination. Wiebe’s book in this sense is an argument for reading fiction, in that “fiction portrays an imagined world in a way that capacitates recognition of a deeper meaning of social circumstances than what political rhetoric offers” (155). If we have read a good novel we know this to be true. Someone whose political affiliations make him an incorrigible moron in my eyes on Twitter can be rendered visible in a much fuller way in a novel. And if I am reading that novel earnestly, the act of doing so may expand my perception of the actual persons in my life. “Imagination,” Wiebe writes, “arouses the somnambulist kept asleep by the formalities of national idioms and cultural identity” (26). No one would accuse a contemporary populist rally of being soporific, but in truth such political phenomena demonstrate a refusal to awaken to nuance, to “irrepressible and unclassifiable particularity” (25).
Ideological rhetorics try to assuage our fear of difference, of complexity, of the unclassifiable in each person and the particularities of place, but they do so only through reductionism. Fiction, by contrast, is an indirect form of communication that has the capacity to let characters remain persons, with all the mystery that entails. Wiebe argues that Wendell Berry’s fiction, at its best, allows onto the page “what is not easily explained, rationally accounted for, or understood but nevertheless remains an unrelenting fact of existence” (7). In this respect, Wiebe shows, Berry emulates the nonreductive attention to singularity that characterizes William Carlos Williams’s poetry. Williams’s language dwells humbly with the fact that it cannot capture life, given “the flux and diversity of [its] subject” (21). Such language treats life’s complexity and excess with reverence instead of fear, and invites readers to do so as well.
In this manner, Williams’s poetry and Berry’s fiction both incarnate the “poetics” of healthy human adaptation to reality. Berry is a vocal advocate of local adaptation, which implies the kind of attunement to place in its true and irrepressible particularity that reductive logics don’t allow. “As an example of the struggle of local adaptation, [Berry’s fiction] shows that to be human is to live as a creature in creation,” Wiebe writes (32). To be a creature in creation means to live in a world that exceeds your authorship, recognizing its excess without fear or rivalry. In religious terms, it means recognizing that the author of life transcends your own power, that you are not God. In Berry’s terms, it means taking wilderness seriously. Wilderness, Wiebe explains, “is the part of life that is neither arbitrarily willed nor conscripted into a human enterprise. . . . In short, wilderness is uniquely unconquered space” (49). This is not to say that it is bounded off from other spaces; in every place, wilderness names life’s beyondness of our control. With wilderness, Berry alerts his readers to “a reality before his thoughts and desires, before his commitments and advocacy, the character of which is offered in his description of wilderness as dispossessed of human self-interest” (50).
I think it is fair to say that Wiebe’s book asks readers to reckon with the wilderness of the real, on an existential level. On the one hand, this is inevitably humbling—to admit one’s limits, one’s ultimate dependence and mortality. In Berry’s Port William novel, Nathan Coulter, Wiebe shows how Nathan must wrestle with a multigenerational history of attempted self-assertion in the face of contingency, an inherited desire for self-authored permanence. “The chief attribute of the Coulter patrimony is a resolute individualism that denies bequeathing property and authority gracefully to the next generation” (62). Nathan struggles to admit that there is an inevitable futility in human efforts to order permanently what is never guaranteed—the future. But without this admission there is no hope of adaptation to the facts of creaturely life.
On the other hand, Wiebe shows that the excess of the real can be uplifting and motivating. In Jayber Crow, Jayber recognizes that if the world were constrained by necessity, then it could not measure up to his love. Thus his work is to prove “that Mattie’s mistaken (at least to his mind) marriage with Troy was not inevitable—a truth that cannot be proved but only experienced” (109). In other words, for Jayber, life’s complexity offers hope that it didn’t have to be this way; but he can only be confident of this when his own life becomes “the embodiment of [another] possibility” (109). Jayber’s work of love is fruitful in that it allows him to imagine “the world as it is as more than what can be seen or shown in time” (111). Here life’s transcendence of human understanding becomes a consolation, enlivening Jayber’s capacious affection for persons and place.
In Wiebe’s analysis, then, we might say that genuine community is a child of wilderness, of an honest confrontation with our limits and with the generative mystery of the world. Wiebe gives readers the gift of an occasion to examine what can “turn people around, away from hubris and narcissistic ambition, toward a self-reflection that opens them to the depth of creation” (156). The Place of Imagination is a book about how to practice this shift, from being fearful pawns of the status quo to being enfleshed and attuned creatures on this earth, in communion with the fullness of its mystery and divinity. It uses Berry’s fiction to reveal particularities of character and place as the manifestation of creation’s plenitude, allowing us to see ideological reductionism as a gesture of fear rather than strength. Unsurprisingly, the book has generated a vital and fascinating conversation between our panelists.
The following symposium brings together experts in ethics, theology, sustainability, and poetry, to dwell with the provocations of Wiebe’s book. It is a vibrant discussion, full of appreciation and challenge. Emily Dumler-Winckler opens the conversation with an essay that highlights Wiebe’s integration of individual moral psychology with questions of systemic justice. She commends Wiebe for his textured account of the development of virtues in broken places and communities, for articulating the challenges and uncertainties that present obstacles to the cultivation of faith, hope, and love. More critically, Dumler-Winckler wonders whether Wiebe draws unwarranted distinctions between mind, body, and soul in his analysis of Berry’s fiction, and highlights a problematically gendered assignment of parts of the soul to some of Berry’s characters. Most significantly, she asks if Wiebe’s emphasis on the uncertainties of life risks occluding the virtues of Berry’s characters, questioning in particular whether Jayber’s magnanimity must be understood as despairing, or Hannah’s patience as hopeless.
Christiana Zenner’s essay begins by noting her suspicion of Berry as “the settled white male,” while agreeing with Wiebe’s (and Berry’s) sense that moral discernment is not reducible to rational argument and must be pursued as a poetics. On this score, Zenner highlights for praise Wiebe’s refusal to turn Berry’s work into a triumphalist ideology. Though she appreciates Wiebe’s expert use of Berry’s corpus, Zenner also criticizes the relative lack of clarity about “theories and methods of interpretation” that underlie Wiebe’s exegesis at times, especially when he draws from multiple authors and genres of literature situated in various historical contexts.
Joelle Hathaway’s essay focuses on Wiebe’s argument that Berry’s fiction should be read as “parables,” and from there develops an account of the variety of Berry’s writing—essays, fiction, poetry—and its relation to local adaptation. Hathaway emphasizes in particular Berry’s poetry, both in its formal characteristics and in the habits of attention that ground it, as necessary for the development of worlds of integrity in his fiction. She highlights how the characters of Port William spill over into Berry’s poetry, as if what is revealed by their lives cannot be revealed only through fiction.
Paul Schutz contributes an essay that highlights possible conversations between Wiebe’s analysis and figures in the theological tradition ranging from Thomas Aquinas to James Cone. He too notes the value of Wiebe’s approach to parables, especially for theologians in their interpretations of the Bible. According to Schutz, Wiebe’s analysis makes it possible to understand reading Scripture as a formative practice because it provokes thought and reflection, rather than simply because it contains instructions. Ultimately, Schutz raises some critical questions about Wiebe’s use of the lost sheep parable as a way of describing Berry’s method of fiction writing, and asks for further elaboration on some key points in part 2 of The Place of Imagination.
In the final essay of our symposium, Matthew Whelan explores Wiebe’s comment that imagination “does not imitate or plagiarize nature” (26). Initially, Whelan illuminates the significance of this claim for art, taking it to mean that in order to be authentic, artistic creation must not proceed as if it were ex nihilo. Instead, the artist must create in light of nature’s priority of being, and its consequent authority. Human making cannot dismiss the given, the preexistence of nature, the judgment of wilderness. Artistic labor is not creation per se, but co-creation, and involves attending to and perceiving natural processes that exceed the artist’s authorship. Whelan develops Wiebe’s insights in this direction in order to go further, extending Wiebe’s idea of creativity to the field of agriculture. Whelan’s exploration will leave readers with a broadening sense of the significance of Wiebe’s argument, its applicability far and wide, to all manner of human making and doing.