Imagination: Making Your Place Real


Yesterday’s post on Marilynne Robinson explored how the imaginative empathy nurtured in reading can be brought to communities and redeem a toxic “civil” discourse.  Today I wanted to follow up on the relationship between imagination and local communities by bringing in none other than Wendell Berry, the High Priest of Localism (that’s a compliment, by the way). Berry’s essay “American Imagination in the Civil War,” originally published in the Sewanee Review and later in the collection Imagination in Place, really should be read in conjunction with Robinson’s “Imagination and Community” because of how Berry sounds out similar themes. I’m not going to focus here on the particular argument he makes about the Civil War but rather on how he connects imagination with community. What problem does Berry see and what does it have to with imagination? After describing an American culture of violence evident “in everything from international relations to land use to entertainment,” Berry writes the following:

I have been describing an enormous failure, and to me this appears to be a failure of imagination. Though we are now far advanced in the destruction of our country, we have only begun to imagine what our country is. We are destroying it because of our failure to imagine it. By imagination I do not mean the ability to make things up or to make a realistic copy. I mean the ability to make real to oneself the life of one’s place or the life of an enemy–and therein, I believe, is implied, imagination in the highest sense.

Berry draws from the poet William Carlos Williams (again, think here of Robinson’s insight on bringing imaginative empathy drawn from writers to our present day communities) the following understanding of imagination: “To refine, to clarify, to intensify that eternal moment in which we alone live.” That eternal moment, however, is grounded in a particular time and place, which means that for Berry “imagination is a particularizing and local force.” Imagination places “the world and its creatures within a context of sanctity, in which their worth is absolute and incalculable.” This particularization of imagination, therefore, must have practical, tangible effects in our local communities.

It also means that exercising imagination will look different depending on the local particularities of our communities. This point is driven home by a lovely passage in which Berry reflects on the community of his youth:

The arts that we took for granted, and that did gather us all together, were the arts of farming, gardening, cooking, and talking. Our economy was either agricultural or in service to agriculture. Vegetable gardens, grape arbors, and fruit trees were still commonplace. It was still ordinary to see poultry flocks, fattening hogs, or milk cows in the back yards or back lots of the towns. The grocery stores still bought surplus produce from the farms. Most of the food was homegrown, and excellent cooking was customary. Most of the cooking was done by women, but everybody talked about it.

Everybody, in fact, talked about everything. It seems to me that I grew up immersed in talk. Talk was a fifth element: talk in hayfields and tobacco patches, in tobacco barns and stripping rooms, in kitchens and living rooms, on porches and out in the yards. Sometimes, as we sat out in the yard or on the porch after a hot day, the dark would gradually disembody us, and we would become just voices going on until weariness reembodied us and we would go into the house to bed. My best gift as a writer was that circumstance of talk. We had no cultivated art of conversation. Our talk was practical, local in reference, but was carried on also for pleasure and comfort. It was sometimes crude, but it was also articulate enough–humorous, precise, expressive, and sometimes beautifully so.

Some may see evidence of agrarian nostalgia in this passage, but I think that’s missing the point. Berry is talking about how the particularization of imagination strengthens the bonds of community. Moreover, he demonstrates at the local level the reciprocal relationship between imagination and community. Just as imagination nourishes community, community in turn can inspire imagination (‘My best gift as a writer was that circumstance of talk’). Notice that we’re miles away here from the political controversies, social media firestorms, and competing media narratives that loudly lay claim to the public sphere. We’ve got a lot to learn from Robinson and Berry about how to treat each other, how to build enduring communities, and how imagination relates to the “real world” (their insights could also be brought to bear on other issues, like the state of the Humanities). Talk with your neighbors, pick up a good book, and begin repairing the world.

Photo: David Marshall, “Wendell Berry speaking in Frankfort, Indiana” (attribution: CC BY-SA 2.0).

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