Clearing Ground


Dubuque, IA. In “Two Minds,” Wendell Berry distinguishes the “Rational” mind from the “Sympathetic.” These terms describe the activity of each mind: the former takes things apart, while the latter puts things together. The Rational Mind severs connections that the Sympathetic Mind makes. The two minds serve different aims:

The Rational Mind is motivated by the fear of being misled, of being wrong. Its purpose is to exclude everything that cannot be empirically or experientially proven to be a fact. The Sympathetic Mind is motivated by fear of error of a very different kind: the error of carelessness, of being unloving. Its purpose is to be considerate of whatever is present, to leave nothing out.

J.S. Mill wrote in his Autobiography about these same two minds. His Rational Mind performed “analysis,” while his Sympathetic Mind formed “associations.” Mill’s peculiar education made him a powerful analyst—and those powers nearly cost him his soul:

The very excellence of analysis (I argued) is that it tends to weaken and undermine whatever is the result of prejudice; that it enables us mentally to separate ideas which have only casually clung together . . . . [It is] therefore (I thought) favourable to prudence and clear-sightedness, but a perpetual worm at the root both of the passions and of the virtues; and, above all, fearfully undermine[s] all desires, and all pleasures, which are the effects of association, that is, according to the theory I held, all except the purely physical and organic; of the entire insufficiency of which to make life desirable, no one had a stronger conviction than I had.

Liberalism (or what I’ll call by that name) bets on the excellence of analysis. Liberal habits of thought pry apart those stubborn associations between, say, skin color and moral worth, which analysis shows “have only casually clung together.” The liberal mind is a Rational one, and much of its persuasive force comes from the many liberations it has achieved by dissolving prejudice, and from the promise that more freedom is to come.

In that passage, Mill uses “prejudice” in its negative sense, which is now the only sense that most people give it. Its older meaning was more neutral: a prejudice was just an attachment to something and could be good or bad depending on what the something was. Here, Mill calls those good prejudices his “passions and virtues,” his “desires” and “pleasures.” These are Berry’s “fundamental likes and dislikes.”

What no less a liberal than Mill discovered, during a long dark night of the soul, is that the liberating effects of analysis are less liberating than they seem because they are not the only effects: the solvent is universal. Analysis dissolves racial prejudice because it dissolves all prejudices, including Berry’s sympathies, which are reduced by analysis to morally interchangeable “preferences.”

The Sympathetic Mind hates what Mill had to suffer in order to achieve his liberation, which was (as Berry puts it) “estrangement, dismemberment, and disfigurement.” But this is just what all of us moderns suffer, as a result of our peculiar educations in the reductive ways of the Rational Mind, a mind that “tolerates all these things ‘in pursuit of truth’ or in pursuit of money—which, in modern practice, have become nearly the same pursuit.” Thus liberalism becomes neoliberalism, and we are all as depressed as Mill ever was.

These are familiar lines of thought. Critiques of modernity are as old as modernity. Still, the force of the criticism waxes and wanes over time. It seems clear that we’ve recently left behind an era of good feeling, a few decades when it seemed possible to proclaim the end of history and the permanence of the liberal order, and that we’ve entered a new disorder. Associations both mental and social, connections that seemed permanent and natural, are coming apart, undermined by events if not by analysis. (No doubt this virus, or rather the reactions to it, will accelerate the trend.) Disorder is catnip for critical minds, for those who are “always searching for new combinations, new associations and adaptations, new shades of meaning proper to the time.”

That last line is from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. It describes the character of Leo Naphta, a dead-serious romantic who longs for medieval worlds, when people knew and loved their place. I could almost use Berry’s words to describe Naphta’s mind, which seems quite Sympathetic: “Its impulse is toward wholeness.” Modernity for Naphta is fragmentation, alienation, and exploitation, all disguised by liberalism as liberty. But I hope I don’t have to put him into Berry’s camp, because Naphta is a dangerous little man. His impulse toward wholeness drives him into the arms of fascism. He is so intolerant of figurative estrangement, disfigurement, and dismemberment that he is finally willing to celebrate literal estrangement, literal disfigurement, and literal dismemberment. This is a man who waxes nostalgic for inquisitions.

Wherever the center cannot hold, when everything solid melts into air, critical minds see in the crisis a new opportunity to create. Disorder is a chance to join together what false gods have put asunder. It’s a time to forge new associations, mental and even social, if the critic wants to get political. And for all these same reasons such times pose a risk to the critic’s soul. This has always been especially true for critics of liberal modernity, like ourselves.

Just as the divide between the “two minds” is familiar, so is the tendency for some defenders of Sympathy to become sympathizers with cruelty. The Naphtha path is always there for the taking, and there are always brilliant Heideggers who wander too far in the dark. The romantic impulse toward wholeness, or the longing for when things were better—take a few bad turns in that mood, and you find yourself chanting hymns to blood-and-soil. People can start out defending Berry’s proper prejudices and end up celebrating prejudice itself.

“Celebrating prejudice itself”—one name for that is “nihilism.” Where Berry’s Sympathetic Mind says “I like it because it is good,” the nihilist says “It is good because I like it.” For Patrick Deneen, who is drawing on Philip Rieff, this is precisely where liberalism ends up because liberalism fosters an “anti-culture.” Genuine culture is a human construction, an accretion of “fundamental likes and dislikes” laid down over time by experience and tradition, by arts of association both mental and social. A good culture is built by discovering goods and cultivating our attachments to them. Liberalism, by contrast, is mainly a deconstructive force, the force of analysis. Liberalism starts with what Gadamer called the Enlightenment’s “prejudice against prejudice,” and sweeps away the good ones with the bad ones. Nihilists simply take liberal Rationality to its perverse but logical conclusion, and embrace the bad ones along with the good ones, because: why not.

I share Deneen’s worry about liberalism. But I also worry about worrying too much, and ending up like Naphta. If liberals can turn into nihilists, so can critics of liberalism’s tendency toward nihilism. The flavors will be different, to be sure. The liberal’s Rational mind will have reduced everyone’s prejudices to mere preferences, and then it will embrace its own freedom to prefer whatever it will. This kind of nihilist insists, at the end of every conversation, “at least I’m honest.” Like most of my students, he constantly incants: “that’s just my opinion.” Meanwhile the liberal’s critic, in the name of Sympathy, will have elevated his own preferences to the status of good prejudices. This kind of nihilist, Naphta’s kind, hides his own will to power behind facades of humble submission to truth, tradition, culture, beauty, virtue—stuff we porchers like to talk about an awful lot.

Fellow critics of the Rational Mind: how do we keep off the Naphta path?

If I were to answer by developing some guidelines, they might include: read our history and stay aware that the path exists; don’t let our dismays about anti-culture turn into a disdain for actual people; and resist the very Rational notion that building a good culture is mostly about designing more programs and making more rules.

But instead of elaborating on these points, I’d like to offer an image of what our work as Sympathetic critics should be like, if it’s going to be good work and not Naptha work. Once again, Berry is my source for this image, in particular his collection of poems titled Clearing. In “From the Crest,” he says:

Cleared, a field
must be kept cleared.
. . . .
I am trying to teach my mind
to bear the long, slow growth
of the fields, and to sing
of its passing while it waits.

I think we should imagine our cultural work mainly like this: as “clearing,” not as “building.” I think this can help us avoid the Naptha path.

But isn’t that a bit jarring, after my discussion of the two minds? After all, “clearing” is negative and deconstructive; “building” is positive and constructive. Clearing takes things apart; building puts things together. Isn’t clearing what the Rational Mind does best?

Consider “Two Minds” again. Berry’s Sympathetic Mind has its attachments, while it seems his Rational Mind can only dissolve them. But Berry doesn’t envision a Rational Mind that is literally without attachments, a pure neutral spirit. The whole point of the argument is that, lacking proper sympathies, the Rational Mind will have its own attachments.

In fact, the Rational Mind will be chock-full of them. Many will be bad ones. The good ones will be accidentally and incoherently good, because this mind will understand all its own attachments as merely preferences, as likes and dislikes which are in no way “fundamental.” And a Rational culture, or anti-culture, will be full of people who are for this reason more fiercely attached to things. More fiercely because, without something like Mill’s own distinction between “higher and lower” pleasures, without a sense that not all pleasures are equal, any attempt to pry them apart from their preferences will be resented as an offense against equality, as an attempt to “impose values,” as just another move in the game of power. Ironically but logically, the Rational Mind turns out to be “superstitious.”

Living in the midst of these reigning superstitions, won’t a Sympathetic critic of current culture have to spend much of her time doing what looks to be the Rational Mind’s work of taking things apart? For now we see it’s the Rational Mind that is ruled by its mental (and social) associations, by its prejudices. And it’s the Sympathetic Mind that, standing on its counter-cultural attachments to cherished goods, is able to stand critically apart from those accreted associations and work, carefully, to sever them.

The point of the “clearing” metaphor is that in a Rational culture, this careful work will usually have to come first. The Sympathetic Mind will often need to put aside its drive to put things together until it’s cleared some ground on which to build.

I was thinking about this metaphor as I read Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, a centuries-spanning story about the destruction of the North American forests. Early in the novel, two men are walking through ancient woods. One, called Monsieur Trepagny, tells the other, called Rene, that “[t]his is the beginning of a great new city in the wilderness.” The scene continues:

Rene asked a question that had bothered him since the first trek through the woods.

Why do we cut the forest when there are so many fine clearings? Why wouldn’t a man build his house in a clearing, one of those meadows that we passed when we walked here? Would it not be easier?’

But Monsieur Trepagny was scandalized. ‘Easier? Yes, easier, but we are here to clear the forest, to subdue this evil wilderness.’

In this context, Trepagny is the villain, perfectly Rational, bent on eliminating every old growth that “has only casually clung together,” in order to lay down the grid of the great new city, where everything is the product of human design. Rene’s is the Sympathetic Mind, “considerate of whatever is present,” content with such clearings as nature provides. And if we still lived in that context, Rene might be our model critic, challenging all the Trepagnys with simple questions that point to better ways of life. But we don’t live in the wilderness anymore; we live in the great new city. And in that context, there’s a sense in which Trepagny is actually the better example for us. Because the great city is our wilderness. We live in a dangerous place, increasingly hostile to human life.

Even so, isn’t Rene’s approach still the best? Aren’t there still “many fine clearings” where we can make our homes and live our lives, working to build culture with our families and friends, leaving the wilderness around us to stand or fall as it will?

That is an option, to be sure: I guess it’s the Benedict option. I don’t really begrudge those who take it. I’m attracted to the idea of withdrawing to the country (especially these days), and it’s good that some can and do. Maybe that’s where I’ll end up, whether by choice or necessity. And the Benedict option can be a good hedge against the Naptha path, since it’s hard to acquire the power to reorder the world when you’ve withdrawn from the world. Of course, many have withdrawn from larger societies only to form smaller communities over which they then acquire strange powers. Even Benedictines must take care not to become cruel.

Yet it is not, I think, the best option. One reason is that, as John Medaille points out, the apocalypse is not kind to anyone. Waiting in your house for the collapse to make room for more housing is misguided: your house isn’t likely to survive the process. We always imagine ourselves among the plucky band of survivors, forging a new community among the ruins. We’d probably just be dead, or worse.

But another reason that Rene’s Benedict approach might not serve us so well is that perhaps there are not “so many fine clearings” left. I’m afraid there are fewer and fewer to be found, as the wilderness of the city spreads everywhere.

Today, like every other day since the quarantine sent my work online, I went walking with my wife and our two-year-old son at a nature preserve called Mines of Spain. In the 18th century a Frenchman named Julien Dubuque got permission from the local Mesquakie and from the Spanish authority to quarry for lead. This is how he founded our town, which bears his name. The Mines have trails running through prairies, atop bluffs, and along the Mississippi. This is part of the Driftless Area, an anomaly left alone by the glaciers that flattened the rest of the Midwest. Here we have ridges and ravines, crags and valleys. Here we have highs and lows.

Highs: a place to get away, created and kept up by the public, free and open to all; the friendliness of other hikers, laughing as we all move to put six feet between us, the bad joke another dad made about “hiking in a time of cholera;” the scarlet cup mushrooms fruiting near the Pine Chapel; trees living everywhere. And lows: knowledge that none of the trees here is old enough to show me what was here before, or what could be here again. Knowledge of what is missing, from the world and from my mind. Knowledge of my ignorance.

Berry writes, “we humans necessarily make pictures in our minds of our places and our world. But we can do this only by selection, putting some things into the pictures and leaving other things out. And so we live in two landscapes, one superimposed upon the other.” He goes on to say that the cultural landscape, the pictures we make of our actual landscape, can never be perfectly matched, but that “there is danger in the difference; they can become too different.” When this happens, “we will make practical errors that will be destructive of the actual landscape or of ourselves or both.”

Yes, we will. Sometimes I hate to read books about wild animals to our son, because I fear that many of them may be gone before he could ever see them in all their actuality. All he’ll have left are these pictures. And none of them will be enough to show him what those creatures really were.

The academy has taken to calling our great new city “the anthropocene.” I like better Suzannah Lessard’s notion of “enclosure.” She says: “human beings have become so large there is nothing beyond us . . . . there is nothing to put this largeness in proportion: no measure outside it to help us learn to grow into it, to learn to occupy it well.” The old forest is all cleared, the city encloses the globe, and there’s only the (anti-)cultural landscape—the pictures in our minds, floating free. Cartoons in our children’s books.

Here in the enclosure, human culture is nature: there’s hardly any distinction left. Culture encloses everything, makes and remakes everything. There’s nothing left outside that shows the worth of what’s inside. And what’s inside feels often like chaos. Chaos: an obscene profusion of bare life, numberless images bouncing off glass walls into the eyes of primitive creatures no longer burdened by the pain of that civilizing self-consciousness which can only grow in the presence of something wholly Other, something not of its own making. I’m not sure anything much can be built here until we’ve cleared enough ground to make room for ourselves. And that will take time. We might spend years or centuries cutting, felling, uprooting, hauling, tilling, and draining this land before we can think of building anything more permanent than a little outpost, a few rude cabins to shelter us while we do our work.

We usually picture culture as something we build up. In our current world we’d do better to picture it as something that results from the work of clearing. But a clearing that proceeds slowly and carefully, considerate of what is present, not willing to leave anything out, because while Trepagny might serve as a model critic, we can’t go all the way with him: we must never think of the wilderness of the great new city as wholly “evil.” And we shouldn’t think of it as something to be “subdued.” When we think that way, we’re starting to think like Naptha.

If liberal modernity is “anti-culture,” it’s not because it fails to impose the proper sympathies on the ignorant masses. If we think of the problem as a failure to “do something,” then we may be led to seek the power we need to do it. “Doing” sounds good: it sounds creative rather than destructive, constructive rather than deconstructive. It sounds like the right way to go, a positive project in a negative culture. Images of modernity as a “desert” of the soul lead us to imagine our culture as empty space. But that’s a settler myth. People live here, and they’ve lived here for a long time.

The clearing metaphor is a way of highlighting something that can be lost on those of us who like to hang out on the front porch, talking trash about modern hubris. What we can lose, ironically, is a sense of the crucial modesty of our project. It’s better to imagine ourselves as people out for a long walk in the woods, carrying a few hatchets, taking out this obstacle and that, here and there, than it is to imagine ourselves as builders armed with blueprints and heavy machinery, or as demolition men placing dynamite and welcoming the collapse that will free us to build. It’s better because it trains our eyes on what’s in front of us, not on some colonizer’s vision of what could be there instead.

What’s in front of me is no doubt different from what’s in front of you. I think of “clearing” first as an image of my work as a teacher. My students do not enter the classroom as empty vessels waiting to be filled. They come full to the brim with addictions, distractions, and tenacious attachments to bad food, bad entertainment, bad ideas. They also come with experiences of genuine human suffering and genuine human love. They have some “fundamental likes and dislikes,” however nascent. If I let them, they come as individuals, not as tokens of the ignorant mass I’m supposed to improve. My work in the classroom is mostly to clear away the bad so the good has a chance to flourish. Not by force, rhetorical or otherwise. Clearing here is mainly about asking questions, questions that can slowly pry apart the feeling of attachment from its object, so that a person can consider for herself whether the object is worth what she feels about it. And it’s about modeling what I hope are my own better attachments, which I’ve formed only because others asked those questions and modeled those attachments for me. I try to show them what it’s like to hold attachments loosely, to tread lightly, to build up your “negative capability,” as Keats put it, so that you become “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Then I go home and kiss my wife and hug my son, tend our garden, and feel no need to prove that these prejudices are good. And the next day I tell my students about that, too.

But I also think of clearing as an image of the work my institution might be doing, if it were not so focused on “building,” as all universities are. What if, instead of designing more programs, making more rules, offering more services, adding more procedures, and installing more technology, a university started simplifying? Really simplifying, not developing a new program to simplify things. What if a university started taking things away?

Consider those addictions and distractions that choke my students’ minds: we all know that their devices are a major cause, that Big Tech is polluting their brains for profit. What if, instead of building a new mental health center to address the symptoms, we set aside one dorm as a “device-free” zone, and offered a generous scholarship to students who agree to live there? No smart phones, no internet, no gaming consoles, no screens of any kind. The scholarship could include a free flip phone. If you like, or if administrators demand it, assess participants’ moods, their powers of concentration, and their academic performances at the beginning and the end of the semester. What do you think the results will show?

Clearing describes a way of engaging the cultural problem that might keep us away from Naptha’s dead-end road, and alive to our limits: we don’t really know what can happen. We just know that in many cases, nothing better can happen until we clear some ground for it. Maybe this is the main job of the Sympathetic Mind in a Rational world.

Take something away. Clear some ground. See what happens.

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