When I wrote "February: New Mexico and the Open" for NewMusicBox back in June, I used the avatar of Edward Abbey to make a point, and I felt kind of bad about it. At the close of the essay I did make sure to append a story that, I thought, "absolved" Abbey of the failing I'd accused, that is, of misanthropy.
Nonetheless the initial reference was a bit of a potshot, and though I made it clear that I love his writings, I still felt chastened when about a month later I read Wendell Berry's essay "A Few Words in Favor of Edward Abbey." May I strongly recommend this piece of writing to you now. It is exemplary and entertaining, generally a warm and human response to the work of a fellow writer who was himself both warm and human at the time.
If I admire a writer like Jack Kerouac for his irresponsibility toward certain norms and expectations, it is precisely responsibility that awes me in Wendell Berry, including his responsibility toward fellow writers, which reads perfectly free of pretense and guile. His anti-modernity, anti-industrialism screeds I find difficult to digest, partially because they seem so correct and so forbidding, but the literary criticism shines in its range and subtlety, and again, its warmth. (His thoughts about Huckleberry Finn in "Writer and Region" are also highly recommended.)
Berry's defense of Abbey is that he is "not a conservationist or an environmentalist or a boxable ist of any other kind," but rather a human struggling to remain so, delighting in the moments that confirm his humanity and sparring at the forces that threaten it. In every Abbey piece, Abbey presents a great deal of Abbey, and as a result no one is likely to agree with him all the time; Berry takes this only as a strong confirmation that Abbey has offered his full self, and that this is a thing of considerable value.
In discussing an example: "If he is going to write about immigration, why doesn't he do it in a sober, informed, logical manner? The answer, I am afraid, will not suit some advocates of sobriety, information, and logic: He can write in a sober, informed, logical manner—if he wants to. And why does he sometimes not want to? Because it is not in his character to want to all the time. With Mr. Abbey, character is given, or it takes, a certain precedence, and that precedence makes him a writer and a man of a different kind—and probably a better kind—than the practitioner of mere sobriety, information, and logic."
(Here is a connection to my earlier-linked discussion of Kerouac and Henry Miller. I loved them for their real, human inconsistency. Berry offers us Abbey as a writer whose merit lies precisely in the craggy, imperfect humanity that his critics take as a fault. I'm thinking of Greil Marcus. Over the summer I read his book The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice, while I was staying at an old CCC cabin in Montana, assisting some forest service officials in the building of a puncheon. One evening I scratched a note to myself: "He doesn't make coherent logical arguments about art, but he makes ecstatic ones." Which might be more appropriate and more useful. There are higher aims than sanitary argumentation.)
"If Mr. Abbey is not an environmentalist," Berry asks, "then what is he? He is, I think, at least in the essays, an autobiographer."
Here was the chastening, because that's exactly what I did for NewMusicBox. I was asked to write four essays, and finding within myself no desire to make claims, defend arguments, or convince anyone I was right about anything, all I could think to do was tell my own story. I had been pondering and traveling and listening and reading and composing a great deal, and around the time the essays congealed I was out for a lot of long runs, noticing lines and resonances between personal events and artistic ones--drawing constellations, you might say. It seemed like The Necks had something to do with why I composed so effectively in Wyoming, Bonnie "Prince" Billy with why I keep returning to New Mexico, Peter Garland's musical topics with the characters I met in Virginia, Morton Feldman's expansive, ostensibly logicless forms with the unfolding geometry of my life.
Berry's essay made me realize that, of course, I'd dragged Abbey into this to begin with because I saw in him a fellow human writing everything he could as a bulwark against despair. I used that exact word: "Is any of my music truly an improvement on silence? Globally, is my presence superior to the alternative? Ecologically, the answer is no. But though I am a resource-devouring primate, I am also a thoughtful human being, and maybe I don’t need to improve on silence but only on despair."
Berry quotes Abbey: "The essays in Down the River are meant to serve as antidotes to despair. Despair leads to boredom, electronic games, computer hacking, poetry and other bad habits."
See what he did there with that irreverent humor? He's distracting our attention—and his own—from the profundity of the despair. I accused Abbey of misanthropy, but I see now that the anger and futility that oozes from under the floorboards in his work is exactly the anger and futility I faced down in "New Mexico and the Holes."
I described some of my fear and frustration flowing from environmental crisis. But just as Berry argues in Abbey's case, I can confirm that there was no meaningful political motivation behind my writing. It was driven only by a simple and (as it turned out) incendiary desire to make an account of myself.
That's probably what I'm doing in the music, too.
10 Best of 2014
January: Wyoming and the Open
February: New Mexico and the Holes
Notes on The Accounts