Nick Offerman: Wendell Berry’s works are a multi-plattered feast

Port William

I can’t wait to get my hands on Wendell Berry’s latest book, Wendell Berry: Port William Novels & Stories (The Civil War to World War II). Here’s an introduction to it and Berry’s other works, by none other than Nick Offerman:

He has garnered adoration and accolades for his poetry, his essays and his fiction, but in a general sense no distinction need be drawn between these genres. All of his writing thrives on the ground water of his common sense and his affection for his place on earth and the inhabitants of that place. In the eight decades and counting Mr. Berry has been paying attention, he has witnessed his species genuflecting to the modern fashion of keeping pace with the ever-increasing proliferation of consumer goods and services. By maintaining a lifestyle that eschews that sensibility by simply choosing not to go any faster than necessary, he has maintained a perspective rife with wisdom by which we can all prosper and thrill.

We can’t all be an exemplar of the agrarian lifestyle like Wendell Berry, who produces a staggering volume of literary work while managing his Kentucky farm. But there’s a great deal we can do to restore sanity and meaning in our lives. The disease Berry diagnoses is consumerism, by which he does NOT mean various efforts to ensure the safety and quality of goods, but the modern mindset that helplessness and rootlessness are virtues rather than shortcomings. In Berry’s words, “A mere consumer is by definition a dependent.” Madison Avenue sells pre-packaged identity, esteem, and meaning, and when expensive “stuff” fails to make us happy, the answer is to buy more.

How to be less dependent? Make your own food. Make your own music. Make your own furniture. And think before you buy more plastic yuck you don’t really need. And of course, we can inform ourselves about the condition we’re in, and Berry’s work is a great place to start. I’ve found his writings inspirational.

By the way, I had no idea Offerman was something of a Renaissance man. In addition to acting, he makes boats, furniture, and has written three books. He disdains labels and ideologies, and considers himself “a free-thinking American.” We could use a few more of those.

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The Battle of Okinawa

Battle of Okinawa

My father, Clayton Tuggle, passed away this Saturday. He was the most decent man I ever met. My brother and I, who knew nothing of war except for what we saw on TV and in the movies, never could figure out why he wouldn’t talk about his experiences in the Navy in WWII. 50 years after he hung up his sailor’s cap, he went on a local talk radio station and took questions for two hours. Then he gave me and my brother a handwritten account of the Battle of Okinawa, which I transcripted. G.P. Cox of Pacific Paratrooper kindly posted my Dad’s story on his excellent WWII blog. Please read this, and remember our WWII veterans. Thank you.

“The Endless” – A Lovecraftian masterpiece

Last night, my wife and I attended the Charlotte Film Society’s screening of “The Endless,” the latest project from indie filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. When the closing credits rolled, we quickly agreed that in an age of sternum-rattling surround sound and blinding special effects, this film was truly something different: It pulled us in and held us with first-class writing and acting.

Think that filmmaking approach will catch on? We can only hope.

In the movie, brothers Justin and Aaron (yeah, cute!) have hit rock bottom. Years earlier, they’d enjoyed notoriety after they escaped what they described to the news media as a “UFO death cult.” But now, their notoriety has faded, and they’re barely making a living in their cleaning business. Collection agencies hound them, they can’t make friends, and the young ladies they meet aren’t interested in dating ex-death cult members. When younger brother Aaron decides he can’t stomach any more normalcy and wants to visit the old commune, Justin reluctantly agrees.

What could go wrong?

The film opens with this quote from H. P. Lovecraft: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” That quote is a nod to the profound influence Lovecraft has exerted on Benson and Moorhead. (In the closing credits, they pay special tribute to Guillermo Del Toro, another Lovecraftian storyteller.)

What makes “The Endless” stand out is its unforced but relentless buildup of details that lull and mislead. When the seemingly commonplace path you’re following suddenly twists around and scares the daylights out of you, you can only wonder how you could have been so blind. “The Endless” had an effect on me similar to “Rosemary’s Baby,” with its clever presentation of clues that could be dismissed as merely odd that suddenly add up to unspeakable terror.

Now THAT’S entertainment.

Beowulf: The enduring appeal of an Anglo-Saxon ‘superhero story’

Viking

Here’s a great article from the BBC on the enduring influence of the epic poem that defined Western literature and thought:

Some 1,300 years on from when most historians believe it was written, Beowulf continues to be shared, adapted and revised, whether on screen, in print or in song.

JRR Tolkien, who was a noted expert on the poem, is widely thought to have taken inspiration from Beowulf for his Lord of the Rings trilogy.

According to Prof Andrew Burn, from University College London (UCL), the roots of popular medieval-themed video games and TV shows can also be found in this epic saga.

“Look at Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons, Game of Thrones, any of those big TV franchises, and you realise what the perennial source of interest there is in the same themes: bravery, mortality, power struggles, social hierarchy,” he says.

Beowulf was one of my favorites as a student in high school and college. I now own translations by Kevin Crossley-Holland, Burton Raffel, JRR Tolkien, and Seamus Heaney. Of the four, my favorite is Heaney’s. Its sparkling, dynamic prose best matches the spirit and power of the story and its characters. Here’s a taste from page 51. It’s the scene where Beowulf, who has chosen to fight Grendel bare-handed, first tackles the monster in the mead-hall of King Hrothgar:

And now the timbers trembled and sang,
a hall-session that harrowed every Dane
inside the stockade: stumbling in fury,
the two contenders crashed through the building.
The hall clattered and hammered, but somehow
survived the onslaught and kept standing.

The legacy and importance of Beowulf was not only established by its being a robust and entertaining tale, but because it defined Western civilization itself. The worldview here is one of accommodation and repurposing of pagan traditions. Instead of scouring the old ways it encountered, Christianity adapted pagan values and made them its own. For example, Beowulf is presented as a warrior-savior, a kind of Nordic Jesus. And as James C. Russell argued in The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity, Christianity in northern Europe was significantly altered to become a “world-embracing” rather than a “world-denying” religion. As Kevin Crossley-Holland concludes in the BBC article, one of Beowulf’s themes is that “On the whole, life’s to be relished, lived to the full, laughed with and at.”

JRR Tolkien certainly concurred with that view, as every page of The Lord of the Ring confirms.