Against the Slippery Slope of Injustice: Amanda Palmer Reads Wendell Berry’s Stunningly Prescient Poem “Questionnaire”
The road to moral hell is paved with gradual self-permission.
By Maria Popova
“Under conditions of terror,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her classic treatise on the normalization of evil, “most people will comply but some people will not… No more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.” Under such conditions, counting ourselves among the few who refuse to comply has less to do with whether we believe ourselves to be good than it does with the deliberate protections we must place between unrelenting evil and our own sanity and goodness, for among the most insaning aspects of tyrannical regimes is the Stockholm syndrome of the psyche they inflict upon us — upon ordinary people, not-evil people, people who consider themselves decent and good, but who slowly, through a cascade of countless small concessions, lose sight of the North Star of their native moral compass.
Therein lies the true seat of terror, the kind of terror James Baldwin meant when he made his chilling observation that “it has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within.” The Nobel-winning dissident poet Joseph Brodsky, who was expatriated for speaking inconvenient truth to power and sentenced to five years at a Soviet labor camp, captured this chilling dynamic perfectly as he contemplated the most powerful antidote to evil: “What we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good.”
How to strip that guise is what Wendell Berry, another poet of uncommon insight and courage of conviction, examines in his stunningly prescient poem “Questionnaire,” first published in 2009, later included his altogether magnificent poetry collection Leavings (public library), and generously read here by poetry-lover and my dear friend Amanda Palmer, with the lovely score of crickets in the summer night:
by Wendell Berry
- How much poison are you willing
to eat for the success of the free
market and global trade? Please
name your preferred poisons.
- For the sake of goodness, how much
evil are you willing to do?
Fill in the following blanks
with the names of your favorite
evils and acts of hatred.
- What sacrifices are you prepared
to make for culture and civilization?
Please list the monuments, shrines,
and works of art you would
most willingly destroy.
- In the name of patriotism and
the flag, how much of our beloved
land are you willing to desecrate?
List in the following spaces
the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
you could most readily do without.
- State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security,
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.
Complement with Berry on how to be a poet and a complete human being, then revisit Amanda Palmer reading “The Hubble Photographs” by Adrienne Rich, “Having It Out With Melancholy” by Jane Kenyon, “Humanity i love you” by E.E. Cummings, “Possibilities” by Wisława Szymborska, and “The Mushroom Hunters” by Neil Gaiman.
Amanda’s work, like my own, is made possible by patronage — join me in supporting her work so that she may go on bringing beauty and bravery into this world.
Published August 14, 2019