Sex, economy, freedom and community in the country of marriage

Sex, economy, freedom and community in the country of marriage January 16, 2013

Our bond is no little economy based on the exchange
of my love and work for yours, so much for so much
of an expendable fund. We don’t know what its limits are–
that puts us in the dark. We are more together
than we know, how else could we keep on discovering
we are more together than we thought?
You are the known way leading always to the unknown,
and you are the known place to which the unknown is always
leading me back. More blessed in you than I know,
I possess nothing worthy to give you, nothing
not belittled by my saying that I possess it.
Even an hour of love is a moral predicament, a blessing
a man may be hard up to be worthy of. He can only
accept it, as a plant accepts from all the bounty of the light
enough to live, and then accepts the dark,
passing unencumbered back to the earth, as I
have fallen time and again from the great strength
of my desire, helpless, into your arms.

— Wendell Berry, from “The Country of Marriage

When you first begin reading Wendell Berry — whether his essays, his poems, or his fiction — it seems as though you can discern the specific topic at hand. This essay is about farming, this one is about marriage, this one about poetry, this one about land, this one about economy …

But eventually you realize that’s wrong. That essay about farming is about farming, but it is also about marriage, and poetry, and the land, and economy, and community. It’s all one subject for Wendell Berry, and so whichever of those things he’s addressing directly, he is also, always, addressing all the others as well: farming, marriage, poetry, land, economy, community.

This is why students of poetry inspired by Standing by Words can next turn to The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, a book that scarcely mentions poetry, and find in its lucid, ferocious argument a parallel that illumines and reinforces everything that the earlier book had to say about their craft and vocation. And it’s why environmentalists inspired by The Unsettling of America can turn to Standing by Words to learn more about their craft and vocation, even if they have no interest in the subject of poetry.

Berry is never writing about just one subject. And he is never not writing about all of those subjects. You can thus pick up a book of essays with the unwieldy title of Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community and find, therein, essays addressing each of those separate topics. But then that essay on sex also seems to be about economy, freedom and community. And that essay about community also seems to be about sex, economy and freedom. And they all also seem to be about farming, and marriage, and the land, and poetry, and history, and memory. And even more on farming.

That’s a great book, by the way. If you’ve never read Berry’s essays, you could start with Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community. Or maybe Home Economics. Or What Are People For? I’d avoid Unsettling or The Art of the Commonplace at first. Get the hang of reading what he writes about farming as also being about marriage, poetry, land, community, economy, etc., and then go back and read those two. Otherwise you’ll be tempted to quit your day job and go work on small-scale, sustainable, organic farm somewhere.

Or you could start with the poetry (I like the Mad Farmer poems best, but Sabbaths is another good place to start) or with the fiction — all faithfully set, like Berry himself, in a single place. I’d recommend Remembering, because I’m fond of Andy Catlett, who carries in that novel both Berry’s fierce anger and the deep roots of that anger.

So to recap all of the above, Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer and husband who has written more than 40 books. Many of those books are explicitly and directly about marriage, but every word in every one of those books is at least implicitly and indirectly about marriage. Some of those books are furious jeremiads, while the others, even the gentlest of them, are warmed with a simmering, ferocious fidelity to place, words, home and neighbor.

It’s odd, then, that Rod Dreher should recoil in fright from Berry’s most recent statements on the subject of marriage by feigning surprise that Berry seems angry.

And it’s pretty hilarious that Tim Dalrymple should choose to lecture Berry on the subject of marriage, scolding him for not paying attention to the valuable lessons he could learn on the subject from the folks at Focus on the Family. (No, that’s not a joke. I mean, it is a joke, but he seriously suggested this.)

The thing about Berry’s most recent jeremiad on the subject of same-sex marriage is that it’s wholly of a piece with everything else the man has written and argued and defended. The anger, the earthy humor, the Baptist individualism constrained by commitment to community, place and neighbor. None of that is out of character. Nor is it surprising.

He’s said all of this before about farming and about the land and about community, and economy, and fidelity. So he’s been saying this about marriage all along.

Watching the professional defenders of “traditional marriage” lecture Wendell Berry on that subject is like watching executives from Monsanto or Archer Daniels Midland attempting to lecture him on the subject of agriculture.

It is, in fact, exactly like that. Those industrial experts often use the same words as Berry does, but they aren’t standing by them, and they don’t understand them to mean what he has shown them to mean.

Wait — which industrial experts? The ones from Monsanto or the ones from Focus on the Family? The ones from agribusiness or the ones from the religious right? Yes.

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  • Tofu_Killer

    What Wendell Berry is always writing about is character, and the destructiveness of a lack of character.
    This is invigorating to readers with principles, and amusingly confounding to the selfish.

  • I know nothing of Wendell Berry, nothing at all.  Yet, I feel as though reading just this one poem has given me a wondrous insight into what the man must be like.  He seems so truly present in the way that Buddhists try to be present.  The man truly lives this stuff.  You can tell.  Must read more…

  • J_Enigma23

    The victim posturing is absurd.

    “They called us bullies! Woo-is-us, hows ever shall we get through! Shame on you for pointing out that we’re bullies, you bully!”

    And Dalrymple’s claim that the government doesn’t have anything to do with marriage is bullshit. The man’s an idiot; it’s the secular government that DEFINES marriage, since all of the benefits of marriage are mostly secular (tax breaks, emergency room visits, etc). But then, I’m preaching to the choir here and I’m preaching to a serpent’s nest over there.

    I’m afraid I wasn’t very polite in the comments I left (not as nasty as I’m capable of being, though). But then, for me to be polite means I have to have a modicum of respect for you. I have no respect for bullies – and even less for bullies who pretend their victims.

  • Eamon Knight

    ….and I think Dalrymple must have deleted your comment. He sure does tie himself in knots trying to be “nice” to LGBTs while complaining about Berry being meeeaaaannnn, before letting the theocratic cat out of the bag in comments: God defines marriage and government is only allowed to annotate it with a few tax breaks or whatever. Screw that.

    I’ll agree with him that there is no absolute right for anyone — gay or straight — to have special legal status created and granted to their personal domestic arrangements. But given that such status is available, it must be granted on an equitable and non-arbitrary basis, and both courts and popular sentiment in many jurisdictions are increasingly of the view that conditioning such grant on the gender combination of the couple is indeed arbitrary.

    Churches can define marriage anyway they want to, and marry or not marry whomever they choose, but the minute the officiant and happy couple file papers with the secular government, they are entering into a secular contract, distinct from whatever spiritual covenant they may also be binding themselves to. This was obvious to me 32 years ago, when I was a fundamentalist getting married in a fundamentalist church. What’s Dalrymple’s problem?

  • I’m fairly convinced that Tim Dalrymple is schizophrenic. He spends a lot of time saying that Evangelicals shouldn’t opposed legalizing Gay marriage, then even more time talking about how any redefinition of marriage woud be an affront to God, since God defines marriage as one man and one woman and changing it would make it objectively wrong.

    It’s kind of scary. He’s arguing against himself and doesn’t even seem to understand.

  • Chrissl

     Let’s not forget the fact that a wedding in the founding decades of the Plymouth Colony was “simple and swift, a five-minute civil ceremony performed by a magistrate” (as the Plimoth Plantation website explains). No religious ceremony at all, though there was feasting afterward…

    This of course did not mean that the Pilgrims did not have ideas about what marriage should be like, based on their reading and interpretation of the Bible. But their church viewed the creation of a marriage as a civil act.

    This was clearly contrary to the views of the English church at the time, which like many modern churches (and the Roman church) considered marriage a sacrament and DID have religious wedding ceremonies. But we can certainly make a case for both views of marriage — civil and religious — being present in the USA from the start.

  • That’s not schizophrenia. Even were it a sign of some kind of mental illness, schizophrenia would not be it. 

    But it’s not a mental illness. He’s just talking out of both sides of his mouth. 

  • It’s not? I thought split personalities was a fairly classic schizophrenic behavior, but if it’s not I would love to learn to correct my misconception.

    (Obviously you’re right about just talking out of both sides of his mouth. I’m just amazed at how brazen he is about it)

  • EllieMurasaki

    You’re confusing multiple personality with schizophrenia. And you’re presenting no evidence that this guy is multiple. People contradict themselves. It’s not a symptom of anything except people having poor memories and/or different scripts for different audiences and/or learning experiences in between the contradictory statements.

  • SisterCoyote

     Multiple personality disorder is not much like schizophrenia at all. The two often are confused, but IIRC, they don’t really overlap at all, at least not often. Schizophrenia does overlap with other mental illnesses, like bipolar, so it’s possible, but I don’t think it’s anything resembling common.

    He’s arguing against himself because he’s arguing in bad faith, basically. He wants the privilege of having governmental support via theocracy; he doesn’t care how he disenfranchises people who are Other. He just wants it done.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    He spends a lot of time saying that Evangelicals shouldn’t oppose legalizing Gay marriage, then even more time talking about how any redefinition of marriage woud be an affront to God

    From following Dalrymple’s confusing about-face over the last few months, it seems he’s more or less come to feel that fighting gay marriage through official means- legislation, ballot initiatives- is not worth the cost politically. But that evangelicals should continue the battle within Christianity and within the culture at large:

    I no longer think we can require American law to prefer our theology of marriage and elevate it over others. Many evangelicals disagree with me on this. But I still think we need to defend that theology of marriage in the culture and in the marketplace of ideas.

    I’d find the distinction more meaningful if Dalrymple mounted this cultural defense of his religious position while actively supporting legal marriage equality, but I do think I see how he’s trying to thread the needle.

  • I was going to say something less complimentary about the orifice of choice he’s employing to speak out of both sides of.

  • Eamon Knight

    I no longer think we can require American law to prefer our theology of marriage and elevate it over others.

    IOW: We shouldn’t try to impose our doctrines on others, not because it’s tyrannical to do so, but because we’re failing to get our way, so it’s time to cut our losses on this front and concentrate on other ways of advancing our agenda.

  • The comment about being schizophrenic was intended to be hyperbole. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

  • I first got that particular misconception from the 1st edition DUNGEON MASTER’S GUIDE for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. I wonder how many other people got it from there. 

    Call of Cthulhu covered mental illness a whole lot better. One module actually simulated early onset schizophrenia and won an award from a Canadian psychologist’s group. 

  • Loki100

    Dalrymple is one of the most idiotic people I have run across on the internet. His arguments inevitably consist of whining about other people being mean, when they are really just making accurate statements. It’s particularly frustrating because he never actually will show any disagreement with those statements he is complaining about misrepresenting him.

  • AnonaMiss

    Generally it’s best to avoid using suffering people as a hyperbole for an asshole.

  • As long as we’re on the subject of judging people’s use of metaphor and how it affects various communities, I’m curious as to your thoughts about the use of “asshole” as a metaphorical criticism of a human being, especially given the cultural associations between anal sex and homosexual men.

  • Mea Culpa.

  • AnonaMiss

    I’d never thought of asshole as having to do with anal sex; I thought of the metaphor more literally as “A person who spews shit.”

    If that was a sarcastic reminder to me not to pile on Eric, you’re right, I had just woken up and hadn’t had my coffee yet and was cranky (sorry Eric, I know people had gotten after you already and I didn’t need to too!).

    If your problem with the use of the word ‘asshole’ was non-sarcastic… well honestly I’m going to have a hard time, since it’s one of the few insults I have left after doing my best to remove all the gendered and disability-derived ones from my vocabulary. But let me know and I’ll try to work around it.

  • 1) It wasn’t intended as sarcastic at all, but I do more generally recommend attending to the value of telling other people how to talk. Some people seem to find that doing so provides value, others (like me) simply do it out of habit. So I find it useful sometimes to just pause and ask whether there’s value in it, and others who are like me in that respect may find it useful as well.

    2) The term “asshole” as a description of a person does make me uncomfortable, for many of the same reasons “dick” or “pussy” do. But I wouldn’t say that’s enough to make it worth anyone’s while to stop using it unless they value my comfort a whole lot more than I do. I in fact use the term from time to time myself.

  • EllieMurasaki

    The term “asshole” as a description of a person does make me uncomfortable, for many of the same reasons “dick” or “pussy” do.

    How so? ‘Dick’ and ‘pussy’ are gendered. ‘Asshole’ is not.

  • AnonaMiss

    I’m reminded of a character in a few of Pat McManus’s short stories who is implied to have a colorful vocabulary. The author renders the character’s lines more family-friendly by switching up anatomical terms, resulting in priceless dialogue like “Don’t be a wise-elbow” and “It’s too steep, you belly button!”

  • If you’re asking me to justify my discomfort as part of judging whether I’m entitled to be uncomfortable, or judging whether it’s a problematic phrase in some objective sense, I’d just as soon opt out of that conversation. I’ve already said that I don’t expect anyone to change their behavior because of it, which in my book means I don’t need to justify it… I simply observe it, the way I observe that I don’t like celery.

    But if you’re asking me to explain my discomfort because you’re interested, what seems to be going on in my head is that I live in a culture that closely associates (and sometimes equates) gay male sexual activity with assholes, and consequently treating “asshole” as a contemptuous description of a person has become associated in my mind with expressing contempt towards sexually active gay males.

    My mind seems to do something similar with “dick” and “pussy”… that is, independent of their gender implications, their association with sexual activity causes my mind to associate using them as contemptuous terms for human beings with expressing contempt for sexually active males and female human beings.

  • EllieMurasaki

    The second, not the first. Which isn’t a connection I’d ever have made, I think–everyone has an asshole, after all, and one’s sexuality isn’t a factor in whether one’s sexual activity includes it.

  •  Sure, that’s certainly true. It probably wouldn’t be a connection I would make if I didn’t belong to a demographic that is frequently loudly classified that way.

  • EllieMurasaki

    And not a demographic to which I belong. Okay.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

     I like the way Robert Anton Wilson did it in his “Schrodinger’s Cat” books – he substituted the names of notable (in his day) moralists for various anatomical terms.