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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