Do Wendell Berry’s recent comments in support of gay marriage reveal a broader flaw in his work, as some critics have claimed? For that to be the case, his comments would have to line up with the works that have made him famous. Yet when we place Berry’s recent statements alongside his previous writings on marriage, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that they do not fit within his broader vision of the good life.
Berry’s social vision can be distilled into this basic phrase: “Human beings ought to relate to God’s creation as worshiping stewards, gratefully fulfilling their role as cultivators of the goodness of God’s world.” Note that word “cultivation.” That’s a very intentionally chosen word because it evokes both the idea of fertility and the idea of mutual flourishing. If you look at Berry’s views on ecology, sex, land use, and human community, their approach is always marked by a fidelity to those characteristics.
For Berry, sex operates in the same way that our relationship to the land should: We commit ourselves to the stewarding of the land in hopes that it would produce fruit—and the dual realities of labor and pleasure are wrapped up in the entire process. In fact, you could probably say without overstatement that marriage may be the fundamental image in Berry’s fiction. Consider this passage from Berry’s “On Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms”:
The meaning of marriage begins in the giving of words. We cannot join ourselves to one another without giving our word. And this must be an unconditional giving, for in joining ourselves to another we join ourselves to the unknown. We can join one another only by joining the unknown. We must not be misled by the procedures of experimental thought: in life, in the world, we are never given two known results to choose between, but only one result that we choose without knowing what it is.
Marriage rests upon the immutable givens that compose it: words, bodies, characters, histories, places. Some wishes cannot succeed; some victories cannot be won; some loneliness is incorrigible. But there is relief and freedom in knowing what is real; these givens come to us out of the perennial reality of the world, like the terrain we live on. One does not care for this ground to make it a different place, or to make it perfect, but to make it inhabitable and to make it better. To flee from its realities is only to arrive at them unprepared.
Because the condition of marriage is worldly and its meaning communal, no one party to it can be solely in charge. What you alone think it ought to be, it is not going to be. Where you alone think you want it to go, it is not going to go. It is going where the two of you – and marriage, time, life, history, and the world – will take it. You do not know the road; you have committed your life to a way.
In marriage as in poetry, the given word implies the acceptance of a form not entirely of its own making. When understood seriously enough, a form is a way of accepting and living within the limits of a creaturely life. We live only one life, and die only one death. A marriage cannot include everybody, because the reach of responsibility is short. A poem cannot be about everything, for the reach of attention and insight is short.”
“Marriage is the mutual promise of a man and a woman to live together, to love and help each other, in mutual fidelity, until death. It is understood that these definitions cannot be altered to suit convenience or circumstance, anymore than we can call a rabbit a squirrel because we preferred to see a squirrel. Poetry of the traditionally formed sort, for instance, does not propose that it’s difficulties should be solved by skipping or forcing a rhyme or by mutilating syntax or by writing prose. Marriage does not invite one to solve one’s quarrel with one’s wife by marrying a more compliant woman. Certain limits, in short, are prescribed- imposed before the beginning.”
Or this from the same essay:
Properly used, a verse form, like a marriage, creates impasses, which the will and present understanding can solve only arbitrarily and superficially. These halts and difficulties do not ask for immediate remedy; we fail them by making emergencies of them. They ask, rather, for patience, forbearance, inspiration–the gifts and graces of time, circumstance, and faith. They are, perhaps, the true occasions of the poem: occasions for surpassing what we know or have reason to expect. They are points of growth, like the axils of leaves. Writing in a set form, rightly undestood, is anything but force and predetermination. One puts down the first line of the pattern in trust that life and language are abundant enough to complete it. Rightly understood, a set form prescribes its restraint to the poet, not to the subject.
Marriage too is an attempt to rhyme, to bring two different lives–within the one life of their troth and household–periodically into agreement or consent. The two lives stray apart necessarily, and by consent come together again: to “feel together,” to “be of the same mind.” Difficult virtues are again necessary. And failure, permanent failure, is possible. But it is this possibility of failure, together with the formal bounds, that turns us back from fantasy, wishful thinking, and self-pity into the real terms and occasions of our lives.
It may be, then, that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work and that when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.
Or this from “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community”:
We thus can see that there are two kinds of human economy. There is the kind of economy that exists to protect the “right” of profit, as does our present public economy; this sort of economy will inevitably gravitate toward protection of the “rights” of those who profit most. Our present public economy is really a political system that safeguards the private exploitation of the public wealth and health. The other kind of economy exists for the protection of gifts, beginning with the “giving in marriage,” and this is the economy of community, which now has been nearly destroyed by the public economy.
There are two kinds of sexuality that correspond to the two kinds of economy. The sexuality of community life, whatever its inevitable vagaries, is centered on marriage, which joins two living souls as closely as, in this world, they can be joined. This joining of two who know, love, and trust one another brings them in the same breath into the freedom of sexual consent and into the fullest earthly realization of the image of God. From their joining, other living souls come into being, and with them great responsibilities that are unending, fearful, and joyful. The marriage of two lovers joins them to one another, to forebears, to descendants, to the community, to heaven and earth. It is the fundamental connection without which nothing holds, and trust is its necessity.
Or this excerpt, from “The Body and the Earth”:
It is possible to imagine a more generous enclosure–a household welcoming to neighbors and friends; a garden open to the weather, between the woods and the road. It is possible to imagine a marriage bond that would bind a woman and a man not only to each other, but to the community of marriage, the amorous communion at which all couples sit: the sexual feast and celebration that joins them to all living things and to the fertility of the earth, and the sexual responsibility that joins them to the human past and the human future. It is possible to imagine marriage as a grievous, joyous human bond, endlessly renewable and renewing, again and again rejoining memory and passion and hope.
That bold part definitely sounds like Berry is taking a quasi-Catholic turn and linking the meaning of marriage to fertility and reproduction, a move which by necessity leads to a natural law case that same-sex sexual behavior is unethical. What’s more, if you’re defining marriage in terms of potential fertility, it categorically makes such a thing as same-sex marriage categorically impossible. Anyway, let’s continue. Here’s another excerpt from the same essay:
Perhaps the most dangerous, certainly the most immediately painful, consequence of the disintegration of the household is this isolation of sexuality. The division of sexual energy from the functions of household and community that it ought both to empower and to grace is analogous to that other modern division between hunger and the earth. When it is no longer allied by proximity and analogy to the nurturing disciplines that bound the household to the cycles of fertility and the seasons, life and death, then sexual love loses its symbolic or ritualistic force, its deepest solemnity and its highest joy. It loses its sense of consequence and responsibility. It becomes “autonomous,” to be valued only for its own sake, therefore frivolous, therefore destructive–even of itself. Those who speak of sex as “recreation,” thinking to claim for it “a new place,” only acknowledge its displacement from Creation.
“When [sexual energy] is no longer allied by proximity and analogy to the nurturing disciplines that bound the household to the cycles of fertility…” How on earth does one reconcile such a passage with anything but a quasi-Catholic view of marriage and sexuality that sees the potential of fertility as essential to marriage’s meaning and to the meaning of sex?
Whether he’ll admit it or not, Berry has changed his mind on marriage. The Berry I quote above sees the meaning of marriage and sex inextricably tied to the idea of being fruitful, which must include the bearing of children. Children are not the only fruit of marriage, but the potential for children is a necessary reality. That’s the Berry of his earliest writings up until the early 90s, at the very least. You could even argue that he retains this view of marriage all the way up to Hannah Coulter, which is from the early 2000s. He certainly seems to affirm it in Jayber Crow, which was published in 2000, if memory serves.
The Berry of this recent interview seems to have a different understanding of marriage, one that is less concerned with fertility and the relationship between sexuality and agriculture and more concerned with lifelong loyalty and commitment. If that’s the change he’s made, that’s fine. He’s certainly free to change his mind. But I would love to hear how he’s come to a position of apparent acceptance of a sexual practice that cuts off the participants from “the cycles of fertility” that he wrote of so eloquently in older works.
Cross-posted at Notes from a Small Place