Revisiting the Culture War with Wendell Berry (Part B)

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At the start of the summer of 2010, when my wife was pregnant with our daughter, I sent out an email to everyone I know: Hey, I need work. I’ll do anything. Got any ideas?

The boss of my sister-in-law (yes, that one) responded: I have a ranch that’s overgrown and needs tending. The work is literally backbreaking, but if you’re interested meet me at the Wal-Mart on 71 tomorrow at 6 am and we’ll drive out there.

He needed someone to clear the land of cedar, agarita, and cactus, to make it better grazing for cattle and to help the grass and the oak trees thrive. So that’s what I’ve done for basically the entire course of my PhD program, at every summer and winter break, and odd weekends in the fall and spring. Though I’ve done some of the work with a chainsaw, the majority has been done with stone-age tools: a shovel, an ax, a pick. I chop the cedar trees, hack the agarita from under its roots, and dig out the cactus with a shovel. Then I throw it all into the back of the twenty-five-year-old Chevy I borrow from my boss and drive it to piles to be burned later. Sometimes I get to burn those piles; sometimes, for a “break,” I get to do odd jobs around the 150-year-old ranch house, like paint the trim or fix the doors on the toolsheds when they’ve warped.

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In a real sense, this blog grew up around my work out there. When I first started working at the ranch, gay marriage and contraception were hot topics, and my conservative Catholic friends on Facebook were debating and pointing me to blogs and articles, and I was getting into long combox debates about the subject. At home in Austin I’d print out the blog posts and articles from journals like First Things and The Public Discourse, and I’d check out the books they’d recommend, and I’d take them along with me to the ranch to read during my water-breaks. Then I’d scribble my responses in a notebook I kept with me in the truck. Sometimes, if I was feeling hot enough about what I had to say, I would drive into town (30 minutes away) during my midday break, head to Fredericksburg Coffee & Tea (which has free wi-fi), order an iced tea, and post it right away. Usually, though, I would wait until I got back to Austin.

In 2012, I got tired of writing the same things over and over again, and so I decided to start this blog, where I could post these arguments once and then just point people here when, for example, they’d bring up the incest argument or the food/sex analogy. But my composition process stayed the same: I did most of my thinking while I worked, and most of my reading and writing from the ranch pickup truck or the kitchen table in the ranch house. And I posted most of my arguments having just come from the ranch, often with ranch dirt and cedar needles still ground into my jeans.

What that means is that a lot of the arguments I’ve come up with have literally been composed to the rhythm of tree-chopping, or while dragging brush across a field. Which I think matters because, often, the underlying subject in these debates is nature. What is natural? Is homosexuality natural? Can gay marriage be natural? What does nature have to say about these things?

And, often, I’ve been flabbergasted at the distance between the “nature” described by the First Things/Public Discourse crowd and what I actually see before me, around me, under my feet, and above my head at the ranch. What I see in their writing is a universe whose order is easily apprehended: in which everything is as it seems, in which you never have to grapple with exceptions, in which you can be comfortable in your certainty and never worry about changing your mind. What I’ve seen at the ranch is the opposite.

That’s why, I think, the ranch has proven such fertile ground for this blog. That discrepancy makes me want to write, makes me want to argue, and makes me want to reclaim a word, nature, that matters to me and that I think these guys drain of all of its meaning and majesty.

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——

Take this recent post by Anthony Esolen at Life Site News. Now, it’s Esolen, so a lot of the writing is good. Like this sentence:

I am persuaded that we could clear our heads of most of the unnatural evils we have come to accept if we would simply leave the Teaching Machine and the Entertainment Machine, and go out of doors, and stay there for a while, walking, listening, perhaps whistling, playing, working, thinking, or simply being.

Lovely, and true. But, as Esolen always does, he ruins it with a bitter note that’s both ugly and factually wrong:

Or you are in the field, working, wiping on your sleeve the sweat from your brow and brushing away the gnats. The hay has to be made. The silly feminist who declares that fairy tales are evil – she has never had to make the hay. Most things that most people fret about, and most of the unnatural states they imagine themselves into, vanish into the vanity they are when you have a field, mown grass everywhere, and hay to make. Your very muscles will rouse you back into reality.

I mean, I don’t think fairy tales are evil or anything, but Esolen would still probably consider me a silly feminist. And yet I’ve wiped plenty of sweat off my brow in the fields.

Esolen tries to enlist nature to his side of the culture war by tying things he doesn’t like (gay marriage and feminism), to things that are clearly bad and unnatural: fluorescent lights, rushed lunches, consumerism, Justin Bieber. That’s bad enough, but I want to focus on his conclusion:

Our opponents claim the unnatural. Let them. Nature is on our side, and she does not change.

Nature doesn’t change? Sure. But so what? That’s the wrong lesson to take from her. We’re humans: we operate on a much smaller scale. So we need to be humble in reckoning our knowledge of her, careful before claiming certainty, and always ready to learn something new about her. We need to be prepared to accept that our understanding of nature can change.

To wit:

The summer of 2011 in Texas was the hottest any state has ever recorded in the US, with more than 100 days over 100 degrees.

I remember well what it was like to be in that moment. Rain was inconceivable, a rumor, something less than a memory. I watched the grass turn from brown to yellow and then to white, and even the cedars were losing their color. I was sure, that summer, that I was watching the Chihuahua desert swelling up from Mexico and swallowing the Edwards Plateau.

There’s an Elmer Kelton book with a title that captures that summer: The Time it Never Rained. I love that title: it gets at both the sense that what we understand now is what will always be, and the folly in believing that sense, in taking that momentary idea of the infinite as something actually infinite. Because the last time I was at the ranch, this past August, it was green. Unbelievably, there were flowers in the fields, that late in the year.  Believe it or not, I woke one morning to a cool breeze.

This is what nature teaches you, over and over again: you are wrong. What you think will last will not last. What you think is certain is not certain. Arizona was once underwater; Scotland once had a tropical climate. Esolen is right: nature doesn’t change. But it always surprises, because, as a gifted poet puts it, “The trouble, obviously, is that we do not know much of the truth.”

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——

I don’t want to give the impression that all I do in my free time at the ranch is work on this blog. I have lots of time to myself there, and the blog only fills up a small part of it. I did most of my reading for comprehensive exams at the ranch, and I’ve written big chunks of my dissertation there, too. And I always keep a book of poems and a book of essays in my bag for pleasure reading.

One writer whose books are often in my bag also happens to be a guy whose view of nature matches what I see when I’m out there: Wendell Berry.

When asked by interviewer Sarah Leonard about persistent themes in his writing, Berry responded:

‘Wonder’ is a word that applies. To live and work attentively in a diverse landscape such as this one—made up of native woodlands, pastures, croplands, ponds, and streams—is to live from one revelation to another, things unexpected, always of interest, often wonderful. After a while, you understand that there can be no end to this. The place is essentially interesting, inexhaustibly beautiful and wonderful.

That wonder often appears in Berry’s writing, especially his poetry, in moments of sudden revelation, where beliefs are upended, even reversed. A tree falls: the world is changed. Married for decades, a couple discovers they have continents worth of knowledge to discover in each other. I mentioned before the poem “Breaking,” from The Country of Marriage, in which the speaker compares his previous beliefs to water flowing over ice. The speaker concludes: “And now / that the rising water has broken / the ice, I see that what I thought / was the light is part of the dark.”

That sudden change, that sense of reversal, is exactly what one feels on reading his essay “Poetry and Marriage: the Use of Old Forms.” That’s what I was trying to get at last week: Berry traces a systematic argument about poetic form and then, we could almost say miraculously, finds a way to accommodate a poet (Walt Whitman) who violates the central principle of that argument. And he does it not begrudgingly but cheerfully, as if making a discovery: Wow. The world is bigger than I imagined.

This sense of wonder might just be how Berry can come to support a phenomenon that Esolen swears to us is impossible in nature. “Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air,” Berry writes, “and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine – which was, after all, a very small miracle.”

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——

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I’ll end with a story from the ranch, and one more connection to Berry. I don’t tell this story often, because it seems too small to be worth sharing. But it fits here, so here goes:

I was working one afternoon at the edge of the south field, clearing away brush and small cedars from a tangled, overgrown oak grove. Chopping away at a cedar, I noticed something moving behind me. When I turned, I saw a tiny green grass snake on the stump of the tree I had just cleared. He was just watching me. Not hiding, not tense, his head raised up, just looking. He kept watching as I finished with the tree and moved on to the next. He watched me for a solid ten minutes, and then he slithered off, finally bored I guess, and I moved on to another group of trees.

Understand, this snake was well within the reach of my ax. Everything I know about nature and about snakes told me he should be wary of me. But he wasn’t. And when I turned to him, he didn’t flinch or skitter off. He just kept watching. He just seemed curious.

Now, I’ve seen more exciting animals at the ranch, had more dramatic encounters with people and beasts. But that one has stuck with me for some reason, probably involving the way that it challenged my idea of the ways nature works.

I feel less silly telling it, though, because I recently read Berry’s essay “Getting Along with Nature” (1982), in which he tells a similar story:

At the end of July 1981, while I was using a team of horses to mow a small triangular hillside pasture that is bordered on two sides by trees, I was suddenly aware of wings close below me. It was a young red-tailed hawk, who flew up into a walnut tree. I mowed to the turn and stopped the team. The hawk then glided to the ground not twenty feet away. I got off the mower, stood and watched, even spoke, and the hawk showed no fear. I could see every feather distinctly, claw and beak and eye, the creamy down of the breast. Only when I took a step toward him, separating myself from the team and mower, did he fly. While I mowed three or four more rounds, he stayed near, perched in trees or standing erect and watchful on the ground.

Berry goes on to ask, “Why had he come? To catch mice? Had he seen me scare one out of the grass? Or was it curiosity?”

Like me, even Berry feels sheepish about sharing his story. “In some circles,” he writes, “I would certainly be asked if one can or should be serious about such an encounter, if it has any value.” But, he concludes, “I would unhesitatingly answer yes.” And he goes on: “Such encounters involve another margin—the one between domesticity and wildness—that attracts us irresistibly; they are among the best rewards of outdoor work and among the reasons for loving to farm.”

The behavior of Berry’s hawk, and my snake, reminds me of his exhortation, in “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” to “every day do something / that won’t compute.”

In telling his readers to do that, he’s not arguing that they should act against their nature—he’s telling them that’s what their nature is: a world full of surprises and contradictions.

The truly gorgeous thing about this is that it doesn’t require us to get rid of what we know. It’s a process of addition. I would be stupid to say, on the basis of my encounter on the ranch, that animals, or snakes, or tiny green grass snakes, have no instinct for self-preservation. But I also can’t deny that that instinct isn’t always the governing force for a snake’s behavior. To deny what I’ve seen, just because it challenges what I already knew, would be just as stupid.

Berry finds this process of addition fascinating, and so do I. I get to live in a world where, if I want to be truthful, I have to say a) snakes will do whatever they can to preserve their own lives AND b) sometimes a snake will risk his life to watch you chop down a tree. A world like this is truly a world of infinite possibility. “You cannot leave anything out of mystery,” Berry writes, “because by definition everything is always in it.” Recognizing this, I think, is truly a way of approaching the divine.

But this is precisely where (I think) Berry loses some of his biggest fans—and it’s where our conversations about nature tend to fall apart. You cannot leave anything out of mystery. That is a radical sentiment. And not everyone is willing to take it seriously.

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Making Gay Okay Ch. 2: A Quick Note on an Ettelbrick Quote

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Just a quick note today on Chapter 2 of Making Gay Okay.

Reilly starts the chapter with a quote from “lesbian advocate” Paula Ettelbrick. The debate about gay marriage, Reilly tells us, is all about, in Ettelbrick’s words, “transforming the very fabric of society… [and] radically reordering society’s views of reality.”

The quote is meant to illustrate Reilly’s point—the thesis of the whole book, really—that accepting gay marriage requires a rejection of objective reality. It’s the second time he’s used the quote, and we’re only on Chapter 2. And why not? It’s a smoking gun of a quote, isn’t it? Here’s a high-powered member of the “gay lobby,” a lawyer for Lambda Legal, laying out what the religious right has told us all along is the secret agenda behind the marriage equality movement: the radical reorganization (read: the destruction) of everything society holds dear.

The problem?

The quote comes from an anti-gay-marriage essay.

Oh, it was written by a gay woman. But Andrew Sullivan called Ettelbrick one of “the fiercest critics of gay marriage (and gay conservatives) in the past.” In “Since When Is Marriage a Path to Liberation?,” from way back in 1989, Ettelbrick argued that gay rights groups should not seek the right to marry. In fact, the point Ettelbrick was making was basically the opposite of the one Reilly is trying to attribute to her: she wasn’t saying that gay marriage would destroy traditional society and therefore should be pursued (mua-ha-HA-HA!); she was arguing that traditional society needs to be destroyed but gay marriage won’t do it.

Again: Ettelbrick was arguing that gay marriage would not destroy traditional society.

This would be clearer, except that Reilly’s ellipses replace some important words in the quote he uses: “We must keep our eyes on the goals of providing true alternatives to marriage and of radically reordering society’s views of reality.“ (emphasis added) Gay marriage, Ettelbrick argued, was a move away from *her* goal of “reordering society’s views of reality,” which would be better obtained by endorsing alternatives to marriage.

I’ll leave it to y’all, dear readers, to discern whether Reilly is being deliberately deceitful in his presentation of Ettelbrick’s quote.

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[There’s some dust in the middle of that quote, Reilly.]

But the point is that *her* goal is not the goal of the gay rights’ movement as a whole. In fact, I would argue that if that had been the goal, the movement never would have achieved the rapid, momentous successes it has.

As Gabriel Arana noted this week at Salon, Marc Solomon has a new book out on the history of the marriage equality movement. Arana starts out with an anecdote from the aftermath of the Goodridge decision that legalized gay marriage in Massachussetts. Arana writes:

Nearly 10 years ago, on the heels of the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s decision legalizing gay marriage in the state, gay-rights advocates faced a strategic decision. With the Legislature about to consider a constitutional amendment reining in the court’s decision, they could either push legislators to back civil unions as a compromise or face the full wrath of the opposition.

Marc Solomon, national campaign director for LGBT-rights group Freedom to Marry, called Los Angeles City Councilman (now mayor) Eric Garcetti to ask for advice. “Fight for love,” Garcetti said. Civil unions were about legal status, about “rights”; marriage was about love.

Now, I know “love” is not a particularly convincing word for anybody that might be reading this from the Catholic Right. You all think that same-sex love is inherently unloving. So maybe a better way to formulate it is Rob Tisinai’s: “We only ask for the rights because we’ve already accepted the responsibilities.”

The point is that the movement, as it actually, historically developed, hasn’t emphasized “rights,” at least not as it has found success in changing America’s mind. This point dovetails with Chris Geidner’s 2011 account, in which he notes that the move to marriage meant abandoning a “full defense of sexual freedom.” Had it not, it likely would not have found much purchase. As Andrew Sullivan puts it, before the push for marriage equality, “[W]e had been trapped into this … ghetto of defending sexual freedom. And then asking people not to be mean to us.” And, Sullivan says, that position was getting them nowhere.

Again, Reilly would have you believe the opposite. “The subject of homosexuality…,” he writes, “has become inextricably enmeshed in the political rhetoric of rights.” And his whole book is based on the idea that marriage equality is an extension of unfettered sexual freedom, rather than its repudiation. But while marriage is a right, the push for marriage equality has been made by people who care about the telos, the purpose, and the reasons behind that right. And who see the responsibilities that come with it. The good news is that means we can have a productive conversation about the nature of sex and the place of same-sex love within that nature.

The bad news? Reilly runs away from that conversation.

But we’ll have it anyway, starting in our next post.

On Poetry and Marriage: Revisiting the Culture War with Wendell Berry

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A few weeks ago, back when I was a more productive blogger, I wrote about what I thought was an unjustified appropriation of a phrase from poet-farmer Wendell Berry by two opponents of gay marriage, Anthony Esolen and his book-reviewer Matthew J. Franck. Berry, I pointed out, came out in favor of gay marriage just last year, and I quoted Fred Clark’s insistence that the gesture was “wholly of a piece with everything else the man has written and argued and defended.”

Today I want to spend some time justifying that statement. I do it because I don’t really like the culture war (believe it or not) and I’m fascinated by those rare figures—like Dorothy Day, Walker Percy and (sometimes) Pope Francis—embraced in equal measure by both sides. Berry is one of those figures. You’re as likely to see him quoted by Emily Stimpson as by Fred Clark, by Casey Fleming as by Rod Dreher.

I promise I’m not trying to claim Berry for my side of the war. I’m doing it because I think figures like Berry, Day, etc. present a unique opportunity to talk across that divide. When, for example, Jake Meador accuses Berry of changing his mind on marriage or Stimpson (more preposterously) suggests that Berry just hasn’t thought enough about marriage, well, I think there are things in his writing that they’re missing. And maybe they’ll listen to him if they won’t listen to me.

——

In 1982, Berry published an essay called “Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms.” The essay, as you’d guess, draws out an extended metaphor between marriage and poetry, arguing that form is as essential in marriage as it is poetry. In essence, Berry claims that just as a poem must be certain things or it’s not a poem, a marriage, too, must meet certain criteria or it’s not a marriage.

Even though it’s more than thirty years old, the essay has a lot to say about the questions of “redefining marriage” that have dominated the past decade. And “Poetry and Marriage” starts out looking like an argument for exclusion. “In marriage as in poetry,” he argues, “the given word implies the acceptance of a form that is never entirely of one’s own making.” He elaborates:

That is to say that definitions—setting of limits—are involved. The names poetryand marriage are given only to certain things, not to anything or to everything. Poetry is made of words; it is expected to keep a certain fidelity to everyday speech and a certain fidelity to music; if it is unspeakable or unmusical, it is not poetry. 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, any more 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 its 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 beforethe beginning.

This is the boilerplate, formalist argument against gay marriage, isn’t it? We can’t call a rabbit a squirrel because we preferred to see a squirrel. Certain limits are imposed before the beginning. Square circlestails and legsdogs vs. cats, and all that.

Then Berry goes on to write, beautifully, about the importance of limits, the way they spur creativity and inspire the work of both marriage and poetry, and instantly we’re transported into the best ideas of the marriage traditionalists, the ideas that—however wrong those writers are in the final analysis—make their writings on marriage worth reading.

So, for approximately its first three quarters, “Poetry and Marriage” reads like an essay by Anthony Esolen. Along the way, Berry throws traditionalists lots of red meat, complaining about “debunkers happy to point out that Yeats was ‘silly like us’ or that Thomas Jefferson may have had a Negro slave as a mistress—and so we are disencumbered of the burden of great lives, set free to be as cynical or desperate as we please.” He even says that we moderns tend to replace “sexual discipline” with “the chemicals, devices, and procedures of ‘birth control.’”

Then something changes. Specifically, Berry considers Walt Whitman. Whitman, of course, wrote in free verse, poetry without a definite rhyme scheme or meter. This causes a problem: how to reconcile the “formless” poetry of Whitman with Berry’s insistence that poetry depends on form?

A traditionalist in the George/Esolen/Reilly mold could say, That’s easy: it’s not a poem. Whitman’s not a poet, however much we might want him to beSquirrels, rabbits, etc. And he could point back to everything Berry had just written. Someone like Robert Reilly might even call Whitman’s writing “radical individualism” or lament its “autonomy” and tie it to the flawed philosophies of Rousseau or Friedrich Nietzsche.

By the way, is anybody surprised that such an essay has already been written? Is anybody surprised it was published in The Public Discourse?

In 2012, Mark Signorelli wrote:

The freedom in ‘free verse,’ then, is the freedom of modernity, the conception of freedom absolutely divorced from all conception of form. It is what Servais Pinckaers called the ‘freedom of indifference,’ which he said was ‘practically identified with the will … In this way it came to constitute, in some way, by itself alone, the very being of the person, at the source of all action.’ It is that conception of freedom that, as applied to persons, has slowly eroded belief in the moral essence of human nature, redefining human liberty as nothing more than the unfettered will. The ‘free’ in ‘free verse’ is the same ‘free’ in ‘free market’ and ‘free love’—the freedom to ‘do what we like.’ It is a corresponding caprice that moves the writer of ‘free verse.’ … The poet claiming his freedom from meter is merely asserting his desire to write with a perfect indifference toward the telos of his art.

But Berry doesn’t do this. He writes, “[Free verse] has to be fitted in if I am to respect my scheme, and if I acknowledge, as I certainly do, that much free verse is poetry.”

He starts by suggesting that maybe free verse is something like—but not quite the same as—real poetry: as courtship is to marriage, for example.

But then he rejects that:

But if Whitman’s work is the prime example of the freeing of verse, it is an example of something else, too, for at its best Whitman’s line, as we will see if we try to shorten or lengthen it, is a form. He set his line freely only to make it into a kind of line that we recognize anywhere we see it—a new power, a new music, added to poetry, which can be learned and used. Theoretically, I suppose, any line can be written in a different way, but I don’t think that we are tempted to imagine this line as anything but what it is:

Seasons pursuing each other the plougher ploughs, the

mower mows, and the winter-grain falls in the ground…

And such newness does not destroy the old set forms, but renews them in renewing our understanding of what a line of verse is, our sense of its properties of duration and coherence, beginning and end.

Such newness does not destroy the old set forms, but renews them. Following Berry’s metaphor, he’s allowing that newness in our idea of marriage can be good. It does not destroy the old form, but helps us better understand it.

And all of a sudden the argument regarding marriage is no longer Robert Reilly’s, or Robert George’s, but something closer to Jonathan Rauch’s, where a new understanding of the possibilities of marriage doesn’t break the old understanding but strengthens it. Rauch, in a series of arguments too often overlooked by the “natural law” right, argues that celebrating gay marriage signals “the cultural primacy of marriage” and “sends a positive and reassuring message to children about both the importance of marriage and the stability of their community.” This is close, too, to the reason Joseph Bottum gave for his kind of/sort of about-face on the issue. “Same-sex marriage,” Bottum wrote, “might prove a small advance in the coherence of family life in a society in which the family is dissolving.”

In On the Meaning of Sex, which I reviewed last year, J. Budziszewski says a couple of worthwhile (really!) things. One of them has to do with the value of watching other people get married. Seeing the radiant couple at the center of a wedding, Budziszewski writes, “husbands are more aware of what draws them to their wives, wives of what draws them to their husbands.” Resonating with the couple’s joy, he says, we rejoice in our own happiness. I’m sure I’m not the only person to have felt that while watching a same-sex couple say their vows. And I’m sure I’m not the first person to note that gay couples, like straight ones, tie families together, connect family traditions, and, in marrying, bind themselves not just to each other but—to borrow more of Berry’s words—“to the community of marriage, the amorous communion at which all couples sit.”

But there’s more: after mentioning my sister-in-law’s wedding in my last post, I’ve kept thinking about it. And the more I think about it, the more I’m astonished by it. I cherish my wedding (as I hope was clear in my last post), but compared to hers, my wedding risked little, cost little, and met no resistance. Most obviously, she and her wife had to travel to a different state to get married. But on a deeper level, getting married meant coming out, finally and publicly, to all of the members of her very conservative extended family. That was a real risk, and it came with no guarantee of reward: either from her family, or from society at large, since she was living in a state where her marriage wasn’t recognized. Still, she and her wife did it. And they did it, get this, for the sake of marriage.

To return to the metaphor, this is the point Berry is making about Walt Whitman. It would be easy to say, using Berry’s own language, that Whitman is rejecting the risk of form, and as a result his poems can’t reap the rewards of true poetry. But Berry tells us that would be wrong. Berry does Whitman the courtesy of taking seriously his commitment to his form and, in doing so, sees the risk inherent that particular form. So when he says that he can recognize Whitman’s poetry as a variation that affirms poetic principles, he’s also saying that he can see the good in variation itself.

There’s more to say about this, and so I’m going to try to write a part B to this post this weekend. Berry drops hints throughout the essay that his generous approach to Whitman’s poetry comes from his own (deep) experience with nature. In my follow-up, I’ll connect those hints to that larger theme, nature, and try to show how Berry’s idea of natural law differs from that of some of his fans. But first, I owe y’all a post on Reilly’s Making Gay Okay—look for that on Thursday.

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Defending Marriage Chapter 1: On Doricles, Perdita, and Some Wedding Music

Note: This is part of a series on Anthony Esolen’s Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity.This series is meant to be read along with my reviews of Robert Reilly’s Making Gay Okay. You can read my introduction to both series here, and a preview here.

Now we’re (finally) getting into Esolen’s text. The book is divided not into chapters, but into twelve “arguments” against gay marriage, most of which take off from a reading of some classic piece of literature or art.

Esolen begins his first argument, “We Must Not Give the Sexual Revolution the Force of Irrevocable Law,” by recounting a scene from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s TaleIn it, the king Polixenes, who has heard that his son Doricles is in love with the shepherdess Perdita, disguises himself to spy on the couple as they dance at a rustic festival. Though the king expects to discover that Perdita is unworthy, that she’s conniving the prince or that the prince’s “love” for her is either lust or foolishness, instead he sees the couple dancing and is utterly charmed by their innocence. His cynicism melts away.

Esolen is trying to show us that we’ve lost that cultural innocence, which he contrasts to the (fact-challenged) scene from Woodstock that we discussed in our last post. He blames this loss on, of course, the Sexual Revolution, and argues that gay marriage is the logical conclusion and irrevocable seal of that revolution. And to illustrate his point further, he gives us one more contrast, this time between a young woman in a hospital room awaiting an abortion and, again, his parents marriage, this time giving us a moving account of his father’s last moments.

——

Before I get into the meat of my contention with this chapter, a few quick points:

1. These aren’t really arguments.

Part of my struggle in responding to these “arguments” is that they’re not really arguments  at all. They lack structure and coherence and, (as we’ve already noted) Esolen actively disdains evidence. Instead these twelve “arguments” are meditations, essays, in the sense that the word essay comes from the french verb to try. These are twelve attempts, tries, to find an argument. So they meander.

That’s not necessarily bad. In fact, this type of essay often makes for my favorite reading. But it mixes poorly with Esolen’s certitude—as I’ve written, every sentence he writes feels like it’s meant to be proclaimed while pounding on a table. Is it possible to meander emphatically? To wander around full speed ahead? Because that’s what’s happening in this book.

That’s a problem when Esolen’s writes about something on which he clearly has no idea, like the causes of homosexuality. But it’s almost as bad when Esolen focuses on his areas of expertise, like literature. Because he writes so fast and furious, so emphaticallythat he makes all kinds of careless statements that don’t hold up to even a moment of thinking.

2. Shakespeare say what?

To wit: here are a couple of minor points that really need to be addressed.

Esolen writes, “The works of Shakespeare are filled with bawdy humor, yet he always holds up for our admiration the virtue of purity, and he never leaves unpunished sins against marriage and the family, whether they occur before or after the wedding.”

Shakespeare never leaves unpunished premarital or extramarital sex? Off the top of my head, Bottom spends the night in Titania’s bower in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I don’t see how either one is punished for that. And Rosalind, from As You Like It, suggests that Oliver and Celia are “incontinent” before their wedding. Esolen will quote As You Like It later in the book, so he’s probably aware of that.

And that comes a page or two after Esolen writes this:

If it were a modern playwright and not Shakespeare directing this scene from The Winter’s Tale, we would be treated with stale jests about how Doricles is attempting to get the girl Perdita into bed, or how Perdita, like the cunning husband-huntress in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, is playing her cards right, leading the boy on little by little until she finally hooks him with a ferocious night of fornication.

Huh? Like Shakespeare never makes cynical jokes about boys trying to get girls into bed? And like Shakespeare never jokes about cunning spouse-hunters? What else is Petruccio in The Taming of the Shrew? In his first scene in that play, he says he has come “to wive it wealthily in Padua,” and he doesn’t care if she be “as foul as was Florentius’ love, / as old as Sibyl, and as curst and shrewd / as Socrates’ Xanthippe or worse.”

In fairness, though, Petruccio doesn’t “hook” Kate with a night of fornication. He just carries her off against her will. So point for sixteenth-century sexual morality, I guess.

Also, that’s not what happens at all in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. But, once again, forget it—he’s rolling.

[I have a feeling I’m going to wear out this clip before this series is over.]

——

Okay, on to my point. And, as promised, a story.

This is isn’t really Doricles & Perdita’s chapter. Instead, Esolen takes our focus off of the couple at the center of the scene, and points us to the outsider observing them. “In fact,” he writes, “what makes this particular scene so powerful is precisely the tension between what the spying king wants to believe—that his son is a deceitful fool and the girl a conniving hussy—and what the playwright actually presents to us, a scene of incomparable youth and beauty, radiating forth from the goodness and innocence of the boy and girl in love.”

That tension is what Esolen wants us to see in throughout his book: the contrast of the cynical, “jealous” father and the beautiful, wholesome young couple. “The jaundiced man,” he writes, “sees the whole world through the sour yellow of his own disposition.”

Though Shakespeare’s king eventually recognizes the beauty of the moment, Esolen argues that this recognition is beyond us moderns. The sexual revolution, he says, “has scorched us all,” made us all into that jealous man, unable to see the beauty in Shakespeare’s scene.

Does that strike you as odd? It does me. I’ve never had trouble seeing the beauty in that scene, or scenes like it. It sings to me as surely as it sings to Esolen.

But then, maybe that’s because there’s nothing in the scene to make me jealous. I found someone as lovely and good as Perdita, and I can look at our wedding pictures and see that radiance. It warms me, sure, but I don’t feel scorched.

So, fine. He’s not writing about me. But then who does Esolen want to put in the king’s place?

Let’s keep reading:

The first reaction of the lust-corrupted to something like the dance of Doricles and Perdita is wistful longing for something lost, for the virtue that he sees, but no longer possesses. Next comes a disconcerting incomprehension—what can this be? Next comes belittlement, a deliberate attempt to tear the good thing down, to reveal what is ‘really’ beneath, a reality that is as sordid and base as the imagination of the would-be exposer. Last comes sheer boredom. It doesn’t take long to reach that final state. It didn’t take long after the sexual revolution. What good was marriage?

Oh. That’s who hates Doricles and Perdita. The lust-corrupted.

And who are the lust-corrupted?

Well, there’s Satan, whom he later describes in a scene from Paradise Lost “leering” at Adam and Eve from the bushes, “attracted to what he sees despite himself, and hating it all the more because it is innocent, and it is love.”

Then, of course, there are gay people.

Esolen repeatedly depicts gay people as jealous observers of straight life. In Chapter 8, he’ll tell us that gays envy heterosexual children, who are “crossing the very gulf that the homosexuals have not managed to cross, and sometimes not dared to cross.” In Chapter 10, he’ll tell us gay people are trying to “visit a crisis of identity upon every child in our society.” Why? Because “the intention of many homosexual activists, whose revenge upon the children who were once cruel or indifferent to them is to afflict other children with doubts, to make them endure the questions they themselves endured.”

In Esolen’s telling, gays are always the envious guests at the good feast or the wedding. Always seething on the sideline, like Satan in the bushes.

——

If you’ll indulge me, let’s go back my wedding.

I’ve written before that H and I were just kids when we married, and we didn’t really know what we were doing when we planned our wedding. In the pictures from that day, my haircut looks a little silly, and my suit is too boxy. We didn’t have all the style right. Well, I didn’t—my wife looked perfect. Still, though we hadn’t thought enough about marriage and family, its whys or hows, we stumbled our way to doing it right, to making our wedding everything that Esolen says a wedding is supposed to be. That is, we managed to put together a wedding that reflected not us but the people and places that mattered to us: it was a wedding about our families, our friends, our neighbors, and our communities.

My favorite example of this is the music that we chose. We hired a western swing band that we had first seen at the Gypsy Tea Room in Dallas on New Year’s Eve 1998 opening for our favorite alt-country group.

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If you’re not familiar with western swing, it’s a music form developed in the 1930s and 1940s in Texas and Oklahoma, a mix of jazz and country, and you can hear in it the early strains of the first rockabilly music. We knew it would appeal to H’s Texan family and neighbors, and to the musicians and jazz fans in my dad’s family, and to our friends, too, who were making the drive up from Austin. As soon as we started planning our wedding we thought of this band, and we spent more than half of our wedding budget to secure them—which is not to say they were expensive, since we were two broke kids and our overall budget was small.

It was the right choice. In the Land of Marriage, Esolen writes, “People like to go dancing, too, and that is for young and old, and the youngsters look on and shout their approval and clap their hands as grandma and grandpa show them what it really means to trip the light fantastic.” That’s literally what happened at our wedding—just about everyone who was there remembers H’s Grandma and Grandpa, married more than fifty years then, taking the floor before anyone else and showing us all how it’s done.

That’s our family’s best memory of that day, and it’s not about us at all. Which is how it should be. Or rather, a wedding is about the couple only insofar as the couple reflects the people—and the land—that made them who they are they are.

——

In my favorite picture from our wedding, of the moment when I finally got to kiss the bride, what really makes the scene is the reaction on the faces of everyone around us. And the person with the biggest smile in that picture is my wife’s maid of honor. Her sister.

I’ve mentioned my sister-in-law before on this blog—she’s my wife’s best friend, the first person she calls with good or bad news. And while I’ve lost contact with some of the friends from my wedding, few people have played a bigger part in my family’s life than my sister-in-law. She’s opened her house to us over and over again. She was the first person in the room after our daughter was born and she, and her wife, gifted us so many boxes of diapers that we didn’t have to buy any for our daughter’s whole first year.

What does it do to Esolen’s point if the gay person at the wedding isn’t out to destroy anything? If she’s not envious or rotten? What does it do if she’s just as idealistic and good as the couple saying their vows? What if she’s just as capable of self-sacrifice and commitment? What if she’s not seething at the margins of the feast, but right there in the center, leading the celebration?

I think it makes Esolen’s argument beyond wrong: I think it makes it ridiculous.

You know what? Let’s take if further: what does it do to Esolen’s argument if the gay person isn’t at the margin at all, but instead the community is circling around her, celebrating the virtue they see (because it’s plain as day) in her love for her new wife?

My sister-in-law’s wedding happened eleven years after ours, and it was a very different event. In the first place, she couldn’t do it in her home state. So instead of a sunny Texas afternoon, she got married on a crisp night in New York City. Instead of taking place in the backyard where she and my wife played My Little Ponies as girls, it happened in the Campbell Apartment in Grand Central Station. Instead of eating fajitas under an oak tree, we ate in a dining room at the Standard Hotel.

But it was the same: it was two families coming together in the formation of a new family; it was about them and about us, and about the ways they relate to us.

All of this became clear when the all-female mariachi troupe poured into our dining room and surrounded our table. My sister-in-law had hired them as a surprise for her new wife, but they were for all of us, her guests, too. We were two families from border states, Texas and California, and so the music brought an instant familiarity, an instant note of home, and an instant connection across generations and between our previously separate families.

It was what happened with the music at our wedding, and it was an incredible gesture on my sister-in-law’s part. I mean, who’s ever heard of surprise mariachis? But it was also an incredibly meaningful gesture. And the meaning in that gesture is precisely what someone like Esolen, sulking around outside of the feast, is refusing to see.

The Myth of Moral Decline: Catcalling Edition

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[Florence, 1951]

Driving around on Friday, running my last-minute Halloween errands, I caught the tail end ofDrew Mariani’s program on Relevant Radio. Mariani was discussing the now-famous video clip produced by Hollaback New York, in which actress Shoshanna Roberts walks around New York City with a microphone and a GoPro (attached inconspicuously to the backpack of a partner walking in front of her) and simply records the comments, catcalls, and, well, creepy behavior she receives from men—just for walking on the sidewalk.

Here’s how Mariani described it:

“It’s a project to show catcalling and the objectification of women and how men treat women. You know? And you and I both know there’s lot of this that goes on. You know, maybe it doesn’t just happen on the streets of New York. It might happen it your offices. It might happen in your gym or your Y. It may happen where you work out. It might happen in the supermarket.”

First, let me give props to Mariani for his attention to the subject, and to both him and his guest, Catholic chastity speaker Jason Evert, for their (mostly) great handling of the topic. When a caller tried to suggest that Roberts was dressed immodestly, because her shirt was a little a tight and she looks, in the caller’s words, “kind of busty,” Evert said that doesn’t matter, that we’re called to treat every one with dignity because everyone is a child of God.

That was great, even if Evert did throw in his own little comment about women who wear tights.

And it was great to hear the Catholic Right calling out the objectification of women. And Evert and Mariani were right to denounce men who can’t hold a conversation with a woman without fixating on her chest. And Evert was right to point out that the Catholic Church (and Christianity more generally) insists on the inherent dignity of both men and women and thus gives its adherents language (and impetus) to fight back against that type of sexism.

That’s the big story: what follows may be nit-picky on my part.

But… geez.

Guys, do you have to try to fit every damned thing into your narrative of perpetual moral decline?

Immediately after introducing the video, Mariani was asking, “Is this now on a rise? Is it symptomatic of where we are as a culture right now?” And before long, he was connecting the video to the “pornification of the culture, this culture, where porn is affecting more men than you can count and as a result of it, it’s no longer just a man gazing at a woman lustfully, but instead it’s now become vocalized, it’s become animated, it’s become maybe even a little more aggressive.”

Evert got in on that, too, saying that men who stare at a women’s chests while talking to them do it “because they’re so used to spending an hour or two a day sometimes looking at pornography, where eye-contact is the last thing on your mind.”

Unbelievably (but way too predictably), this has been part of the Religious Right’s reaction the Hollaback video: Blame it on porn. Blame it on the Sexual Revolution. Blame it on feminism.

The idea idea is that, rather than reflecting millenia-old traditions that view women as property, or rigid gender divisions that mark the public realm as a man’s space, this phenomenon is a new thing, a breakdown of cultural traditions, a result of our modern, hedonistic, anything-goes, consent-based sexual ethics.

To which I want to say:

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[Mexico City, 1953]

Listen.

Guys.

The objectification of women wasn’t invented with the internet. Want proof? Visit Havana, where almost no one has an internet connection, and watch what happens when a woman walks past a pack of men hanging out on a street corner.

Or, you know what? Read Ana Lydia Vega’s “Letra para salsa y tres soneos por encargo,” which is now thirty-five years old. In the story’s second paragraph, Vega writes:

“Entre el culipandeo, más intenso que un arrebato co­lombiano, más perseverante que Somoza, el Tipo rastrea a la Tipa. Fiel como una procesión de Semana Santa con su rosario de qué buena estás, mamichulin, qué bien te ves, qué ricos te quedan esos pantaloncitos, qué chula está esa hembrota, men, qué canto e silán, tanta carne y yo comiendo hueso…”

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[Sevilla, 1959]

It wasn’t even invented with the birth control pill. Believe it or not, catcalling  has nothing to to do with the Sexual Revolution.  Instead, it comes from a cultural belief that the public realm is men’s space, and that an unaccompanied woman in that realm is, to an extent, making herself public property. That her body is not her own.

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[Barcelona, 1963]

So it’s supremely ironic to watch commentators trying to tie the Hollaback video to modern sexual ethics, which they also characterize as “consent-only.” The point of the catcall or thepiropo (as it’s called in Spanish) is that it starts from the assumption that consent doesn’t matter. The woman is getting it whether she likes it or not. That’s why it’s dehumanizing; that’s why it’s objectifying: not because it has to do with sex, but because it disregards the woman’s choice in the matter.

[Vega underscores this perfectly in her story when the female protagonist, the Tipa, actually agrees to the Tipo’s sexual advances, leaving him dumbfounded and impotent, in both senses of the word.]

In fact, if I were looking for the cultural roots of the catcalling that Roberts experienced walking around the streets of New York, I wouldn’t start with Pornhub or Spankwire, or even Playboy or Penthouse. No, I’d look much further back than that:

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[Rome, 750 B.C.]

The point is, Mariani and Evert are right to see Christianity as a rebuff to men who think they can treat women the way Roberts was treated in that video. But, in this, Christianity has always been counter-cultural. That means that it does no good here to denounce modernity or to look to hazy notions of the past for society-wide moral examples.

And it also means that, in this case, feminists are their allies, not their enemies. And, in at least this one little thing, they’re on the side of the Sexual Revolution.