On What Our Ancestors Would Think

IMG_2627Anthony Esolen’s recent article at Crisis, “What Would Our Ancestors Think of Us?” is, well, classic Esolen. He starts by comparing modernity to an open sewer, then imagines a conversation between a modern time-traveller and his ancestors, who despair at the state of things in 2016. “How then shall we live?” Esolen imagines them asking.

In an off-key moment, Esolen notes that now “there are far more women in the workplace than ever before,” and that “we have cracked the back of public racism, so that there are no more segregated hotels or restaurants or schools or businesses.”

I assume Esolen includes these observations as concessions to things modernity has gotten right, though the part about women working might be intended as further indictment. There’s certainly no acknowledgment of the fact that these two (pretty important!) developments would shock and appall many of our ancestors.

If the time-traveler were to show his ancestors a photo of a black family in the White House, does Esolen imagine they would congratulate him? Or would their faces darken as one of them asks, again, “How then shall we live?”

And then there’s this:

There is a country road that straggles its way over a mountain nearby. Lovers go there and pull over at a lookout, where they listen to music and engage in what is called ‘necking.’ It never goes beyond that, because most of them are pretty good kids and understand that bearing children is for marriage, and so is the child-making thing. That understanding allows them to be there in the first place. Innocence – even such compromised and sometimes failing innocence as we possess in a healthy culture – makes for freedom. You will have to tell the audience that there is no necking anymore. You will tell them that, as a rule, it is either sex or nothing. For the worst or the weakest among us, then, there is danger and heartbreak and, eventually, the protective callus of nihilism, even the shedding of blood. For the purest among us, and the most responsible, there is loneliness.

Marvel at that, reader. Seriously, re-read it. Of all the Anthony Esolen paragraphs in the world, it may be the Anthony-Esolen-iest.

As with many of Esolen’s points, it’s mostly disconnected from the real world. In the real world, teenagers are less likely to have sex today than they have been at any point in the past twenty five years. And in the real world, plenty of teenagers were engaging in the ‘child-making thing’ at those lovers’ lanes in the 1950s, when teen pregnancy rates were much higher than they are today.

The problem isn’t just that Esolen is wrong–the problem is that Esolen writes like he doesn’t know a single real, live teenager. Teenagers today don’t ‘neck’? Being ‘pretty good’ means a life of loneliness? I’d love to walk Esolen around the school where I work–a school full of good kids–to see if he could maintain those assertions afterward. Just like I’d love for Patrick Deneen to meet my students and still try to say that they’re “perfectly hollowed vessels, receptive and obedient, without any real obligations or devotions.

But the thing is, Esolen does know real, live teenagers. He teaches at a university; he has a family. He just doesn’t know real, live teenagers. You get what I mean? His hatred for modernity completely blinds him to the world around him. Which frequently makes his writing, well, kind of silly.

Which is a shame because his question, What would our ancestors think of us?, is a crucial one. I’ve been listening to an audio version of Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar literary advice columns, on my drive home lately. Last week, I got to the devastating letter written by a man grasping for reasons to go on after losing his 22-year-old son to a drunk driver. “How then shall I live” is a good approximation of the question at the heart of that man’s letter.

Strayed uses her own mother’s death to connect to the man’s grief. “The kindest and most meaningful thing anyone ever says to me,” she says, “is ‘Your mother would be proud of you. Finding a way in my grief to become the woman who my mother raised me to be is the most important way I have honored my mother.”

You all know that in the past few years I’ve lost my mother and both grandmothers. I think about them often. Like Strayed, I think about how to be the person they and the generations before them raised me to be.

I think about my great-grandfather, too, whom I never met. Recently on Instagram I shared some letters he wrote, with doodles on the back, to my mom while he was touring Europe. I marvel at his voice, his humor, his knowledge of my mom and her interests. And I try to emulate that. Is my love for my daughter as clear to her as he made his love for my mom?

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So that question, What would my ancestors think of me?, stays at the front of my mind. It guides how I think, how I parent, how I teach.

But remember, Strayed is writing to a man whose life was centered in his kid. For him, she says, the goal is to “be the man [his son] didn’t get to be,” because “to be anything else dishonors him.” In other words, the influence can–it should go both ways. We can’t just ask: What would our ancestors think of us? We also have to ask: What will our children think?

When I make Esolen’s question personal, What would my ancestors think of me?, I don’t see a golden past uniting in a line of moral consensus that breaks down in my mom’s generation (or in mine). Instead, I see major disagreements between every generation. Not rancorous disagreements, but big ones, rifts that touch on the core values of race, religion, sex, gender roles, marriage. And I see that, in many of those disagreements, the elder generation was wrong. My mom’s outspoken opposition to racism upset some of her family’s very traditional southern understandings; my grandmother’s gender non-conformity (she was outdoorsy, tomboyish, independent, and raised my mom on her own) troubled my traditional and status-conscious great-grandmother.

To my ancestors’ credit, in many of those generational rifts, the elders recognized they needed to learn from their children. This happened not because they were weak but because they recognized themselves as fallible, and not because they didn’t care about their moral example but because they knew their moral example included the grace of admitting their errors. “He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own proves the width of my own,” said Whitman. “He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.”

 

Unsurprisingly, Esolen uses LGBT issues as the ultimate measure of how far we’ve fallen. Explain Caitlyn Jenner to your ancestors, he says. Explain gay marriage. The thing is, many of us have done just that. After my sister-in-law’s wedding, my grandmother saw pictures online. “I didn’t know [my sister-in-law] had met a man,” she said when she called. She didn’t, I told her. She married a woman. My grandmother paused, and then replied: “Well, I think that’s lovely.”

 

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Women Reading: Fragonard and Carrie Schneider

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In Touchstone Magazine, Arthur W. Hunt meditates on Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s 1776 painting “A Young Girl Reading” (pictured below). Hunt, a professor of Communications, compares the girl in the painting to the students in his classes. Of the girl in the painting, he writes:

If Fragonard’s painting apprehends the ideal as imagined by French-speaking families, then one must ask, Who is this girl? I would suggest that she is a portrait of civility, intelligence, and virtue. In her, a suitor would find refinement and the embodiment of what was best about French culture, such as it was prior to the American Revolution. Her depiction is not, however, isolated to the tastes of Paris. She would be the ideal in Philadelphia as well. No doubt there existed a hundred like her within a mile of Franklin’s print shop.

His female students, in contrast, are girls with gadgets. Obsessed with their smartphones, they don’t read anymore, at least not deeply, Against Fragonard’s painting, Hunt offers us images of women from iPod commercials: “The iPod girls groove to music, for which the device was originally designed. They crank their arms and shake their booties. Today these devices serve multiple purposes—taking pictures, watching movies, checking email, and playing video games. The iPhone and iPad also serve many of these same functions. You can even use them to read books. But whether girls actually use these gadgets to read books is another question.”

From all of this, Hunt foresees the end of civility, which he illustrates by telling us that he recently saw a girl belch on campus while her friends laughed. The young girl reading is gone, and with her “all that she signifies—sophistication, depth, urbanity, intelligence, refinement.”

First, let me say: I share some of his concerns about the addictive power of smartphones, and about the rhythm of modern life, and the possible effects of these things on our collective attention span.

That said, Hunt’s article shows all of the trademarks of the Myth of Moral Decline: hyperbole, a blindness to goodness in modernity, and a fatal case of confirmation bias. By taking Fragonard’s girl reading as an emblem for an entire era, he’s overlooking all of the other images that time period might provide: of shopkeepers, farm girls, slaves—many of whom would rarely have had the time to lose themselves for an afternoon in a book, and who probably could not have regularly managed the three hours per day (which seems like a lot to me!) the average contemporary college student spends reading, according to a survey that Hunt cites. And taking the dancing girl from the iPod commercial as an emblem of modern life… Well. Don’t get me started.

Rather than writing a rebuttal to his post, though, I want to point you all to the gorgeous photographs from the series “Reading Women” by Carrie Schneider, featured this week in Slate. Schneider, like Hunt (and like me!), is anxious about our changing reading habits: “We are entering the era of the end of the printed page!” she says. And: “I think there is something physical, visceral about reading a book that is unlike anything else. And again, there is something rare about the depth of concentration that can be experienced while reading. Living in a culture obsessed with speed, ‘progress,’ consumption—these moments of pure immersion, belied by stillness, are rare, political, and powerful.”

So her photos are idealizations, like Fragonard’s painting, but they present a broader ideal. Schneider photographs diverse young women, reading texts from a diverse array of authors: Gwendolyn Brooks, Catherine Malabou, Edith Wharton, Angela Davis. And the images are undeniably, thrillingly modern. Whereas Hunt imagines Fragonard’s girl with a book providing stimulating conversation for her husband, it’s impossible to imagine Schneider’s women limiting their aspirations to that.

Maybe, looking at Schneider’s photographs, it’s easier to have a little more sympathy for modernity—to believe that the girl glued to her iPhone on the subway really could be reading a philosophical treatise, or that the girl laughing with her friends on campus might then retreat to her dorm room to get lost in Virginia Woolf.

——

(By the way, the same issue of Touchstone contains a more… um … strident attack on modernity, from our good friend Anthony Esolen, including the phrase “addled, sub-marital illuminati.” It’s pure-dee, unfiltered, high-octane Esolen. Read it at your own risk.)

Defending Marriage Chapter 3: On Women Singing About Men

First, apologies for the long, unannounced break. The end of the semester has been busy for me, and I’ve had to put this writing to the side for a couple of weeks. As always, thanks for your patience!

Moving on in Esolen’s Defending Marriage.

Actually, I’m going to skip (for now) Esolen’s second argument, in which Esolen says that marriage ought to connect a couple to the community (agreed) and that this only happens because of procreation (disagreed).

Argument 3 is slightly fresher: “We Should Not Drive a Deeper Wedge Between Men and Women.” The idea is that gay marriage/ feminism/ The. Sexual. Revolution (remember, Esolen has told us they’re all the same thing) undermine a key role of marriage: uniting the two sexes, “two groups of human beings who seldom understand one another.” Marriage is like a bridge across a chasm between the two sexes, Esolen says, and gay marriage/feminism/The.Sexual.Revolution blows up that bridge. And, unless the two sexes unite, Esolen warns, “the culture cannot survive.”

I’m not going to hammer Esolen here on the silliness of asserting that gay marriage somehow prevents the sexes from uniting. Or about his inane insistence that “the very assumption behind the campaign for same-sex pseudogamy”* is that “our sexual powers are for ourselves alone.” A blind man can see how ridiculous those words are.

But there’s an underlying idea there, one that’s pretty pervasive on the right, that is worth taking on: the notion that feminism/gay marriage/The Sexual Revolution equates to a division between the sexes, most often expressed as a hatred of men. It’s a centerpiece of several of Esolen’s arguments, especially his last one, in which he draws a contrast between his ideal “Land of Marriage” and the postmodern hell of contemporary society that he calls “Divisia.” In that chapter, he’ll write that in the Land of Marriage, “Men do more than love women: they like women, and women like men. What in Divisia is scorned as ‘stereotype’ in the Land of Marriage is a source of delight.”

As always, Esolen illustrates his argument with examples from art, literature, and—for a fun change—music. “Nine hundred years ago in southern France,” he writes, “a tradition of lyric love poetry began, sometimes bawdy and merry, often almost religious in tenor, to sing the praises of the poet’s lady love.” Esolen then traces that tradition through the advent of popular music, mentioning Stephen Foster’s “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” and then comparing that tradition to the contemporary, post-Sexual Revolution scene: “So now popular musicians do not sing lyrically about a woman’s beauty or a man’s courage. Instead they whine or grunt like animals in a sweltering pen.”

Modern man, Esolen says, “[H]as not heard men singing the praises of women, or women singing the praises of men. He hears insults and bursts of frustration and recrimination; and these we have always had with us. But the praise, never; the gratitude for the other sex, never.” Instead, he’s stuck with music that objectifies, that demeans, and that insults.

You know where I’m going with this, don’t you?

First of all, there’s that word, bawdy, that Esolen seems to think covers any deviation from the innocence he sees in everything from the past. Look, Esolen: if the lyric tradition you’re celebrating includes Jelly Roll Morton’s “Winin’ Boy Blues” (ca. 1900) and Harry Roy’s “My Girl’s Pussy” (1932), then I think it’s fair to write off whatever complaints you have about modern music as mere bawdiness. Deal?

Or, hell, we could go all the way back to the sonnets of Sir John Davies (1569-1626), who told his lady love that, though he couldn’t court her with pretty music, or rhymes or dances, he would “tell thee roundly, / Hark in thine ear: Zounds, I can **** thee soundly.”)

Esolen is a guy who claims to love (and know about) the past, and the great traditions that have made American culture what it is—or at least what it was before the Sexual Revolution wrecked it all. If you’re going to claim that, you can’t constantly misrepresent that past or those traditions. It’s inexcusable. You don’t love them if you won’t speak honestly about them.

Jazz and the blues, the two most important American musical traditions, literally developed in whorehouses. One hundred years ago, they were the soundtracks to an ugly sexual libertinism well beyond anything Esolen is contemplating in Defending Marriage. The Anglo-Celtic ballad tradition, which shaped American country and folk music, is no more virtuous. It’s full of songs of praise for bandits and murderers and adulterers, with a real fascination with the sordid and seedy sides of rural life. For just one example, read up on the song “Hang Your Head, Tom Dooley,” which kicked off the Greenwich Village folk craze when the clean-cut Kingston Trio recorded it, nearly one hundred years after it was written.

Again, Esolen’s misrepresentation of the music of the past—just like his misrepresentation of the literature of the past—is inexcusable. I do feel more sympathy when he goes off the rails talking about the music of the present. The dude just doesn’t have the chops. He clearly spends as little time as he can with contemporary culture, and as a result doesn’t really have any idea what he’s talking about.

So consider what follows a favor to Esolen, and anyone reading who, like him, stays as far as he or she can from today’s pop music.

Esolen wants to know where he can find songs of appreciation for the opposite sex. This is going to blow his mind: he needs to check out who the feminists are listening to, and the singers who consider themselves feminists, and pay attention to their lyrics.

Crazy, right?

It turns out that when you get down to it feminists don’t hate men—they just, rightly, hate seeing masculinity privileged over other ways of being. They, rightly, critique the notion that masculinity is an ideal all men should aspire to. But that’s not the same thing as hating it. Just like rejecting compulsory heterosexuality isn’t the same thing as attacking heterosexual love.

So there’s no contradiction in feminist singers and songwriters singing about how much they love men.

Let’s look at a case study.

Actually, we could look at lots of case studies. I could take this in an one direction, tracing the tradition of feminism in soul/hip-hop/R&B singers from  Roberta Flack and Gladys Knight to Lauryn Hill and Beyoncé. But I’ve been on country roll lately, so I’ll keep that going in this post.

The feminist impulse in country music is well documented. That impulse, though, goes alongside a long tradition of women singing about manhood.  Thus Loretta Lynn sang the praises of the pill, but she also said she’d swim that mile-wide river for her Mississippi man. The Dixie Chicks decried spousal abuse in “Goodbye, Earl”; and they also sang “Cowboy Take Me Away.” Miranda Lambert says girls are made of “Gunpowder and Lead,” and yet her side band the Pistol Annies (who also sing the Betty Friedan-esque “Housewife’s Prayer”) wrote a whole paean to “Boys from the South.” I could go on and on.

Lucinda Williams’ 1998 album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is basically a fifty-minute exploration of heterosexual love. Well, it’s a lot more than that. In fact, it’s an album to confound a lot of Esolen’s assumptions. Esolen tells, for example, that modern culture rejects the past, but the second and third songs on the album, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” and “2 Kool 2 Be Forgotten” are songs that explicitly treat the continuity of the past in the present.

But, mostly, it’s an album about a man. There’s a male love, a composite figure, who echoes through all of the songs: he’s a bit of a ne’er-do-well (“Drunken Angel,” “Concrete and Barbed Wire”) who has hurt the singer enough for her to tell him to leave (“Greenville,” “Joy”), but he also holds an undeniable, and unfading attraction for her (“Still I Long for Your Kiss,” “Jackson”). Williams, who calls herself a feminist, doesn’t claim that the man (or men) that she’s writing about are perfect, but that’s not what Esolen is looking for: even in his ideal world, he says that “there are as many sinners… as there are human beings,” and the women and men, he tells us, “bear with one another’s weaknesses.” What Esolen is looking for, instead, is a sense that “when the women look upon men digging ore out of the heart of a mountain, or laying roads, or bending their strong arms and large hands to shave the marble one grain of dust at a time, and give it the smoothness of a baby’s cheek, they are grateful, not envious.”* What he’s looking for is appreciation across the genders: he wants to hear from women who like men.

Williams provides that. Throughout the album, she praises her male love for his strong hands, for his talent as a singer and musician (“Out all night, playing in a band / looking for a fight with a guitar in your hand / a guitar in your hand…” she sighs in Greenville). The album starts with a breathtakingly frank and sexual song, “Right in Time,” which is sexual in a way Esolen would probably appreciate: that is, it’s a pure song of praise for the other:

I take off my watch and my earrings

My bracelets and everything

Lie on my back and moan at the ceiling

Oh, my baby…

Think about you, and that long ride

I bite my nails, I get weak inside

Reach over and turn off the light

Oh, my baby…

The way you move

Is right in time

The way you move

Is right in time

It’s right in time with me…

Now, your average pearl-clutcher from the Christian right would slam his computer shut at “moan at the ceiling.” But Esolen, to his credit, isn’t afraid of human (hetero)sexuality. He just wants it to reflect what he sees as a universal truth: that man is made for woman. Which is what Williams makes particular in “Right in Time.”

She goes on. My favorite song on the album is “Lake Charles,” in which Williams writes about a man with whom she used to drive to Lafayette and Baton Rouge, “in a yellow El Camino, / listening to Howlin’ Wolf.” The man in that song is clearly flawed—though he was born in Nacogdoches, (“That’s in east Texas,” Williams helpfully informs us) “he liked to tell everybody / he was from Lake Charles.” But the song is full of affection for him, and it’s really quite sweet: “Did an angel whisper in your ear? Hold you close, and take away your fears?” she asks.

A variation appears in “Drunken Angel,” reputedly based on Austin songwriter Blaze Foley. In that song, too, the singer is well aware of her man’s faults, but that’s not the point of the song. While Williams laments the man’s irresponsibility and failure, she sings with the same sigh of (sexual) appreciation that animated “Right in Time.” The disappointment is all the more poignant because she can see what Esolen swears she can’t: his potential as a good man.

The question is: how can this be? If we buy Esolen’s insistence that, in the postmodern world, women don’t appreciate men, why is this album so full of, well, appreciation? And why does it fit so easily into a whole tradition of feminist singers voicing their appreciation for men?

Of course, I don’t buy Esolen’s insistences, so none of this is hard for me. There’s no mystery; in fact, I’d go so far as to say that something like feminism is necessary if you want to hear the sentiments Esolen says he wants to hear.

There’s an awkward moment in Chapter 3 of Defending Marriage that comes while Esolen is telling us that, in the past, culture told us how much men liked women and how much women liked men. He has to acknowledge that he doesn’t have any examples of women singing the praises of men. Not one. “Before the sexual revolution,” Esolen insists, “women really did understand and value the manhood that moves Eve to lean the closer to Adam.” But he goes nine hundred years back into tradition and can’t find a single example of a woman saying that. Esolen waves this off, saying “the nobility of a good man hasn’t been the inspiration for female writers and artists as has been, for men, the beauty and grace of a good woman.”

Instead, he gives us Milton’s rendering of Eve’s thoughts towards Adam. A woman’s words as imagined by a man.

Nowadays, if you want to know how women feel about men, you have hundreds of examples. Again: no mystery here. Feminism is about making space for women’s voices; let women speak and they’ll tell you what they like.

Now, this doesn’t actually always make us guys happy. In part that’s because it means they’ll also tell you what they don’t like, and they may tell you that you’re not what they like; some women may even tell you that they like other women. That’s the way it works. But the praise that Esolen says we never hear? It’s there. The gratitude? It’s there? The bridges across the sexual divide? They’re there. You’ve just got to listen.

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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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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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.

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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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