on 15 December 1998
If you're a content postmodern, don't read this book. It will leave you unsettled. The title essay from Berry's book is worth the price of the whole book. If you were to read only one book this coming year to guide both your thinking and your behavior (aside from the Bible which undergirds Berry's thinking), this would be a great choice. If the following snippet from the title essay resonates with your spirit, you'll want to pick this one up.
"If you destroy the ideal of the "gentle man" and remove from men all expectations of courtesy and consideration toward women and children, you have prepared the way for an epidemic of rape and abuse. If you depreciate the sanctity and solemnity of marriage, not just as a bond between two people, but as a bond between those two people and their forebears, their children, and their neighbors, then you have prepared the way for an epidemic of divorce, child neglect, community ruin, and loneliness. If you destroy the economies of household and community, then you destroy the bonds of mutual usefulness and practical dependence without which the other bonds will not hold."
Why is it that we have our best thinkers like Berry running old family farms, and our worst thinkers running our national government? Sigh.
on 7 December 1997
It is more than a little gratifying to have your dearly-held opinions vindicated--and eloquently so--by a living writer of note. I was treated to this experience recently in reading Wendell Berry's Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community, a collection of eight essays varied in subject but all founded on the premise that our current social ills stem from the consumer-culture's rapacious destruction of local communities and their resources, both natural and human.
Not surprisingly, as a Kentucky gentleman farmer, Berry's definition of community centers on the bond between the people and the land on which they live. Modern urban readers may be tempted to dismiss as an old farmer's finger-wagging Berry's accusations against the global economy and its insatiable appetites (a la "Well, when I was a boy..."), but his arguments are sharp-witted, penetrating and thoroughly convincing; I found myself frequently exclaiming to the empty room (or on the train, where I do most of my reading) a self-righteous "Yes!" to his analysis of the myth of the global economy.
Having dropped any guard to Berry's disarmingly kindred spirit, I did find myself challenged in other deeply-held beliefs by his essay "The Problem of Tobacco," in which he argues for the economies and communities of the tobacco farmers with whom he was raised--despite his acknowledgement that smoking is unhealthy and that he himself quit many years ago. But his manner is so straightforward and honest that it feels only just and natural to set aside one's personal prejudices and to examine the underlying issues on their own merits--no small achievement in critical writing.
In all, I found the essays refreshing and powerful not merely for the boost they gave my ego (after all, Wendell Berry thinks like I do!) but because his gentlemanly style of writing--with just a dash of sarcasm to give it kick--is engaging and disarming. I recommend it to any armchair social historians as well as those concerned with the disappearance of community in America. I'd throw in some quotes--plenty of his pithy statements come to mind--but I've already lent my copy to a friend whom I suspect will feel similarly vindicated by Berry's views.
on 21 January 1998
Berry is an original and developed mind, and is a champion of rural life and communities. His analysis goes beyond simple sentimentalism for rural life and ties in the role of an economy and a popular culture that are disconnected from any sense of community. His defense of the tobacco industry aside (how can one attack the defense industry, whose job it is to kill people, and defend the tobacco industry, who also make money on death?) this is one book to read slowly and deliberately. It's worth it.
on 16 October 2012
'Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community' is the last and longest of eight essays in the book of the same title. Berry sets out a call to community which might be called `localism'. "If the word community is to mean or amount to anything, it must relate to a place (in its natural integrity) and its people. It must refer to a placed people."(168) Community for Berry involves intimacy and belonging by a people in a place. "A community identifies itself by an understood mutuality of interests. But it lives by the common virtues of trust, goodwill, forbearance, self-restraint, compassion and forgiveness."(120) True community therefore is limited to the local because of the scale demanded by mutuality and intimacy.
He draws a very clear distinction between the public, and the community. Public is anonymous and subject to regulation because of the absence of mutual recognition and responsibility. Inevitably, therefore, globalisation, the industrialised economy and public sexual exploitation constantly work against community. "The triumph of the industrial economy is the fall of community." (133)
Freedom cannot exist without discipline in the form of responsibility to others in relationship. Fidelity is therefore essential not only to the life and health of individual couples but also for the community. It is a form of self-discipline which frees the community. On the other hand, "Seeking to "free" sexual love from its old communal restraints, we have "freed" it also from its meaning, its responsibility and its exaltation. And we have made it more dangerous." (142)
In the preface Berry indicates that the purpose of the book is to help us to refuse to buy the future as it has been packaged by politicians, scientists and educators and is being sold to us. In the first and second essays he helps us to understand the way in which local economy protects and nurtures the land, whilst globalisation and the industrial economy rapes and abuses it. The health and sustainability of social and economic practices in a locality is the basis for healthy, sustainable community. "If we could think locally, we would take far better care of things than we do now."(20) This leads into a chapter on the value of meaningful conservation which is more than the preservation of scenic places, the conservation of natural resources, or the limitation of the most flagrant abuses of industrial development.(27) "No settled family or community has ever called its home place an "environment."(35) Our connection to our locality is work, and `good work' protects the locality from the need for conservation.
Chapter four is a short piece on the dangers of changing the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in favour of supranational corporations. This and the following two chapters set out the violence that can be done by political and military interventions. Chapter seven sets out plainly Christianity's culpability in sharing the values of globalisation and the industrial economy and its failure to stem economic and political violence.
Together the earlier chapters lay the foundation for the vision I have called 'localism', healthy, sustainable placed peoples and peopled places relating to each other in communal ways.
on 4 December 2010
Wendell Berry is a prolific writer from Kentucky. After a period of scholarly activity, Berry returned to his native state and became a farmer. He is also a member of the Temenos Academy, a Traditionalist group based in Britain and sponsored by Prince Charles.
"Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community" is a collection of essays written during the early 1990's. Berry is difficult to place politically, and ironically refers to himself as an "anthropobiotheointerpenetretist" and "gastrointeroenvironmentalist" (!!). Green conservative Christian would perhaps be a more mundane description.
Berry calls for a kind of land ethic similar to that of Aldo Leopold, in which humans are seen as part of a larger community, encompassing nature and wildlife as well. He calls for self-sustaining, small rural communities to replace the present industrial civilization. Globalization and free market liberalism are rejected, as are Communism and any system based on industrialism and centralization (although he has a soft spot for government price regulations, if they aid farmers). Berry believes that large cities such as New York or Phoenix aren't sustainable. He also criticizes the idea that "thinking globally" can change the world for the better: only thinking and acting locally will do. Community is a central concept to Berry, who believes neither in state centralization nor complete individualism.
The author criticizes really existing Christianity for being anti-environment, but believes that the Bible (if properly interpreted) means care for all of Creation and opposition to greedy accumulation of wealth. In effect, Berry wants to "Green" the Bible. He criticizes the Gnostic notion that we are good spirits trapped in an evil material world, since this could lead to indifference towards environmental destruction (why bother if the world is evil?). Rather, Berry wants us to affirm Creation as a whole, including the seemingly useless or dangerous parts. There does seem to be a hint of pantheism or "panentheism" in the author's thinking, since Berry believes that all of Creation is somehow divine due to the immanent presence of God's spirit.
The worst essay in this collection is "Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community" (also the title of the entire book). It contains a truly conservative and somewhat bizarre idealization of life long monogamous marriage and the mysteries of sex (who apparently can be enjoyed only within monogamous marriage). Of course, the spiritualization of sex craved by the author has never existed anywhere in the world, and is simply a fig leaf for patriarchy.
But then, what else to expect from a Traditionalist? (They aren't "traditional" enough. Neolithic societies were women-centred!)
That being said, Wendell Berry's book can nevertheless be read as an introduction to a form of environmentalism and anti-globalism more far-reaching than usual.