from Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community

May 26, 2007 Categories: Books , Commonplace Book | 4 Comments  

”Ecological good sense will be opposed by all the most powerful economic entities of our time, because ecological good sense requires the reduction or replacement of those entities. If ecological good sense is to prevail, it can do so only through the work and the will of the people and of the local communities.

For this task, our currently prevailing assumptions about knowledge, information, education, money, and political will are inadequate. All the institutions with which I am familiar have adopted the organizational patterns and the quantitative measures of the industrial corporations. Both sides of the ecological debate, perhaps as a consequence, are alarmingly abstract.

But abstraction, of course, is what is wrong. The evil of the industrial economy (capitalist or communist) is the abstractness inherent in its procecdures – its inability to distinguish one place or person or creature from another. William Blake saw this two hundred years ago. Anyone can see it now in the application of almost any of our common industrial tools and weapons.

Abstraction is the enemy wherever it is found. The abstractions of sustainability can ruin the world just as surely as the abstractions of the industrial economies. Local life may be as much endangered by those who would “save the planet” as by those who would “conquer the world.” For “saving the planet” calls for abstract purposes and central powers that cannot know – and thus will destroy – the integrity of local nature and local community.”

~p. 22-23, from the essay “Out of Your Car, Off Your Horse”

”If we think of ourselves as merely biological creatures, whose story is determined by genetics or environment or history or economics or technology, then, however pleasant or painful the part we play, it cannot matter much. Its significance is that of mere self-concern. “It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing,” as Macbeth says when he has “supp’d full with horrors” and is “aweary of the sun.”

If we think of ourselves as lofty souls trapped temporarily in lowly bodies in a dispirited, desperate, unlovable world that we must despise for Heaven’s sake, then what have we done for this question of significance? If we divide reality into two parts, spiritual and material, and hold (as the Bible does not hold) that only the spiritual is good and desirable, then our relation to the material Creation becomes arbitrary, having only the quantitative or mercenary value that we have, in fact and for this reason, assigned to it. Thus, we become the judges and inevitably the destroyers of a world we did not make and that we are bidden to understand as a divine gift. It is impossible to see how good work might be accomplished by people who think that our life in this world either signifies nothing or has only a negative significance.

If, on the other hand, we believe that we are living souls, God’s dust and God’s breath, acting our parts among other creatures all made of the same dust and breath as ourselves; and if we understand that we are free, within the obvious limits of mortal human life, to do evil or good to ourselves and to the other creatures – then all our acts have a supreme significance. If it is true that we are living souls and morally free, then all of us are artists. All of us are makers, within mortal terms and limits, of our lives, of one another’s lives, of things we need and use.

This, Ananda Coomaraswany wrote, is “the normal view,” which “assumes…not that the artist is a special kind of man, but that every man who is not a mere idler or parasite is necessarily some special kind of artist.” But since even mere idlers and parasites may be said to work inescapably, by proxy or influence, it might be better to say that everybody is an artist – either good or bad, responsible or irresponsible. Any lfie, by working or not working, by working well or poorly, inescapably changes other lives and so changes the world. This is why our division of the “fine arts” from “craftsmanship,” and “craftsmanship” from “labor,” is so arbitrary, meaningless, and destructive. As Walter Shewring rightly said, both “the plowman and the potter have a cosmic function.” And bad art in any trade dishonors and damages Creation.

If we think of ourselves as living souls, immortal creatures, living in the mdist of a Creation that is mostly mysterious, and if we see that everything we make or do cannot help but have an everlasting significance for ourselves, for others, and for the world, then we see why some religious teachers have understood work as a form of prayer….

In denying the holiness of the body and of the so-called physical reality of the world – and in denying support to the good economy, the good work, by which alone the Creation can receive due honor – modern Christianity generally has cut itself off from both nature and culture. It has no serious or competent interest in biology or ecology. And it is equally uninterested in the arts by which humankind connects itself to nature. It manifests no awareness of the specifically Christian cultural lineages that connect us to our past. There is, for example, a splendid heritage of Christian poetry in England that most church members live and die without reading or hearing or hearing about. Most sermons are preached without any awareness at all that the making of sermons is an art that has at times been magnificent. Most modern churches look like they were built by robots without reference to the heritage of church architecture or respect for the place; they embody no awareness that work can be worship. Most religious music now attests to the general assumption that religion is no more than a vaguely pious (and vaguely romantic) emotion.

~p. 110-114, from the essay “Christianity and the Survival of Creation”

”The conventional public opposition of “liberal” and “conservative” is, here as elsewhere, perfectly useless. The “conservatives” promote the family as a sort of public icon, but they will not promote the economic integrity of the household or the community, which are the mainstays of family life. Under the sponsorship of “conservative” presidencies, the economy of the modern household, which once required the father to work away from home – a development that was bad enough – now requires the mother to work away from home, as well. And this development has the wholehearted endorsement of “liberals,” who see the mother thus forced to spend her days away from her home and children as “liberated” – though nobody has yet seen the fathers thus forced away as “liberated.” Some feminists are thus in the curious position of opposing the mistreatment of women and yet advocating their participation in an economy in which everything is mistreated.

The “convservatives” more or less attack homosexuality, abortion, and pornography, and the “liberals” more of less defend them. Neither party will oppose sexual promiscuity. The “liberals” will not oppose promiscuity because they do not wish to appear intolerant of “individual liberty.” The “conservatives” will not oppose promiscuity because sexual discipline would reduce the profits of corporations, which in their advertisements and entertainments encourage sexual self-indulgence as a way of selling merchandise.

The public discussion of sexual issues has thus degenerated into a poor attempt to equivocate between private lusts and public emergencies. Nowhere in public life (that is, in the public life that counts: the discussions of political and corporate leaders) is there an attempt to respond to community needs in the language of community interest.”

~p. 122-123, from the essay “Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community”

”I know that for a century or so many artists and writers have felt it was their duty – a mark of their honesty and courage – to offend their audience. But if the artist has a duty to offend, does not the audience therefore have a duty to be offended? If the public has a duty to protect speech that is offensive to the community, does not the community have the duty to respond, to be offended, and so defend itself against the offense? A community, as a part of a public, has no right to silence publicly protected speech, but it certainly has a right not to listen and to refuse its patronage to speech that it finds offensive. It is remarkable, however, that many writers and artists appear to be unable to accept this obvious and necessary limitation on their public freedom; they seem to think that freedom entitles them not only to be offensive but also to be approved and subsidized by the people whom they have offended.

These people believe, moreover, that any community attempt to remove a book from a reading list in a public school is censorship and a violation of the freedom of speech. The situation here involves what may be a hopeless conflict of freedoms. A teacher in a public school ought to be free to exercise his or her freedom of speech in choosing what books to teach and in deciding what to say about them. (This, to my mind, would certainly include the right to teach that the Bible is the word of God and the right to teach that it is not.) But the families of a community surely must be allowed an equal freedom to determine the education of their children. How free are parents who have no choice but to turn their children over to the influence of whatever the public will prescribe or tolerate? They obviously are not free at all. The only solution is trust between a community and its teachers, who will therefore teach as members of the community – a trust that in a time of community disintegration is perhaps not possible. And so the public presses its invasion deeper and deeper into community life under the justification of a freedom far too simply understood. It is now altogether possible for a teacher who is forbidden to teach the Bible to teach some other book that is not morally acceptable to the community, perhaps in order to improve the community by shocking or offending it. It is therefore possible that the future of community life in this country may depend on private schools and home schooling.

Does my objection to the intention to offend and the idea of improvement by offense mean that I believe it is invariably wrong to offend or that I think community and public life do not need improving? Obviously not. I do not mean at all to slight the issues of honesty and of artistic integrity that are involved. But I would distinguish between the intention to offend and the willingness to risk offending. Honesty and artistic integrity do not require anyone to intend to give offense, though they certainly may cause offense. The intention to offend, it seems to me, identifies the would-be offender as a public person. I cannot imagine anyone who is a member of a community who would purposely or gladly or proudly offend it, though I know very well that honesty might require one to do so.”

~p. 156-157, from the essay “Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community”


  1. sage

    It’s been a while since I read this book by Wendell Barry–but like all of his books and especially his essays, it’s throught provoking. thanks for the quotes, here via semicolon

  2. carrie

    Sage – thanks for stopping by!

  3. Lawanda

    I am getting this when I ever get to the library again.

    The quotes are OH SO TRUE!

  4. Saturday Review of Books: May 26, 2007 at Semicolon

    [...] Matt (Being Dead)55. Matt (56. Matt (Atonement)57. Framed (Stardust)58. Framed (Good Omens)59. Carrie K. (Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community)60. Carrie K. (That Distant Land)61. In the Pages (The Road)62. Sandy D. (From the Mixed-Up Files of [...]