Friday, May 11, 2007

Berry's Anti-Gnosticism

Among the gifts I received from Jason Peters of Augustana College during my recent trip to Kentucky were a jar of very fine local Rock Island mustard and an offprint of his recent article on Wendell Berry. The article - "Wendell Berry's Vindication of the Flesh" - has appeared in the latest issue of "Christianity and Literature," an issue featuring several essays on Berry's religious thought. Peters's essay is first rate. It shows how Berry's defense of work - physical work - takes place within a larger theological framework in which Berry rejects Gnostic contempt for the body and that old heresy of dualism, and indeed, bases his defense of the fundamental necessity of human labor upon a proper and orthodox understanding of original sin - that humans must earn their bread from the sweat of their own brow (not from the sweat of human slaves, as Lincoln thundered, nor our petroleum slaves, as, more recently, Berry and others have argued).

Also, Peters links Berry's arguments to two thinkers who write in an explicitly Catholic tradition - Walker Percy (especially Percy's novel "Love in the Ruins," in which a particular curse of modern man is "angelism," a version of Gnosticism) and C.S. Lewis, especially his novel "That Hideous Strength." Indeed, referring back to the spirited recent debate over Harvey Mansfield's Jefferson Lecture, I'd suggest that these novels, along with Berry's, might stand as the kinds of literary works that, among others, better than most articulate a defense of love for particular people in particular communities, and against the greater forms of abstraction to which an excessive manliness can incline. Perhaps not the literature that HCM was intending us to read as examples of manliness, but ones that are needful.

At the risk of copyright infringement, here are a few nuggets from Peters's essay. Procure a copy - indeed, get the entire issue.

"[Our] aversion to physical labor accounts for what Berry calls our major economic practice: to delegate work to others, whether those 'others' be economically disadvantaged people or garbage dumps or waterways or combustion engines. For Berry, the line running from the slave through the hireling to the machine is direct; it indicates our wish to 'rise above the sweat and bother of taking care of anything - of ourselves, of each other, or of our country' - and afflicts us at a moment when frivolous labor-saving gadgets proliferate at a rate heretofore unseen. These labor-savers signal our moral failure to reconcile ourselves to our condition; they are proof that we accord the body no respect and little responsibility."

"Berry's resistance to innovation and labor-saving gadgets by which we avoid lifting boxes and cleaning floors is not, as his critics say, nostalgic. It is not even curmudgeonly. It is a resistance deeply set in his refusal to countenance the old heresy [of dualism]. It is a resistance predicated on the conviction that absenting the body, whether farming or writing or any human endeavor, accords with dualism, gives us easy permission to privilege mind over body, and necessarily leads to the superstition that we can disgegard material indefinitely so long as we put our detached minds to it. But it leads to other, more destructive mischief as well: ultimately a 'dualistic society dominated by mind' he says, 'involves a number of dangers, of which the degradation and destruction of the material world is only the most obvious.' "

"Something has to do the needful work we are no longer willing to do. Of necessity we accumulate - first by negligence, later by habit, and always by moral weakness - those things with which we render ourselves obsolete. For it is simply the case that when we refuse to accord proper respect or assign proper responsibility to the body, we must necessarily acquire replacements for it - until at last we inhabit what Fitzgerald called a 'new world, material without being real.' Having dreamed for the realm of pure mind, we have awoken in the realm of pure machine, 'materialistic' as charged. Is it any wonder that we see so much drug abuse, alcohol abuse, and sexual abuse? Is it any wonder that we treat the body as a kind of pleasure machine? We don't know what the body is for, and so when we do use it we abuse it."

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