Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Sacrament of Sexual Union

Wendell Berry

Highlights from The Art of the Common Place (from the notes of O'Steven)

The most dangerous and most immediately painful consequence of the disintegration of the household is the isolation of sexuality...the division of sexual energy from the functions of household and community that it ought both to empower and to grace. This is analogous to that other modern division between hunger and the earth.

When sexuality is no longer allied by proximity and analogy to the nurturing disciplines that bound the household to the cycles of fertility and the seasons, life and death, then sexual love loses its symbolic or ritualistic force, its deepest solemnity and its highest joy. Sex loses its sense of consequence and responsibility as it becomes "autonomous" to be valued only for its own sake, therefore frivolous and destructive, even of itself.

Those who speak of sex as "recreation" only acknowledge its displacement from Creation. The isolation of sexuality makes it subject to two influences that dangerously over simply it: the lore of sexual romance (sentimentalization of sexual love) and capitalist economics....and by means of them, young people have been taught a series of extremely dangerous falsehoods.

1. that people in love ought to conform to the fashionable models of physical beauty, and that to be unbeautiful by these standards is to be unlovable

2. that people in love are, or ought to be, young - even though love is said to last "forever"

3. that marriage is a solution - whereas the most misleading thing a love story can do is end "happily" with a marriage, not because there is no such thing as a happy marriage, but because marriage cannot be happy except by being made happy

4. that love, alone, regardless of circumstances, can make harmony and resolve serious differences

5. that "love will find a way" and so finally triumph over any kind of practical difficulty

6. that the "right" partners are "made for each other", or that "marriages are made in heaven"

7. that lovers are "each other's all" or "all the world to each other"

8. that monogamous marriage is therefore logical and natural, and "forsaking all others' involves no difficulty

Believing in these things, a young couple could not be more cruelly exposed to the abrasions of experience - or better prepared to experience marriage as another of those grim and ironic modern competitions in which the victory of one is defeat of both.

The exclusiveness of the sentimental ideal gives way to the possessiveness of sexual capitalism, and failing as they cannot help but fail, to be each others all, the husband and wife become each other's only and the sacrament of sexual union, which in the time of the household was a communion of workmates, and afterwards tried to be a lover's paradise, has now become a kind of marketplace in which the husband and wife represent each other as sexual property.

In the isolation of the resulting sexual "privacy" the disintegration of the community begins. Sexual energy that is the most convivial and unifying loses it communal forms and becomes divisive. The disintegration of marriage which completes the disintegration of community, came about because the encapsulation of sexuality, meant to preserve marriage from competition, inevitably enclosed competition and the principle that fenced everyone out fenced the couple in; it became a sexual cul-de-sac, and the model of economic competition proved as false to marriage as to farming.

The narrowness of the selective principle proved destructive of what it excluded, and what it excluded was essential to the life of what it enclosed: the nature of sexuality itself...sexual romance can't bear to acknowledge the generality of instinct, whereas sexual capitalism can't acknowledge its particularity, but sexuality appears to be both general and particular. One can't love a particular woman, for instance, unless one loves womankind, if not all women, at least other women.

Sexual romance leaves out this generality, this generosity of instinct; it excludes Aphrodite and Dionysus, and it fails for that reason...though sexual love can endure between the same two people for a long time, it can't do so on the basis of this pretense of the exclusiveness of affection.

The sexual capitalist - that is the disillusioned sexual romantic, in reaction to disillusion makes the opposite oversimplification; one acknowledges one's spouse as one of a general, necessarily troublesome kind of category.

These attitudes look on sexual love as ownership and the sexual romantic - "you belong to me" and the sexual capitalist believes the same thing but has stopped the crooning....each holding that a person's sexual property shall be sufficient unto him or her, and that the morality of that sufficiency is to be forever on guard against expropriation. One tends to exploit one's property and to protect it....and the tragedy is that what is exploited becomes undesirable. The protective capsule becomes a prison, a household of the living dead.

Marriage shrinks to a dull vigil of duty and legality and husband and wife become competitors necessarily, for their only freedom is to exploit each other or to escape.

A more generous enclosure is a household welcoming to neighbors and friends, a garden open to the weather, between the woods and the road. It is possible to imagine a marriage bond that would bind a woman and a man not only to each other, but to the community of marriage, the amorous communion at which all couples sit; the sexual feast and celebration that joins them to all living things and to the fertility of the earth; and the sexual responsibility that joins them to the human past and the human future.

It is possible to imagine marriage as a grievous, joyous human bond, endlessly renewable and renewing again and again rejoining memory and passion and hope.

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