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Reading The Theology Of The Body Into Wendell Berry’s Remembering

May 26, 2010

NATHAN SCHLUETER is an assistant professor of political science at Hillsdale College. In this essay he reads Wendell Berry’s novel Remembering in terms of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. I think taking a philosophical work and being able to link its concepts to a literary piece is a wonderful gift and Dr. Schlueter’s accomplishment here is no mean feat: “By making detailed what is spare in the myth of the fall, and making concrete what is abstract in the Theology of the Body, Remembering by Wendell Berry brings us tangibly in touch with the primordial memory of wholeness that slumbers in every human heart.” A lengthy read but well worth the time.

Introduction
Wendell Berry’s short novel Remembering is about a man who has lost his right hand to a machine in a farming accident. But the “hidden wound” of my title also refers to Wendell Berry’s collection of essays, The Hidden Wound. The subject of this book, its “hidden wound, is presumably racism, but Berry writes in the Afterword to the 1989 edition that “the root of our racial problem in America is not racism. The root is our inordinate desire to be superior to our condition.” This inordinate desire, Berry suggests, is the real hidden wound, lurking beneath the surface not only of racism but of every form of injustice.

Berry’s description of the hidden wound subtly but ineluctably calls to mind The Hidden Wound, Original Sin, which was caused by Adam and Eve’s refusal to accept their condition and by their inordinate desire to “be like God, knowing good and evil.” The Christian account of original sin not only provides a “first cause” explanation of human perversity, it also identifies through a rich narrative the archetypal pattern for every sin. When this narrative is reduced to a formula there is a risk that original sin will become merely a fact to be accepted or rejected, rather than a fecund source of self-understanding that provides better motives for belief

How stories can convey truth in ways that elude ordinary rational thought is a question worthy of great wonder and meditation. But if stories in general have this power, myth is characterized by stories that deliver truth in the most refined and compact narrative form. There is therefore no tension between myth and truth. As John Paul II writes, “the term ‘myth’ does not designate a fabulous content, but merely an archaic way of expressing a deeper content.” The myth of the fall has this quality. Much great imaginative literature is merely an articulation and ramification of this myth, deepening our understanding of its meaning and of ourselves as well.

Remembering provides a marvelous illustration of this point. Moving in its own right, when the story is read in light of the myth of the fall it takes on a singular power to bring before us in our ordinary lives the ever — present pattern expressed in the myth of the fall. That power is even greater when we bring to it insights from what is arguably the greatest commentary on the myth of the fall in the last five centuries, John Paul II’s Wednesday lectures, now collected under the title The Theology of the Body, as well as elaborations on that teaching found in the Apostolic Letter Mulieris dignitatem (“On the Dignity of Women”), the Encyclical Letter Evangelium vitae (“The Gospel of Life”), and the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio (“On the Christian Family in the Modern World”).

I should make clear that in the argument that follows I am not making a claim of influence. Wendell Berry can be described as an ambivalent Protestant Christian of Baptist upbringing, and to my knowledge he has never read John Paul II’s Wednesday lectures. Nevertheless the parallels between the Theology of the Body and Berry’s fiction should not be surprising, indeed would not be surprising to that sometime thespian and playwright John Paul II. He was convinced of the singular power of artists to perceive and to reveal the depths of the created order, a point he makes in the opening sentence to his Letter to Artists: “None can sense more deeply than you artists…something of the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of his hands.”

The Theology of the Body
The governing principle of the Theology of the Body is what John Paul TT has called the “hermeneutics of the gift” (Theology, 2 January 1980, 58): self-gift is God’s very identity as a communion of persons, a fact manifested in the gift of creation and expressed most profoundly in God’s gift of himself on the cross in the person of Christ. It is “through a sincere gift of himself” therefore, that man not only “finds himself” but also most completely becomes “the image and likeness of God.” Man’s vocation to self-gift, according to John Paul II, is inscribed into the very language of the human body, especially in the sexual differentiation of man and woman, and so conjugal love, the two-in-one flesh communion of persons, is an icon of the Trinity, the very archetype of the communion of persons rooted in self-gift. (Theology, 22 Apr11 1981, 221)

It is important to understand that the Theology of the Body is not exclusively a teaching about sex, or even about human sexuality, though it has much to say about these things. Because it holds that God as Gift is written into the very fabric of his creation, there is nothing it does not touch: politics, work, technology, economics, culture, education — all are subject to illumination by the “hermeneutics of gift.” It is with good reason, therefore, that George Weigel, Pope John Paul II’s official biographer, has described the Theology of the Body as a “kind of theological time bomb set to go off with dramatic consequences, sometime in the third millennium of the Church.”

While the Theology of the Body feeds on a structure of theological analogies, it is derived from a rich and penetrating exegesis of biblical passages involving the body. That exegesis in turn draws deeply from three sources: (1) metaphysics and metaphysical anthropology; (2) phenomenology and human experience; and (3) the larger theological tradition of the Church. (See for example Theology, 13 February 1986), 72-73)

Phenomenology, a philosophical method dedicated to the exploration and articulation of the objective structure of human consciousness, was the subject of John Paul II’s second doctoral dissertation and deserves special attention here. At every step of his biblical exegesis John Paul II takes special care to show how the story of the fall expresses and clarifies basic human experience. For him, the “basic significance” of the story is not its “distance in time,” or the fact that it belongs to man’s “prehistory,” but rather that the “experiences” expressed there “are always at the root of every human experience,” even if they “are so intermingled with the ordinary things of life that we do not generally notice their extraordinary character.” (Theology, 12 December 1979, 51) This means that even in their condition after the fall human beings are still in some sense linked to that original condition by nature, experience, and memory, and that the original condition still provides a normative guide for human self-understanding and behavior. It “is indispensable in order to know who man is and who he should be, and therefore how he should mold his own activity. It is an essential and important thing for the future of human ethos.(Theology, 13 February 1980, 74. See also January 1980, 66 and 2 April 1980, 88)

There is no space here to explicate the full meaning of John Paul Il’s exegesis, or to review the ever growing edifice of commentaries upon it, but in this paper I would like to identify and discuss three of its core aspects that appear in the commentary on the creation accounts of Genesis: original solitude, original unity, and original nakedness. (These three basic elements are emphasized by John Crabowski in his introduction at 17, and by John Paul II on 12 December 1979, 52) Along the way, however, the reader should never forget that for John Paul II the mystery of Creation is never far from the mystery of Redemption.

The Meaning Of Original Solitude
John Paul II discovers in the creation accounts of Genesis a divine pedagogy, a process in which God reveals himself to man, and man to himself. The instruction begins with man’s original solitude. God creates Adam first, and brings before him the animals to see what lie will name them. Through observing and naming the visible, corporeal world Adam comes to the awareness that he is dissimilar from the rest of creation and therefore that he is in some sense alone. This solitude of Adam has a twofold and somewhat paradoxical significance. On the one hand it reveals man’s dignity as a person, his “subjectivity, which is constituted through self-knowledge.”(Theology, 10 October 1979, 37) It is also the ground of his superiority over the rest of the natural world:

“Man can dominate the earth because he alone — and no other of the living beings — is capable of ‘tilling it’ and transforming it according to his own needs,” John Paul II writes. (Theology, 24 October 1979, 39) It thus confirms, in part, the biblical declaration that man is made “in the image and likeness of God.”

On the other hand, man’s Original solitude, and his awareness of it, reveals to him his lack of self-sufficiency, his ultimate incompleteness. “But for the man there was not found a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:20). This experience is reinforced by God’s warning to Adam against eating the forbidden fruit: “You shall die.” According to John Paul II, “The words of God-Yahweh addressed to man confirmed a dependence, in existing, such as to make man a limited being and, by his very nature, liable to nonexistence.” (Theology, 31 October 1979, 41)

The Meaning Of Origina1 Unity
By itself this second dimension of original solitude might result in an angst-ridden existentialism, but for John Paul II the experience of “double solitude” has a positive end: it points to man’s fundamental vocation to and identity in a communion of persons. Theology, 14 November 1979, 46) After bringing Adam to an awareness of his difference from the rest of creation, and thus to the awareness of both his dignity and his neediness, God puts Adam into a deep sleep and forms Eve from one of his ribs. Upon seeing Eve for the first time, Adam ecstatically declares in what is both the first human voice and the first poetic utterance in Sacred Scripture, “This is at last bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Genesis 3:23). Immediately after which the Bible says, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother, clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).

This two-in-one-flesh communion of persons illuminates the meaning of Genesis 1:27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” In other words, man images God not only in the individuality of his original solitude, but also and perhaps especially as a community of persons: for John Paul II these two features, solitude and communion, are intimately connected, but solitude is ordered to communion: “Man becomes the image of God not so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion. Right ‘from the beginning,’ he is not only an image in which the solitude of a person who rules the world is reflected, but also, and essentially, an image of an inscrutable divine communion of persons.”(Theology, 14 November 1979, 46)

The integral relation of solitude and communion in Genesis provides the ground for one of John Paul II’s favorite and most frequently quoted phrases from Section 24 of Gaudium et Spes: “Man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” Further, in revealing man as a communion of persons, Genesis “could also be a preparation for understanding the Trinitarian concept of the ‘image of God.” (Theology, 14 November 1979, 46) This, he suggests, “perhaps even constitutes the deepest theological aspect of all that can be said about man”( Theology, 14 November 1979, 47)

It would be easy to conclude from the second creation account that human persons are principally ordered to one another, but a careful reading of the text points to the more fundamental communion of persons between human beings and God. Even in his original solitude man is in relationship with his Creator: “Man is ‘alone.’ That means that he, through his own humanity, through what he is, is constituted at the same time in a unique, exclusive, and unrepeatable relationship with God himself.” (Theology, 24 October 1979, 38) Moreover, this relationship includes both male and female. As John Paul II points out, the Hebrew word for Adam (‘adam) generically includes all of mankind; the differentiation of man into male (‘is) and female (‘issah) does not occur until after the creation of Eve. Thus, “Man is ‘male and female’ right from the beginning.”(Theology 7 November 1979, 43) From this he concludes that “the meaning of ‘original solitude,’ which can be referred simply to man, is substantially prior to the meaning of original unity. (Theology, 7 November 1979, 43)

The Meaning Of Original Nakedness
The Genesis treatment of original nakedness deepens our perspective on original solitude and original unity. Nakedness figures largely in this story. Before the fall Adam and Eve “were both naked, and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25), and shame at their nakedness is the very first result of their disobedience (Genesis 3:7). Thus a “radical change of the meaning of the original nakedness” occurs between Genesis 2:25 and Genesis 3. (Theology, 12 December 1979, 53)

According to John Paul II the absence of shame in original nakedness does not represent a privation or lack of self-awareness, but a fullness of vision: “Nakedness signifies the original good of God’s vision. It signifies all the simplicity and fullness of the vision through which the ‘pure’ value of humanity as male and female, the ‘pure’ value of the body and of sex, is manifested,” (Theology, 2 January 1980, 57) Alternatively, “shame brings with it a specific limitation in seeing with the eyes of the body. This takes place above all because personal intimacy is disturbed and almost threatened by this sight.”(Theology, 2 January 1980, 58) 

In describing man’s original condition in this way John Paul II rejects an essentially deontological (Deontological ethics or deontology (from Greek δέον, deon, “obligation, duty”; and -λογία, -logia) is an approach to ethics that judges the morality of an action based on the action’s adherence to a rule or rules. Deontologists look at rules and duties.) and legalistic reading of man’s original condition and the fall. Creation is ordered by love, and the “beautifying awareness” of this love calls forth a response of love from man. (Theology 9 January 1980, 61 and 20 January 1980, 69) For this reason, John Paul IT writes that “Man should have understood, that the tree of knowledge had roots not only in the garden of Eden, but also in his humanity.” (Theology, 31 October 1979, 41) 

Original disobedience, and indeed every sin, is therefore best understood as the refusal to recognize and accept with gratitude the fundamental “giftedness” of creation on its own terms. Every sin involves an “objectification” of the good, a reduction and wrenching of it from the context of its ground in gift. On the plane of human relations, this manifests itself as “a reduction of the other to an ‘object for myself (an object of lust, of misappropriation, etc.).” (Theology, 6 February 1980, 70)

Nowhere is this pattern more evident than in the story of the fall itself: Eve abstracts the sensitive and spiritual goods of the apple from their larger moral context within the created order (“the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes,” etc.), and as a consequence both Eve and Adam abstract the sensitive goods of one another from their larger moral context within the good of the person (“and they knew that they were naked”). This reduction by abstraction is the specific quality of pornography, and of obscenity more generally. The problem with pornography, John Paul II suggests, is not that it shows too much, but that it shows too little of the full truth about man. (See discussion in Theology, 218-29 (15, 22, and 29 April and 6 May 1981) Indeed, such a reduction may be the very form of every sin.

Creation In John Paul II And Wendell Berry
The Theology of the Body therefore is rooted in a notion of “Creation as a Fundamental and Original Gift.” (This is the title of the remarks given 19 December 1979) This fact has an important bearing on artists, who are in some sense co-creators with God. John Paul II brings out this point in his “Letter to Artists,” which has for its epigraph a verse from Genesis 1:31 (“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good”). In Section 15 he writes the following:

The Spirit is the mysterious Artist of the universe …Every genuine inspiration, however, contains some tremor of that “breath” with which the Creator Spirit suffused the work of creation from the very beginning. Overseeing the mysterious laws governing the universe, the divine breath of the Creator Spirit reaches out to human genius and stirs its creative power. He touches it with a kind of inner illumination which brings together the sense of the good and the beautiful, and he awakens energies of mind and heart which enable it to conceive an idea and give it form in a work of art. It is right then to speak, even if only analogically, of “moments of grace,” because the human being is able to experience in some way the Absolute who is utterly beyond.

Wendell Berry seems to share John Paul II’s understanding of creation and the role of the artist. He begins Remembering with the following invocation/prayer, written in blank verse:

Heavenly Muse, Spirit who brooded on
the world and raised it shapely out of nothing,
Touch my lips with fire and burn away
All dross of speech, so that I keep in mind
The truth and end to which my words now move
In hope. Keep my mind within that Mind
Of which it is a part, whose wholeness is
The hope of sense in what I tell. And though
I go among the scatterings of that sense,
The members of its worldly body broken,
Rule my sight by vision of the parts
Rejoined. And in my exile’s journey far
From home, be with me, so I may return.

 

By this stirring invocation Berry signals to his readers the epic theme of his narrative. Like John Milton and Dante Alighieri, two poets who figure largely in the story, he chooses a classical idiom in which to associate his narrative with the Christian account of Creation, Fall, and Redemption. From the outset, therefore, readers are invited to consider the events of Remembering on a much larger scale than they might otherwise do. That scale involves nothing less than a right attitude toward Creation. Indeed, no word appears more often in Berry’s corpus than “creation” and its cognates.

The Meanings Of The Wound In Remembering
The centrality of the body to the action of Remembering is reflected in its title. Remembering plays on several inter-related meanings. The most obvious meaning is the faculty of memory itself. But this meaning should not be taken lightly, for it conjures up the entire mythical, epistemological, and theological edifices of the Muses, daughters of Memory, Plato’s anamnesis, and perhaps most importantly the memoria of Book X of Augustine’s Confessions, also a meditation on creation. More subtly, “Re-Membering” also draws upon the archaic but theologically rich biblical analogy of the parts of the body to the communion of persons in Christ. “For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another” (Romans 12:4-5 and 1 Corinthians 12:12). It thus captures another notion that pervades Berry’s moral imagination, membership. The title of Remembering expresses the central action of the novel: the epic journey from brokenness and despair through memory into wholeness.

“It is dark.” This lapidary sentence begins Remembering. At the beginning of the story the protagonist, a despairing Andy Catlett, finds himself lying alone, far from his home in Kentucky, in the mid-morning darkness of a hotel room in San Francisco. A journalist turned farmer, Andy has recently lost his right hand in a farming accident involving a corn picker. Andy’s wounded body is both the cause and visible sign of a much deeper interior wound. Frustrated, resentful, and angry, he has struck out at and wounded the community that sustains him, his friends, his family, and most significantly, his wife Flora.

The wound in Andy’s body reverberates into his interior life and through his relationships, especially his marriage. The intimate relationship between Andy’s wounded body and his spiritual response to that wound is central to the story, arid encourages reflection upon what it means to be a person in a body.

The complex of meanings in Andy’s wounded body is suggested in the following passage:

He remembered with longing the events of his body’s wholeness, grieving over them, as Adam remembered Paradise. He remembered how his own body had dressed itself while his mind thought of something else; how he had shifted burdens from hand to hand; how his right hand had danced with its awkward partner and made it graceful; how his right hand had been as deft and nervous as a bird. He remembered his poise as a two-handed lover, when he reached out to Flora and held and touched her, until the smooths and swells of her ached in his palm and fingers, and his hand knew her as a man knows his homeland. Now that hand that joined him to her had been cast away, and he mourned over it as over a priceless map or manual lost forever.

Most concretely, the loss of Andy’s hand means limits. From the most mundane activity like buttoning a shirt to the intimate caresses of his wife’s body, Andy is now hampered. He can no longer care for himself, Flora, or his children as he once could, and he is painfully aware that the favors he receives from others cannot be repaid in kind. In Andy’s bodily wound Berry figures the essential condition of all human beings. We are by nature incomplete and dependent beings, a fact most evident in our mortality, our liability “to nonexistence.”

In his frustration at this new dependency, however, Andy fails to recognize that his limits are only a vivid extension of the limits that all human beings must face, whether crippled or not. “I feel like I’m no account to anybody,” he tells flora. To which she responds, “Well, unfortunately that’s not for you to decide.” Andy’s wife Flora sees the point, though Andy does not. She tells him, “You must accept this as given to you to learn from, or it will hurt you worse than it already has.” But Andy refuses to accept this. instead “he raged, and he raged at his rage, and nothing that he had was what he wanted.”

Andy’s wound also represents the punishment, if not the actual choice, of original sin. Andy significantly compares his loss to Adam’s loss of Paradise by the fall. The figure is strengthened by the comparison of his hand to a “priceless map or manual lost forever,” a fitting image for the wound of original integrity, which harms mankind’s ability to know and follow the good. That Andy loses his hand in a machine compounds this agony, for technology represents the meager human effort to remedy the effects of the fall. The clothing of our first parents (“they sewed fig leaves together”) is a remarkable reminder of this fact, and also a warning, for Adam and Eve’s first use of technology is motivated by a desire to conceal their fault, to remedy its consequences rather than correct its cause.

The fact that God later provides better clothing to Adam and Eve is evidence that technology is good when it is informed by a proper understanding of the created order as a prior and original gift. However, technology can also be rooted in an attempt to escape from this order, or to dominate it tyrannically. Motivated by this understanding of creation, technology becomes infernal. (Immanuel Kant’s interpretation of the myth of the fall in Conjectures on the Beginning of Human History provides a perfect illustration of the infernal justification for unlimited technology.) John Paul II warns against this false attitude towards technology in Centesimus annus: “Man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the earth, subjecting it without restraint to his will, as though it did not have its own requisites and a prior God-given purpose, which man can indeed develop but must not betray.” Well before his accident Andy had gained a reputation for opposing the industrialization of farming, and he dreams with terror of bulldozers leveling all he has known and loved: “Bulldozers pushed and tramped the loosened, disformed, denuded earth, working it like dough toward some new shape entirely human conceived. The fields and their names, the farmsteads and the neighbors were gone; the graveyards and the names of the dead, all gone.” Andy is therefore particularly humiliated by the “hook” that has become his right hand, and in his frustration and anger he throws it into the wastebasket, saying “Lie there where you belong, you rattledy bastard!”

Hidden at the deepest level, however, Andy’s wound is a figure for human sexuality. At first glance this may seem like a surprising claim, but upon closer examination it bears rich fruit. Recall that in order to create Eve, God draws a rib from Adam’s side and then closes it up with flesh. It is important to see that this act constitutes a wound, and although it causes no real injury to Adam it does involve a real loss to his bodily integrity and independence. This hidden wound is also the origin of the sexual differentiation of man into male and female, and therefore is mysteriously linked to human sexuality. Human sexuality involves a mark upon the human body which forever testifies to the futility of the human quest for autonomy. As John Paul II points out, human sexuality, expressed in the somatic division between masculinity and femininity, reveals and expresses our intrinsic ordering to an “other.” Human beings cannot “have sex” alone any more than they can reproduce alone, and both sex and reproduction are ordered to the two-in-one-flesh communion of persons.

It is notable that classical mythology also figures Love as a wound, and that the word “Sex” is derived from the Latin secare which means both “to cut,” and “to cut off’ or “amputate.” (In classical mythology Eros/Cupid is the mischievous son of Venus who shoots his arrows of love into unwitting victims. The action of Eros is nowhere more powerfully represented than in the story of Dido and Aeneas in book four of the Aeneid. Benedict XVI picks up on this theme in the second chapter of his book On the Way to Jesus Christ, which is entitled “Wounded by the Arrow of Beauty.” See also the remarkable passage on love as a healing wound by St. Columban in Reading 9 of the Office of Readings for Ordinary Time.) It is with good reason therefore that the poet Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium describes the sexual division at the root of Eros as a wound inflicted on the bodies of originally unified human beings by the Olympian gods as punishment for their pride (189e-194e). This myth captures well the experiences of suffering, limit, loss, and dependency that are central to Eros, but it also circumscribes the scope of Eros to the horizontal plane, to the sphere of human relationships. In reply Socrates argues that Eros is an arrow of love pointing to Transcendence. Though set in motion by the beauty of concrete, sensible objects, Eros leads the soul up the ladder of love to the universal and immaterial Beauty Itself: “This is what it is to go aright, or to be led by another, into the mystery of love: one goes always upwards for the sake of this Beauty, starting out from beautiful things and using them like rising stairs.”

Whereas Aristophanes and Socrates provide contrasting accounts of Eros in The Symposium, John Paul II’s interpretation of the “double solitude” in the myth of the fall preserves, unifies, and deepens both of them together. The unity of male and female in ‘adam captures that primordial unity of human beings in Aristophanes’ account, but rather than a punishment, this division and separation of ‘adam into ‘is-’issah, male and female, is a gift that reveals to man his deepest identity and vocation to self-gift in a communion of persons. On the other hand, ‘adam’s original unity and solitude in relationship to God points to the transcendent ordering of Eros that we find in Socrates’ account.

Human sexuality is so basic to human experience that its deepest meaning is easy to overlook. As John Paul II remarks, sexuality is one of those things that is “so intermingled with the ordinary things of life that we do not generally notice [its] extraordinary character.” (Theology, 12 December 1979, 51) Like the myth of the fall and Plato’s Symposium, Berry’s Remembering seeks to draw out the deeper meaning hidden in the mysteries of human solitude and sexuality. By figuring human sexuality in the loss of a hand, Berry reveals the extraordinary meaning hidden in this ordinary reality.

The Human Response To The Wound
At some level all human beings experience the hidden wound of solitude and dependency. What is their response? Andy’s first response to his wound is rebellion. Berry alludes to this fact in the title of the first chapter, “Darkness Visible.” The phrase is from Milton’s graphic description of Satan’s first view of hell in the early lines of Paradise Lost:

At once as far as angel’s ken he views
The dismal situation waste and wild,
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That conies to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulfur unconsumed. (I.59-69)

Milton’s Satan perfectly expresses the root principle behind the modern quest for autonomy:

The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. (I.255)

In his representation of Satan Milton also shows that this quest is rooted not in a heroic defense of truth, but rather in resentment against and a rejection of the created order, and by extension the body, which is part of that order. Satan’s principle relies on the claim that the “mind” is all, despite the obvious and ever-present reminder of his own tortured body.

In the first part of Remembering Berry translates Satan’s principle into a contemporary American idiom. He thereby reveals the root cause that lurks behind the “boomer” impulse in the American historical experience, as opposed to the competing “sticker” tradition of building and homemaking. (Berry borrows these terms from the novelist Wallace Stegner.) Andy Catlett experiences the two dominant temptations associated with boomers: the impulse to recreate one’s identity from scratch, and the impulse always to be on the move. These impulses, like the infernal technological impulse noted above, underlie the quest for autonomy, and ultimately reflect a desire to escape the body and its limits. Each of them involves a kind of dualism that results in a dismembering. Berry also shows through Andy a way out of the predicament.

Andy’s temptation to recreate himself begins with a decisive rejection of his identity. His formal reason for traveling to San Francisco was to deliver a talk at a local college. But when the greeter from the college approaches him at the airport, Andy unaccountably denies he is himself and walks away. Berry describes the experience in striking terms reminiscent of Satan’s rejection of the body:

When he’d answered, “No maam,” to the young woman waiting to meet him at the airport gate, he had felt the sudden swing and stagger of disembodiment, as though a profound divorce had occurred, casting his body off to do what it would on its own, to be watched as from a distance, without premonition of what it might do.

Andy’s rejection of his identity is reinforced in the cold anonymity of his hotel room, that icon of American displacement:

The feel of the bed, the smell of the room seem compounded of the strangeness of all the strangers who have slept there: salesmen, company officers, solitary travelers, who have entered, shut the door, set down their bags, and stood, weary and silent, afraid to speak, even to themselves, their own names. A man could go so far from home, he thinks, that his own name would become unspeakable to him, unanswerable by anyone, so that if he dared speak it, it would escape him utterly, a bird out an open window, leaving him untongued in some boundless amplitude of mere absence.

But Andy cannot abide the agony of this solitude. In his pain and need he leaves the hotel for a walk through the early-morning streets of San Francisco. This turns out to be an epic journey, the significance of which is suggested by the inscription from Dante’s Commedia that Andy finds on a Catholic church as he passes. The inscription reads: “LA GLORIA DI COLUI CHE TUTTO MUOVE PER L’UNIVERSO PENETRA E RESPLENDE.”

These are the first lines of Paradiso, translated “The Glory of the one who moves all things / penetrates the universe with light” Andy is a latter—day Dante, but before he reaches his Paradise he must complete his travel through the lower regions which are as distinctly American as Dante’s were Florentine.

There is a reason Berry sets Remembering in the westernmost part of the continental United States, and in a city historically associated with the most intentional attempts at self-invention. “He wants to reach the city’s edge,” Ben-y writes. “He longs for the verge and immensity of the continent’s meeting with the sea.” Andy’s pilgrimage takes him through the footsteps of American history. In Berry’s telling, the persistent, pervasive, and restless American desire to “move west” is best understood, at root, as the attempt to escape from the body and its limits. The final frontier of this impulse is biotechnology, whose governing principle is the ultimate victory over suffering and death.

Here at the edge of the world Andy has left the encumbrances of family, history, indeed his very identity, in the search for something better. Here he experiences the final temptation:

Where might he not go? Who knows where he is? He feels the simplicity and lightness of his solitude…Other lives, other possible lives swarm around him…All distance is around him and he wants nothing that he has. All choice is around him, and he knows nothing that he wants.

Just as he is fantasizing about the possibilities of his new self, Andy is called back to himself in memory by the voice of his grandmother, Done Wheeler. This memory takes him back to a time even before his childhood, when first “the shuttle flung …though the web of his making.” There he sees distant relatives reenacting the rites that made him, until he arrives at the home of his grandmother Dorie Wheeler, where, gathering eggs together in the evening, she looks down at him smilingly and says, “Oh, my boy, how far away will you be sometime, remembering this?” The memory brings Andy to tears. The lines are worth quoting at length, both for their pathos and their beauty:

He is held, though he does not hold. He is caught up in the old pattern of entrances: of minds into minds, minds into place, places into minds. The pattern Innits and complicates him, singling him out in his own flesh. Out of the multitude of possible lives that have surrounded and beckoned to him like a crowd around a star, he returns now to himself a mere meteorite, scorched, small, and fallen. He has met again his one life and one death, and he takes them back. It is as though, leaving, he has met himself already returning, pushing in front of him a barn seventy-five feet by forty, and a hundred acres of land, and six generations of his own history, partly failed, and a few dead and living whose love has claimed him forever. He will be partial, and he will die; he will live out the truth of that. Though he does not hold, he is held. He is grieving, and he is full of joy. What is that Egypt but his Promised Land?

Andy’s decision to return home is a decision to accept the goodness of the created order and the goodness of his body, including the limits, partiality, suffering, and death they bring with them. In his powerful dramatization of this decision, Berry challenges and reverses the poisonous Romanticism that is almost coterminous with novelistic form, and that drips into the heart of contemporary American culture. Notably, now reconciled to his condition, Andy recovers the “hook” of his right hand from the waste-basket. “It is not a hand. It is not a substitute for a hand. It is only a tool, only a tool. His hand is gone. Sometime, somewhere behind him, his hand has left him. It has died, and is at peace.”

Berry adds something to his account that is only implicit, and never fully developed in John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. According to John Paul II, “Sex decides not only the somatic individuality of man, but defines at the same time his personal identity and concreteness…This concreteness means both the uniqueness and unrepeatability of the person.” (Theology, 5 March 1980, 79)  Man’s somatic “concreteness” means that he is necessarily implicated in a “partial” history, tradition, and memory that are not of his own making.

These partialities provide the context within which human beings must live and choose, and therefore they have ethical implications as well. For Andy this means the return to “a barn seventy-five feet by forty, arid a hundred acres of land, and six generations of his own history, partly failed, a few dead and living whose love has claimed him forever.” His decision to remain in his body, to return home, is also a choice for Place, a choice of being responsible to the narrative he has been given with all of its work, suffering, and joy. “What is that Egypt but his Promised Land?” The next two chapters of Remembering, “A Long Choosing” and “A Place Known and Dreamed,” are an elaboration of this observation.

So powerful is this climax of Remembering that one almost forgets that it occurs less than halfway through the story. Andy’s journey home, which is described in the latter half of the novel, is equally powerful. Like St. Augustine of the Confessions or Dante the Pilgrim, Andy now begins to pray along his way, recalling his own history and offering meditations born of his new-found wisdom. The principal subject of his meditations is wonder at the mystery, beauty, and meaning of being in a body, with its own partial history, memory, tradition, and community. He also laments the costs of repudiating these things. For example, as he passes through the “Gate of Universal Suspicion” (a prescient pre-9/11 coinage) at the airport he observes the crowd of individuals hurrying about:

He has heard the tread of his own people dancing in a ring, the fiddle measuring time to them, a voice calling them, through the steps of change and absence, home again, the dancers unaware of their steps, which only the music, older than memory, remembered. Now that dance is broken, dismembered in the Land of Universal Suspicion, where no face is open to another. Where any may be dangerous and none may be trusted, all must live in conflict, the fire of the world’s death prefigured in every heart.

Shall we disappear with our longing, dismembered, in the annihilating flame?

Spare us, O Lord, the logical consequences of our folly.

Healing The Hidden Wound
The final two chapters of Remembering, “Bridal” and “The Hilltop,” reinforce the parallels to John Paul II’s Theology of the Body that I have been suggesting above. In “Bridal” Berry returns the reader to the theme that has been implicit throughout the novel: the intimate relationship between Andy’s wound and his marriage. He thus suggests once again that Andy’s wound in some sense figures human sexuality and the community of persons to which it is ordered. Earlier in the story Andy remembers the wholeness he once had in his marriage to Flora:

They were two longing to be one, or one dividing relentlessly into two…It was as though grace and peace were bestowed on them out of the sanctity of marriage itself which simply furnished them to one another, free and sufficient as rain to leaf. It was as if they were not making marriage, but being made by it, and, while it held them, time and their lives flowed over them, like swift water over stones, rubbing then) together, grinding off their edges, making them fit together, fit to be together, in the only way that fragments can be rejoined.

In revolting against his wound, however, Andy also strikes against the very same things that once brought wholeness to his marriage. His reaction to his wound also wounds the unity of his marriage, dividing and separating him from Flora: “[His marriage] was no longer about duality, but about division, an infinite cold space that opened between them.”

In “Bridal” Berry describes with great accuracy the ever-present tension in the human soul between the meanings of “nakedness” before and after the fall. Even after his decision to return home Andy remains vulnerable to the objectifying glance of human beings after the fall. He notices “beautiful women” everywhere, “in summer dresses beautifully worn, flesh suggesting itself, as they move, in sweet pressures against the cloth.” Berry emphasizes the role of the body in Andy’s experience: “He lets them disembody him, his mind on the loose and rambling, envisioning unexpectable results, impossible conclusions.” And again, “Loving them apart from anything he knows, or might know, he is disembodied by them: no man going nowhere, or anywhere, his mind as perfectly departed from his life as a lost ghost, dreaming of meetings of eyes, touches, claspings, words.”

In making this connection between fantasy/lust and the body, Berry brings out the close connection that always exists between lust and abstraction. Lust is not only a reduction of the other, it is also a reduction of the self and thus., despite appearances, always involves an escape from what it means to be a person in a body. It is fitting, therefore, that Berry juxtaposes Andy’s out-of-body fantasizing with his flight on the airplane, for flight is a powerful representation of the human effort to transcend the limits of tile body. “To Andy, the air is an element as dangerous to mind as to body. For wingless creatures, it is the element of abstraction: abstract distance and speed, abstract desire.”

Berry also makes clear that Andy’s fantasizing is a result of his profound loneliness. At the deepest level he longs to make contact with concrete human persons, to meet their eyes and notice their faces. He wonders, “if they were going down, would the woman sitting beside him be willing to hold his hand?” In this loneliness, he meditates upon his marriage to Flora and on the trust it requires:

In twelve years they have given it a use and a life; a beauty has conic to it that is its answer to their love for it and their work; and it has given them a life that belonged to them even before they knew they wanted it. And all has depended on trust. How could he have forgotten? How could he have failed to understand?

Marriage is not a rational contract between two individuals for their private ends, but a community of persons based upon a self-gift which in turn recreates those persons. This self-gift requires trust, for there can never be enough knowledge of the other person and of the future to provide a certain ground for the decision. “How could he have imagined that it would be different? How could he have imagined that he might ever know enough to choose?” And then in language reminiscent of John Paul II, Andy observes that “To trust is simply to give oneself; the giving is for the future, for which there is no evidence. And once given, the self cannot be taken back, whatever the evidence.”

Such trust between two imperfect persons inevitably requires much forgiveness. “He knows the duality in those years, the imperfection in them both, and the grief and longing of their imperfection…He must have his own forgiveness and hers and the children’s, and the forgiveness of everyone and everything from which he has withheld himself.” In this realization, Andy imagines Flora coming to him again,

a bride, dressed all in white, as innocent as himself of the great power they were putting on, frightened and smiling — a gift to him such as he did not know, such as would not be known until the death that they would promise to meet together had been met, and so perhaps never to be known in this world.

He is awakened from this vision by the woman next to him, “who to his astonishment is patting his arm.” “Are you alright?” she asks. “Yes, I’ve been all right before, and I’m alright now.” This is the fitting conclusion of “Bridal.”

The ordinary Romance novel, if it ever got this far, would conclude somewhere around this point. For what can be more important or more beautiful than love between two human beings? But Berry’s imaginative vision reaches much fbrther than this, directing our attention to the higher eschatological meaning of marriage that is implied in the double solitude of man before the fall.

In the final chapter, “The Hilltop,” Andy has returned home. Flora is not home, and so he leaves her a note, “Can you forgive me? I pray that you will forgive me,” before going out for a walk on his land. This is in fact the third journey related in the novel, the first being his walk in San Francisco and the second being his flight home. If we follow the allusions to Dante, the first two journeys correspond to the Inferno and Purgatorio respectively. The themes of transgression and repentance in these two journeys seem to bear the interpretation. This final journey would then correspond to Dante’s Paradiso. Here again the parallel fits, for Andy is granted here a mystical vision of something like heaven.

Andy walks through the woods on his property, which lead to a high place overlooking Port William. While in the woods, he stops to rest and falls into a sleep reminiscent of the “deep sleep” of Adam, for it is like death: “He has entered the dark, and it is such darkness as he has never known. All that is around him and all that lie is has disappeared into it. He sees nothing, remembers nothing, knows nothing except a hopeless longing for something he does not know, for which he does not know a name.” He is awakened by a man, “dark as shadow,” touching his shoulder, and arises to find himself in the same place, which, “though it is familiar to him, is changed.” Somehow he recognizes the man as his guide, and he begins to follow this dark Virgil through the woods, which are now filled with a mysterious, singing light. Andy recognizes that “he has entered the eternal place in which we live in time” and would like to stay, but the man leads him on to the top of the hill overlooking Port William.

Andy looks and sees the town and the fields around it, Port William and its countryside as he never saw or dreamed them, the signs everywhere upon them of the care of a longer love than any who have lived there ever imagined. . And in the fields and the town, walking, standing, or sitting under trees, resting and talking together in the peace of a sabbath profound and bright, are people of such beauty that he weeps to see them. He sees that these are the membership of one another and of the place and of the song or light in which they live and move.

He sees that they are dead, and they are alive. He sees that he lives in eternity as he lives in time, and nothing is lost.

In Andy’s vision of a redeemed Port William, one cannot help recalling the verse of Revelation 21:2: “And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” The communion of persons in marriage is not man’s highest end. It is only a sacrament, a visible and efficacious sign, of the higher, more lasting, and more real communion of persons in Christ. It is our participation in this final “membership” that ultimately makes us whole, a fact beautifully expressed in the final lines of the novel, in terms softly evocative of Psalm 137:

He has come into the presence of these living by a change of sight, by which he has parted from them as they were and from himself as he was and is.
Now he prepares to leave them. Their names singing in his mind, he lifts toward them the restored right hand of his joy.

In Remembering Wendell Berry helps to heal the hidden wound of our fallen nature. He reveals in a powerful way the latent tendencies in our fallen nature and in our culture more generally toward Romanticism, Gnosticism, Manichaeism, and every other form of dualism that rejects the gift of Creation and the body. He also shows the terrifying costs of this great rejection. Moreover, by making detailed what is spare in the myth of the fall, and making concrete what is abstract in the Theology of the Body, Remembering brings us tangibly in touch with the primordial memory of wholeness that slumbers in every human heart. Above all, Remembering imprints a “beautifying awareness of the meaning of the body” (Theology, 30 January 1980, 69) into our own memory, giving us hope as we groan with all of creation for the redemption of our bodies.

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2 comments

  1. [...] In Remembering Wendell Berry helps to heal the hidden wound of our fallen nature. He reveals in a powerful way the latent tendencies in our fallen nature and in our culture more generally toward Romanticism, Gnosticism, Manichaeism, and every other form of dualism that rejects the gift of Creation and the body. He also shows the terrifying costs of this great rejection. Moreover, by making detailed what is spare in the myth of the fall, and making concrete what is abstract in the Theology of the Body, Remembering brings us tangibly in touch with the primordial memory of wholeness that slumbers in every human heart. Above all, Remembering imprints a “beautifying awareness of the meaning of the body” (Theology, 30 January 1980, 69) into our own memory, giving us hope as we groan with all of creation for the redemption of our bodies. Healing The Hidden Wound:The Theology Of The Body In Wendell Berry’s Remembering By Nathan Schluet… [...]


  2. [...] How stories can convey truth in ways that elude ordinary rational thought is a question worthy of great wonder and meditation. But if stories in general have this power, myth is characterized by stories that deliver truth in the most refined and compact narrative form. There is therefore no tension between myth and truth. As John Paul II writes, “the term ‘myth’ does not designate a fabulous content, but merely an archaic way of expressing a deeper content.” The myth of the fall has this quality. Much great imaginative literature is merely an articulation and ramification of this myth, deepening our understanding of its meaning and of ourselves as well. Nathan Schlueter, Reading The Theology Of The Body Into Wendell Berry’s Remembering [...]



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