The Melon’s current discussion topic gives me a chance to write about Wendell Berry, an author I’ve loved for a while. Berry is a prolific non-fiction, short story, novel, and poetry writer, so I’m never sure how to discuss his various themes, but since The Melon wants different perspectives on the family, I’ll discuss Berry’s views, most with which I agree.
Of all the structures in society, the nuclear family is the one to which Berry thinks people owe the most responsibility. By default, average American adults must interact with at least a handful of structures: the government, their workplace, their local community, and their family (to name a few). An individual’s responsibilities to these groups inevitably, at some point, come into conflict with each another. “Fidelity” is the story in which Berry most clearly describes his view on the family as the paramount structure in society. In this story, Danny’s father, an old man named Burley, is in the hospital, in a coma. The hospital staff says he may still be cured, but Danny knows that Burley is old and dying and would want to die on his own land near his family. So Danny steals Burley from the hospital, takes him home, is with him when he dies, then buries him. The state puts a detective on the case who wants to find evidence of the “kidnapping,” so he can prosecute the family for acting against the hospital’s wishes. But Burley’s family and a few of his close friends confront the detective, and their comments make him question the legitimacy of his investigation. These two examples show the two different perspectives:
“And you, [Detective Bode], are here now to tell us that a person who is sick and unconscious, or even a person who is conscious and well, is ultimately a property of the organizations and the state. Aren’t you?”
“It wasn’t authorized. He asked nobody’s permission. He told nobody. He signed no papers. It was a crime. You can’t let people just walk around an do what they want to like that. He didn’t even pay the bill.”
“Some of us think people belong to each other and to God.”
In that scene, Berry poses a dilemma: To whom does an individual ultimately belong? To the government or to the people who love him? The characters who speak for Berry argue the later, although Bode does have a point that a family shouldn’t be able to get away with just anything, just because they’re family.
“A fellow would need [the hospital’s] permission to get in. If he needs their permission to get out, he’s in jail. Would you grant a proprietary right, or even a guardianship, to a hospital that you would not grant to a man’s own son? I would oppose that, whatever the law said.”
“Well, anyway,” Detective Bode said, “all I know is that the law has been broken, and I am here to serve the law.”
“But, my dear boy, you don’t eat or drink the law, or sit in its shade or warm yourself by it, or wear it, or have your being in it. The law exists only to serve.”
“Why, all the many things that are above it. Love.”
Every time I read this passage (I wish I could quote the whole thing), I have an aha moment. The law should not simply legislate indifferently, it should serve. The state deals indirectly, not directly, with eating and drinking and warming and clothing. The government, an abstract entity, should give deference to individuals. (More on that later.) This principle, as most principles, looks different in different situations, but I would rather the state be in allegiance to the family than the family be in allegiance to the state. (As a student of Russia, the Soviet structure comes to mind as a system in which the family had to make allegiance to the state their priority.)
Berry is not an anarchist; he is a tax-paying, voting citizen, active and vocal in his community and the nation, especially in matters of farming and food production (He’s had a large influence on the writer Michael Pollan). But he knows that the other societal structures exist only to serve the family, whereas many live, maybe unconsciously, that the family is secondary to their obligations to other groups in society.
Berry thinks government can hinder or break apart the family; he also thinks higher education can potentially have the same negative impact. When a young person leaves for college, she often breaks apart from her family and community, often never to return. Berry thinks colleges have become isolated centers of learning instead of entities which prepare locals to interact with their community, the initial impetus of many colleges.
In Berry’s novel, Hannah Coulter, an elderly Hannah laments that her two sons and a daughter are spread out across the country, and she attributes their location to her insistence that they pursue higher education. She then compares her and her husband’s attitude toward education to her neighbor family’s attitude: