There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings. ~ John Ruskin
“You surprise me, Holy Father. You are young, and yet you have such old ideas.”
“You’re wrong about that. I’m an orphan, and orphans are never young.”
“But the majority of churchgoers are not orphans.”
“Says who? You really think that the only orphans are those without a mother and father?” ~ The Young Pope
There is something fitting in the fact that the heart of Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland is August, the name Smarsh gives to her hypothetical daughter, the person to whom she writes the book. August is her daughter who has never been born, or even conceived, the life that has lived in her mind and heart, but never anywhere else. At the center of a book about today’s midwest is a life that doesn’t actually exist, that isn’t really desired, and yet is still missed. What is true of August seems to be true of the midwest more generally. And Smarsh is not the only regional writer to take note of this.
Ted Kooser, a long-time Nebraskan and former poet laureate, captured the dynamic beautifully in a poem written to his mother in which he describes a spring storm rolling over the Nebraska prairie. Writing to her one month after her death Kooser says,
You have been gone a month today
and have missed three rains and one nightlong
watch for tornadoes. I sat in the cellar
from six to eight while fat spring clouds
went somersaulting, rumbling east. Then it poured,
a storm that walked on legs of lightning,
dragging its shaggy belly over the fields.
That storm, which Kooser nearly domesticates in his characteristic way, describing it as a soggy wet dog walking across a field, is a storm that could, if conditions develop in a certain way, flatten a town, rip up farms by the roots, destroy lives. Smarsh understands the awful beauty of these storms, writing that
The world was at once wondrous and lethal. The thunderstorms and funnel clouds that menaced us each spring and summer came from the most mesmerizing, sweet-smelling sky.
So it is in the midwest: An agricultural region in which one can drive for miles without seeing a person or even a cow, a rural state whose small towns are dying and whose farms are consuming themselves, a state whose best and brightest grow up being told that they are too good for their place and, if they are to ‘fulfill their potential’ as a human being must forsake the bonds of love and land. The beautiful and the awful exist wrapped together into a single frustrating whole that holds together a region that is both bread basket and ghost town.
Smarsh sees the ugliness, even the hostility to life itself. And she hates it. But why? It is not enough to protest against an evil—one must understand one’s reasons for objecting in order to understand how one thinks the place ought to be. The hatred for Smarsh is chiefly fixed on class issues and particularly how the midwest’s marginal status in American life reflects an indifference to the poor and particularly to the working poor. It is focused, in other words, on questions of equality. The quiet fury that simmers just beneath the surface of her restrained, surgical prose does, if anything, make one more aware of the great evil that our society has done to the poor.
The person who drives a garbage truck may himself be viewed as trash. The worse danger is not the job itself but the devaluing of those who do it. A society that considers your body dispensable will inflict a violence upon you. Working in a field is one thing; being misled by a corporation about the safety of a carcinogenic pesticide is another. Hammering on a roof is one thing; not being able to afford a doctor when you fall off it is another. Waiting tables is one thing; working for an employer whose sexual harassment you can’t afford to fight and risk a night’s worth of tips is another.
Later in the same chapter, Smarsh writes,
It’s a hell of a thing to feel—to grow the food, serve the drinks, hammer the houses, and assemble the airplanes that bodies with more money eat and drink and occupy and board, while your own body can’t go to the doctor. Even though no one complained or maybe even realized it, I could feel that the people around me knew they were viewed as dispensable.
So far as all this goes, Smarsh is obviously right. Indeed, the excerpts, particularly the first, call to mind Wendell Berry’s words about trash collectors in his collection of essays The Hidden Wound. Writing of what our society ought to pay the people who haul our trash, Berry says,
What would be a just wage for a life of carrying off other people’s cans and bottles? A million dollars a year would not be enough, because such a job can be performed only by the forfeiture of the effective life of the spirit in this world. Such work is not, in the usual sense, an accomplishment. It is not productive work. The only conceivable standard for it is quantitative; it can be done thoroughly or not; one can haul off either all the cans and bottles or only some of them. It is work that by its nature cannot be good work; though it can be done carefully, it cannot be well done. There is no art in it, no science, and no skill.
Its only virtue is in its necessity. But it is necessary only for a bad reason: the manufacture of ‘disposable’ (that is, virtually worthless) products. The people for whom this work is done will be made unhappy or unhealthy if it is not done. So long as it is done, they will scarcely think of it. It is work, then, that is entirely negative in its value. Its most desirable result is to leave no visible trace.
Yet it is worth noting what sets Berry’s critique apart from Smarsh’s. Smarsh’s complaint is defined by the persistent narrowness that vexes even the best of today’s progressives. It reduces the problem to one which can be solved merely through political processes and mechanisms. Smarsh’s lament, her rage, is aimed at systemic unfairness. And systemic unfairness of the sort Smarsh is attacking is a great evil in America today. But if we stop at critiquing that, we stop too soon. The driver of our inequality is not simply ‘capitalism,’ or ‘Wall Street,’ but a more basic indifference to life, an indifference that is shared by the capitalists of the right and the expressive individualists of the left.
In failing to recognize the more fundamental error, Smarsh gives the game away: If you do not categorically reject our society’s antipathy to life, if you do not see within life itself a jarring rebuke to the politics of death embraced and practiced by both our major parties, then you will be unable to put forth any sort of credible alternative. Indeed, the only weapons at your disposal will be the same as those wielded by your opponents—laws, policies, ultimately the mechanism furnished by liberal democracy. And so your grand idea for fixing dysfunctional liberal democracies is… more liberal democracy. Thus it fails to reach all the way to the roots.
Smarsh writes to August that poverty forced her to make a bargain with herself. After observing how miserable motherhood made the women in her life and how it exacerbated the pains created by poverty, Smarsh realized something:
The poverties that threatened my safety forced me to find that safest place. Eventually I would think of that realm as where we come from, and where we return when we die. That’s where I heard you. That’s the calm center where I received my most important assignment, as the body of a poor girl bound for a different life: to make sure you were never born.
There is a sad but perhaps fitting irony that the space in which Smarsh discovers her assignment to make sure a life never comes to be sounds very like a womb.
Within the tightened constraints of our orphaned culture, life is pitted against life. In the zero-sum world of late capitalism, for one life to thrive, or even merely to escape crushing generational poverty, another must be denied existence.
That such a regime is deeply disordered is something Smarsh recognizes. And yet by the end of the book she has yet to put forward any way out of the malaise save the standard progressive talking points which leave this pitting of life against life unchallenged. This should not surprise us, for indeed the Democratic Party—like the Republican—is defined by its disdain for certain classes of people.
It was not that long ago, after all, that presidential candidate Bernie Sanders scandalized many on the right by arguing that abortion could be an acceptable tool for combatting climate change, “especially in poor countries.” Such apparently earnest proposals should shock us. That his view is not really surprising amongst contemporary Democrats is horrifying.
Though clear-eyed about certain aspects of the problems facing the contemporary midwest, Smash lacks a vision for the place grounded in an affirmation of life as being inherently good, a vision that sees being itself as a thing to be celebrated. Rather, she becomes lost in the narrower political disputes of our day, stuck arguing within the artificial and unsustainable confines of a late capitalism that can create systems that are more or less equal but which struggles to break out of the confines of strict political economy in reckoning with political order. Ours is a world that is, to borrow a phrase from Matthew Walther, adept at creating economies rather than societies. Smarsh’s work is defined by great compassion, a sharp eye, and remarkable prose. But ultimately her way out of generational poverty is to embrace the very sort of personal identity that our late capitalist system encourages its best and brightest to adopt. Thus Smarsh’s solution is still chiefly one that preserves the economic status quo and simply transfers the control of power from one party to another while leaving the latent individualism of our social order largely intact.
If Smarsh’s work is defined by a restrained fury activated by compassion for her family members and peers that the nation has left behind, eastern Iowa’s Lyz Lenz offers a much more straighforwardly aggressive attack in her book God Land. For Lenz, class is a factor, but not determinative in the way it seems to be for Smarsh. For Lenz’s concern is less with the predominantly rural white victims of the capitalist class, but with the forgotten peoples that populate the midwest and who are, likewise, exploited—and often in ways that at least match the exploitation of working-class whites. Thus hers is less a war against the capitalist class and more a war against the class of fusionist conservatives that tied together liberal democratic politics, so-called “free” market economics, and evangelical religious life.
The shift is mostly to be expected. Smarsh is a Kansan dating back several generations. Lenz was born in Texas, moved to Minnesota for her dad’s work, and then made her way down to eastern Iowa after getting married. Where Smarsh’s people typically are Trumpists who she thinks have been swindled by a conservatism that is indifferent to their suffering and has, in fact, done much to add to it, Lenz’s people are the victims of the Trumpists—the immigrants and racial minorities as well as the forgotten women of rural America. Lenz is less interested in understanding the phenomenon of white rural poverty and is more concerned with drawing attention to the people often ignored in studies of the breakdown of rural life.
Thus whereas Smarsh frames the matter in class-based terms, Lenz, child of evangelicalism that she is, views it through the culture war paradigm, seeing the American right as holding power in that Cold War and using it to hurt the people she attends to so closely in her writing. The lines of this culture war cut across the region, not only separating pastors from their congregations, but also family members and even spouses.
Indeed, Lenz tells her story of midwestern power struggles and coming apart with the aid of two framing devices: the first is a wide-angle framing that views the entire region and attempts to understand how rigidity, prejudice, and mistrust can make a place of such beauty so deeply hostile to the lives of the marginalized. But she also uses a micro narrative that views the region as it divides her from her conservative evangelical ex-husband, culminating in their divorce. This, of course, is precisely the point: Lenz is not simply concerned with uprooting class-based injustice, but in tearing down the entire superstructure that is simply assumed by the fusionist right—patriarchy, heteronormativity, capitalism… all must go.
Reflecting on these divides and their intractability, Lenz writes that the divides have likely always existed in America, but the comforting lies we tell ourselves about our nation have kept us from seeing them. Thus her thought still requires a kind of religious experience, even a conversion experience, as we are forced to encounter the unpleasant truths about ourselves and repent of them:
How had we gotten here? I wonder this often about my marriage, and about America. The only answer I have is that we refused to see the truth of the other in the beginning. We’d spun narratives around each other—adding and deleting, until what we had no longer represented a truth, but instead was the story we wanted to tell.
For Lenz, the way forward is a sober encounter with what we have become, with the fruits of our choices, and a desire to repent, to live in the truth of what we are and, as we are able, to work to undo the harm that our choices, our way of life has caused. So far so good.
And yet what is this “truth” we aspire to? I would argue that it is not a commitment to life itself, but a commitment to a very particular kind of life that, ironically, is only made possible by many of the systems that Lenz herself—with reason!—finds so evil and disordered.
The next morning is Easter, and I stay up too late fussing over the baskets. I’d wanted to have a party. I’d wanted to celebrate. But I was also very tired, and I couldn’t muster up the wherewithal to plan such a thing. So it’s just (my children and me). We go to church, then we come home. On this, the day of resurrection, the day of life, I collapse in exhaustion. I spend the day lying on the couch watching TV with the kids, letting them eat all the candy they want. Later, we eat dinner as a picnic in front of the TV, laughing and clinking our cups like we are fancy. It occurs to me, we have had the best party, one far more compassionate and full of grace and naps than anything I would have planned. It occurs to me that I am here again, ready again, to live my life according to my beliefs. To walk again in a dangerous speculation. And I can think of nothing more American than that—to keep trying to find something better, and if it fails you, you make it. You wrest it from the earth. In an act of both life and death.
Thus this faith that Lenz holds collapses down to an attempt to live one’s inner truth in the world, even at odds with the world. We wrest that truth from the world, an act which necessarily requires the obtaining of power, for the world is hostile to this authenticity. And the tools of this power will, inevitably, be the tools of the technocracy, the tools of industrialism. Capitalism is nothing if not resilient and the forces of capital are quite happy to furnish us, for a price, with the tools for a limited, largely symbolic resistance.
In the end we are left precisely where Smarsh leaves us: in the pitting of life against life, an intractable conflict between warring parties where the only resolution is in the claiming of power and the ability to press reality into the shape that accommodates your pain, your identity, your ambition. That we are even able to imagine such work is, of course, the strongest possible proof that the industrialists have won. We are orphans because the only relationships we imagine are power relationships, either negotiated successfully in which we use our mutually held power to help one another in the question to creating a true identity, or negotiated badly, in which we fight against one another to assert those same identities.
What is not imagined is an integral order of mutual flourishing, of lives pouring into one another and into the earth itself in a chorus of praise and delight.
In his essay The Body and the Earth, Berry writes of a different attitude toward life, one which recognizes economic injustice with Smarsh and the evils of bigotry with Lenz, but which presses deeper into the problem and seeks to find an integral understanding of the relationship between neighbors and between people and their place.
Such an understanding will necessarily undercut the approaches of both Smarsh and Lenz because both begin with an assumed competition—between the haves and have-nots, between the empowered white male and the disempowered victims of white supremacy. While Berry’s work furnishes us with the tools needed to condemn these evils—indeed, The Hidden Wound from which I already quoted was an attempt to take up the question of racism written near the beginning of Berry’s career—his critique runs deeper, setting alight not only the evils rightly critiqued by Smarsh and Lenz, but also the solutions they wrongly suppose to be adequate for addressing the crisis before us.
By dividing body and soul, we divide both from all else. We thus condemn ourselves to a loneliness for which the only compensation is violence–against other creatures, against the earth, against ourselves. For no matter the distinctions we draw between body and soul, body and earth, ourselves and others–the connections, the dependences, the identities remain. And so we fail to contain or control our violence. It gets loose. Though there are categories of violence, or so we think, there are no categories of victims. Violence against one is ultimately violence against all. The willingness to abuse other bodies is the willingness to abuse one’s own. To damage the earth is to damage your children. To despise the ground is to despise its fruit; to despise the fruit is to despise its eaters. The wholeness of health is broken by despite.
If competition is the correct relation of creatures to one another and to the earth, then we must ask why exploitation is not more successful than it is. Why, having lived so long at the expense of other creatures and the earth, are we not healthier and happier than we are? Why does modern society exist under constant threat of the same suffering, deprivation, spite, contempt, and obliteration that it has imposed on other people and other creatures? Why do the health of the body and the health of the earth decline together? And why, in consideration of this decline of our worldly flesh and household, our “sinful earth,” are we not healthier in spirit?
To borrow from the Catholic scholar Andrew Willard Jones, we could say that Berry calls us back to an understanding of reality in which peace rather than conflict is the primordial state. And so the solution to the culture of death that pervades everywhere, the farms and small towns of the heartland very much included, cannot ultimately be found in power and politics, or even in the concept of sovereignty, though sovereignty does have a rightful place understood within a society of peace. The solution must be found in a turning back toward the world, a discerning of its natural peace, an astonishment at that peace, and a commitment to furthering it in our own work, guided by affection, knowledge, and fidelity.
In his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, which is Latin for “love in truth,” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI explains how it is that truth, by which he does not mean a personally defined “inner truth” but a given truth defined by God, can coexist with love. The encyclical is Benedict’s attempt to instruct Christians in how it is that their love, a virtue to which all Christians are called, can be grounded in truth, whereby it is made fruitful and effective, conducive to the flourishing of one’s self, one’s neighbor, and one’s place.
Just as human virtues are interrelated, such that the weakening of one places others at risk, so the ecological system is based on respect for a plan that affects both the health of society and its good relationship with nature. In order to protect nature, it is not enough to intervene with economic incentives or deterrents; not even an apposite education is sufficient. These are important steps, but the decisive issue is the overall moral tenor of society. If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology.
It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational systems and laws do not help them to respect themselves. The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development. Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment and damages society.
Thus for Benedict—and for the collective social doctrine of the Roman Church more generally—it is a fundamental error to base our social theory in conflict. Because “the book of nature is one and indivisible,” we cannot promote health while giving primacy to the conflict between human beings or between the life of people and the life of the planet. These assumed conflicts are themselves a cause of our sickness and must be rejected if we are to find the path back to health and wholeness.
Eastern Iowa writer Marilynne Robinson has taken up many similar themes in her own work. She often borrows a phrase from the French theologian John Calvin who referred to the earth as “the theatre of God’s glory.” Theatres, of course, are places where stories are told, stories that fit together and have an internal coherence of some sort if they are to delight us. Theatres are nothing if not integrated places, where the delight of the audience and the actors and the playwright and the set designer and the director are all interwoven and related.
Writing in her collection What Are We Doing Here? Robinson writes that,
A theology for our time should help us to know that Being is indeed the theater of God’s glory, and that, within it, we have a terrible privilege, a capacity for profound error and grave harm. We might venture an answer to God’s question, Where were you when I created—? We were there, potential and implicit and by the grace of God inevitable, more unstoppable than the sea, impervious as Leviathan, in that deep womb of time almost hearing the sons of God when they shouted for joy. And we are here, your still-forming child, still opening our eyes on a reality whose astonishments we can never exhaust.
Ours is a world of orphans, yes. Our working poor are hated by the powerful. Immigrants are seen as disposable such that the breaking of their families is a thing we are prepared to tolerate in today’s America. But power alone, even power that can assail these particular evils, will not be our salvation. For power is impersonal force; but, as Berry has written:
Good work finds the way between pride and despair.
It graces with health. It heals with grace.
It preserves the given so that it remains a gift.
By it, we lose loneliness:
we clasp the hands of those who go before us, and the hands of those who come after us;
we enter the little circle of each other’s arms,
and the larger circle of lovers whose hands are joined in a dance,
and the larger circle of all creatures, passing in and out of life, who move also in a dance, to a music so subtle and vast that no ear hears it except in fragments.