23 June 2016

Procreative peasants, Dionysian distributism?

One of the themes that keeps coming back in Allan C Carlson’s so-far excellent book on distributism’s successes and failures in European history, Third Ways – and I don’t know if he is intentionally highlighting this or not – is the return to a primal, chthonic veneration of sex and fertility among the advocates of family and peasant economy.

Whether it’s the earthy, bawdy public-house songs of GK Chesterton’s Distributist League; or George Jackson’s dismissive commentary about the Green Rising being a ‘reversion to the fertility cults of the past’; or Alexander Chayanov’s strong-necked, broad-shouldered, full-breasted Utopian women with their classical features, ready to raise families of nine children each with their beaus; or Ellen Key’s Nietzschean, Teutonic överfru, ‘guardian of the fire and cultivator of the fields’, whose ‘pure and beautiful’ ‘erotic longings’ were most sublimely realised in motherhood - there seems to be a distinctly pre-Christian element to these calls for the return to the family.

And I’m personally unsure whether this is a good thing or not. Actually, wait, scratch that. Sexual love and parenthood are very good things, and not only Scripture but many of the best among the virginal, monastic Holy Fathers weren’t ashamed of saying so, but how much of good things are they, and are we contextualising them correctly?

On the one hand, there is absolutely something admirable and tantalising in the family-centric approach, that sees the dichotomy of the sexes as something to be celebrated, and that sees sex itself as something colourful, exuberant, adventurous, kenotic (and kinetic!), outward-looking, procreation-oriented, a long-term project open to the Other – in short, something gloriously complicated and ecstatically ‘unsafe’.

It’s a definite step up from the grey, dreary, prophylactic, clinical and androgynous vision of Alva Myrdal and other like-minded social engineers, which seems to be the endgame of modern gender ideology. I’ll be among the first to admit that it would do nothing but good, injecting our post-Christian culture with a good dose of the ol’ heathen fire and danger – or, for us more historically-minded Americans, let us have more of the scandalous, ‘obscene’ Tory Woodhull and far less of the priggish and puritanical Maggie Sanger. This is a preference for which the Latins have been blessedly vocal.

At the same time, for all I know the positive view the Church has always had of the mystery of marriage, the Orthodox Christian in me is left doubting if this strong Dionysian streak in the peasant economy is ultimately compatible with our emphasis on askesis, or that runs aground of our insistence – a completely correct insistence, to be sure, of this Vladimir Solovyov has managed to convince me – that sex is something inherently post-lapsarian, something which points to a betrayal of our forefathers and the ontology of physical death. In Orthodox anthropology, marriage isn’t just about fulfilling our ‘natural’ urges (though it is certainly that), or making and raising children (though it is certainly that too); it is a space for askesis, another kind of monastic cell, in which husband and wife lift each other closer to God. Orthodoxy and the Fathers all seem to be saying: marriage is good; intercourse in marriage is good, within limits; families – even big families – are all good. But far better is holy virginity and eremitical solitude!

My problem is this, though. Our society has already so decoupled sex from its proper moorings in marriage, procreation and family life – has already dragged up the plant by the roots and left it to wither and die a cold and cynical death – that it seems to me that our first job is to stick the stalk back in the pot before we find the right shelf to place it on. Baby steps back to sanity.

I hope I am not too far afield on this point, and I welcome my Orthodox brothers and sisters to correct me on it, if need be. And, naturally, I am interested also in hearing commentary from my Latin, Protestant, Heathen, Zoroastrian, Daoist, Muslim and non-religious gentle readers on this topic as well!


  1. I won't belabour the point, but I've often had similar thoughts, knowing how deeply ingrained in peasant/working class culture ribaldry truly is. I'd suggest that an earthy peasantry that a) is generally faithful to the Church, and b) aware that its ribaldry at least flirts with transgression, and c) has the salutary examples of the monastery close to hand - and these conditions were generally met, historically speaking - is probably about as good as it's going to get in history. It is assuredly much to be preferred over wherever it is the mandarins of the sexual revolution are taking us.

    Jeff Martin

  2. That's indeed my general suspicion, Jeff; and my instincts are pretty much exactly the same as yours - though, I will fully admit, more for æsthetic and moral reasons than for religious ones. Thank you indeed for the comment!