Sexual Attitudes In Agrarian Life
From Gene Logsdon
When a writer wants to sound astute, lofty words like agrarian come in handy. Nobody knows for sure what agrarian means. Makes what one says on the subject sound intelligent whether it really is or not. I use the word here to mean the whole farming and gardening way of life that wraps around the actual work of producing food. That would include, of course, sexual behavior. What follows is an excerpt from the Afterword of my recent (2007) book, The Mother of All Arts where I discuss, among other agrarian attitudes, whether people who farm and garden as a vital part of their lives look at human sexual behavior a little differently than people who don’t. Quote:
At one point in this book, I was moved to say—almost blurt out, if one can speak of writing as blurting—that all art is about sex. I made that statement in reaction to Mississippi John Hurt’s remark that all music was about human sexual relationships. [John Hurt was an early country blues singer and a real farmer whose music is now enjoying a resurgence among country music purists.] It would be difficult to prove either generalization. But I don’t think that the sexual ambivalence involved has been studied thoroughly enough from the standpoint of agrarian attitudes. Do agrarians, as agrarians, have anything to say, for instance, about why society accepts (at least in most cultures) public portrayals of the naked human body in paint or sculpture but not in candid photographs, nor actual naked humans walking around in public. Standing naked next to Michelangelo’s “David” could land a person in prison, a fact that I bet mystified Michelangelo as much as it does me.
On the one hand there is the image of the rural dweller as a sexual prude, a Bible thumper, so to speak, even though the Bible is rarely prudish. According to this attitude, one must go to the “sinful city” to find the fleshpots of the world, as the old Grange songs I include in this book intimate. How much of this attitude comes from agrarianism and how much of it is an affectation nurtured by urban life?
The other image of farmers in popular culture has them taking their sexual pleasure while romping naked in haylofts. The comparative solitude of country life supposedly offers this opportunity. Is this an agrarian notion? Unfortunately, hay is a prickly landing strip for sexual romping and I wonder how often in real country life have haystacks substituted for horse blankets or feather beds. Nevertheless, the notion persists and is kept alive by fairly recent novels like Jim Harrison’s raunchy “Farmer” (1976). How reflective of agrarian society are such novels? I think that paintings like Doris Lee’s “Noon” (1935) are more reflective of agrarian life. “Noon” depicts a couple in the throes of ardent lovemaking in the shade of a strawstack while an older farmer naps nearby, utterly disinterested. (Mercifully, Lee’s couple have not shed most of their clothes, thus protecting themselves from the prickly straw.) Many of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings of nudes suggest, as he points out in an earlier chapter of this book, an agrarian landscape where young people enjoy the wild freedom of riding naked on horses or motorcycles through the summer night. Not exactly what I’d call prudery.
My own instinct, or bias, is that when they are carefully studied, agrarian societies are found to be more casual and guilt-free about sex than is presumed today. Farmers and gardeners are daily immersed in the sexual activities of plants and animals and might therefore lack the kind of, or degree of, sexual prurience often displayed by non-agrarians. Sex on the farm has a sort of ho-hum aspect to it. In the days when most people were agrarians, did burlesque flourish in the countryside? I bet not. Did medieval taverns hire strippers? I wonder.
I would argue that prudery, the notion that human sexuality is somehow shameful, did not originate in rural society but in the context of urban life where more crowded conditions dictated more rules. If you start looking. you can find examples to support such a hypothesis in all times and in all places. My favorite example so far is in “The New World,” Jacques Le Moynes’s and Nicolas Le Challeux’s accounts of Native Americans from the earliest European contacts in the mid-sixteenth century. Le Moyne describes in almost prurient detail how the natives were dressed, or rather not dressed. The women of this pure agrarian society planted their crops naked, he notes, but sometimes “covered their shame” with strands of Spanish moss.
I would love to hear what those women, hoeing naked in their fields (rather blissfully if the drawings of them are accurate) had to say about that. From the description Le Moyne gives of their way of life, I have a notion that those strands of Spanish moss were worn not to cover their shame but to glorify their sexuality.
Interestingly, at about the same time that explorers to America thought the natives should “cover their shame,” papal authorities in Rome decided to cover the shame of church paintings. In an era when pastoral country life dominated Italy, artists felt no compunction about painting the sexual organs of human figures in explicit detail. As the shadows of the industrial revolution spread over the land, a new generation of church hierarchy ordered that such explicitness be painted over.
Behold though what has happened in the last 30 years as the industrial age wanes. The covering paint is being removed, at great expense, from the “shameful” paintings in some churches. I like to think that the original versions were influenced by the old agrarian culture and the uncovering today is coming from a new agrarian culture. Whether that is right or wrong, historical research into the idea would certainly be, pardon the pun, revealing.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.