In these chapters Berry explores the anatomy of an affair through Jayber’s reflections. We also perceive through his thoughts what it feels like to be on both the giving and receiving ends of hate. Meanwhile Jayber gains a greater sense of Port William’s collective memories and of the various affections, joys and sorrows that hold it together. Best of all he realizes this is where he will always belong.
19–The Anatomy of an Affair–a mingling of love and hate
–in which Jayber’s admiration for Mattie grows as does his hatred of her young husband.
Jayber watches the Keith household from afar and admires the virtuous woman Mattie is becoming despite a presumably difficult marriage
…to love him without approving of him. In fact, their marriage settled early upon the pattern it would always have: she was trying to wind up at home the thread that he unraveled elsewhere. p.188
Troy’s ambition is to ‘farm big’, to become a sort of farming businessman who would manage farm operations from an office, in order to “increase the profit margin by increasing volume”. Mattie takes care of chickens and cows, garden and children and earns a noble reputation as a great help-meet.
“The best equipment he’s got is his wife.” Somebody laughed, and somebody said, “Yep,” and everybody nodded. p.189
And all the while her character grows “taking her pleasures as she found them, suffering what was hers to suffer, doing what she had to do” without complaint.
It was as though her very difficulties had confirmed her in her sense of herself and her capabilities. p.189
Meanwhile she was active in the life of the church and its community and Jayber sums up his observations in this way:
The beauty that I am speaking of now was that of a woman who has come into knowledge and into strength and who, knowing her hardships, trusts her strength and goes about her work even with a kind of happiness, serene somehow, and secure. p.191
At this point he lets us in on ‘the most deciding event’ of his life, which was not so much an event as a moment in time. One sunny afternoon in the churchyard while watching Mattie lead the children in play during VBS, Jayber is smitten with a hormonal response and realizes he has fallen in love with a married woman!
I was all of a sudden overcome with love for her. It was the strongest moment I had known, violent in its suddenness and completeness, and yet also the quietest. I had been utterly changed, and had not stirred. p.191
This love did not come to me like an arrow piercing my heart. Instead, it was as though Port William and all the world suddenly quietly fell away from me, leaving me standing in the air, alone, with the ache of acrophobia in the soles of my feet and my heart hollowed out with longing, in need of what I did not have. p.192
My own assessment that this is hormonal more than truly ‘love’ at this point is its selfish nature. He finds himself ‘in need of what [he] did not have’ (coveting his neighbor’s wife?!). True love is focused on the good of the one loved, not its own desires to possess the loved one. But I digress from Jayber’s thoughts. He recognizes that he has fallen in love with a married woman but in hindsight attests that it was truly love because of how it would have to suffer without satisfaction.
His mingled admiration of a virtuous woman and selfish infatuation would have to mature beyond self-interest and foolish daydreams. But as he held his secret to himself he realized how little he knew of what went on in the heads that he barbered! They too, no doubt, held secrets known only to themselves.
Jayber supposes Mattie is painfully torn between being her father’s daughter and having to love her unconventional husband whose farming practices and outlook run so counter to her father’s. In assuming things he cannot see, based on his own sympathies and desires he provides fertile ground for an affair of the mind.
Thinking of Mattie’s marriage and of the certainty of pain and loneliness in it gave hope to my desire, which insisted upon itself without reference to anything else. One thing it did was make me think myself desirable. p.194
Another red flag that his affections are not based in truth is that he begins to delight in hating Mattie’s husband. This belies his own jealousy more than it does his supposed love for Mattie.
Well, as I’ve said, I didn’t like him. I never had liked him, and now I didn’t just not like him; I hated him, and I found it a pleasure. p.195
The visions of the mind have a debt to reality that it is hard to get the mind to pay when it is under the influence of its visions. The lower Troy Chatham fell in my estimation, the better I thought of myself. And this was because of my overmastering feeling for Mattie. I was being carried away by a process of reasoning that was entirely invented by me and had nothing to do with anything in this world.
I had reached a level of sophistication at which I could know I was fooling myself and still fool myself.
All this, you see, appeared to excuse my supposing (by a logic purely glandular) that Mattie would like to be free of Troy.
Berry gives to us here a discerning picture of how easily the mind is deceived by its own desires. I can’t help being reminded of James depiction of temptation:
“But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” James 1:14,15 ESV
Thankfully, Jayber came to his senses when he began imagining an actual action plan…
I was saying to myself, or perhaps praying, “Why can the world not permit two lovers (any two) a moment of escape, free of all its claims, to be in love, just the two together, each the other’s all?”…
What destroyed my vision and all such visions, removed me from the chambers of imagery and put me back in the world again, was the assumption (not supportable even by imagination) that Mattie would have consented to such a thing. The proposition that she might have consented was more daunting to me than the certainty that she would not have. It made me see. Supposing she would have consented, I saw that what I would be asking of her would not be just that moment of abandon, the thought of which had so commanded me (imagination had spared me nothing of that), and not even just her love. I would have been asking for her life, for the power to change her into what could not be foreseen. If I destroyed what already existed, what would I replace it with? For something always exists before you get there with your desires and visions, and this simply had not occurred to me before in such a way that I could feel the truth of it. What did I have to offer? p.197
True love will recognize that sin can only wreak havoc when it is fully hatched. Though in his mind his desire was to save Mattie from a difficult situation, it would only destroy the character in her that he so admired if he were able to draw her away from her marital commitment. Fortunately he began to take a closer look at himself and his motivations…
If you love somebody enough, and long enough, finally you must see yourself. What I saw was a barber and grave digger and church janitor making half a living, a bachelor, a man about town, a friendly fellow. And this was perhaps acceptable, perhaps even creditable in its way, but to my newly chastened sight I was nobody’s husband. p.197
I realized that my desire was far simpler than its circumstances (as maybe desire always is), and that it proposed things practical and final, not of visions but of this world, and that was where my vision failed. It was as though I had been covered all over for a moment by a beautiful shawl and a cat had caught a raveling and in another moment pulled it all away. p.198
Here he is forced to see Mattie more realistically as well, so opening the way to a more pure and permanent form of love, something greater than mere selfish desire, something to live for.
I became able to imagine her as she was and not as a subject of a dream. p.198
When I realized the futility and absurdity of my old self-begotten desire, that was when the arrow struck. It entered my heart, and I could not pull it out. The hopelessness of my love became the sign of its permanence. So it is that the life force may take possession of a man—so that in the end he may be possessed by something greater, no longer at all belonging to himself. p.198
His love for Mattie sets him up to face an unforgettable grief as the chapter closes–the death of Mattie’s beautiful Liddie at the mercy of an (symbolically wicked!) automobile. What’s a little curious about the retelling of this is that though he didn’t actually see the accident he retells it with the detail of an omniscient observer right down to the poignant bit of child conversation just before the car turns the corner in the road:
“Momma!” she said. “Look how beautiful I am!”
19–Graveyard memories and ministry
The chapter opens and closes at the graveyard where Jayber is audience to many shared memories. He sees Port William as a delicate composite of various sorts of affections, of joys and sorrows experienced together, of life and death and he realizes this is where he truly belongs and where his calling is to be realized.
The feeling was that I could not be extracted from Port William like a pit from a plum, and that it could not be extracted from me; even death could not set it and me apart. p.204
My vision of the gathered church that had come to me after I became the janitor had been replaced by a vision of the gathered community. What I saw now was the community imperfect and irresolute but held together by the frayed and always fraying, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of the various sorts of affection. There had maybe never been anybody who had not been loved by somebody, who had been loved by somebody else, and so on and on. p.205
And yet I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace. p.205
It isn’t entirely clear to me what is meant by Jayber’s (Berry’s?) replacing his vision of the gathered church with that of the gathered community, as if human love and compassion could ever be an adequate substitute for the perfect love of God…as if we might be perfected without receiving the love of God in Christ… but the words sound poetic. Is this humanism?
He continues by trying to put words to the feeling of a place that one has come to know. And my own mind flits to the graveyard of my childhood that I passed in my walk to and from junior high and highschool… where my grandparents are buried and an uncle and aunt and many others that trace my own history beyond myself and back through my parents’s lives…saints and sinners who lived and died in this small place by a little unsung lake where I once caught ‘sunnies’ with my brother and skated whenever it froze for a few days in winter… This is where my heart calls ‘home’ despite the encroaching housing developments that are swallowing up the farmland and orchards that I wandered as a child. I appreciate Berry’s attempt to put so much in words. There is no place like home…
What I had come to know (by feeling only) was that the place’s true being, its presence you might say, was a sort of current, like an underground flow of water, except that the flowing was in all directions and yet did not flow away. When it rose into your heart and throat, you felt joy and sorrow at the same time, and the joining of times and lives. To come into the presence of the place was to know life and death, and to be near in all your thoughts to laughter and to tears. This would come over you and then pass away, as fragile as a moment of light. p.206
The chapter fittingly closes with Jabyer assuming his role in the community, kneeling to lay a hand of comfort on Mattie’s shoulder as she weeps beside beautiful Liddie’s grave:
I knelt beside her, according to my calling in this world.
20–Being on the receiving end of hate–Cecilia Overhold
Ironically, Jabyer who has freely and pleasurably hated Mattie’s husband, finds himself withering under the fiercely miserable Cecilia’s continuing animosity toward him. He attempts to understand her hatred and even to pity her, but I wonder, does he ever relate it to his own nurtured hatred? In admitting that ‘failing to love somebody is a failure’ does he recognize his own failure?
Cecelia Overhold forgave her husband Roy now and again as they traveled the broken terrain of their marriage;… But she never forgave me. She disliked me perfectly and steadily, so far as I know, for the rest of her life. And this I have always minded. Sometimes I have resented it; mostly I have been sorry.
…far better to be disliked by somebody you don’t love than by somebody you do. Even so, I mind. Even so, failing to love somebody is a failure.
Often her dislike of me, when I have had it on my mind, has made me feel unlikable. p.208
She thought the human condition was a calculated insult to her personally, the fault of certain people in particular. p.208
People generally suppose that they don’t understand one another very well, and that is true; they don’t. But some things they communicate easily and fully. Anger and contempt and hatred leap from one heart to another like fire in dry grass. The revelations of love are never complete or clear, not in this world. Love is slow and accumulating, and no matter how large or high it grows, it falls short. Love comprehends the world, though we don’t comprehend it. But hate comes off in slices, clear and whole—self-explanatory, you might say. You can hate people completely and kill them in an instant. Cecelia knew how to deliver the killing look and the killing refusal to look. p.208
She could give the tiniest little snub that would cause your soul to fester with self-doubt and self-justification and anger. And these were things she could pass along to you because all of them were festering in her. p.209
In observing the unbridgeable chasm that existed in Cecilia’s mind between herself and everybody else…
Maybe there were times when she knew it. When I think of that, I am sorry for her. She could fill a room with hate just by walking in. That was her impact, the way she made you feel at first. And then, if you were willing, you finally could see through that to the mere human she was. A mere human whose hate came from misery. p.210
In considering her discontent with her life:
Theoretically, there is always a better place for a person to live, better work to do, a better spouse to wed, better friends to have. But then this person must meet herself coming back: Theoretically, there always is a better inhabitant of this place, a better member of this community, a better worker, spouse, and friend than she is. This surely describes one of the circles of Hell, and who hasn’t traveled around it a time or two? p.210
The chapter closes out by catching us up on Athey who now old and lame, carries himself “like a hatful of eggs,” . He and Della have moved off the family farm to ‘establish the work of [their] hands’ on a ‘little twenty-acre place’. (! This would be huge to most retirees nowadays!) Athey still visits the barber shop and by virtue of his seniority and authority contributes his wisdom there. The chapter concludes with his bold and wise response to an inflammatory racial remark:
“It might prove out to be,” Athey said, “that if we can’t live together we can’t live at all. Did you ever think about that?” p.215
I think that hell will prove to be this place–the loneliest place we could ever imagine, where we don’t have to get along with anyone, but are stuck with our own self-exalting choices…and of course God’s Kingdom is the exact anti-thesis where love, joy and peace shared in community are the warp and woof of life as it was always intended to be…
I appreciated the reference to Psalm 90, in Jabyer’s depiction of Athey and Della’s new homestead. It has long been my own prayer for myself and my family, and with it I will close these l-o-n-g comments that I thought would be quite short this week!. Thanks for stopping by!