Recently, I was subjected to fifteen plus showings of Blue’s Big Musical Movie, some end to end. (Don’t ask–it’s too complicated.) Whenever I’m forced to watch one of my children’s videos over and over I choose this one because IMO Steve Burns’s blue screen performances are a wonder to behold, especially here.
Another reason I tolerate repeated exposure to BBMM is the movie’s “soul” segment where Ray Charles as the hip yet patient G-Clef instructs Steve on how to give that song he’s writing that certain “something you can feel.” Ray Charles’s musical take on soul prods me to sit straight and listen up every time. Yes, I’m aware that Mr. Salt, perhaps in collaboration with some other lively condiment, household item, or piece of furniture wrote the song that Ray Charles sings. And yes, I’m aware the song is uneven in its levels of accomplishment. But Charles’s gravel-voiced G-Clef makes calling down the rocking angels of soul seem not only simple but absolutely necessary if you want your song to get across. Each time G-Clef belts out his advice to our fair-skinned boy Steve, I wonder: Can we apply this advice to other arts, like literature? If so, how about Mormon literature? Does Molit have soul? If not, should it?
“Soul” is one of those words the use of which often provokes semantic quibbles. This is because it has many meanings, some of which figure prominently into differing religious or cultural lexicons. Say “soul” to a Wasatch Front Mormon, to a Latin American Catholic, and to an agnostic jazz enthusiast and that one single word conjures in each case different worlds of meaning.
While the word “soul” is used variously throughout Mormon scripture and doctrinal works, according to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, it carries the important and specific meaning of “the united entity of the spirit with the physical body.” Usually, this definition is the one the Mormon mind alights upon when it hears the word “soul.”
The “soul” G-Clef tries to teach Steve about bears no resemblance to this common, Sunday school-variety Mormon “soul.” “Reach down deep inside you,” G-Clef croons, “and pull up something real. That’s what makes it special, something you can feel.” The Mormon word “soul” is darned near a technical term attached to the combination of the spirit and body into mortal being. The artistic quality sometimes called “soulfulness” is about emotional pizzazz such as enables mortal beings to create outstanding expressions of the human experience that defy description. You simply have to be there.
Of course, specific applications of the word “soul,” meaning an artistic or cultural quality, do exist. The American Heritage Dictionary reminds us that soul is ” … emotional strength or spiritual vitality held to derive from Black and especially African-American cultural experience, expressed in areas such as language, social customs, religion, and music.” By this definition some Mormons–African American Mormons–may lay claim to rights of soul while others may not. But a more general definition of “soul” opens up the concept even to a multi-generation, fair-haired Mormon child of Northern European descent:
soul: A strong, deeply felt emotion conveyed by a speaker, performer, or artist (American Heritage Dictionary).
Such a noncommittal definition appears to attest to soul’s indefinable something. But given this rolled-flat-on-the-pavement description one wonders what might distinguish authentic soul from gross sentimentality (defined by some as “unearned emotion”), exhibitionism, or public, artistic (or crafty) forms of abuse. Some would say, “Nothing!” but I beg to differ. Soul as a quality of artistic expression “makes it real.” That is, truly soulful art has a delicious yet unpretentious sense of self and of community at large.
When we look to soul as a goal for Mormon literature, the temptation is to grab it and spirit it away to the religious sector of our lives. After all, how can any expression have meaning except as it edifies and purifies us in preparation to stand before our distinctly Mormon God?
But this is perhaps where Mormon literature may go most wrong and find itself shut out from rights to soul, because one of soul’s greatest appeal is its universality and its expression of the sweet and alluring strain that exists between heaven and earth. Also, soul abides simultaneously in the here and now and in the when. Quick now, here, now, always–that’s soul. It explodes one man’s or woman’s full-bodied expression into a banquet that all may attend, their individual specialty and ethnic dishes in hand–rich and poor, old and young, washed or unwashed–and yes, even Mormon.
However, in order to partake at this Banquet of Soul, many Mormons–artists included–must overcome their discomfort with or even aversion to mortality, along with that singularly hyper-religious loneliness some Mormons cultivate when they reject the presence and value of their not-Mormon or differently-Mormoned fellows, turning exclusively in their longing to the “next life” and to God.
IMO the quality of a culture’s art is a good indicator of the culture’s “soul factor,” or of its investment in the human experience at large. And IMO the emotional aenemia that some assert gives Mormon literature its overall pale complexion testifies to existence of a cultural and perhaps spiritual isolation and loneliness. When it comes to soul’s grand spread, some mainstream cultural Mormon writers seem to turn up their noses and thus starve their art. Which, given Christ’s example of breaking bread with just about everybody except perhaps Pharisees, seems … well, soul-less.
That’s my opinion at the present, but what do you think, dear reader? Does Mormon literature have soul? Does it need it? If it needs it, can it in fact get it? Does some Molit have soul and some not? What works of Mormon literature do you think might qualify as soulful? Are their soulful qualities beneficial or might their soulfulness actually depreciate their overall value to cultural Mormonism? And most importantly, as per the oft-cited “Fiddler envy,” can Mormon literature ramp up its artistic charisma and cultural ethos and thus become more palatable to others outside the writers of South Park episodes?