The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality, Part II

This is the second post in a five or six part series that explores the ethics of Latter-day Saint literature and criticism. In part one, I introduce the dissonance between Mormon theology and Mormon culture, pointing specifically to how the artifacts of that culture–particularly our letters–often fail to engage the eternally rich and redemptive ethical dilemmas raised and embraced by LDS theology. As a case in point and as a springboard into discussing the greater questions arising from this dissonance, I deconstruct Jerry Johnston’s Mormon Times review of Eric Samuelsen’s play Inversion and suggest that the binary Johnston propagates favoring literary tidiness over ambiguity tragically reduces the Mormon quest to know God through the workings and weaknesses of human language1 into barely more than an immature attempt to avoid the discomforts of existence in a paradox-filled universe.

II. In Exchange for the Soul

One of the most tragic of these paradoxes, as Eugene England points out, is “the struggle to maintain individual integrity, to be true to ourselves”2 in the face of the demanding responsibilities and expectations laid on us through our chosen affiliation with and participation in Christ’s Church. Denying this paradox its place in our discipleship and our arts and letters, even if ignorant of our refusal, we ultimately subvert the work of God as he moves to convert us into his own exalted lifestyle, to mold us into his own glorified image.

Many Mormon writers and critics have confronted and, I believe, will continue to confront this dilemma between community and individual values and preservation head on, transcending it in their personal and vocational lives, as did Joseph Smith, by “anxiously, bravely grappling with those paradoxes” in word and deed, faith and works, and by heroically, if at times tragically, consecrating their lives to the Truth in a “courageous blend of loyalty to [their] covenant people, [their] covenanted Savior, and [themselves].”3 Samuelsen seems to have found his platform on which to prove or to exercise these contraries in the Mormon theater; and England found his, by and large, in the personal essay, a genre in which he discovered deep private, literary, and religious implications because, in his words, Mormonism’s

theological emphasis on life as a stage where the individual self is both tested and created and our history of close self-examination in journals and testimony-bearing provide resources that [“¦] increasingly find expression in powerful informal essays and personal and family storytelling.4

Here I find an earlier echo of Samuelsen’s witness that “Literature is testimony” and that, through the acts of language–of writing and, by inference, reading–we are tested by an author’s and their text’s essential otherness and we become vulnerable to ourselves and others (including God) in profoundly redemptive and spiritually real ways.

The province of such spiritually real literature, as Lavina Fielding Anderson has it, isn’t so much to capture and embrace the ephemeral nature of spiritual knowledge–though that does seem to be part of the exercise of “spiritual realism”–but to be an act of literary faith, an “intelligent affirmation” of and engagement with the moral universe.5 This word intelligence, when used within the doubled context of literary form and Mormonism (as Anderson uses it), carries its more general sense of knowledge, yes, but even more so of knowledge or truth born of experience and coupled with integrity. Since language is central to way we process, organize, and express this experience, our literary acts of affirmation become textu(r)ally embodied representations of truth and character. And how influential this representation is depends a great deal upon the authenticity, the clarity, and the rhetorical appeal of our words. To be truly effective, then, as “a catalytic aid in our own search for self,”6 literature’s formal and aesthetic features can’t be separated from its ethical functions.

In other words, as we attempt to reach out and make a mark on the world even as we try to embrace and understand the other–a vital and extremely difficult movement that helps us develop a balanced sense of eternal selfhood and to receive God’s glory “grace for grace”7–we “need to listen to and imitate” “the special voice” England describes here in his introduction to Anderson’s “exercise in spiritual autobiography”: “clear, elegant but witty, contained, noble but unselfconscious, afraid neither of pain nor proper piety, clearly witness both to the hard surface of life and to its deeper mysteries, attuned to both the body and the spirit”.8 Just as body and spirit combine to become the human soul9, such a voice courageously attunes self to other and other to self in an act that transcends the dilemma between public responsibility and private integrity to become a powerfully and gracefully embodied witness for the truth of experience.

In Johnston’s attempt to discuss and embody this ethos, his rhetoric falls short in some essential ways. First, as explored earlier, his binary favoring tidiness over ambiguity tragically reduces the Mormon quest to know God through the workings and weaknesses of language into nothing more than an immature attempt to avoid the discomforts of Mormon theology and of existence in a moral universe. Second, in his assertion that “the natural art form for Mormon writers”–that which our best and brightest naturally select because it offers the greatest potential for them to highlight and examine the spiritual realities and ethical implications of Mormon theology and culture–is “the morality tale”, not (in his words) as “[t]he late Eugene England once said [“¦.] the essay”,10 he misreads England. Indeed, England’s appraisal of the personal essay as something Mormon’s would do well to embrace doesn’t necessarily spring from the form itself but from the ethos driving and deriving from the form: its introspective and aesthetic confrontation with experience.

This misreading seems coupled with Johnston’s additional observation, made just sentences later, that “Mormons tend to be doers, not navel-gazers”–one point on which Johnston and I actually agree. And yet, the implication of his observation when read in light of his definition of a morality tale–“a story, fact or fiction, that keeps our interest, has some lessons to share and leaves us with a feeling that in the grand battle between good and evil, good is holding its own”–is that we need an easy literature able to support minds often not accustomed to sustained mental exertion (could our scattered attention spans be a result, perhaps, of religious hyper-activity and not enough introspection?); a literature focused plainly, didactically, without equivocation, and perhaps a bit lazily, on the middle ground of religious experience and on sharing cheap and painless lessons about living better lives; a literature that we can walk away from with a burning in the bosom or at least with warm-fuzzies that we haven’t wasted our time reading or with a religion that can’t hold its own against Satan and his minions and that doesn’t place too great a demand on our emotions or our intellects.

Inherent in this reading is also the assumption that we Mormons can’t or don’t take our literature seriously or indulge in the sometimes difficult and painful, even tragic process of reading or participating in the experience of good literature–and by good I mean carefully crafted, persuasive, and ethically challenging, genre notwithstanding. To read seriously, Johnston seems to assert, to engage with a text on ethical, personal, psychological, rhetorical, and spiritual levels might just require more introspection, self-absorption, and concentration than the believing Mormon could or should possibly engage in. To do so would risk our faith, putting our souls in jeopardy because, as many of us might think, the devil lurks behind the pages of literature and we shouldn’t be giving ourselves to realms of the imagination when there’s so much work to be done in the practical world.

We’ve got souls to save, Zion to build. And in our quest to “be honest, true, chaste, benevolent, [and] virtuous” and to “do[“¦] good to all men” and women; in our search for “anything virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy,”11 we can’t waste our time with books, including those considered the “best”,12 that take us away from our millennial mandate. Give us a service to perform and we’ll gladly do it at least before the end of the month. But ask us to watch a play or read a short story, a poem, a novel, or an essay that challenges our worldview or isn’t initially easy to understand or emotionally titillating; that doesn’t give us a clearly defined resolution, a moral to live by, or a dictum to chant across the pulpit; or that contains a word or passage even remotely questionable and many of us will drop it like a chilled [insert caffeinated beverage here].

These failures, however, only lead us into part of our awful realization. The truly tragic tell of Mormon literary morality emerges from the economic subtext of Johnston’s review. After asserting his personal witness of the morality tale as “the natural Mormon art form,” he points to four revealing scriptural episodes that, supposedly, support his claim that our literary heritage is “laced with” or bound up in and held together with such narratives: “the golden calf, the brass plates of Laban, the 30 pieces of silver of Judas and the widow’s mite.” Aside from taking issue with the assumption underlying this that Mormon literature should be akin to scripture and despite not completely agreeing that these stories stand up to the black and white simplicity of Johnston’s own definition of a morality tale (I’m thinking especially, for example, of the complex ethical dilemma faced by Nephi when commanded to take Laban’s life or by Aaron after learning that his attempt to lead Israel in the pagan worship of the true and living God was, to say the least, the wrong thing to do), I see something more subtly dangerous in the choice to punctuate his reading of the state of Mormon literature with such pecuniary examples. Waving this gold, brass, silver, and bronze around, no matter the original form or how small the quantities, and speaking as he does of theatrical “fare” (a doubly loaded term) and the success (a word implying both economic and popular achievement) and chosen genres (popular, money-making fiction) of today’s most widely read LDS writers, Johnston seems to suggest that the price of admission into the Latter-day Saint mind, conversation, and canon, or at least into our meetings and lessons and onto our bookshelves, is to capitalize on and, in the process, to commodify Mormonism’s covenant society and theology.

(Next Thursday’s post: “Part III: The (In)Convenience of Mormon Letters”)

Footnotes:

1 See D&C 1:24.

2 England, Eugene. Dialogues with Myself. Midvale, UT: Orion Books, 1984. 19.

3 ix.

4 “Mormon Literature: Progress and Prospects.” Mormon Literature Website. 28 Feb. 2001. 10 Aug. 2008. Par. 55.

5 Qtd. in Dialogues 162-3. Although Anderson uses the term “spiritual realism” to define a movement of “new [in 1983] Mormon fiction,” England extends this use to include literary nonfiction (as I do here).

6 Dialogues 158.

7 D&C 93:12.

8 Dialogues 163.

9 See D&C 88:15.

10 Johnston, Jerry. “Playwright’s scripts are a departure from Mormon morality tales.” Rvw. of Inversion, by Eric Samuelsen. Mormon Times. mormontimes.com. 23 July 2008. 25 July 2008.

11 Articles of Faith 1:13.

12 D&C 88:118.

9 thoughts on “The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality, Part II”

  1. I’ve never liked the whole “to thine own self be true” bit. Reminds me of Shakespeare’ Polonius which clearly wasn’t intended to be flattering. (I always laugh when someone quotes that line from Hamlet while forgetting the context)

    We should be seeking to be good. However that “to thine own self be true” always indicates to me a skepticism of social values while gullibility regarding ones own knowledge. A little recognition of fallibilism in both arenas always struck me as wisest.

    Sorry for going a bit off. It’s a pet peeve of mine.

  2. Tyler, I’ve been waiting to see where you’re going with this before commenting, but I’ll hazard an observation now. The tensions you perceive existing between popular Mormon culture and ideal Mormon artistic endeavor might occur but are hardly inevitable, no matter what the culture appears to favor.

    Only rarely have I felt the “‘struggle to maintain individual integrity, to be true to [myself] in the face of the demanding responsibilities and expectations laid on us through our chosen affiliation.” etc. When I did, I discovered I could relieve such tension by finding and then taking a better stance within the situation, an act that is itself a creative undertaking. I’ve gone off the idea of preserving individual integrity. It’s overrated. Where my art is concerned, I will look to myself, first, to change. I have yet to discover a predicament I can’t improve by wondering where I’m going wrong, which is where I perceive the actual tension you’re identifying mostly lies, and certainly the greatest responsibility. I say this knowing I can imagine situations where my sudden enlightenment has little or no external effect, where I’m overwhelmed and can’t see straight, and of course, where situations go right over my head.

    My experience with most people is that they want better, even while they appear to be settling for the “gold, brass, silver and bronze.” They have their sphere of accountability. But the artist bears not only the full matter of his/her own accountability, but also, by virtue of his/her desire to get across, responsibility for having a meaningful vision of others’ accountability. Having that vision is not the same thing as taking another’s accountability onto your own shoulders. Nevertheless, when the artist touches human imagination and agency by virtue of his/her creative vision of those essential elements of the soul, it can be redemptive for everyone involved.

    Many people are where they are for good reason. I can picture a convert, for instance, embracing a sentimental rendering of church culture because it’s safer and offers more hope than the life they left behind. Is it my job, as an artist, to get them to admit they’re wrong and expect them to see matters the more “honest, true, chaste, benevolent, and virtuous” way?

    As an artist, I perceive my job being to strive to see matters a more “honest, true, chaste, benevolent, and virtuous” way than I do and to strive to do good to all men better than how I currently work it out. I seek after this reimagining, I hope for it, I endure it, I hope to be able to seek after it and endure it all my life. My art is my expression of this condition. Others may take from it what they can, and perhaps, if I’ve been any use at all, what they need, even though it might not be what I had hoped they would take.

    Not that I haven’t been where you appear to be. And I say all this not knowing where you’re going with this series.

  3. First off, Tyler, I loved this section. I love that you are writing these and I hope to read more of your work in the future.

    I’ll say it once more, but I feel like the biggest weakness in your argument is not the argument itself but the way you use Johnston to make your argument. Isn’t there a better (more fair) example to use? If I were your editor (and I know I’m not) I would insist that you replace Johnston with someone with more cache (maybe John Bennion?). Anyway . . .

    Your final point in this section is that: “Johnston seems to suggest that the price of admission into the Latter-day Saint mind, conversation, and canon, or at least into our meetings and lessons and onto our bookshelves, is to capitalize on and, in the process, to commodify Mormonism’s covenant society and theology.” What I would say to this is that this IS the current state of affairs and Johnston is merely pointing out the obvious.

    I think if you and I were to sit down over a cold caffeinated beverage we would agree on the state of Mormon literature. We would at least agree that we both want more diversity, high and low, literature that challenges its audience instead of spoon-feeding them tidy moral messages. The problem is not that this literature doesn’t exist, but that it doesn’t usually find an audience wide enough to make a mark.

    The fault, as I see it, lies in the absence of a critical discourse for Mormon letters (which you are trying to address). The criticism I read reinforces what the assumptions Johnston makes in his review. They write criticism exclusively for Mormon audiences, criticism that seeks to reinforce Mormon truth. I have read some brilliant articles by brilliant critics that are useless in establishing a critical tradition that will stand up in the context of other bodies of literature because they bring everything back to “the truthfulness of the everlasting gospel.”

    A body of Mormon literary criticism that has relevance both to Mormon- and non-Mormon academics will create a space for a more diverse Mormon literature that does not depend on Deseret Book for its value.

  4. Clark:

    I see where you’re coming from about our general misuse of “to thine own self be true” and completely agree when you say

    A little recognition of fallibilism in both arenas [personal and social] always struck me as wisest.

    Patricia seems to capture this recognition, and the essence of being true to one’s self, by which I mean being true to one’s potential, in her comments below. Indeed, we must “question everything,” as I state in my comments to Part I, including and especially ourselves and our motivations.

  5. Patricia:

    At the risk of you thinking I’m brushing you off, I’m going to put off addressing the crux of your comments until a future post. Let me just say here that I admire your commitment to taking “a better stance” in relation to others, to question your motivations before questioning others. I think if there were more people in this world willing to act with such personal responsibility, things would be far more peaceful.

  6. Pratt:

    Do you think anyone else would like to join us for a Coke (or whatever your particular poison is)?

    And all I can say in regard to your final comments–

    The fault, as I see it, lies in the absence of a critical discourse for Mormon letters (which you are trying to address). The criticism I read reinforces what the assumptions Johnston makes in his review. They write criticism exclusively for Mormon audiences, criticism that seeks to reinforce Mormon truth. I have read some brilliant articles by brilliant critics that are useless in establishing a critical tradition that will stand up in the context of other bodies of literature because they bring everything back to “the truthfulness of the everlasting gospel.”

    A body of Mormon literary criticism that has relevance both to Mormon- and non-Mormon academics will create a space for a more diverse Mormon literature that does not depend on Deseret Book for its value.

    –at least for the time being, is Amen!

  7. Clark,
    The irony that I’ve seen in Polonius’s advice to his son, is not that it wasn’t good advice, but to the contrary that such good advice was coming from a fool. A man who used true maxims, but never let them seep much deeper than a superficial application. In no way do I think any of the long list Shakespeare gave was meant to be seen as foolish advice, including and most especially the “To Thine Own Self Be True” quote.
    The Most compelling play (and film) I’ve seen on this subject of individual identity and communal loyalty is Robert Bolt’s “A Man For All Seasons.” I believe in being absolutely loyal to the Church, to be truly consecrated, but I also believe that a man’s soul is ultimately his own and he ought seek revelation from God and ultimately follow the path God has revealed for him, despite what others may tell him or criticise him for.

  8. Mahonri,

    I agree. I once had a teacher who asserted that no Shakespearean wisdom could be separated from the nature of the character who gave it voice, using Polonius as an example. To clarify, she used Polonius’ behavior as grounds for dismissing his advice. While I see her point and agree to an extent, I’ve often felt that fools had a sort of special dispensation of wisdom: the irony of their characters lending greater force to the truth they speak.

    Someone once said that many wise words are spoken in jest, but more foolish words are spoken in earnest. If we judge the words we hear based solely on the faithfulness of the speaker to those words, we may interpret the majority of statements incorrectly. At least, I know I understand and could give utterance to more true principles than I perfectly live.

  9. At least, I know I understand and could give utterance to more true principles than I perfectly live.

    Don’t we all, Adam; don’t we all.

    I like what you both have to say here about irony, Mahonri and Adam. I think we sometimes view irony as a bad thing. In fact, as I write this, Alanis Morrisette’s “Ironic” has popped into my head: now isn’t that ironic… And now all I can hear is her whining about how devestatingly ironic her life has been.

    Anyway, Patricia’s got a good series about irony (beginning here) in which she explores the power turns of irony have to move us through the continual processes of conversion and repentance, to help us change our minds, and to push at the boundaries of experience and our understanding of experience.

    As Patricia has observed, as Shakespeare has clearly illustrated, and as I’m attempting to explore in my posts (don’t know how successful I’m being…), irony (one form of which is paradox) is central to our experience with the universe and the arts. Hence, the importance of being ironic…

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