Holy fools wrestling with god

Somehow I missed that Eugene Woodbury had posted an essay titled on his Web site. Or perhaps I knew about it and then forgot about it and then rediscovered it. Whatever the case it’s a fantastic read. So go read it.

It was written as a response to an essay by Stephen Carter and Stephen and Eugene did their duo-presentation at a Sunstone Symposium and the back in 2007.

Eugene (summarizing Stephen) begins with:

We propose that narrative fiction constructed in a Mormon context and for Mormon audiences often strays from conventional storytelling in several ways. Principal among these is the negation or diminution of the “second act.” These stories skip from the first act (the set up) to the third act (the reassuring resolution), leaving out the struggle in between.

This is dead on. Of course, the problem is that the Mormon fiction that gets to the second act sometimes don’t manage to get to the third act — but that’s a different discussion.

There is a lot of good stuff in the essay. But I want to focus on one aspect in particular. The authors quote Julian Gough, who notes that modern literary fiction values the tragic over the comic — which leads to dull, dreary, pseudo-suffering serious fiction.

The remedy to this is fools — specifically holy fools. Those who say the unsayable or even unthinkable, who wrestle and dispute with God. As the Eugene notes, comedy comes from incongruity:

…laughter is a reaction to incongruity. A tragic fact is a settled fact; humor is up in the air. The human comedy is a Hail Mary pass thrown into the end zone. A religious philosophy that acknowledges only settled facts on the ground can never be funny. Or compellingly dramatic.

And here’s the thing: if you really look closely at Mormonism a) there are a lot of unsettled facts and b) at the same time it’s good ground from which to observe the incongruities found in other philosophies, worldviews and ways of life.

And I think Eugene has explained a bit the enduring appeal of Angel of the Danube for me. Barry Monroe is very much a holy fool — and not just because of his California dude accent. The best moments in the book are both comic and spiritual, where Barry experiences both the incongruities in life and touches something of the divine. And even as the ending lapses into old romantic formulas, there is a sense that he has earned it. The second act isn’t missing. He has struggled and the end only happens by grace.

The hallmark of good criticism is that it cause you to look at texts in a new way. By that measure, “Pelagius and the fools” is successful criticism. And a very important step in the development Mormon lit crit.

Corrected author information 1.29.09 based on comments from Eugene Woodbury below. ~Wm

20 thoughts on “Holy fools wrestling with god”

  1. William,

    Thanks for sharing this. I promptly went and read the essay, which was interesting though I can’t say that I fully understood it. (It might have made more sense if I understood Pelagius better. Or I might have simply found more grounds for disputing their interpretation…)

    I agree that the fundamental insight about the lack of a second act in Mormon letters is an interesting one, though I’d like to see it fleshed out with more specific examples from Mormon literature. In other words: Is this really true of Mormon literature? Or is it one of those straw men that we invoke without adequate demonstration?

    Part of my question stems from a recent awareness of just how much different readers may disagree on what constitutes adequate conflict in a story. One of my favorite pieces of literature of all time is Willa Cather’s _Death Comes for the Archbishop_. And yet thinking about the story, I can’t really point to any “hard choices that cause suffering” (as invoked on Eugene and Stephen’s essay). I’m sure that if I went back and looked at Cather’s novel in more depth, I could generate something that fits this category–because as a literary critic I generally find that one can generate evidence to fit any given pattern from any given text, if one strains hard enough. Without going back and doing that, though, the only thing I can think of that fits this pattern at all is the main character’s choice to send off his friend to become the Bishop of Denver, instead of keeping him by his side. A hard choice, but somehow I don’t think this is the type of decision McKee was talking about in _Story_.

    In short, I find the ideas in Eugene and Stephen’s essay attractive. But without some tougher evidence in place of the general assertions they provide, I’m skeptical about my own attraction–in part because I find that literary critics (rather like the religionists of Joseph Smith’s day, and our own) tend to interpret the same texts so differently as to destroy all confidence (at least, in my case) in settling such questions by an appeal to common literary understanding.

    The other point I’d make is that in typical experience, I think that the hardest thing for many of us in our lives is simply the necessity of living an ordinary day to day existence–of making a go of things, ideally with hope and love and faith. I’m not sure that a literature that speaks to that kind of conflict is really going to have much to do with hard dramatic choices. Indeed, the more dramatic the circumstances, the less true the fiction may be to the mundane challenges of existence. It’s unclear to me how a literature that speaks to these mundane challenges of existence would fit into Eugene and Stephen’s endorsed narrative structure.

  2. To be more precise, in the first three paragraphs of the essay I’m summing up Stephen’s paper, which he gave before mine. My paper proposed one possible solution to this.

    Had I given it a year later, I could have cited the negative reaction to Angel Falling Softly. Once past the “explicit sex” and “vampires and Mormons don’t belong together” objections, I was honestly surprised at how many Mormons were offended that a bishop’s wife would even contemplate the decisions Rachel does.

    It’s this kind of mindset we were arguing against: apparently, stipulating that such a choice exists in the mind of the protagonist is ipso facto enough to damn that character from the onset. I go onto argue that humor is one way around this paradox (which I admittedly didn’t follow myself).

    In any case, I intended my arguments to be observational and descriptive, not categorical and prescriptive. McKee doesn’t state that every story and screenplay must conform to his structure or necessarily fail. But stories are more likely to succeed by following his rules than not.

    Although the standard action/adventure vehicle conforms easily to McKee, so does any story that requires the protagonist to make a decision. It doesn’t matter how big or small as long as it’s a real decision. Austen maps to McKee very well.

    Stephen has pointed that the first half of The Path of Dreams is classic McKee (I wasn’t aware of McKee when I wrote it). The second half is more of long denouement: no decision-based conflicts, but rather a “coming to terms with life” and “realizing stuff about yourself” story.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But like a musician learning his arpeggios, I believe that all writers would do well to learn how to construct plot according to McKee, even if they never ever intend to publish that kind of story.

  3. Eugene,

    Thanks for the clarification. It’s always confusing coming in partway through the conversation…

  4. Nice essays, post, and comments! I have taken Stephen’s recommendation to read McKee to great benefit. Not only has my grasp of structure improved, but I found Kaufman’s Adaptation (I only saw it recently) much, much more amusing than I would have otherwise.

  5. Eugene–Regarding _Angel Falling Softly_. I never had trouble with the fact that Rachel considered all her options. What did bother me was that she never really seemed to consider her daughter’s predicament in light of eternal families. I read the book twice and I didn’t feel that the Mormon/LDS idea of eternal families vs. the vampire idea of eternal families was explored deeply enough. Especially Rachel. She never worried that she was losing her daughter for eternity. Maybe I shouldn’t say never, but I honestly can’t remember her looking at from a traditionally Mormon/LDS point of view.

    Sorry. This is probably a threadjack.

  6. William–Your point about _Angel of the Danube_ and Barry Monroe being a holy fool is right on. I think that’s why is narrative voice worked so well for me.

  7. “She never worried that she was losing her daughter for eternity.” Where do you get that from? Seriously, I’ve seen this come up before, and I’m stumped as to its source. Too much Joss Whedon? But even Spike got his soul back in the end, and I never posit that any souls are irretrievably lost.

    The bargain Rachel makes for Jennifer’s life–based on the story of Hannah, Samuel and Eli–is clearly stated in chapter 36.

    Whatever damning goes on is the result of what people do (see chapter 30) not who they are. Who Jennifer ultimately ends up with matters: it is not enough for forgiveness to be offered; it must be accepted, hence Milada’s quoting of 1 Samuel 3:14.

    But Milada refuses to accept forgiveness, and God cannot overrule free will.

    The climactic exchange between Milada and Jennifer lays this out. In fact, it is Jennifer who becomes the “enforcer” of this covenant. Rachel thinks she’s dealing with Milada, but when push comes to shove, both women are dealing with God.

    Here’s the scriptural outline of chapter 37: Isaiah 38:3, Job 3:20-23, John 21:22, Alma 12:24.

  8. Thanks Eugene. It probably is too much Joss Whedon. Well, and, to be honest, Stephenie Meyer. Although I did spend a lot of time with Buffy the Vampire Slayer during my impressionable teenage years 🙂

    That said, for me, as a reader, I think I just needed more emphasis on it. Maybe I was lazy, but the whole thing didn’t feel spiritual to me. I read the Hannah comparison but I didn’t understand how turning her daughter into a vampire was the same as giving her up to God. Maybe that’s because the spiritual ‘aha’ moments came in such nontraditional sources. It wasn’t while she was studying her scriptures or attending the temple, ya know? The book really blindsided me because it was so outside any tradition (or maybe because it combined so many traditions).

    Sorry! Maybe I need to read the book a third time. It’s possible that my mind is just too deeply rooted in the traditional portrayal of vampires as soulless. Well, that and maybe Milada didn’t seem particularly soulful . . .probably need a third reading!

  9. .

    I got what Eugene is talking about just fine, but overall, I’m in Laura’s camp. And no one should have to read a book three times to “get it.”

    reminder: I did like this book

  10. Regarding Jonathan’s comment on coming in on the middle of the conversation…

    Sorry, that’s my fault. I should have hit up Eugene for more context.

    ————-

    I thought Milada was soulful. That’s what all the quotes and references and haunted by the past was about. But certainly the novel is of a type where reader reactions will vary widely.

    And I don’t think that Eugene has wholly cracked the code, but I do think that it’s an excellent attempt at exploring Mormon culture and theology through putting it into collision with an alternate worldview.

  11. Man, whenever I make random comments on AMV I get more feedback than my posts do!

    Mojo–Well, I don’t know that _Angel Falling Softly_ was *supposed* to read spiritually except that Eugene’s explanation of the text was scriptural. Also, the characters are overtly Mormon and, for me, you can’t have a Mormon experience and not make it spiritual. It’s either about the lack of spirituality or the search for greater spirituality or whatever, but spirituality must be addressed. For me, in that book, with those characters and the choices they were facing, I wanted more about the spiritual conflict.

    Theric– I liked the book too. At least the second time. The first time I read it I was so sad, an profound sense of loss enveloped me as I finished it, that I didn’t know what to make. I tend to connect with texts in a very emotional way and because of that they linger. So I read it again. Well, and because I want to write a paper on it . . .the second time I liked it more. I was able to take it less personally. Maybe after a third time I could finally approach it critically?

    William–I think what I might have meant was that Milada was haunted but not introspective. It was hard for me to understand a character who was so unwillingly?/afraid? to look inside herself. I think I needed a longer book. I needed more from her, and from Rachel, to be able to understand the choices that were made. Especially the end.

    You are right, though. About Eugene exploring Mormon culture and theology through an alternate worldview. I need to read his other stuff to really appreciate where he is coming from as an artist.

  12. you can’t have a Mormon experience and not make it spiritual

    I don’t agree with this in toto, but I can appreciate where you’re coming from.

    except that Eugene’s explanation of the text was scriptural.

    But using scripture to explain a text doesn’t make it spiritual. There are tons of university courses on the Bible as literature. Read alternatively, it can absolutely be taken out of the spiritual and into the strictly mythological/symbolic.

    To wit: The Song of Solomon. Joseph Smith stated that it was not inspired scripture, so we ignore it, even though it’s part of our canon. Yet, it exists and, if pressed, a member will say, “We see that as symbolic” and/or “as poetry” if he knows of its existence at all.

    I might have meant was that Milada was haunted but not introspective.

    I got the sense that she had had centuries to be introspective and had settled into haunted after said introspection had been done. IMO, she would not have been able to pull all those references off the top of her head, justifying everything to herself (and Rachel) if she hadn’t spent a great deal of time poring over the texts and coming to some conclusions.

  13. A good part of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, is about people screwing up, reminding us that when it comes to human nature, there’s nothing new under the sun. Consider King Hezekiah in 2 Kings 20, what he asks for, what he is given, what he ultimately trades away, and then how he rationalizes it.

    And from chapter 18: “The music burrowed into the recesses of Milada’s mind, into the places where memories moldered like rotting corpses in forgotten graves. It turned over soil and brought up bones on the blade. She could remember so much if she wanted to, and she did not want to. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. Or the year, the decade–or, frankly, the whole bloody century. The past was the past, and she didn’t live there anymore.”

    The irony here, of course, is that Milada can’t let it go.

  14. Absolutely. That’s why the attempts to diminish the novel as “vampire meets Mormons” are rather weak. The novel ties in to traditions of irony and biblical allusion and exegesis. If that doesn’t work for readers on a readerly level, that’s fine. But there is some interesting stuff going on there.

  15. .

    I agree with Laura’s argument that Mormon lit is inherently spiritual, even in the absence thereof. I know I tend to read that way.

  16. Good points Mojo.

    Eugene–I like hearing your take on your book. It sheds a lot of light on it. I guess I’ll just have to say it one more time: I just wanted MORE. More time to come to understand Milada. More text to guide me in absorbing the Biblical allusions. I wanted the book to slow down just a little and give me more.

    I’ll say this one more time too: I did like it!

  17. Thanks! I am annotating the novel as I post chapters online (click on the blue chapter headings), though that definitely falls into the “tell” category of the “show, don’t tell” imperative.

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