Possibly productive themes for Mormon criticism

I have been thinking lately about what I’d do if I had more time to engage in Mormon literary criticism. This is, of course, a spectacularly unproductive way of going about things. But it’s all I have time and energy for at the moment. And at the very least, it’s about the only thing I have going at the moment (most of my non-AMV but Mormon arts-related efforts are in writing creating fiction with a modest goal of producing 3k words per month*). Terryl Givens provided the field with some interesting formulations for Mormon criticism via his paradoxes. But his was more of a cultural studies/sociological approach, and I’m thinking more here in terms of straight up dealing with works of narrative art (both those currently out there and as themes for those who are looking to create more).

I have no idea if these would be productive avenues to pursue. Nor am I as well versed in the doctrinal and philosophical arguments — both those specific to Mormonism and those regarding the wider strains of Western/Christian thought — as I’d like to be. This list simply comes out of reading a fair amount of Mormon (mostly literary) fiction. I also note that there may already be fantastic articles and presentations out there that deal with some of these issues. Feel free to reference them in the comments**.

Freed of the adjective it had accrued over a several decades, agency seems to once again be a hot concept in the LDS Zeitgeist. Eldar Bednar, in particular, has done much rehabilitation and re-situation of the place of agency in LDS thought. We’ve talked about it a few times in Mormon letters — especially in relation to the Twilight series. What intrigues me about it in particular is what role it plays in narrative art, especially in regards to character. From an analytical point of view: what does it mean for characters to exercise agency in a Mormon sense (that is not just freedom of choice, but rather the freedom that comes from making covenants with God and living them as fully as possible — a freedom from sin)? How do Mormon artists represent agency as an element in plot? Does this mean plot is no longer driven by the inevitable encounter with ones fate or the enacting out of what ones social conditions have driven one to? And if we say, yes, (and I think we do), how is agency different from simple consumer choice or libertarian freedom in terms of what our characters actually think and do?

Theric tossed out the word stasis in reference to my story “Return.” It’s an interesting word to use because stasis in literature has actually been one of the key themes of my short career as a literary critic. At some point I hope to write about stasis and The Master and Margarita, and in grad school my paper for the key seminar class of my comp lit program was on stasis in Kafka’s “A Country Doctor” and Eminescu’s “Luceafarul.” My interest in this concept should be obvious: the great horror of LDSness, is not so much the torments of hell, but rather the lack of progression that comes with sin — the condition of stasis. I have remarked before that I think that Satan and the fallen third’s great torment is their lack of story — their inability to enter in to mortality and time and really be part of the narrative flow of this existence.

So considering all this and considering the emphasis on (and great promise of eternal) progression what does that mean for Mormon narrative works (and especially for novels)? If much of literature is about the big adolescent break with (family, religion, society, authority, etc.), then how does/can our literature take on the more challenging but more mature task of showing how progression really works in this life? And how does it really work? And how does this tie back to agency? The great mistake is to assume that God = stasis. That’s why it’s easier to show the devil’s side, right? Milton and Blake and all that. Mormon doctrine corrects that in a breathtaking way, but it doesn’t necessarily gives us a ton to go on in terms of making that case in narrative art. Or at least, I haven’t encountered much. Which is why, much of it (correctly, in my opinion) deals with the small domestic triumphs and set backs of faithful realism.

I’ve barely read Kant. And I mean less aesthetics as a philosophy and more as a discovery of what we as a people value in our narrative art. What we think is beautiful and lovely and of good report (and why). Although when I think of Mormonism’s roots, I see the possibility of an aesthetic of the weak, the marginal, the conflicted, the unschooled, the hardscrabble. A grit that is different than the urban grime that’s so easy for first year MFAs to fall in love with. I also have the sneaking suspicion that we might be able to say something interesting about (and likely subversive of) the sublime.

Reader Response
Two things strike me right away:

1. Mormons are great at re/mis-interpreting the works of the world. It would be interesting to probe more fully how that manifests itself. One moment in particular comes back to me from my youth: The cool priest in my ward requesting the song “Respect” by the gay English duo Erasure be played at a dance and dedicating it to his on-off girlfriend the stake president’s daughter.

2. How does the Holy Spirit work in terms of reactions to narrative art? I have made the claim that even if an author feels inspired when creating it that doesn’t mean that those who consume the work will necessarily feel the same (nor are they obligated to — even if the author and his fans assert otherwise). But are responses so individual as to be worthless to explore? How does one aesthetic and critical preferences interact with “feeling the Spirit”? Are we left to snipe at each other over sentimentality and nostalgia? Or is there more that can be said? One place to start here would be with the work of Neal A. Maxwell — what rhetorical strategies does he use to try and elicit both intellectual and spiritual growth/desires in his audience?

* This is laughable. And it’s okay to mock me for my meager efforts.

** This is where I again bemoan lack of access to most of the papers that have been presented at the AML conferences.

21 thoughts on “Possibly productive themes for Mormon criticism”

  1. .

    Re lack of AML conference talks online: In related news, there have been several Sunstone articles I’ve wanted to engage, but I can’t ask my readers to spend $3.50 to read what I’m referencing. So I don’t.

    Re writing about spiritual response: I think the only honest way to do this is on a person-by-person basis. Analyzing strategies is all well and good, but in terms of an actual spiritual response, it’s not measurable. We would be commiting the same error as those looking for the god gene.

    Re agency and progress: In my opinion, these hold the most potential. These are the key Mormon concepts I see being dealt with in our literature. Even books that seem to dwell on, say, Obedience or Being Good — pablum in other words, nudgenudge — can be viewed through these lenses and should be. When, say, “obedience” fails under the progress microscope, then the work has failed a significant test. I vote for these two.

  2. Th./Wm – But you can at least read older issues of Sunstone (and Dialogue and BYU Studies) for free. That’s not the case with Irreantum or the AML conferences talks, is it?

  3. No, it’s not. You either have to own them or go to a library that has them — and the proceedings from the conferences haven’t been published for several years (due to some health issues the editor has had).

  4. Th.
    You can reference anything from Sunstone I have in my hand-me-down Sunstone collection from the 80’s and 90’s, ditto for Dialouge’s of that era.
    I am probably most interested in Agency but I am intrigued by your mention of Aesthetics. Can you give me just a little more of this–“A grit that is different than the urban grime that’s so easy for first year MFAs to fall in love with. I also have the sneaking suspicion that we might be able to say something interesting about (and likely subversive of) the sublime.”

  5. Wm, just fyi, we’re working on the possibility of getting the proceedings from AML conferences online, as well as selected excerpts from Irreantum.

  6. David:

    On the grit/grime: there is a certain urban grime motif that seems to grab creative writing students who are looking to juice up their work. By that, I mean poetry and plays (and sometimes novels but esp. the poetry and plays) rife with heroin addicts and hustlers and the homeless. It comes from thinking that The City is more real and more authentic. It’s like when some young creative writers overuse profanity as a way to add texture and authenticity to their work.

    I’m not saying that kind of stuff is always invalid. But it can be.

    What Mormons have is a legacy of hardscrabbling of carving civilization out of the wilderness. This gets turned in to nostalgia and used to guilt us moderns, of course. But at the same time, it seems to me that some of those details and some of the details that come with serving others (of working in “bad” neighborhoods while on a mission, of serving in shelters and soup kitchens, of engaging [which we don’t do enough of] with the poor and outcast) should be part of a Mormon aesthetic (and by that I simply mean a palette of details to work with) because, frankly, our own history and our own scriptures (including the Book of Mormon) is on so often on the side of the weak, the poor, the downtrodden, of those in captivity. I find meaning what Alma and his people go through, in the people Alma the Younger preaches to who aren’t allowed in the synagogues because of their lack of finery, in a prophet who was about as gritty as you can get, and a Savior who is a man of sorrows without apparent beauty.

    Basically, what I’m saying is that too often the Mormon aesthetic mistakes a comfortable suburban lifestyle with its attendant trappings for the beauty that comes from living the Gospel. And too often when we embrace “the poor” it is with an exoticism that ignores our own poorness, our own histories of hard living. I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this. And Aesthetic may be too big of a concept for what may just be a minor point. But there’s also something about the tension between some ideal of beauty of some light-filled heaven and the reality that Mormons more than anyone should appreciate the very earthiness, the sensual particularity, the sweat of the brow, the tactile interplay of body, mind and spirit of this existence. It was, after all, made for us.

    For the sublime — I’d have to read and think some more. That may be a separate post.

  7. William,

    Good thoughts.

    You asked: “how is agency different from simple consumer choice or libertarian freedom in terms of what our characters actually think and do?” I think the answer must have something to do with the twin notions of (a) responsibility, and (b) not merely choosing what we will do, but also what we will become. I’m also struck by the notion that within Mormon thought, being an agent unto ourselves requires us to be tempted by one side or the other, so that agency is never absolute. There’s a social/ideological context for choice.

    It occurs to me that another territory for LDS criticism (and writing) could be the continuity between spirit and body, temporal and eternal, that LDS theology offers us. As Mormons, we are literal where the rest of the Christian world is metaphorical – and vice versa. How does that reflect itself in our art? (I would argue that it’s one of the reasons for the affinity of so many Mormons, both writers and readers, for sf&f, which similarly turns metaphors into realities and vice versa.)

    The call of holiness for Mormons is a call for engagement with the messiness of the world: work, political engagement, family relationships, lay Church service. This is, perhaps, not unique to Mormonism (think of Mother Theresa). What might be unique to Mormonism, however, is the notion that the messiness of life is itself the locus of our potential for divinity. The families we have in this life aren’t something we have to endure in order to get to a purer state, but are in fact the beginning of that purer state. This impacts our notions of both daily life and the sublime. I’m reminded of the minor (but telling) point that in Mormon belief (at least folk belief), the righteous aren’t the ones who are lifted up in the air, but the ones who remain here on earth.

  8. The call of holiness for Mormons is a call for engagement with the messiness of the world:

    I would respectfully disagree.

    That may be the overt message or the leadership’s party line, but in practice, what we are told at the local level is to disengage, to stay away from the messiness, that purity is the most important thing, more important, even, than charity.

    I HEAR the words “go out into the world and be an example and help and offer service to the world and not just to the members of your ward or stake.”

    I SEE the head shaking and the hands guiding people away from the world and into the church building, getting ever more cloistered and closed off.

    Really, how are readers like the ones Heather described engaging in the messiness of life? I would submit that they aren’t.

    (But maybe that’s just my ward, which is, I believe under some demonic possession, as you wouldn’t believe the stories I could tell you lately.)

    When I write, I don’t write metaphorically. I write messy. I write people in various stages of belief and they struggle. They fail. They stumble and fall. Sometimes they get up and try again. Sometimes they don’t. I don’t write for an LDS audience. I write for a national audience whose struggles with faith (of any kind) are universal or may strike a chord.

    Really, from where I sit, I don’t see that we are encouraged to engage in the messiness of life, in case–just in case–we defile ourselves by having been exposed to it.

  9. “Satan and the fallen third’s great torment is their lack of story — their inability to enter in to mortality and time and really be part of the narrative flow of this existence.”


    Giggling over the Erasure anecdote.

    Thanks for both the post and the encore in your comment. There is much to consider.

  10. MoJo,

    I think that what you describe is one of the basic tensions of Mormonism. Certainly I see the impulse toward cloistering within Mormon practice and rhetoric. But I also see strong forces propelling us in the opposite direction as well. Mormons who don’t particularly *want* to be exposed to the wickedness of the world nevertheless get called into leadership positions where they can’t avoid it – and are changed as a result. Teenage boys whose greatest interest is in their own affairs get called to spend time serving people who are vastly different from themselves – and get changed as a result. For that matter, the injunction that marriage is supposed to be eternal can – and, I believe from looking at the lives of fellow Church members as well as my own, often does – serve as a call to try to make a marriage work rather than abandoning it when things get tough.

    In saying that this is a direction that Mormon literary criticism can take, I’m not saying that Mormon literature necessarily reflects this particular value. That doesn’t prevent it from being a fruitful direction from which to examine Mormon literature (and Mormon literariness in general). After all, much of literature is about ideals we aspire to but don’t necessarily reach. I don’t see any reason why criticism can’t help us do the same thing.

  11. MoJo:

    I’m not really interested in worrying about the people who don’t get what we’re going for here while at the same time I want to be careful not to alienate myself too fully from the more dominant Mormon cultures. I have no problem being the one doing the difficult balancing act. Others mileage may vary (and I have had the fortune of living in some very cool wards).

  12. William,

    You asked: “How is agency different from simple consumer choice or libertarian freedom in terms of what our characters actually think and do?”

    I think the answer ties in with other “productive theme” — a dichotomy I once termed in an AML paper “The Individual vs. the Zion Community.”

    Libertarian freedom — Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” or Rand’s Objectivism — is at its root a selfish freedom, a freedom of one. That selfishness may or may not (eventually) result in great good to others, but its decision tree is all trunk and no branches, if you will. Boiled down, Libertarianism is “leave me alone.” ‘Properly-exercised’ libertarian freedoms arrive at that goal.

    “Leave me alone,” however, is assuredly NOT the goal of Mormonism. Properly-exercised agency arrives at the goal of personal salvation, a salvation that is in truth anything but personal, anything but solitary. Personal salvation requires agency exercised not only by the individual, but by others: the Atonement of the Savior; the laying of of hands by others for necessary ordinances; the eternal bonding to other in temple marriage, the turning of the heart of the fathers to the children, the fellowship of the Zion Community.

    Individual agency in the Mormon sense almost always has an “others” component to it. The decision tree for agency not only looks at the trunk and the roots and the branches and the leaves, but often at the other trees in the forest.

    Science fiction. due in large part to its Golden Age libertarian roots, is a very individual-centric genre. I suggested in my AML paper that this is what makes SF written by LDS authors so distinctive: a very pronounced, almost Asian communal group dynamic. The ‘Zion Community’ undertones of the Mormon worldview.

    The tension in the paradox of individual salvation being a group effort — the dichotomy between the individual and the Zion community — I think will prove one of the great hallmarks of a fully matured Mormon literature.

  13. Oh, yeah. I did read it back in spring. But that was so long ago.

    This is a great line: “Without a window through the veil and into the premortal past, her characters have no recourse, no explanation of events that leaves their ability to choose for themselves intact.”

  14. Here’s the first two themes that come to mind:

    What is interesting is the power of the gospel in our lives to affect transformation through a combination of actions and priesthood power: the Atonement, the Spirit, and combined with the Repentence Process, right down to the very literal “renewal of our bodies” as spoken of in scripture. Very often we speak about these things in discussions as distinct from one another, yet they all form a part of a complex chain that leads directly into the concepts of stasis/progression. So often in literature and in pop culture we see transformations as being instantaneous and immediately lasting, and yet Mormons know that this is a fallacy. Transformation is a long-term cycle of learning.

    Mental-Physical Trial
    Every time I hear a talk in Sacrament meeting about Pioneers, I hear the same thing: that the early Saints had physical trials while today in the modern church it is more about mental trials. hmmm. The adversary tempts us with every kind of trial possible, and always has. Porn is porn not matter the generation or dispensation. Starvation and deprivation are the same no matter the generation or deprivation. It all just takes different forms in each generation and dispensation.

    There needs to be a literary acknowledgement that we suffer every kind of trial (and always have) and somehow these themes could play a strong role in every kind of LDS literature. I always find it so strange that LDS lit dealing with the early American Saints deals with the physical trials they suffered, and leaves out all the other kinds of trials one can be hit with.

  15. Good thoughts, Bradly. That’s one thing Whipple’s _The Giant Joshua_ deals with, actually — both the mental and physical hardships involved in practicing polygamy while settling St. George.

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