Beyond Prescription, Part 3

I take up today where I left off .

Liberating Paradox(i)es: Nodes, Networks, and Timothy Liu’s “Tree”

I recognize I may be preaching to the choir here (in the radical middle) by advocating such a pluralist view of Mormon culture–one, I should confess, that I hope can encourage more space in the Mormon critical community for the whole spectrum of Mormon identities and literatures, to the end:

a) of fostering critical dialogue that transcends, while leaving room for, prescriptive polemic; that moves beyond, while acknowledging the potential validity of, readings that justify (or not) the virtue, praiseworthiness, etc., of texts that push the Mormon moral envelope; and because such (con)textual expansion exposes critics/readers to varying forms of literary greatness and goodness of character, beyond the Mormon letters almost singular obsession with turning to the historio-cultural singularities of Shakespeare and Milton as the standards against which to judge whether or not our literary community has arrived (will we ever overcome this Mormonized anxiety of influence?);

and b) of legitimizing Mormon letters for engagement in a broader conceptual field. This echoes Michael Austin’s move to promote the academic study of Mormon letters by encouraging LDS critics to turn their professional training toward constructing the stories of Mormonism–as a dynamic religio-cultural system that now extends well beyond the Jell-O-belt–such that, ideally, these narratives can be heard and engaged on their own (Mormon) terms, beyond the (prescriptive) parlance of the Mormon market. As Austin claims, “If enough [Mormon critics] do this, and do it well, Mormonism and Mormon literature stand to become increasingly legitimate areas of inquiry in [the literary critic’s] profession”–as has happened, say, with the academic study of Mormon history and social institutions in the fields of history and sociology.

I also recognize that this pluralist view imposes degrees of distance between Mormonism as a divinely-sanctioned worldwide religious institution–hailed by members as “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth“–and Mormonism as a closed yet increasingly diverse unofficial cultural system developed and elaborated through certain habits of mind (as influenced by Mormon theology and its institutionalized interpretation and transmission, as well as through its interaction with modern secular thought and mainstream/popular culture) and the “manifestations and permutations [of these habits] across a spectrum of artistic media,” ethnic multiplicities (especially as the religion goes global), and social practices/networks (Givens xiii). Of course, these dual aspects of Mormonism are necessarily bound up in, even made vital by, the other. The culture coexists with and incorporates, perhaps at times revises and subverts, the theology, church practices, and general religious understanding (as, for example, when Mormon folk doctrines mingle with and exaggerate official church teachings–like the popularized revision of foreordination and eternal companionship sanctioned and disseminated, especially, by Added Upon and Saturday’s Warrior). And the boundaries of the religion and the markers of church membership (as church activity, obedience to the principles and ordinances of the gospel, holding an up-to-date temple recommend, the wearing of garments, publicly sustaining church leaders, etc.) are often overlaid as the boundaries and markers of Mormon culture.

Yet, though these systems are inextricably linked–the culture (sometimes dogmatically) infused with and judged against religious tenets and the religion using and, at times, cutting across cultural channels in order to proselytize its message to the world–neither their boundaries nor their structures nor their functions exactly coincide (nor, I think, should they). And neither are they wholly distinct from the “non-Mormon” cultural traditions with which they inevitably interact. Rather they seem to exist in interconnected topologies of networks and nodes enmeshed in the social, rhetorical, and spiritual space of mortality, sometimes sharing points of connection, sometimes running parallel or intersecting processes, sometimes divergent ones, and sometimes working beneath, within, or over the cultural noise of other traditions, though always in the movement, ideally, to expand and ratify–to make efficacious–human experience and being-in-the-world.*

But what might this subtle though dynamic and interconnected difference between Mormonism as a religion and Mormonism as a culture mean for Mormon literary studies? How might the rhetorical paradoxy, the cognitive dissonance, that can come of keeping in mind these similar though separate structures translate into a paradigm for reading Mormon literature and culture and (potentially) for critiquing other cultural/theoretical paradigms? Indeed, how might this pluralist perspective prompt critics to ask different questions (as the ones Waterman asks) about the nature of Mormon identity/ies, culture, and literatures and their relation to and appropriation of other traditions? And even beyond that, how might adding these questions to the Mormon critical vocabulary and to the general American critical vocabulary add to an understanding of and the possibilities for critiquing/theorizing about literature in general?

Re-enter Waterman, who turns to Timothy Liu–gay, Asian-American, Mormon, poet (among other things)–as a test case for his own pluralist critical paradoxy, which can be summarized thus: “whatever ‘Mormon’ identity might mean for a particular author or text, that identity will coexist and possibly be in conflict or competition with any number of other identifications.” These alliterative terms–coexist, conflict, and competition–jibe with the network topology dynamics I gloss over above, highlighting the richly multiple (inter)temporalities of human (Mormon) identity: coextant, sometimes conflicting nodes of personal identification that network into a larger node–an individual’s selfhood–that in turn serves as a point of connection in larger network topologies (e.g., socio-cultural structures like communities, religions, gender, class, race, etc.).

As Waterman continues, “To address Liu’s texts as ‘Mormon'” through this many-selves paradigm “requires us to refuse the idea” that Mormon cultural identity is essential and, therefore, the dominant factor in every Mormon’s every personal experience; “in doing so,” Waterman says, “we recall [Liu’s] eligibility for ‘other’ identity categories–an approach that could be taken with any literature we are tempted to discuss as ‘Mormon.'” By using any of these multiple nodes of identification–“Mormon” or “gay,” for instance–as a “point of departure” for discussing Liu’s poetry “rather than as a totalizing identity” for the poet, Waterman offers the possibility of “view[ing] Liu’s subjective Mormonism as a point on a spectrum”–or in my present model, as a node within interconnected network topologies–that would also include the full range of Mormon literatures and criticisms, from those adhering to thirteenth article of faith literary theories to those (like Waterman) allowing for a broader range of Mormon literary identities. In this view, Liu’s Mormonism is just one node of his personal topology in a cultural field that extends around the (neo-)orthodox faithful and the post-Mormon–and everything in between–and that overlaps and connects with multiple cultural traditions.

Waterman concludes that viewing Liu’s poetry as part of such dynamic cultural space “is, perhaps, the only practical way of approaching [it],” simply because to deny such multiplicity is to subsume the writer’s agency in rigid (hence, unreal, simplistic, and impractical) representations of human identity.

As an example of the “benefit[s]” “[b]oth “˜Mormon’ and larger American audiences” might take “from [the …] added angle[s] of explication” available when reading through such a “practical” pluralist lens, Waterman offers the double-voice (“gay” and “deeply religious”) of Liu’s short poem, “The Tree that Knowledge Is”:

I do not want to die. Not for love.Ӭ
Nor a vision of that tree I cannot Ҭ
recollect, shining in the darkness Ҭ
with cherubim and a flaming sword. Ҭ
All my life that still small voice Ҭ
of God coiled up inside my body. Ҭ
The lopped-off branch that guilt is
Ҭis not death. Nor life. But the lust
Ҭthat flowers at the end of it.

Waterman’s reading of the poem is instructive of how Mormon critics might approach the task of interpretation sans prescriptive moralizing and while keeping in mind the multiplicities of modern (Mormon) identity: “A number of signifiers here resonate with a Mormon audience: God’s ‘still small voice'” “a favorite Primary phrase” with considerable cache in the Church’s pedagogical culture; “the ‘vision of that tree’ protected by ‘cherubim and a flaming sword,’ meaning the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden,” though Liu’s language recalls a) the prominent visions of Mormon history, specifically Lehi’s dream, and b) the role this Tree and the cherubim charged to protect it play in the LDS endowment ritual, which, in Brigham Young’s well-known words, is “to receive all those ordinances in the House of the Lord, which are necessary for you, after you have departed this life, to enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels [before the Tree of Life], being able to give them the key words, the signs and tokens, pertaining to the holy Priesthood, and gain your eternal exaltation in spite of earth and hell.”

That the poet rejects the merit of such institutionally mediated spirituality is suggested by the poem’s negatives (four nots, two nors) and in the image of the “lopped-off branch,” which, Waterman observes, not only “brings to mind New Testament imagery, but also the allegory of the olive tree in Jacob 5 in the Book of Mormon.” Here the poet seems to engage Zenos’ figuration of the House of Israel in terms of the allegorical pruning/dissemination process: healthy and diseased branches (lineages) are cut off of the main tree (parent lineage) and scattered throughout the vineyard (racial/ethnic diaspora) where they’re grafted into other trees in order to preserve the branches’ potential to bear fruit (inter-ethnic assimilation to the end of salvation). Yet Liu asserts a revision of this schema in his “recollect[ion]” (which, he admits, is really a failure to recollect–or at least to recollect properly, i.e., in a way sanctioned by the residual Mormonism he engages again and again in his work): even though he has “lop[ped]” himself off from the religion’s hierarchical network of eternal-life-granting rituals by openly acknowledging and pursuing his “lust,” he now stands in a shadow of that Tree, neither dead nor fully alive without the communion wrought through some degree of fellowship with the network and “love” that Tree represents, holding the corporeality “guilt[y]” for the break–his phallic “branch,” his homosexuality–as a witness of the validity of his experiential multiplicity and of a continued virility borne of the “lust / that flowers” in somatic associations, tensions, and realities through mortality’s “end.”

Waterman points out that “the tension between the two voices” competing for our attention here–the gay voice and the Mormon voice–“accounts for [the poem’s] vitality”; that is, as each identity brushes against and overlaps the other, the text becomes increasingly and fruitfully complex, an intricate layering of tones and metaphors that would be incomplete without due consideration of Liu’s multiplicity, including–perhaps in this case, especially–his Mormon identity and experience.


*While a visual of this model would work well here to explain my explanation, that may have to come in a later post (though not necessarily one in this series) once I’ve had time to frame/revise the theory a bit more.


Next week in part 4—more liberating paradox(i)es.

One thought on “Beyond Prescription, Part 3”

  1. .

    The Liu poem is a helpful example, I think, of this nodal model.

    I’ve been thinking about how to frame Mormon criticism within the larger critical discourse and at the very least, recognizing Mormonism as one node is a necessary beginning. To pretend it doesn’t qualify for consideration is at least as great an absurdity as making it one’s sole consideration.

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