True love, progression and narrative art

In his Sunday morning session address from the April General Conference, President Uchtdorf spoke about love. Titled “You Are My Hands,” it was a great talk delivered wonderfully, which is what we have come to expect from him. I want to call out one line in the talk that, paradoxically, affirmed for me the importance of well-crafted narrative art.

Pres. Uchtdorf said:

True love requires action. We can speak of love all day long–we can write notes or poems that proclaim it, sing songs that praise it, and preach sermons that encourage it–but until we manifest that love in action, our words are nothing but “sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”

Now that would seem, at first glance, to cast aside the whole notion of expressing love through words. Love without action is dead. Which is why it caught my attention. But notice the verbs used: proclaim, praise, preach. All good methods of discourse, but all intended to drive a didactic response — to provoke action or, in the case of the receiver of the proclamations, reaction.

That’s not how narrative art works. Not exactly. And the more I thought about this talk, the more I wondered why love was important. I feel it is. I know it’s important in my life, that life would be dismal without it, but why?

I’m going to get back to love, but I want to introduce another concept first: progression. Progression is a crucial concept to the Mormon worldview, but it’s also the key point of narrative art. Now that manifests itself in a variety of ways and some works are all about frustrating progression, but even those works don’t exist as literature without the expectation of progression. Or to put it more bluntly: plot is impossible without progression. And narrative art has to have some kind of plot, from the most stereotypical once-again enactment of the hero’s journey to the densest, most absurd fugue of post-modern attempts at stasis, there is always  movement.

Narrative art, especially the best, most durable works of narrative art, helps us understand progression and, more importantly, the barriers to progression. Tragedy does so by exposing the flaws in character and/or the overwhelming forces of nature or society or fate that derail progression. Romance does so by spiraling around the pleasures and frustration of courtship and connection (mainly with others, but also, at times, with nature and with community and with God or ideas). Comedy does so by bursting the barriers and pretenses — personal, social, political, cultural, familial — that we surround ourselves with that too often hinder true progression, that keep us from humility, that bury knowledge and familiarity that we need to have with the other (and other aspects of ourselves that we’ve closed off).

And all of that helps us to love because love is not just some big feeling of warmth, it is a deep investment (and here’s where we get back to the point of Pres. Uchtdorf’s talk) in the progression of others — a deep appreciation of their capacity to progress; an abiding hope that they will progress; a herculean effort to help them progress (but without abridging agency, which is not effective); a mourning with the pain that comes with progression. Love is a bond, but the bonds are created by the experiences that come with progression. If we did not have the capacity to progress, no matter how small and pathetic that progression may be, I don’t think we could love — love is not stasis.

And the beautiful and amazing thing about this mortal condition is that it is clearly set up for conditions of love and progression. The beginning that is birth; the end point that is death. The quick growth and then slow decay of bodies and minds. The passage of time and of the seasons. All these engender a sense of progression (with the added spur of progression in this life not being eternal). Coupling (and all that entails physically and emotionally) and birth and the requirements to survive and grow — the creation of family units and the building of those units in to tribes, communities, societies — all create the conditions of closeness and dependency that lead to love and a deeply felt interest in the progression of others. Yes, there’s also the possibilities for sorrow and pain and, sadly, violence and damnation (or in other words the halting of progression), but it’s supposed to be mainly about love and the rest is so that we don’t all compound in one. There must be struggle.

And this is why the need for narrative art that can truly capture the journey of love and progression is so great — it allows us to step outside our own experience of the conditions of mortality and, if the work of art is good, find windows in to the experience of others. Perhaps we may learn by looking on the vistas revealed. Perhaps we may be entertained. But above all it should cause us to love more and by loving more do more and  have a deeper wisdom on how to go about that doing. To love, truly.

To quote Pres. Uchtdorf again: “Love is what inspired our Heavenly Father to create our spirits; it is what led our Savior to the Garden of Gethsemane to make Himself a ransom for our sins. Love is the grand motive of the plan of salvation; it is the source of happiness, the ever-renewing spring of healing, the precious fountain of hope.”

If love is the grand motive. If love is the source. If love is an ever-renewing spring. Then must we, we who dare to capture this existence in word, love?

Love –> Progression (E. Uchtdorf’s talk from Sunday Morning Conference Session 4.4.2010) as it relates to narrative art — how do we show love and why do we love? Show love by helping others progress and understand progression and understand the barriers to progression and [tragedy, comedy, romance] (hero’s journey — plot is impossible w/out progression) and we love because of the inherent capability of intelligences to progress.
Mortality is particularly important to this process. The very conditions of this mortal sphere, the beginning that is birth; the end point of death — growth and then decay, the passage of time, the seasons, all engender an experience of progression. Add in families and love.

14 thoughts on “True love, progression and narrative art”

  1. Great post, Wm.

    I went to the Young Women’s meeting in the Conference Center the week before conference and got to hear Pres. Uchtdorf speak. If you haven’t read or listened to that talk yet, it’s also very good–albeit aimed toward young women. It’s entitled “Happily Ever After,” and he uses examples from fairy tales and the way fictional plots are structured to illustrate the idea that there must be opposition in all things (“only conflict is interesting!”) and that, just as protagonists in stories must act, so must we. I loved the way he wove in the subtlest hint of narrative theory into his talk to young women–and still managed to deliver a powerful, spiritual, moving and funny address.

    He’s the man.

  2. I add only the obvious reminder that we know of God’s love, particularly of the Atonement made in the Garden of Gethesemane, because of the written word. The expression of love, the telling of love stories (like the atonement) is necessary. Obviously.

  3. Because I think about this stuff all the time, this comment’s apt to be long. Sorry.

    I think language, as an evolutionary, artistic, spiritual–what have you–medium for human experience has been on the move for a long time, changing, influencing, unmaking, reforming, reaching. The language-as-a-poor-tool metaphor that Pres. Uchtdorf employs underestimates the actuality of what human language has become and how it now exerts influence in the world. Asserting a distinction between language of any kind–speaking, writing, singing, preaching–and action–or doing–handles language as a thing. My usual metaphor for this kind of treatment is that it casts language in the role of a hammer that we pick up to drive a point home and then put down when we’ve done the job.

    There is no such distinction. There may have been at one time, way back when. Language might have begun as a tool, something we “used.” But not anymore. Language is action, or rather, language is one of our main ways of being and doing. Poor language is like any other kind of ineffectual action. Poor language is poor behavior, not inaction.

    Progression is a crucial concept to the Mormon worldview, but it’s also the key point of narrative art. Now that manifests itself in a variety of ways and some works are all about frustrating progression, but even those works don’t exist as literature without the expectation of progression.

    It’s entirely possible that progression is the effectual impetus of narrative art and of the best language of all sorts. It may very well be the stuff of consciousness. That sometimes we use it to dig in our heels against the draw of progression is an act of agency rather than an aspect of the limitations of language. That story we tell ourselves to assert that we can go no farther–that what we say is what is–I call the narrative take. It’s a kind of mining of experience we do to enrich ourselves against the example Christ provided of having to give up everything.

    Thanks to metaphor, irony, symbol, and other tropes, language can be boundless. It can multiply and replenish. It can get us across, past ourselves to others in acts of opening and exchanging. It enables connexion (I like the British spelling for the “x”). For me, now, moving, living, progressive narrative art has become a critical means of energetic exchange between people, an energy that just keeps transferring. The best language multiplies fishes and loaves.

    One of the important acts of good narrative art is to keep the (human) story open against competing narratives that attempt to exert rhetorical control and seal off prospects for progression.

    Then must we, we who dare to capture this existence in word, love?

    Good language is love. Here’s a wonderful quote I came across in John Niles’ Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature:

    Language is naively regarded as a way of imitating or describing the world. As George Steiner has maintained, it also fulfills a precisely opposite function: “Language is the main instrument of man’s refusal to accept the world as it is. Without that refusal, without the unceasing generation of the mind of “˜counterworlds’ “¦we would turn forever on the treadmill of the present. Reality would be (to use Wittgenstein’s phrase in an illicit sense) “˜all that is the case’ and nothing more. Ours is the ability, the need, to gainsay or”˜unsay’ the world, to image and speak it otherwise (86-87).

    (Thought you might like that, Wm.)

  4. Patricia,
    Thanks for your statement of faith in language. Your expansive and generous view of language is refreshing, and worth thinking a lot about. It gives me a way to approach some things I’ve been thinking about for a long time, which are related to the following comments.

    I’m not sure the distinction between words and action is really based in the idea of language as a poor tool. I have been fascinated for quite some time by the fact that I can say a sentence like, “If things had turned out differently, tomorrow night at this time I could be thinking, ‘That could have been me delivering the valediction,'” and you will understand from my grammar that I’m talking about a point in the future when something that hasn’t happened yet, or may be hypothetical, will already be in the past.

    But if you say something like, “‘Avoid the very appearance of evil’ is my favorite scripture,” there’s nothing in your grammar that tells me whether you’re being sincere, enthusiastic, sarcastic, ironic, iconic, laconic, platonic (as Daniel Schorr said after his appearance as a newscaster in Independence Day, “Stop me before I act again”).

    Our grammar can tell us a lot of subtle things about the progression of time, but it can’t tell us whether to take words at face value, or what ironic, emotional or rhetorical value to apply to them.

    We can say, “I love you” with our mouths, and perform actions with other parts of our bodies that express the exact opposite of love.

    We’ve separated words and things to such a degree that in a typical English class at BYU someone can say, “The word is not the thing,” and no one will even think to say, “Wait a minute, when I lay my hands on someone’s head for a blessing aren’t the words I say the blessing? The blessing isn’t something external to the words, the blessing is the laying on of hands and the speaking of words.”

    The separation of word and thing has some consequences in literary and scriptural studies. I remember Jim Faulconer writing on one of my papers once that the problem with the paper was that I was doing hermeneutics rather than writing about hermeneutic theory.

    I had a similar experience in grad school in Charles Johnson’s Aesthetics class, where we had been reading from Sartre’s What is Art, and I wrote a sartrean response, and found out he didn’t want something creative or sartrean he wanted something academic.

    I also remember Charles Altieri scolding me once because I was talking about my frustration with Terry Eagleton’s abstraction in Criticism and Ideology, chapter 5. He said that literary criticism is a formal academic discipline, not something where you talk about your personal response.

    That’s a highly ironic statement, given what Lionel Trilling said in “On the Teaching of Modern Literature” (in Beyond Culture)about how powerfully modern literature demands and draws a personal response.

    Thinking about these 3 incidents, and Trilling’s essay, suggested to me that literary criticism as a formal academic discipline is not so much a way of opening up a work of art to an audience as a way of shielding (the critic? the audience?) from the power of the work.

    All of this is related to long thoughts about the nature of metaphor and how metaphor displaces other types of comparisons, but I don’t have time to elaborate just now, as my wife just told me the living room lights are keeping her up and I need to go to bed.
    Gud Knyghte!

  5. Thanks, Th. My brother-in-law had a stroke last August and we all rushed up to northern Idaho, then when we got back my son’s new computer had arrived, and he stopped using his laptop on the other side of the living room while I was at the computer desk in the corner, and set up the new computer where the old computer I was using had been. Working out all this displacement extended a short hiatus, then a bunch of other things happened, so I’ve been lying fallow. I hope to start posting again soon.

    In the meantime I’ve found that Joseph Smith stopped changing hath to has at about the end of Alma or Helaman. He seems to have done more revising each time an edition ran out and a new one was needed. I suspect that if he had lived to oversee another edition he would have further polished his Book of Mormon translation.

  6. I’m very excited about your comment, Harlow, and I’m getting to it, but I must first write descriptions for the 1934 film Bolero and the 1935 film Rumba.

    Then I’ll come dance with you.

  7. Harlow, sorry I took so long. Life, work, and everything conspired to delay me. Some of those old pre-Hays code movies are really intense and interesting.

    Back to the discussion. You may be right that the distinction between words and action is not really based in the idea of language as a poor tool. The question is worth exploring. I trotted out my “language is a poor tool” counter-argument in response to twinklings I saw in President Bednar’s original quote as Wm provided it:

    True love requires action. We can speak of love all day long–we can write notes or poems that proclaim it, sing songs that praise it, and preach sermons that encourage it–but until we manifest that love in action, our words are nothing but “sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”

    Both this quote and the quote from Niles that I provided treat language metaphorically–referring to it as an instrument (Bednar–“sounding brass,” “tinkling cymbal”) a means by which something else is accomplished (or not), or an implement–a tool. In fact, the root of the word “instrument” is instrumentum, “implement,” “tool,” from instruere, to prepare (as tool are often used to do).

    President Bednar’s words appear to equate language–“speak of love,” “write notes or poems that proclaim [love],” “sing “¦ it”–with instruments, particularly and merely a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal–in other words, pretty sounds with little or no meaning. Thus he appears to distinguish words about love from actions that demonstrate love–actions that are love. Until we back up our words of love with action, they’re ineffectual instruments of intention. In fact, President Bednar’s statement contains more than a little suggestion that words generally are not action. Christ, President Bednar says, just after the quote Wm provided, didn’t just speak of love–he showed love in action as he went out to be with his people. That seems to support my seeing in his words a distinction between what we say and what we do.

    My point is that the distinction between words and action–often illustrated via the “instrument” or “tool” metaphor–dilutes the potency of language, or the nature of language as it is in some areas becoming. Language is action, not just talking about action–language is not necessarily “not doing something.” Bad language is bad behavior; ineffectual words are impotence. The worst words strike blows as incapacitating as wielded weapons.

    The best language, I think, is capable of effectual, if not entirely predictable, action and outcome. More specifically, the best language is an act of love. It provides for others. Words can heal and feed others and multiply their prospects. Words can reach the stranded soul, open seemingly closed ways, generate “counterworlds,” as Steiner said. The best language is fully capable of going out and doing among its hearers. I think Christ knew this. His Law-of-Moses-busting language–the Sermon on the Mount, for example–generated counterworlds to the eye-for-an-eye mindset the Jews were locked into. The Word was wholly new and mystifying–miraculous–to those to whom he spoke. His word did the seemingly impossible.

    The Niles quoting Steiner quote speaks of language as an instrument but then goes to “generation”–to the re-creation of the world. While being Christ’s hands and reaching out to others through the actions of service, comfort, and inclusion are all vital to Christ-like behavior, speaking Christ’s language–“Lazarus, come forth”–is also Christ-like behavior that affects others’ lives and influences the overall condition of this world. Not to mention how it might ripple into other worlds.

    That’s what I meant. I think literature is fully capable of generating progress/progression, but for it to do so we might need to think about language differently from how we commonly do.

    (Apologies for length–I ought to just put up a post, huh.)

  8. Patricia,
    Thanks for your reply. Right after reading it I spent about an hour writing notes about the difference between words and other actions and have been thinking about this topic every day. I’ll probably post some form of my notes, but I wanted to say something about the quote itself. However, I see what I wanted to say expanding in every direction, so I’ll just make a quick comment about Pres. Uchtdorf’s quote:

    “True love requires action. We can speak of love all day long–we can write notes or poems that proclaim it, sing songs that praise it, and preach sermons that encourage it–but until we manifest that love in action, our words are nothing but ‘sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.’

    Pres. Uchtdorf quotes Paul at the end, I Cor. 13, and he would have grown up with the Luthertext of that quote, which I first read in our textbook in Allen Keele’s German class, fall 1976. (I have a fondness for it because he also recited Guenter Grass’s parody, “Wenn ich mit Marx-Engels zung redete and haette die liebe nicht, so waere ich wie ein klingende schell oder ein toenend erz.” Ach, that I could be so brilliant–or clavier.)

    Actually, two brief comments. First, Paul’s image is not a metaphor, it’s a simile. We don’t pay much attention to the distinction because we tend to class all comparisons as metaphors, but metaphors work by displacement while similes don’t.

    If I say Edward Partridge was “like unto Nathaniel of old, an Israelite in whom there is no guile,” I’m comparing two historical personages. I can compare what I know about Bp Partridge (can you see me struggling mightily not to make some joke about that sitcom that had just come on the air in 1971 when our family returned from a year in Finland?)with what I know about Nathaniel.

    But if I say, “Edward Partridge is a metaphor for Nathaniel to me,” EP (EP Sur L’election de Son Tombeau is the title or subtitle of one of Lb.’s poems about a poet or two with the initials EP, though the second one usually has an A in the middle) becomes less and less important as a person and more important as a metaphor.

    This has broad implications for me because I often run into the argument that the ancients thought in terms of metaphors, and therefore scriptural stories are metaphors, not meant to be taken literally. But my own study suggests that the scriptural writers at least thought in terms of types and shadows and similes, forms of comparison where the figurative part of the comparison does not displace the literal part.

    Second, I don’t see Pres. Uchtdorf’s comment as suggesting that language is a poor tool, rather that language is a poor substitute for other kinds of things, the kind of poor substitute James was talking about when he mentions saying to a beggar “be thou fed and clothed” and then just walking away.

  9. Patricia,
    I said I would likely post the notes I made originally, and I’ve been thinking a lot for the last couple of weeks about the very strange nature of words, so much so that when I got out my notes tonight and saw the June 1 date, I realized I’d compressed time, and it hasn’t been two weeks, it’s been six.

    What I’m struggling with is that part of what gives words their power is that they exist autonomously, in some sense. I’ve been thinking about them in terms Salman Rushdie sets out in the last 2 essays in Step Across This Line. He talks about how 9/11/2001 changed our perception of borders, because the actions came from people who had no borders they were unwilling to transgress.

    What does that mean for a transgressive artist like myself, he asks. Is it time to pull back and not transgress? The answer is no. There is a very important difference between flying a plane into a building and tilting the wings just before it hits, to take out the maximum number of floors (close paraphrase) and opening a novel with a description of a plane exploding in mid-air, and describing everything that’s falling through the air.

    Rushdie doesn’t use that example. I’m explicating because I find the opening of The Satanic Verses such a charming imaginative feat. (Still haven’t read the rest yet) And that’s the difference. You blow up a plane on the page and no plane in the world gets blown up–unless you’re in an imaginative world like that of Stephen King’s Word Processor of the Gods, but that’s still an imaginary world.

    That’s what I’ve been turning over in my mind, but when I typed the word “autonomously” above, this came to mind: “All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence” (D&C 93:30).

    And there it is. Words act independently making music in the sphere in which God has placed them. Sometimes words combine with physical objects to work their truth, as in hands laid on a head, or ink arranged on a page, sometimes hands themselves speak, and sometimes words work through vibrations spoken and heard.

    (This was supposed to be a preface to what I wrote June 1, and I may still post that because Rushdie has some interesting things to say about words and non-words, but for now I think I’ll go to bed. Gud knyghte.)

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