Criticism: The Jonah Principle

In Fear and Trembling, Soren Kierkegaard says that when a person asserts his particularity over and against the universal, he sins. In the Old Testament, the prophet Jonah does this and so he sins when God calls him to warn the Ninevehns to repent or be destroyed and he flees the call. In fact, Jonah frequently sins in intention yet still effects a change of heart in the people who take his message to heart.

Traditionally, the role of prophet is a position created by the universal in the sense that it is the result of and is closely allied with the universal. Thus the prophet comes as a representative of the universal to urge every man asserting his particularity (“turning after his own way”) to return to the universal. The prophet himself might not be fully in harmony with the universal at the onset of the call, but may grow into it, as did Moses, Elijah, and Christ. Yet the prophet’s role remains to remind his people of the usual results of asserting themselves against the universal: death.

When Jonah receives his call, he does not behave like a traditional prophet. He asserts his particularity and tries to escape the distasteful, dangerous, and to his mind humiliating task of urging a people he detests to repentance when he’d much rather see them destroyed. He runs but is caught and is even shown up by his pagan companions on the storm-wracked ship. Here, for the first time since the story begins, he throws over his particularity and then is himself thrown over the ship’s rail. He appears to surrender himself to the will of God.

In the sea, Jonah is “saved” by being swallowed by a fish, and while in its belly he sings a song expressing sentiments more in line with the traditional prophet’s state of mind. As a result of this experience, Jonah accepts at least on the surface the traditional prophetic role and does indeed tell the Ninevehns that their departure from the universal will result in their destruction. To his dismay, his message is successful: the Ninevehn king declares a general repentance, the population begins to realign with the universal, and Nineveh is saved. But this does not please Jonah. Once again his particularity arouses; he condemns God’s fairmindedness as being unfair. He takes up a position on a nearby hill to observe what happens to the city. There God teaches him another lesson with a gourd plant, but whether this lesson takes or not we never learn, because Jonah’s story ends here.

We would not call Jonah an exemplary prophet. He breaks out of the prophetic tradition often and asserts himself in outbursts of pride. But when he does approach the universal (or divine order, or will of God), miraculous events occur: his life is spared by noteworthy means and the Ninevehns shave their heads and put on sackcloth and ashes and move themselves neatly into the universal. Jonah then promptly departs from it. Nevertheless, the fact remains that when he performs as a prophet and calls the Ninevehns back into the universal the Ninevehns respond sympathetically and change their lives.

The same is true for literary endeavors. All writers have moments ranging from blatant assertion against the universal to more subtle twisting of perception in the name of seeking after the universal when actually they are asserting their particularity against it. Most, if not all, writers and thinkers experience moments where they rebel against the universal (actually impossible, because the universal includes these moments as being part of it) as well as those timeless moments of sublime alignment with it.

My point: Jonah generally behaves in ways unbecoming to his calling as a prophet: he fears for his life, he flees, he mourns his reputation (he worries he’ll be thought a liar when the Ninevehns are spared), he is generally self-absorbed and complains constantly. Yet when he speaks truth the Ninevehns turn from their violence. Jonah’s actions after delivering his truth tell us his words to the Ninevehns were truer than he was (they were taken more truly than they were spoken), yet many lives changed because of the true words of this untrue man. I call this the Jonah Principle of literature–that stories whose motives are less than pure may still bear power to move people more deeply into the universal or into greater harmony with the divine.

Criticism: LDS Literary Nature Writing, or the Lack Thereof

Literary nature writing has a strained reputation among LDS audiences, with some reason. It’s hard to forget that Ed Abbey, the crusty padre of nature writing, gave us the infamous Mormon character Bishop Love in The Monkey Wrench Gang, setting up Love’s vision of unlimited development of the West as being not only representative of Mormon attitudes about wilderness but also as natural enemy to environmentalist interests in the American Southwest.

I attended a reading Cactus Ed gave at BYU back in the early 80s, held in the Wilkinsen Center, I think. In an act of sympathetic anarchy, someone in the mostly Mormon audience slipped him a six-pack of German import beer. Abbey mingled with the reading attendees, all the while clutching his brown paper bag beneath his arm.

I saw him again in the late 80s at the University of Arizona, where he was on the faculty. As he drifted down the hall, a strange expression of serenity on his face, I heard other students also watching ask each other, “Well, do you think Ol’ Ed’s gonna to make it to class today?” Ed Abbey died March 14th, 1989, at the age of 62, reportedly following four days of esophageal hemorrhaging. A probable contributing factor to his untimely death: years of hard living. Of course, hard living was a trademark of his prose, and his famous name is associated with a brand of environmentalism linked with misanthropy.

Terry Tempest Williams is perhaps the best known Mormon contemporary writer focusing on environmental concerns. Like Abbey her writing about the Southwest region has received national acclaim. Yet her seeming ambivalence toward LDS culture and toward her own multi-generation Mormon upbringing has caused some LDS to class her as a non-Mormon writer, with some even considering her to be anti-Mormon. A few individuals feel so strongly that Williams’s prose attacks the church that they took steps to block her readings at BYU.

Two years ago I attended a writing workshop taught by literary nature writer and NPR commentator, Mary Sojourner. With great emotion, she told how during one of her readings a woman in the audience shouted, “The only way this world has a chance is if human beings are wiped out!” Mary seemed to be in agreement with the overwrought audience member’s sentiment.

LDS don’t know how to interpret the ambivalence, misanthropy, or sorrow that crops up in traditional literary nature writing, especially when the high rhetoric expressing such emotions threatens LDS lifestyles and beliefs. Well I have good news: there’s a new kind of literary nature writing emerging, one that depends more on educating rather than blaming, illuminating rather than lamenting; one, I believe, that Mormon audiences may embrace with enthusiasm.

This new kind of literary nature writing may be summed up by the vision statement of Isotope, a literary nature and science journal out of Utah State University. In Isotope’s earlier incarnation as Petroglyph, works of either sorrowful lament or the wildly, sometimes irrationally celebratory type once found outlet. When Petroglyph changed name to Isotope, it received an ideological makeover as well. Perhaps realizing the old bipolar personality of nature writing limited the prospects for influence and appreciation, Isotope sought a broader way: it expanded its original traditonal nature writing mission by inviting science and a better-natured rationality to the table.

Admittedly, one unfortunate effect of such a merger could be the degrading of science into pop-science, but in this humble reader and writer’s opinion, the vision statement of Isotope and the work of writers like Ellen Meloy (The Anthropology of Turquoise) and Craig Childs (The Secret Knowledge of Water) bring a new grace and, darn it, friendliness to nature writing, freeing up the narrative for development into something more fertile and attractive to LDS.

Perhaps it’s time for LDS writers of environmental persuasion to begin developing the literary nature writing tradition within their culture. One thing for sure: Mormons are way underrepresented in the literary eco-writing world. I see no compelling reason for that vacancy.

About Patricia Karamesines

(Following William’s pattern of switching to obligatory third person)

Patricia has been described as a poet, a novelist, a folklorist, an editor, and a literary critic. Certainly at times she behaves as if she were any and all of these and a few other things besides.

Patricia grew up in the rural Virginia countryside, where she imprinted deeply upon the local flora and fauna. When she left the East to attend Brigham Young University in Utah she brought her impressionability with her, transferring it, perhaps irrevocably, to the desert Southwest. A literary nature journalist by nature, she does tend to write about the natural world “¦ a lot. Whenever she can, she travels to the desert, the nearest place where the infinite becomes the obvious, and wanders from shimmering horizon to shimmering horizon (within reason). A firm believer in the dynamics of language, how language does things to and for people, and in the power of narrative for pro-creation and re-creation, and in the abilities of all language to multiply and replenish or to exploit and ravage, she is a constant explorer of The Possible.

Her opinions are fluid, apt to change with the slightest revelatory experience or if, as she’s said elsewhere, magic words are uttered. She truly believes that she is always wrong and that the point of her life is to become less wrong–for her, a liberating concept.

Currently, Patricia lives in Utah Valley with her husband Mark and three children.