Criticism: Truth and the Problem of Fiction

A cliché about fiction, popular even among LDS authors, holds that all fiction is a lie, which means, roughly, that all fiction is doubtable. This suggests that to one degree or another all stories are disreputable and misleading, some perhaps harmfully so while others merely require the willing suspension of disbelief. While there’s value in this disclaimer, I submit that the contrary idea–all fiction is true–holds greater value.

When I try to understand the position of the writer or reader of stories, Plato’s allegory of the cave in Book VII of the The Republic comes to mind. In Plato’s allegory, prisoners are shackled to a cave’s wall, tied in their belief to the shadows passing before them and the sounds of men behind them carrying the objects casting the shadows. We could say that because these prisoners merely see shadows of real objects and events they’re not experiencing reality, or truth. We could say the fictions they make about the sounds and shadows will necessarily be lies–we might even conclude they have no value at all.

But would this be right? The shadows really are shadows, so as shadows they are real, or true. The prisoners interact with the shadows, and so we could say their interactions are real interactions. Furthermore, the prisoners speak about the shadows, and though their speaking is only about shadows they speak about the light that both defines and causes the shadows, whether they know it or not. So it seems to me the truth of their situation is potent qua truth, even compared with the truth of their companion’s situation when he is dragged from the cave into daylight; even if everyone involved is unaware of just what truth it is their fictions reveal.

We may still consider this fellow who has been forced out of his old context a prisoner while his eyes adjust to the brightness. At this point, his faculties are confused. What are we to think of the story he makes about his condition (and he will make a story)? Then there’s the case of the man (same fellow as before, yet not the same) who, after having been dragged from his cave, and having experienced in progressing clarity an illuminated world, returns to the cave and sees more clearly the nature of images on the wall than he did when he was a prisoner. Will any narrative he makes be more “true” than the others’ narratives or even than his own narratives from an earlier period?

The difference in these stories lies in the difference between the truth of the storytellers’ situations as compared to the assertions the storytellers present as truth. The story of the prisoners in the cave is true in that their situation truly is, it’s as real as that of the prisoner forced from the cave, even if they completely misunderstand their circumstances.

Some will hold the traveled prisoner to be better informed and value more what he has to say; others will ridicule his stories just as Socrates suggests the traveled prisoner’s former companions would likely ridicule his insights. But the stories of everyone involved are true in that no matter what they say there’s the light containing their shadows, the truth informing their fictions. That such stories are true in ways their writers and readers aren’t conscious of means that sometimes as readers or writers we may not grasp right away how a story is true, and maybe in some cases we may not grasp its truth at all, but this ought not to trouble us. As Scott Momaday says of ancient pictographs in southern Utah, which he considers to be the first American literature, “We do not know what they mean, but we know that we are involved in their meaning.” In this single sentence Momaday’s language combines the angst of irony with the buoyancy of faith. A strong sense of involvement may produce the inquiry that sets us on the trail of meaning.

If we accept Paul’s metaphors in “For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face; now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known,” as being Mormon in outlook and also as being analagous to metaphors in Plato’s allegory, we may conclude LDS fiction is in roughly the same state as nonLDS fiction–struggling with relationships between shadows and light, and perhaps running behind the foremost of the nonLDS bunch in the effort. To catch up it might help to shed the “all fiction is a lie” cliché and adopt in its place the idea that all fiction is true. The former relegates fiction to a dimly lit space, at times even capping off the dialogue, while the latter allows for exploration and expansion proceeding toward, as Orson F. Whitney says, ” “¦ literature whose top shall touch heaven, though its foundations may now be low in earth.”

(Adapted from a post to the Association for Mormon Letters’s Discussion List)

Commentary: Eve, the Mother of … Human Free Will?

Eve’s role in the story of the Fall has been interpreted and re-interpreted. At times labeled villain, at other times celebrated for her wisdom and self-sacrifice, the Mother of All Living remains a sufficiently complex character, inviting, as the human species progresses, reconsideration at nearly every Judeo-Christian cultural turn. Given the recent trend in therapy that argues a person doesn’t do something, even something bad, unless she gets some payoff from doing it, I have wondered what it was Eve may have gotten out of her transgression of eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Some would say, “Well, she took the first difficult steps in God’s plan for mankind, making it possible not only for us all to be born but also for us to learn to choose between good and evil and return to His presence through the Plan of Salvation.” Sounds good, but this answer is more about what we get out of the Fall. What, besides the title “Mother of All Living” and mixed reviews, does Eve get?

I think the fact that it was Eve, not Adam, who chose to disobey the Lord means something, but not what many people think it means–that she was weak, stupid, defiant, or irresponsible in contrast to Adam’s strength and obedience. Nor do I think that it necessarily means that she was self-sacrificing. The story itself contains no evidence pointing inarguably to such conclusions. What the story does tell us is that she listens to the Serpent and sees everything together, probably for the first time: that the “tree was good for food,” “that it was pleasant to the eyes,” that it was “a tree to be desired to make one wise.” So on one hand, she has God’s word: “Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.” On the other hand, she now has the Serpent’s words, “Ye shall not surely die,” as well as the provocative qualities of the fruit and tree. Then Eve does something that, according to the story, nobody had ever done before–she chooses. By this one act, an act of new consciousness, Eve changes the world.

For one thing, she and Adam can no longer live in their original, innocent home–the only place in this world they’ve ever known. Now they must work the earth to get what they need to live, the same earth, according to the story, from which they were formed. Also, Eve’s act forces them out of the only state of mind they have known as mortals–complete, unexamined obedience to God.

Did “agency,” as LDS call it, exist before Eve made her decision to partake of the fruit? According to LDS beliefs, those of us that have been born on this earth chose this life when as spirits we were presented with two plans for the future of mankind–Satan’s and Christ’s. But here on earth, Eve’s choice was the first manifestation of human agency, and in this matter she may be considered a pioneer, the “Mother of Human Free Will.” Many modern cultures take human agency for granted, but the Creation story suggests that agency started as some new spark of consciousness in Eve. Before taking the fruit, the brand of obedience she and Adam manifested may be compared to children accepting choices that have already been made for them. Like children, Adam and Eve were all innocence, no responsibility, until Eve left her childhood behind and chose an option that lay outside those the Eternal Parent provided (although it could be argued that if God really hadn’t wanted them to eat of the Tree He could have placed it somewhere out of reach).

Eve was in a unique place; her choice opens the Age of Accountability. It also opens up possibilities for the rest of us when we read the story. Because of that story we have the commandment not to partake of Forbidden Fruit and we’ve also got Eve’s choice to partake laid out next to the commandment, and that’s a gift. But back to our original question: What did Eve get out of eating the Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? Well, one could say she got free will, the first of its kind and a big payoff, indeed. Intelligence being tied inseparably to active free will, she experienced those first stirrings of progressive intelligence as she chose from among possibilities, became aware of the consequences of her actions, saw new possibilities, and chose from among those. It appears that Adam gained human agency as a result of Eve’s initiation of the physics, chemistry, and biology of choice in this world.

Just for fun, let’s take this a step farther: Eve’s choice in the story of the Garden of Eden suggests human free will is feminine domain, and recent genetic research suggests this domain extends to the genetic level, since newly developed gene maps lay out clear genetic female paths but not clear male ones, indicating at this point in the research matriachal control of the genetic momentum of the human race. Then there exist all the cultural cliches about women, such as “It’s a woman prerogative to change her mind,” an idea published throughout the globe, such as here, in Pope’s “Moral Essays”: “Ladies, like variegated tulips, show/’Tis to their changes half their charms we owe.” In the Pro-Choice philosophy, femimine control of the genetic momentum of the human race collides with the folk-whimsey that “By an unwritten law it is held to be the priviledge of the woman to change her mind, a licence of which she rarely fails to avail herself” to produce the assertion, “It’s my body, I can do with it what I choose.” A double-edged philosophy–one reflective of Eve’s act in the garden, but perhaps as mirror image. And like Eve’s role in the Fall it requires further scrutiny not only of the choices it offers, but of how consequences of such choices play out for the rest of us.

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.