Criticism: JT Leroy, Mormonism and authenticity

So it turns out that literary darling JT Leroy* isn’t a former teenage cross-dressing hustler from the South turned transgendered San Francisco reclusive author. Nope, he is the work of Laura Albert, a middle class writer from San Francisco (with her husband’s half sister playing the rare public appearances). A fairly full account of the hoax can be found in New York Magazine.

Faithful Bloggernacle Times readers will recall that Leroy got a mention in the March 7 edition of Bloggernacle A&E.

Here’s what I wrote at that time (the link to the original post doesn’t work and I can’t seem to fix it):

“Literary darling J.T. Leroy writes what I think is a review of the new Zwan album for a hip New Zealand mag. Apparently the album was recorded in Salt Lake City — or at least it was in Leroy’s fictitious account/possibly a review.

According to Leroy, “the Mormons knew something majestic was afoot and camped outside of the newly acquired double-wide practice space that floated in the lake much like the car in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Mormons threw coke cans at the double-wide, which they perceived in their righteousness as a marker of rebellious redemption.” [WARNING: the review(?) contains harsh language and is not entirely intelligible].”

Right. So who cares? Minor footnote. Turns out Leroy is a fraud. Whatever.


But at the same time, I was suprised to find the tiniest bit of outrage creep out as I read the details of the hoax.

Whether authors intend it or not (and with JT Leroy it was clearly a big part of the intention), readers adjust their readerly expectations based on their perceptions of the author. When authors trade on those perceptions (esp. as strongly as Leroy did), then readers deserve a reasonable measure of authenticity in the transaction. This especially holds true when an author use the materials of a reader’s people/ethnicity/community as grist for his or her work.

Although Mormons don’t have cause to speak as strongly (and rightly) as Armistead Maupin did in a Jan. 10 San Francisco Chronicle article on the hoax — “A lot of people argue that such frauds cause no harm and are a great joke played on the literary establishment … But in fact there’s something very callous about using AIDS and an abusive childhood as a way of getting sympathy and support…” — my (admittedly small) outrage isn’t completely off base.

Or to put it bluntly — I can swallow the use of tired Mormon tropes from someone with Leroy’s bio, but not from some smug, bougie San Francisco wannabe-edgie, middle-aged author (of course, I’m a smug, wannabe-bougie, thirtysomething Oakland blogger, fwiw).

So here’s my challenge to Laura Albert:

You cop to being Leroy, and I’ll happily provide free manuscript reviews of any of your future writings that feature Mormonism for the rest of your career.

* NOTE: This is an instance where Wikipedia clearly shows its value as a community-created resource.

Criticism: C.L. Hanson on Mormon literature

The Utah Valley Monitor has published a column by C.L. Hanson that apparently was prompted by Patricia’s post on a recent letter from Irreantum editor Laraine Wilkins to the readers of the journal (which is published by the Association for Mormon Letters). Hanson then posted a comment here at AMV with a link to the column and: “Doing my part for the cause… ;-)”

The piece is rather fascinating in that it illustrates the divide (and the misunderstanding of the Mormon cultural scene) that exists between conservative and liberal (or faithful and apostate — or whatever lame labels one wants to use) Mormons (and I should make it clear that I’m speaking for myself and not for my co-bloggers — who are free to chime in with their own thoughts).

Hanson’s column focuses on her decision to submit a ‘racy’ story to Irreantum and her reaction to its rejection by the editor. It’s rather amusing in places and as a frequent purveyor of self-deprecation myself, I have to say that I admire her facile use of that particular mode of humor.

However, Hanson gets the Mormon cultural scene, and, in my opinion, the mission of Irreantum wrong. Or to be blunt, I’m not sure that her cause is exactly our cause. It very well may be, but that’s not really evidenced in her column.

In particular, Hanson writes:

“My impression is that that’s not the way it works in LDS society. You see, if (like me!) you write a story in which most of the characters just happen to be Mormons (some more righteous, some less), throw in a bunch of borderline-inappropriate sex jokes, and top it off by accidentally forgetting to mention how inspiring General Conference is, that’s not Mormon literature. That’s anti-Mormon literature.”

This is, of course, meant to be humorous, but I also don’t see evidence that Hanson understands how rich, interesting and fruitful the field of Mormon letter is — even as it is, admittedly, still underdeveloped. I invite her to engage such works as Alan Rex Mitchell’s “Angel of the Danube,” Richard Dutcher’s “States of Grace”; Margaret Young’s “Salvador”; Doug Thayer’s “The Conversion of Jeff Williams”; Bela Petco’s “Nothing very important and other stories.”

I also wonder how equipped she is to engage with literature that is from a faithful perspective. In other words, it’s two-way street. And to stretch the image a bit too far — unfortunately too many people seem to want to stand on either side of it and point and yell at each other while the real fun stuff is going on in the middle.

At any rate thank you, C.L., for giving me the chance to reinforce the mission and tone of A Motley Vision:

Through criticism, personal essay, news and reviews, we’re trying to build a discourse that fully, faithfully engages Mormon culture and Mormon worldviews. We want to cultivate readers and authors who have moved beyond the ‘if it’s edgy and pisses of Mormons, it’s cool’ and the ‘I find that offensive and in fact think that fiction is suspect you should just read the scriptures’ discourses. Yes, we will do this from the perspective of believing Mormons, but the beauty and danger and allure of narrative and visual arts is that there’s room for exploring the messiness of life.

NOTE: For those interested in Irreantum’s take on content appropriateness for its readers, read “Three Kinds of Appropriateness” (it’s an approach I fully endorse). For my take on appropriate content, read Mormons and media consumption.

Criticism: Of Narratives And Cuckoos

This and related linked articles around the bloggernacle prompt me to note this.

Abortion is commonly defined as “the termination of pregnancy and expulsion of an embryo or fetus,” or “a procedure resulting in such termination and expulsion.” Other shadings include “to bring to premature or fruitless termination.” In biology, “abort” means “to undergo arrestment of development.”

“Abort’s” root is from L. orior, “to arise, appear, come into being.” Anyone seeing similarity between this root and the root of the word “originate” would be correct. Take the root of “originate,” affix a preposition, ab, “off,” “away,” “from,” and you get a complicated word that seems to self-immolate: “To arise, appear, come into being” + “off” or “away.” To appear off? To come into being away? The AHD helps out here. Aboriri, “disappear, miscarry.”

The word “abort” is applied widely, as in “The mission has been aborted.” “Abort” keys on computer keyboards can interrupt a program’s or function’s progress toward its natural end. Are these uses of the word literal or metaphorical? Metaphorical or not, using the word to describe decisive actions resulting in the interruption of a process, natural or mechanical, is commonplace.

Can we use it to describe ideological miscarriages or attitudes resulting in the expulsion of embryonic ideas or the termination of competing lines of thought? Could we say that for a medical abortion to occur, certain ideological, or just plan logical, abortions occur first? Is the decision to abort a fetus itself an abortion, an expulsion of the concept of gestating, giving birth to, and raising a child?

In other words, may we use the word “abort” to speak of terminations of conceptions in general? If we develop a line of thought or literature whose purpose is to set cultural, political, or other ideological boundaries, may the rejected ideas be considered aborted?

IMO, narrative, not just literary but the daily narratives we construct about our experiences, is a function of agency. The stories we tell ourselves mark the boundaries of our choices, how far we’ve gone in taking responsibility for ourselves, how far we’re willing to go, and how far we expect others to go. Some people, like my disabled daughter, depend upon caretakers not only for food and other basic needs but also for narrative, stories that open possibilites from which they may choose and from which others may choose for them. To a greater degree than is usually true for the rest of us, caretakers control narrative for at least some of the disabled.

If caretakers, communities, organizations, or branches of science usually associated with helping people construct narratives saying “there’s nothing we can do here” or “this is the only thing we can do here,” everyone involved runs the risk of limiting the agency of dependents relying upon them for physical and narrative aid during mortal crises or other circumstances requiring life-defining decisions. If we develop narratives that say, “These people are not productive members of society” (with “productive” limited here to “capable of holding down a job, paying taxes, and doing one’s part to keep the wheels of society going”), such storylines not only limit choices for the disabled, the abandoned, or abused but threaten life itself. Agency and the progress that may result from actively engaged agency falters all the way around

The EPA’s new rules for testing hazardous chemicals used in pesticides “categorically” protect pregnant women and children from human dosing but contain loopholes specifically permitting testing on abused or neglected children. On one hand we have the EPA’s mission statement: “The mission of the Environmental Protection Agency is to protect human health and the environment.” On the other, we have the EPA’s response to challenges to their rules: “Abused and neglected children were specifically singled out [for systematic and daily pesticide experimentation] to create “˜additional protection’ for them …” Clearly, the EPA is negotiating narrative with the public.

Birds like cuckoos and cowbirds lay eggs in other birds’ nests. Some bird parents, returning to the nest, notice intrusive eggs and push them out. Undiscerning parents wind up nurturing invasive fledglings, who monopolize food, bully native fledglings, and often wind up the nest’s sole occupiers. I’m not familiar with the whole EPA story yet, but like other forms of miscarrying rhetoric, including rhetoric surrounding abortion and forms of abortion after the fact (like the euthanization of the disabled), I suspect the EPA narrative is striving to push other narratives from the nest.

Some might argue that prevailing narratives always “abort” other narratives; that is, in choosing any narrative course we reject other conceptions. This is where I think the agency-oriented language of the gospel shines through.

Satan’s narratives turn on the phrase, “This is the only way.” Christ’s turn on the phrase, “Choose ye this day.” “This is the only way” narrative admits no other possibilities; it’s abortive narrative that funnels choice in particular directions and coerces behavior, usually for the narrator’s personal gain. “Choose ye this day” narrative admits to other narratives and allows for their choice. “Choose ye this day” narrative invests in human potential, imagining new personal and communal spiritual possibilities and frontiers for human progression. Also, “Choose ye this day” language allows for other choices’ existence, even depends upon them to mark pathways for man’s eternal life and immortality.

IMO, fertile, native narratives tapping directly into pro-creative, pro-active “Choose ye this day” rhetoric aren’t forthcoming fast enough. Miscarrying, cuckolding language of “This is the only way” narratives abound. We LDS aren’t always discerning enough to recognize the invading rhetoric of parasitic ideologies; sometimes we take them underwing and raise them as our own (like this one). Also, we aren’t producing enough native narratives of the “Choose ye this day” variety to meet the needs of people within and without the church searching for viable and possibility-laden language. Stories merely reinforcing cultural boundaries won’t do; they won’t matter to others in the way that stories reinforcing others’ cultural boundaries don’t matter to us. We need to produce original stories in the root meaning of “arising, appearing, coming into being.” Truly original narratives open possibilities for development: they multiply and replenish agency, not just for humans but for other species living on Earth.

Criticism: The Working Language of Good and Evil, Part V

(In Part IV of this series we looked at how sacred language and stories of resolution and wisdom labor to unravel traps that deadly language weaves to catch its victims. Shamanistic or holy storytellers act as repositories of “ways out,” keeping alive important language that tells what heroes or gods have done over the ages to combat monsters, witches, and other evils. Also, good language reveals or explores what is possible. As such, sacred stories, songs, and prayers help maintain the momentum of human culture and progress. Part V is the final segment of this series.)

Ceremonial language intended to heal a victim of a witch attack or related trouble guides the bewitched carefully along established paths to health and readmission to society. The linguistic dance steps undertaken during such ceremonies are as carefully choreographed as those that the witch used to isolate the victim and move her into position for attack. The simple yet elegant language of the Coyoteway curing ceremony is just such an example of carefully choreographed language. A series of chants made on the eighth and ninth days of the Coyoteway demonstrate how deliberately the shaman leads the bewitched out of captivity and returns her to sanity and to her cultural context. The following interpretation of Coyoteway songs are from Karl Luckert’s Coyoteway, University of Arizona Press. For the purposes of restoration, the patient’s “Mind” moves separately from the “I” of the song, the patient. The remainder of this segment of the chant recreates a context for the song’s “Mind” and the “I,” placing them together on holy paths:

With my Mind I walk in the presence of the Sun,
with my Mind I walk, with my mind I walk,
with my Mind I walk, with my mind I walk.
Beneath the Two Rising, with my Mind I walk.
Where White Coyote Medicine is, with my mind I walk.
Where White Air is, with my Mind I walk.

The remainder of the chant recreates a context for the Mind and the “I” of the song, placing them on sacred paths:

On the Path of yellow Cornpollen, with my Mind I walk.
Among Rainbows, with my Mind I walk.
Amid round Corn, with my Mind I walk, with my Mind I walk.

And so on along paths of beauty that wind through the harmonious universe.  Then the song takes the next step, which is to begin reuiniting the patient with his Mind:

I am looking for my Mind in the presence of the Sun,
I am looking for my Mind, I am looking for my Mind,
I am looking for my mind “¦

Next, the “I” in the chant finds “Mind”:

I have found my Mind in the presence of the Sun,
I have found my Mind, I have found my Mind,
I have found my Mind, I have found my Mind “¦

Now that the “I” and “Mind” have found each other, the “I” brings “Mind” back, revives it, and learns to walk with it all over again in increasing wholeness. The chant invokes positive and powerful dieties who surround the patient, and “everything is made Happiness.” The dieties sing for the patient, restoring identity and position in the Navajo Way. The singing penetrates to the “rain behind the Rainbow,” “among ripe plants behind the rain,” “at the roots of Sunshine.” Now that rain has been stimulated at its roots, it begins to fall, cleansing and futher restoring sanity and harmony. The song ends with the chant, “The blessing is given.”

The painstaking steps through which the Coyoteway chant progresses are maintained through nine days of ceremony and one-hundred-and-sixty songs. Step by step, the path to social consciousness is re-established, uniting the patient not only with his Mind but also in harmonious song with Nature and the dieties that have combined to grant the supplicant her blessing of sanity, restoring balance and happiness, which she shares then with the community and world to which she belongs.

Sometimes in folk literature, the object of a witch’s attack is portrayed as an innocent and helpless victim whose only offence is being in the wrong place at the wrong time; that is, she stumbles into the witch’s path or is otherwise targeted for capture by all-knowing and inescapable powers. In some cases this is true, but more usually the sufferer is in some way responsible for her peril. Satanists admit to preying on others by striking at the heart of their intended victim’s personal weaknesses or vices, not by uttering a catch-all formula that affects everyone equally. Commonly, such “Achilles’s heels” are drives and ambitions–hubris, envy, various and assorted lusts–that are themselves characteristic traits of witches. The target, operating under the influence of one of these drives, puts herself in harm’s way or at the very least is perceived as having done so. Children’s naivete and adult ignorance furnish some exceptions, but in such cases the community may share the responsibility for improperly educating its members on the hazards of contact with vindictive and dangerous people, for neglecting to teach the social and personal dangers of transgressing vital communal or sacred laws, or for failing to teach its members the finer points of walking the Earth with respect for all Earth’s inhabitants. In other words, in instances where the community fails to endow its individual members with empowered language, the entire community may suffer the consequences when one of its members comes under attack.

Commonly, shamans or “unwitchers” join their death wishes to the victim’s to turn the witch’s evil back on him. However, this puts the witch in a position identical to the one the victim occupied formerly, with the shaman replacing the witch as the attacker.

Generally, a witch attack may be interpreted thusly: an idle, greedy, or otherwise troublesome person pursues a path of selfish or dangerously curious desires and is confronted by a danger greater than the one harbored in her own character. This dangerous entity either desires to have her for its own or to punish her for her presumtions, thus magnifying its own power. At the point of crisis, the witch’s powerful language blinds its victim with fear and hopelessness; the victim cannot see through the witch’s language to spring clear of the trap. In archetypal ceremonies such as the Coyoteway, a guide undertakes ritural journeys of strong language to retrieve the patient from the trap, employing prayers, chants, medicine, and counseling. Using such language, the guide travels with the patient through points of reconciliation and repentance, revealing and restoring intricacies of relationship the patient has shattered and is incapable of repairing herself or even of seeing the need for repair.

Much room remains in the world’s cultures for stories, songs, prayers, ceremonies and language of all shapes that work at the knots of spellbinding tales like “The Dead Princess.” Older story matter from many sources, whether it’s generally considered great literature or sacred matter or not, ought to be passed around freely. We should preserve and build upon reservoirs of sacred words that not only restore victims’ lives to them and harmony to the world but that also consider the victimizer to avoid perpetuating effects of harmful language. Also, the need exists for stories, songs, prayers, and ceremonies that open ever broadening paths for our cultural, spiritual, and intellectual progressions.

Literature Cited

Favret-Saada, Jeanne. Deadly Words. Translated by Catherine Cullen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Lehmann, Arthur, and Myers, James. Intro. to “Witchcraft, Sorcery, and Other Evil Forces.” In Magic, Witchcraft and Religion: An Anthropological Study of the
. Ed. Arthur Lehmann and James Myers. Palo Alto and London: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1985.

Luckert, Karl. Coyoteway: A Navajo Holyway Healing Ceremonial. Tucson and Flagstaff: The University of Arizona Press and the Museum of Northern Arizona
Press, 1979.

Moody, Edward. “Urban Witches.” In Magic, Witchcraft and Religion: An Anthropological Study of the Supernatural. Ed. Arthur Lehmann and James Myers. Palo Alto and London: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1985. 427-37.

Offiong, Daniel. “Witchcraft Among the Ibibio of Nigeria.” In Magic, Witchcraft and Religion: An Anthropological Study of the Supernatural. Ed. Arthur Lehmann and James Myers. Palo Alto and London: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1985. 427-37.

Straub, Peter. Shadowland. New York: Berkley Books, 1981.

Toelken, Barre. “The Pretty Language of Yellowman: Genre, Mode and Texture in Navaho Coyote Narratives.” Genre 2 (1969): 211-235.

Criticism: The Working Language of Good and Evil, Part IV

(Part III explored the idea that using language in any way is an act, and so barbed or deadly language may threaten or damage the physical or psychological wellbeing of its intended victim as effectively as physical acts do. Language invested with the task of wielding control must be carefully focused. In cultures where witchcraft is an openly acknowledged phemomenon, certain sets of words, followed by unaccountable misfortune, mark an attack. In cultures where witchcraft is not acknowledged, the witch uses perceptive language to find and manipulate the psychological “Achilles’ heel” of his or her victim. An important feature of such language is that it strives to convince its victim that the witch’s proposed course of action is “the only way,” thus sealing off avenues of escape.)

As the language of witchcraft weaves to close corridors of escape, sacred language, including holy words, the language of healing ceremonies, tales of resolution and recovery, and words of comfort and wisdom, labor to unravel the trap and deliver the sufferer. The natural remedy for captivating language is language that creates alternatives outside of the choices established–language that opens up possibilities. But if you are a sparrow, finding such language is difficult. You need the help of a god, a shaman, a priest, a hero, or some other person with “strong blood”–the power to reveal “ways out” you might not imagine or choose for yourself.

An Apache tale recounting the origin of healing ceremonies is one of many that demonstrates how help for sufferers comes from outside (Erdoes 1984:38). Two men become sick but their people can’t help them because no one has ever become ill and no curing knowledge exists. The One Who Made The Earth intercedes, telling one sufferer, “Everything on earth has power to cause its own kind of sickness, make its own trouble. There is a way to cure all these things.” Then come the story’s point: “Now this man understood that knowledge was available.” Four men facing in the sacred directions start chanting. The story tells, “They did not conceive this pattern in their own minds “¦ It was as if the knowledge of what they could chant or sing had suddenly been transmitted to them from outside.”

Whether holy ways or ways out are revealed to a people by gods or by someone with wisdom and prophetic insight, or whether they’re uncovered by a hero who through strength or resourcefulness frees his people from a monster’s tyrrany, freedom and wholeness must be begotten upon the consciousness of entrapped people by someone who knows something and is himself fertile with possibilities. The reservoir of stories recounting what heroes do in archetypal events forms an encyclopedia of ways out. Adding to such a collection and then passing it on helps provide for the health and safety of the culture that inherits it.

As a witch must have an actual subject to speak against and ensnare with words, so also must an unwitcher, shaman, priest, or sacred storyteller have a genuine need that he strives to fulfill with language. Simply having tales, chants, and rituals at hand is not enough, since disembodied from relevant circumstances they are merely generalities without referents.

Barre Toelken notes the marked difference in the way the Navajo storyteller Yellowman spoke his Coyote tales to a tape recorder and the way he performed them for his children (Toelken 1969:221). Toelken says it became clear to him ” . . . that Yellowman sees the Coyote stories not as narratives (in our sense of the term) but as dramatic presentations performed within certain cultural contexts for moral and philosophical reasons” (Toelken:244). Furthermore, Yellowman casts light on the storyteller’s belief in what the need for such stories might be. When Yellowman stressed the sacred nature of Coyote, Toelken asked why, if Coyote is such an important mythic character, does Yellowman tell such funny stories about him?

Yellowman’s answer: “They are not funny stories.” Why does Everyone laugh, then? “They are laughing at the way Ma’i does things, and at the way the story is told. Many things about the story are funny, but the story is not funny.” Why tell the stories? “If my children hear the stories, they will grow up to be good people, if they don’t hear them, they will turn out to be bad.” Why tell them to adults? “Through the stories everything is made possible.”

For Yellowman, the Coyote stories are a rainbow of possibilities that he spreads before the eyes of his friends and family members. One implication of such belief is that if Yellowman or someone else did not lay these options out, people might not discover them and the likelihood of their being caught is magnified. Another implication is that if storytellers withheld their stories as a season sometimes withholds rain, they would be responsible in part for the resulting drought of spirit and spirituality.

Fiddler-Envy and the Elusive “Cross-over” Work

“A Mormon Fiddler on the Roof. That’s what we want and when we have it we’ll know that LDS culture has reached its potential.”

At least that’s what many Church members think. You might say they have ‘Fiddler-envy.’ I’ve seen LDS publishers create imprints or approach authors claiming that they are looking for ‘cross-over’ works or that they can help the author sell their work nationally as well. I even know of one LDS publisher who initially made this its core mission. Continue reading “Fiddler-Envy and the Elusive “Cross-over” Work”

Criticism: The Working Language of Good and Evil, Part III

(Note: I didn’t plan for this to be a Halloween post but it works as one … so Happy Halloween!)

(Part II discussed how language is action and how dangerous words may threaten others’ wellbeing and cause harm in the same way as do dangerous acts. Such “spells” work on a surprisingly simple and commonplace principle: the effectiveness of wielded language depends on the wielder’s knowledge of his/her target’s susceptibility to “verbal poisons.” Barbed language shot forth from the mouths of angry or frustrated children often flies wide of its mark, though some children do become skilled marksmen. [Part I of “The Working Language … ” may be found here.])

Not surprisingly, adult battles for control of resources and destiny–battles carried out with words–are more intense. Here, years of experience, seasoned fears, and rigid philosophies come into play. Where ambition and fear are, one finds arguments with barbed words. “Everywhere there is social conflict,” say Arthur Lehmann and James Meyers:

people become angry, get insulted, or perhaps become jealous of someone’s success; it is during such uncomfortable times that witches may be found at fault and sorcerers may be called upon for help (Lehmann and Myers 1985:150).

Most people would feel shocked or insulted if it were suggested that their schemes to “get to the top” in their jobs or to “get the best of” a disagreeable neighbor might employ black artistry. Many would be more likely to speak of their behaviors as practical courses for action.

A satanist would agree. “As defined by Satanists,” observes Edward Moody, who interviewed several satanists,

magic itself is a surprisingly commonsense kind of phenomenon: the change in situation or events in accordance with one’s will, which would, using normally accepted methods, be unchangeable. Magic can be divided into two categories: ritual (ceremonial) and non-ritual (manipulative) “¦ The “lesser magic,” non-ritual transactional manipulative magic … is a type of transactional manipulation based upon a heightened awareness of various processes of behavior operative in interaction with others, a Satanic “games people play.” The Satanist in ritual interaction is taught to analyze and utilize the behavioral Achilles’ heels of others for his own purposes (Moody:187).

Moody gives an example of such an interaction: in the case of a Satanist interacting with a masochist, the Satanist assumes the role of a sadist, establishing a dominant and even cruel stance over his “partner” to indulge the masochist’s addictions and thus achieve an objective (Moody:187).

Witchcraft in practice need not manifest in such an extreme manner. In many cultures, inconsiderate and unfriendly behavior is enough to warrant accusations of witchcraft. Among the Ibibio of Nigeria, not openly returning greetings, living alone in an isolated area, enjoying adultery or incest, fixing prices too high, not showing appropriate grief upon the death of a community or family member, or neglect of family members–including aged parents–may be considered symptomatic of witchcraft (Offiong:155). Other cultures not openly acknowledging witchcraft might consider these behaviors mere garden variety selfishness and greed, but in places where witchcraft is an openly acknowledged phemonemon, such acts signify evil intent.

Language invested with the task of carrying out the goals of individuals seeking to amplify their power and prestige must be highly directive. In ceremonies or in common conversation, a witch must act to seal off corridors through which the victim might escape and foil the plan. Since it’s commonly accepted that a witch somehow increases his own power by subsuming the life-force of those too weak to resist, cannibalism and other eating motifs turn up in the language of witchraft legends and folklore. But in order to “eat” his victim, a witch must first “catch” her. Telling an impressionable person a tale like “The Dead Princess” is one way to bring upon the victim the necessary paralysis of spirit. Conducting a ceremony to transfer the soul of the victim to the body of an animal which is then slaughtered and eaten is another way (Offiong:155), but the success of this kind of ritual depends upon the victim’s having first been isolated by the witch’s language. That is, the victim must have been signaled by recognizable words sent in his direction that he is under attack. Nearly all societies acknowledging the existence of witches have such signs. In France, certain sets of words followed by unaccountable misfortune are evidence that a spell has been cast. Likewise, the unwitcher and the bewitched make a display that sends to the witch suspected of casting a spell clear warning of a return attack (Favret-Saada: 1980).

Criticism: The Working Language of Good and Evil, Part II

(Part I introduced the idea that in the course of exerting control some persons may use manipulative language, including language formed up as narrative, to achieve their ends. Language framed to control another blinds its target to everything except what the attacker wishes him/her to see. Such “deadly words” may trap, bring a range of illnesses upon, or “kill” their intended victim by creating an illusion of limited options. Part III may be found here.)

How is it that words–incorporeal entities that they are–may threaten another’s wellbeing? Jeanne Favret-Saada, who studied witchcraft in the Bocage region of France, said the most important truth she learned in her research was that words and acts are the same. “Now witchcraft,” she says,

is spoken words; but these spoken words are power, and not knowledge or information. To talk, in witchcraft, is never to inform “¦ For a single word (and only a word) can tie or untie a fate, and whoever puts himself in a position to utter it is formidable. Knowing about spells brings money, brings more power and triggers terror … (Favret-Saada:9-10).

How does language achieve these affects? The answer may be surprisingly simple.

When an angry child shouts, “I hate you!” the speaking of such words is an act of self-defense and perhaps hate. Shot at a vulnerable target, these words may do damage if their intended victim believes he or she is, indeed, hated, and if it matters. A discerning person might recognize that actually in speaking these words the child is attempting to wield power. The child speaks the words I hate you to defend herself or get back on her feet–she’s struggling for control of the situation. In this imposition of will, she shoots arrows of language and unwittingly attempts a primitive spell. It’s a spell because it is an attempt to gain the upper hand through wielded language. It’s primitive because in this case the spell is cast wildly, usually without knowledge of the intended victim’s susceptibility to the poison on the words’ barbs. Knowledge of the victim’s susceptibility to verbal poisons is essential for acquiring control; it’s what informs the spell’s word choice.

Another reason such spells are primitive is because phrases like “I hate you” and “I wish you were dead” aren’t spoken to mean exactly what they say. During a momentary flare-up of emotions where a child reacts to a sudden, short-lived, and common frustration, these words mean something more like, “Stop making a fool of me, I can’t bear it,” or “Stop preventing me from doing what I want to do.” The fact that parents, the usual targets of such darts, don’t sicken with sorrow or die mysteriously afterward relates to their knowledge that the child doesn’t really want them dead. Such words shot forth without skill or real intent fly wide of their apparent marks–and so they may be intended to do.

Of course, some children do become skilled marksmen, having learned early the advantages of manipulative language, and some parents do sicken and die physically, psychologically, or both. Even simple language in the mouths of the immature is activity with varying capacities for power; that is, even simple language is action taken and not commentary upon action or mere information. Because language does things to and for us, it’s a potent element of the animation of our species. As the physical acts of a person may injure another or help another to safety, so may language work either for the good or the evil, for the health or the sickness, and for the wholeness or the fragmentation of an individual and of his or her society.

Criticism: The Working Language of Good and Evil, Part I

(Note: This is the first post in a five post series about harmful and healing language. The original paper, written for a folklore class taught by N. Scott Momaday at the University of Arizona, has been edited for space and content. Works cited will appear at the end of the last post. Part II may be found here.)

To begin with a story:

A flock of sparrows came upon a palace on which a deep silence lay. They flew over to see what was wrong. The frightening silence made some birds nervous. One cried, “Something terrible has happened! If we get close it might happen to us!” His words went unheeded. The sparrows descended upon the palace to find everyone asleep.

“A curse! A curse! Let’s get away, or we’ll be cursed, too!” “Hush!” said the others. “What’s that noise?”

They listened. They heard a voice wailing, “Woe is me! Woe is me!” The sparrows flew to the sound and found the king crying in his chamber.

One sparrow flew off seeking the source of another sound. He found the queen pacing up and down, wringing her hands. Seeing the bird the queen said, “Little sparrow! Do you wonder at my despair?” She told the bird her infant daughter, Princess Rose, had died, and everyone but the king and queen had succumbed to a spell.

The sparrow told his companions what he’d learned. They decided to help the king and queen, but to do so they had to seek aid from a wizard. It was said of this wizard that he granted favors but always exacted payment in return.

The sparrows sought out the wizard and told him what they’d found. “And you wish me to return life to the Princess Rose,” he said. “I will do it. But you must agree to sacrifice something for it. Will you give up your wings?” “No!” cried the sparrows. “Without our wings, we can’t fly.” “Will you give up your feathers?” the wizard asked. “No!” said the sparrows. “Without our feathers we’ll freeze in the winter!” “Will you give up your song?” asked the wizard. “Yes!” said the sparrows. “That will be our sacrifice.” “It is done,” said the wizard. “Return to the palace.”

The sparrows returned to find everyone still asleep. Just as they began to think they’d been tricked, a child’s voice cried out. Immediately, everyone awoke.

Suddenly a change came over the sparrows. Their bodies flattened, their feathers changed to skin, their beaks softened into wide mouths. Where there had been chittering sparrows perched on walls there now squatted croaking frogs. Which is why frogs croak and hop. To this day they try to sing but can only croak. They try to fly but can only hop.

This is a condensed version of “The Dead Princess” from Peter Straub’s pop-horror novel, Shadowland. In Staub’s novel, an evil magician tells this tale to his evil-resisting young apprentice. As fairytales go, this story is unusual, because while the princess and kingdom are restored to life, the story lacks the traditional happy ending. Its only intent appears to be to emphasize the helplessness of the sparrows, whose transformation into frogs seems to serve no purpose but to bring the wizard’s power and treachery into sharp relief. Other than being powerless and perhaps meddling creatures the sparrows did nothing to earn such severe punishment. They are not, for instance, gluttonous or proud creatures that are transformed into animals personifying those vices. Their metamorphosis into frogs strips away life as they knew it. Is the point of “The Dead Princess” to emphasize that asking a wizard for help is perilous business? Maybe, but such a moral is arguable, because appealing to someone who can get things done seems to be the natural course open to the sparrows once they decide to help, especially given the castle’s magical circumstances.

Furthermore, the tale itself gives no warning of the wizard’s treachery, and so, no real basis for judging the sparrows’ choice to petition him. It isn’t unusual to have to pay for services; that isn’t a clue. Straub’s tale stated, “One thing everybody knew about the wizard was that while he was fair, he always made you pay for any favor he did you” (Straub 1981:199). Yet the wizard’s behavior toward the birds is definitely not fair.

Part of the story’s unsettling effect lies not in the tale itself but in the context of who’s telling the story to whom. In the novel, the master of Shadowland, a treacherous wizard, appraises the fairytale wizard’s character for the young apprentice to whom he’s telling the story. Herein lies the story’s power: the wizard frames the tale as a way of forcing the apprentice to see only what he wants him to see. Later, when the young apprentice asks the magician to help save the life of a friend, the magician asks, “Your wings or your song?” Given the referrent, this question attains instantly the power of threat. Through the language of “The Dead Princess,” the magician attempts to limit his apprentice’s options, thus controlling his actions. The either-or language of the dilemma “Your wings or your song?” is a linguistic and logical structure used commonly to achieve this effect. As the poor sparrows are trapped by their sympathy for others, many listeners, identifying with the well-meaning, sympathetic, yet spellbound sparrows, will share in their peril.

This fearful, deadly language that brings paralysis upon its target or blinds her to everything except what the attacker wishes her to see, is the essence of witchcraft. Such language manipulates others’ wills in order to magnify the speaker’s own power and generate what he believes is greater control over his own destiny. Such language may trap, bring a range of illnesses upon, or “kill” its intended victim for the wielder’s personal gain, making possible the satisfaction of various excessive ambitions. It twists words, passages of sacred text, pieces of ritual, and other words spoken in good faith, thus removing people from sacred and social contexts. It is the language of psychological and physical violence.

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)