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: Mormon aesthetics and the corporeality of God

In his Times & Seasons post The Metaphysics of Mormon Art, Nate Oman writes:

“Like the medievals we believe in a divine order and a creator god. Yet our god has a different metaphysical relationship to the world. Rather than standing as its ontological ground, he ““ like us ““ is an actor in a pre-existing ontological frame. Hence the divine order of the world reflects God’s creative organization of ‘matter unorganized,’ matter which in some sense resists his organizing power. With the moderns, we have a powerful individualistic streak in our metaphysics. We believe in intelligences co-eternal with God. Indeed, one might think of the philosophical anthropology of Mormonism as a kind of modernism on steroids. What are we to make artistically and aesthetically of this collidiscope of metaphysical concepts. It seems to me that we problematize both the all-encompassing symbolic ordering of the medieval aesthetic, as well as the heroic individualism of the moderns.”

Mormon aesthetics is a pet topic of mine, and I’ve begun to do some reading in aesthetics. However, first let me say that I have almost no grounding in philsophy, and my knowledge of aesthetics is sparse. Therefore my use of terms will most likely be completely wrong, my phrasings careless.

Nate takes about the philosophical anthropology of Mormonism and especially the co-eternal-ness of intelligences with God. I’d like to come at this from a slightly different tack — the corporeality of God the father and the perfectability/possible exaltation of his children.

In Mormonism, God has a physical form — a body. He is also perfect. We (with due recognition that there are varying opinions on the specifics of this) too can become perfect. What’s more we become exalted with our bodies. Our physical forms are not discarded, but instead ‘glorified.’

This suggests to me that — in terms of beauty and form — Mormon aesthetics can’t be one of ideals, of perfect forms, but rather diverse perfect and perfectable forms.

In addition, Both God the father and the son, aesthetic qualities are not based on beauty, but glory. And that glory is a manifestation of his virtue, power, knowledge, etc.

For example, notice the description of Christ in D&C 110:1-10:

“2. We saw the Lord standing upon the breastwork of the pulpit, before us; and under his feet was a paved work of pure gold, in color like amber.

“3. His eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun; and his voice was as the sound of the rushing of great waters…”

Or the words from Joseph Smith’s account of the First Vision:

“16. …I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.

“17. It no sooner appeared than I found myself adelivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. …” [ JS-H: 17-18]

These two passages lead me to believe that if anything Mormon aesthetics is more tied into the sublime than beauty, but that leads me to neo-Romanticism and Kant, and I’ll leave all that for later.

I’m not exactly sure what the practical repercussions of this idea are. Should Mormon artists bring back the halo to represent glory and virtue? [not that it has ever left — see the glow of light in some of the work of Greg Olsen and other art that has appeared in the Ensign].

I do think, however, that a few things follow from a Mormon aesthetics that takes this particular metaphysics into account:

1. Mormon artists and critics are in a position to critique the modern (Greek?) version of physical perfectability and the drive for bodily beauty.

2. The fact that we all look different and yet are perfectable/exaltable, can all receive (and radiate) glory, means that diversity in form and types of beauty should be a priority for, a part of, a keystone of the Mormon canon.

3. Our belief that Lucifer was ‘beautiful’ — was at one time a ‘son of morning’ (and one of us) and filled with glory — suggests that Mormon art should explore how virtue is lost and attained and how aesthetics can be a tool for joy, for distraction, for pleasure, for damnation, for expression of awe.

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.

Criticism: Why Mormon Literature?

I frequently hear members of the church explaining that they are not interested in Mormon literature and film because they’re simply not good enough. Why read a Mormon book just because it’s Mormon when you can pick up a New York Times bestseller or a Man Booker Prize winner? Why see a Mormon film in the theater when you can see a 200 million dollar movie for the same price? I think it’s a valid concern. By and large, I agree that Mormon literature and film both fall short of the national standard in quality. Nonetheless, I find its pursuit is valuable for a number of reasons.

1. Just like Black, Gay or Women’s literature, Mormon literature speaks to us as a group and connects with us with each other. We hesitate to create divisions between ourselves and others, but I think that Mormons, as a group, actually have a stronger case for unification than those who do so by race or gender. As the people of the Lord, we have covenanted to live a very different life from others. And as the presence of the bloggernacle itself suggests, there’s a great deal of heritage, culture, and identity embedded in being Mormon. As such, I think there’s a great deal that Mormon arts can do that will strengthen and support the Mormon community.

2. While cultural identification is important, it’s also relative. In other words, its cultural value does not mean it’s intrinsically valuable. But I do think there is an inherent value to Mormon literature insofar as it is created from a Mormon worldview. Being a Mormon, I believe that the Mormon worldview is, in fact, the correct worldview, and thus Mormon literature has the potential of being the most worthwhile because its underlying assumptions are most likely to agree with the state of reality.

For example, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours is a beautiful book, but I left wondering if we wouldn’t disagree on a number of points concerning the purpose of life and the nature of reality. No work of art, no matter how masterfully crafted, is going to resonate with us if we’re fundamentally at odds with its underlying worldview. A story that presupposes revenge is a noble cause or that the right thing to do in a situation is “stand up for yourself” by taking an eye for an eye is going to jar with us ““ with me at least ““ enough to lose all connection with the work.

3. Another claim I frequently hear is, “Why see or read something just because it’s clean? Lack of offensiveness is not in itself a quality of good art.” I’m actually totally on board with this one and I’ve never been one to give a book or film a better grade simply because it was “clean.” I join all those who bemoan the degree to which Mormon arts have simply become a forum for “wholesome” entertainment, regardless of its quality.

At the same time, I have to admit that there’s value to a having a body of work that we don’t need to be constantly on-guard about. I do hope Mormon lit. continues to make an effort to embrace mature and complex themes and present material in an honest way, but it’s really rather nice to be able to walk into a Deseret or a Seagull with your whole family and not have to worry about what your kids are looking into.

4. If we care about the future of Mormon arts, current arts need an audience. Many have argued that they have no obligation to see or read what they feel is crap and I fully understand that. And I think I would agree that the very worst ought to be avoided. But good art isn’t going to come out of a vacuum. If we aren’t supporting what’s already there, the production of future works is going to be inhibited. If we all just sit by and wait for the great Mormon works to be created without exploring what is being done now, it’s never going to happen.

Criticism: Another stock Mormon character?

It’s entirely unfair of me to criticize Josh Emmons’s debut novel The Loss of Leon Meed — I haven’t read it. So I’m sort of not going to. At this time I’ll only say that it will be interesting to see how his Mormon character operates. According to the New York Times review*, the novel includes “a belligerent Mormon cemetery-plot salesman.”

Here is how Emmons (or his pr people) describe the novel on his author’s Web site:

“In this inventive and utterly engaging debut, ten residents of Eureka, California, are brought together by a mysterious man, Leon Meed, who repeatedly and inexplicably appears — in the ocean, at a local rock music club, clinging to the roof of a barreling truck, standing in the middle of Main Street’s oncoming traffic ““ and then, as if by magic, disappears.

“Young and old, married and single, punk and evangelical, black, white, and Korean, each witness to these bewildering events interprets them differently, yet all of their lives are changed ““ by the phenomenon itself, and by what it provokes in them. And whether they in turn stagger toward love, or heartbreakingly dissolve it, this portrayal of their stories is strikingly real and emotionally affecting.”

Sounds interesting enough. But here is what concerns me (from the NYT review):

“Is this a book about religious faith? Maybe it is, but Mr. Emmons doesn’t appear to be sure. Though he makes Leon a kind of miracle worker, and though the other characters’ lives wind up altered by encounters with Leon, the novel begins to falter when it’s time to fathom what has transpired. Had it not begun with such impressive acuity, the book might comfortably drift off into a vague sense of mystery; as it is, Mr. Emmons’s initial assurance contrasts starkly with his later waffling. Only with lungs full of that mind-altering Humboldt County air could the reader be content with the book’s ultimate uncertainty.

“Although it sets up expectations that it cannot fulfill, ‘The Loss of Leon Meed” still has considerable appeal. Its early developments are jauntily clever, even if Mr. Emmons has a way of smirking at his characters’ tackiness. (A reverence for Longaberger baskets – which serve the plot as a Redwood Country equivalent of Tupperware – is one such bit of condescension.) In fact, the early part of the novel has a well-developed screwball quality that keeps it buoyant.”

I’ll only say that — generally speaking — American novelist, playwrights and screenwriters would do well to stop using Mormons as clean-living, hard-selling, middle-America-embracing, conservative stock characters. Smirking? Waffling vis a vis faith? Sounds exactly like what Emmons need is a strong Mormon character to strengthen the fabric of the work. This is not to say that he would need to endorse the LDS faith. Only that adding the LDS worldview (or the version that a particular Mormon character might hold) to the mix in a sophiscated, substantive way couldn’t have hurt.

I’ll see if I can get my hands on the novel for an actual review. But I couldn’t pass up the chance to pontificate (based on the slimmest of pretenses, of course). That’s what I do.

ALSO: The pr copy from the Web site uses the word “evangelical.” I couldn’t find a reference to another character in the novel that the word could be applied to, but I still would hope that it’s not referring to the Mormon salesman. If so, that’s not an appropriate usage — not that I mind so much, but I imagine the evangelical christians wouldn’t be happy about it. I would appreciate clarification on this from anyone who is acquainted with the novel.

* Free registration required. Put off by that? Use

Criticism: The 2004 AML awards

I just noticed that the Association for Mormon Letters has posted its awards for 2004. The Pictograph Murders by P.G. Karamesines won in the novel category. “Saints and Soldiers” by Ryan Little and Adam Abel won for film.

The AML awards are often somewhat idiosyncratic because each award is judged by an individual (rather than a committee) and because the ebb and flow of the (relatively small) Mormon market leads to up and down years in various categories.

Some of the surprises this year:

Five books in the young people’s literature categories received awards. It’s a very important market for LDS writers, one in which some writers have even had national success, but I sometimes wonder if the use of honorable mentions is just a way for the judges to not make hard decisions. Of course, I haven’t read any of the works given awards so I reserve the right to retract this comment.

A pleasant surprise was the special, and well-deserved award in Mormon literary studies given to the J. Willard Marriot Library for its digitized collection of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. I have taken a quick look at the collection and look forward to digging into it over the next few months in search of neglected gems in short story, poetry and criticism.

And as Andrew Hall noted on the AML List, the most suprising award this year was the one given to Meridian Magazine for criticism. I admit that my initial reaction was one of disbelief. Meridian produces a fairly steady string of book reviews, but they are generally limited to romance and thriller novels published by Covenant Communications (with a some young adult fiction tossed in). These are important categories for the Mormon market, but the reviews aren’t the most rigorous pieces of criticism you’ll read.

However, upon further refelction, I realized this: Meridian has run some excellent film criticism and reviews. Indeed, the discussion begun by Kieth Merrill [which can most easily be accessed at this AMV post on Mormon film is one of the most significant (and perhaps widely-read) pieces of Mormon criticism to appear so far.

Criticism: The Mormon Literaturstreit — the response

This AMV series begins here.

Almost a year after Cracroft’s review of Harvest: Contemporary Mormon Poems was published, Bruce W. Jorgensen, also a faculty member in BYU’s English Department, responded with To Tell and Hear Stories: Let the Stranger Say. Jorgensen, who had been serving as president of the Association for Mormon Letters (presidents usually serve a one-year term), presented his response in his farwell address at the January 1991 AML meeting. It was later published in Sunstone.

Actually, Jorgensen cites three occurrences that precipitated the theme of his address. In addition to Cracroft’s review, he mentions that in one of his classes a student expressed the opinion that the class shouldn’t read or discuss Anton Chekov’s short story “The Lady with the Pet Dog” because it “glamorized immorality,” and then a few days later during a guest lecture in Eugene England’s Mormon literature class, he encountered “troubled reactions” to “Answer to Praeyer,” a short story by Deniss Clark (yes, the same Dennis Clark that co-edited Harvest — the world of Mormon letters is rather small).

Jorgensen argues against essentialized readings of Mormon fiction and calls for a sort of big-tent approach to Mormon letters. He argues that too many Mormons line up on the side of Socrates in the “quarrel with the poets.” He writes: “Socrates says … that it’s bad for both the poet and the audience to ‘imitate’ a bad man, or a ‘mixed’ man, since what we must do is cultivate virtue, and to imitate badness or mixedness is to make our souls rehearse badness.”

Drawing upon several references to literature and scripture, Jorgensen explores themes of hospitality and seeking to understand “the other” to build his argument for a more open, ‘hospitable’ way of reading.”

“Hospitable reading would be slow to shut out,” he writes. “It would be slow to decide whether a literary visitor is ‘Mormon’ or not, especially slow to gauge this by some presumed ‘doctrinal’ criterion or some elusive metaphysical or ‘essential’ notion of ‘spirituality.'”

He argues that essentialism is the basic problem with Cracroft’s review and then goes on (in what is the strongest part of the essay) to rehabilitate a few of the poems that Cracroft criticized with close readings that point out that the poems are much more Mormon (and much more interesting) than Cracroft made them seem.

Jorgensen does toss in a couple of subtle potshots. In his exploration of hospitality and un-quick judgements in literature and scripture he invokes the “cast the first stone” epsisode in the Gospels. And he can’t resist pointing out that the majority of the poems that Cracroft “excludes” are by women — “I notice that all but one of the specifically named shut-out poems are by women, while all but two of the specifically shut-in are by men.” He also does this weird thing where he refers to Cracroft as “the Reviewer.” No doubt he is trying to separate the critic from the person — just as academics often refer to the “implied author” as different from the author him or herself — but it just seems strange to me — like one of those things where liberals try to be careful and un-judgemental and instead come across as horribly condescending.

And indeed, while I think that the essay is a masterful piece of criticism, I’m not sure that it works in terms of the Mormon audience. It’s too chock full of literary allusions and academic qualifying such as when he writes: “I don’t offer my readings as “definitive” (I don’t believe in definitive readings, though I do believe in worse and better, smaller and larger); but I would say my readings seem to receive and respond more fully to the poems’ available language.”

He also strains just a little too hard, in my opinion, in his attempts at bringing gender into the discussion.

I’m also disappointed that his approach to Mormon criticism is more of what it is not than what it is. For instance, he writes: “A Mormon criticism will surely not judge very quickly by superficial elements such as the presence of the always-ready-to-hand clichés of pop Mormon ‘spirituality’ or ‘virtue,’ or, negatively, by the presence of topics we disapprove or words we must not say.”

In the end he simply argues: “But the step I take here and now is ‘down’ or ‘aside’–to something near a voice whispering low out of the dust in valediction: Welcome to our common room. Tell us your story so our hearing and telling can go on. That would be faring well.”

The thing is I agree with taking a rather broad approach to Mormon reading, that Mormons would do well to read those voices that are marginal or difficult. And I also think that his warning about the dangers of essentializing is a good one. However, I’m still left with the feeling that in the end Jorgensen has sidestepped Cracroft’s arguments and the whole question of Mormon criticism.

Or perhaps, it’s simply that there is an inherent problem with talking about Mormon criticism. As I mention, the most compelling part of the essay is when Jorgensen takes up the poems that Cracroft accuses as being not-Mormon and rehabilates both their Mormon-ness and general literary value with some great close readings.

The question is — can Cracroft come up with a better definition/critical approach for Mormon literature?

Next: Cracroft’s rebuttal

Criticism: The Mormon Literaturstreit — opening salvo

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I would discuss the Mormon Literaturstreit. For those unfamiliar with the term — Literaturstreit is one of those wonderful German creations that precisely and pointedly describes a phenomenon. In this case you take the word ‘Streit’ — which means fight, quarrel, dispute, argument, etc. — and pair it with an academic discipline. Yes, I guess one could just use the English but “Literary Quarrel” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Now academics are always in debate, and such debates can often be quite heated, but as I understand it, something rises to the level of a “—streit” when it is an academic quarrel that is conducted very publicly — sometimes even in leading daily newspapers — and involves discussion of either the credibility of leading figures in the field and/or the foundations and directions of the field itself.

The two best German examples I know is the Literaturstreit of the early 1990s and the Historikerstreit of the 1980s. Click through the links for details, but in brief…

The German Literaturstreit took place after the publication of Christa Wolf’s Was Bleibt (What Remains), a semi-autobiographical novel she wrote in the 1970s (but was unable to publish for obvious reasons) about an East German writer who goes about engaging in some semi-dissident activities while under surveillance by the Stasi (the East German secret police). Wolf was very popular in many western nations at the time (and remains so) and was seen as a sympathetic figure. Was Bleibt came out shortly after the reunification of West and East Germany. A little later so did revelations that Wolf and other prominent’ dissident’ East German writers collaborated (or at least received some perks) with the secret police. It led to a whole firestorm of recriminations, defenses and discussions of credibility.

The Historikerstreit was even more intense (and important, imo). I won’t get into the details, but basically it was a debate among German historians over whether the Holocaust was a unique event in relation to other genocides and state killings (esp. the actions of Stalin). Basically, conservative German historians called for a return to national pride and identity and a distancing from the burden of guilt created by the Holocaust. Liberal historians maintained that conservatives were trying to revise and normalize the Nazi past.

So that’s the background. Now on to the Mormon version — which was nowhere near as public and personal, but still got kind of intense.

The opening salvo

In 1989, Signature Books published Harvest: Contemporary Mormon Poems, an anthology edited by BYU English faculty Eugene England and Dennis Clark. It was a momentous event in the field of Mormon letters, and the work remains the most important collection of Mormon poetry to date.

In the spring of 1990, a review of Harvest, by Richard Cracroft, also a member of BYU’s English department and a long-time Mormon literature reviewer and critic, appeared in BYU Studies. Perhaps this simply hindsight, but you can tell from the opening sentence that the review was going to attract controversy. It deserves repeating here:

“For the Latter-day Saint who keeps one eye peeled for the Millennium and the other fixed on the encroachments of Babylon, the publication of Harvest: Contemporary Mormon Poems is both a satisfaction and a consternation: a satisfying confirmation that many (middle-aged) Latter-day Saint poets are beginning to harvest a literature commensurate with their vision of the Restoration and at least as good as the writing of their Gentile counterparts; and a consternation, a storm warning that at least some (younger) Mormon poets, while achieving significantly as artists, seem to have replaced their Urim and Thummims with self-reflecting spectacles that essentially make these artists no different from other contemporary poets.”

The rest of the review is basically a development of that idea. Cracroft lauds the efforts of the poets born before 1939, but then faults the newer stuff. Indeed, he takes great pains at pointing out the differences the two editors may have had in creating the volume — England’s and Clark’s picks are clearly divided with Clark choosing poems by poets born after 1939 that are lumped in a section titled “New Directions.”

Cracroft’s complains that the “[later] poems are testimonials to how the educated modem Mormon poet has assimilated the secular culture and modes of poetry, repressing and replacing soaring spirituality with earth-bound humanism.”

He also attacks Clark’s closing essay, writing that in it “he [Clark] reveals his own rooting in the humus of recondite and not-very-fertile, Structuralism.”

Despite his “consternation,” Cracroft still recommends the anthology, and he does point out a few poems by the younger poets that he likes, but the review is clearly an attempt to define Mormon literature as separate from (and even resistant to) what he calls “the self-fascination of much contemporary poetry.”

I have to admit that my reaction to Harvest was somewhat similar. I found the earlier poems much more approachable and much more Mormon. At the same time, I don’t agree with all the poems that Cracroft points to as failures. For instance I happened to really like Lance Larsen’s “Passing the Sacrament at Eastgate Nursing Home,” which Cracroft calls a “competent, earth-bound (non-Mormon) poem.” However, I’m not completely satisfied with Cracroft’s definition of the “Mormon” in Mormon literature and certainly don’t have quite the allergic reaction to humanism that he does.

Of course, considering Cracroft’s review and the importance of the book being reviewed, it was evident that someone was going to have to respond. Bruce W. Jorgensen, another BYU English professor, did in his 1991 farewell address as president of the Association for Mormon Letters.

Next: the reply.

Criticism: Does the world really need more Mormon novels?

Finally getting back into the swing of things…

[Okay — not really the swing of things as this goes back to late December, but…]

My assertion that the “world needs more Mormon novels” made in the post on MoNoWriMo generated two interesting responses.

Mark Hansen posts over at Mo’ Boy Blog that his initial response was skeptical, but then reformulates it and in so doing evokes this interesting image that involves a river and a pool and stuff and, naturally, moves it into the realm of Mormon music. You really need to take a look for yourself if you haven’t already. Incidentally, Mark has been doing some great reviews. See, for instance, his review of Return to Nauvoo by the band Fiddlesticks and his reviews of the Mormon films Sons of Provo and Baptists at our Barbeque.

Meanwhile, CW Bass asks “Does the World Need More Mormon Novels? Or, ‘What Kind of Criticism?'” over at Way Off Bass.

Short answer: sure, but the right kind.

Long answer:

“We do need more Mormon novels, but we need a more honest, and more accurate, less overtly polemical or apologetic variety. Simply succeeding in rejecting the notion that that which criticises negatively is ‘literature’ while that which is sympathetic to the gospel is not would, in addition to making discussion about Mormon literature more honest, also begin to open up doors to the outside” (Way Off Bass).

In his post, Bass also quotes liberally from Richard Cracroft’s important essay Attuning the Authentic Mormon Voice: Stemming the Sophic Tide in LDS Literature. The essay is a worthy read by itself, but is is also part of the only Mormon literaturstreit that I’m aware of and thus deserves to be placed in that context. Stay tuned.

Criticism: What we talk about when we talk about Mormons

Greg Call of Times & Seasons alerted me more than a month ago to an interview that Mormon fiction writer Brian Evenson did with Mormon visual artist Lane Twitchell for the February 2004 edition of the Brooklyn Rail.

So this is way late, but you know, that’s why it’s ‘Criticism’ instead of ‘News.’

A quick primer:

Brian Evenson is known for writing very dark, violent fiction such as Altman’s Tongue and Father of Lies. His relationship with BYU and the LDS Church soured as a result of his work and reactions to it on the part of church leaders and BYU administrators.

Lane Twitchell — actually let me just steal from the Rail:

“Artist Lane Twitchell grew up Mormon in Utah but in the mid-1990s moved to Brooklyn. His work involves an intensive paper folding and paper cutting process, with paint being applied to cut paper; the results are elegant, lacy designs of repeated American, religious, and place-specific icons that are at once ironized and celebrated, and that make gestures toward both high art and popular culture. In his novel Father of Lies, Brian Evenson similarly tried to come to grips with his own Mormon past.”

The interview itself is an interesting exploration of Mormon artists who use Mormon elements in their work, yet gear their work to the world of high art. Evenson does a good job of bringing out the tensions that result.

See for instance this exchange:

“Rail [Evenson]: Glen Nelson recently wrote that admirers of your artwork fell into two distinct groups, one art world, the other Mormon. I wonder how you feel about that. I’ve always felt very schizophrenic in regard to my own split sense of audience.

Twitchell: It is an oversimplification of course but it is true to the degree that Mormons and Mormonism are so self-referential. I have always heard talk in church communities about the world at large, whether it is helping at a local soup kitchen or everyone going to a Broadway play together, but in my experience these gestures remain, for the most part, just that, gestures. So then as a culturally identified Mormon that is only interested in the ‘real art-world’ you find yourself outside the ‘culture’ of your roots, your people.”

I understand this idea. But the result is also unsatisfying on a certain level. The art is always interpreting Mormonism, rather than Mormonism critiquing the elitist forms of art i.e. literary fiction and fine art. That’s almost an inevitable choice for someone who wants to make a living in such fields. It’s the tyranny of modern(ist) art.

Mormonism becomes a cultural resource rather than art an expression of faith (although that in and of itself as a complicated — perhaps impossible — thing, as I’ve mentioned before). Again, the results can be powerful art. But at the same time when ripped from its theological grounding (the validity of and implications of the restoration), Mormonism looses some of it’s sap, it’s vitality.

For example, Evenson writes:

“I also think that finally when I write a story, the story functions on two levels, one of which addresses the larger literary world, the other of which addresses Mormons. My work tends to be much more painful for Mormons to read because they hear the rhythms of Church talks hidden in descriptions of extreme acts or sense the peculiarities of Mormon religious diction creeping in. Non-Mormons feel the same rhythms and peculiarities but don’t sense the cultural baggage behind it.”

Notice that his emphasis is on using rhythms and dictions in the service of his literature of the extreme. Some have argued that Evenson’s work functions as via negativa art (the same thing has been said about filmmaker/playwright Neil LaBute). And yet, in the end (and again this may be inevitable) the demands of modern art require that his way remain negative, that there be no hints at an ideology that supersedes that of modernist discourse.

In this regard, I think their final exchange is illuminating:

“Rail [Evenson]: You provide keys for most of your work and I wonder if we can’t in your case think of this notion of a key as something drawing on Mormonism. As a kid, I remember looking at the maps in the back of my scriptures, sorting things out according to the key. And keys (symbolic) and interpretation of course are very important in Mormonism in general: the Urim and Thummim for instance. One thing I like about your keys, though, is that they end up raising as many questions as they resolve, revealing things about the iconography but not making the work of art ‘solvable.’

Twitchell: I’m glad you say that. Over the last couple years I’ve grown very skeptical of the ‘key’ because it was an exterior explanatory device that I was afraid was meant to control the viewer. The funny thing is when I stopped making them people missed having them. I’ve resolved it by making ‘partial keys.’ This of course is exactly what Joseph Smith did. As any theologian will tell you one of Mormonism’s greatest strengths is its incomplete nature. Anyone can fill in the blanks pretty much as they want. People don’t like being left in the dark and they don’t want to be told everything either. People like the mystery of half-knowing-not-knowing.”

Facinating. So this is what artists talk about when they talk about Mormonism.