Criticism: Dispensation historical novels

I think that most attempts at broad-based LDS-centric theoretical approaches to the basic questions of such academic displines as philosophy, literary and cultural studies, history (and the rest of the social sciences) are not going to be very successful. I’d be happy to be proved wrong, but I have doubts that I will be.

Luckily, Mormon artists can tread with careless disregard on ground that academics either have to ignore or painstakingly survey.

With this in mind, I have a proposal:

There are all sorts of approaches to history — Hegelian, Marxist, feminist, Foucauldian, psycho, political, etc. All of them have specific ways of theorizing how societies and peoples are constructed and change/develop. It seems to me that Mormons do have a way of explaining the course of history that is somewhat unique. That is: history as a series of dispensations. The dispensation view, in fact, heavily informs all of the scriptures that are unique to Mormonism — especially the Book of Mormon — as well as how Mormons view the Old and New Testaments.

As I understand it, the dispensation view goes something like this:

God reveals his gospel and covenants, usually through a prophet. The prophet seeks to create a community of believers. The community thrives (or doesn’t) and grows and its relationship to God and his covenants begins to decay. Retrenchment is required and so God sends more prophets. At some point the tribe, society, people becomes so wicked that the knowledge of the gospel and covenants is lost and/or transmuted and corrupted. God then waits for the time to be ripe for a restoration of his gospel.

The dispensation model of history, then, is the story of the struggle to reveal, teach and preserve true knowledge of and a relationship with God.

Trying to do actual history using this model is quite problematic. Hugh Nibley has tried, but although some of his hints are incredibly interested there just isn’t enough there to do much with, imo (and the opinion of many others in the field of Mormon studies). In other words, it’s somewhat affirming in some of the interesting details, but unconvincing as you scale out the model.

Artists, however, create their own worlds and their own evidences.

I would like to see narratives that reflect a dispensation view of history. Specifically, what is it like to live in a society that God is trying to restore his gospel to or that is about to lose the gospel — in other words to be at the beginning or end of a dispensation?

Speculative fiction would seem to be the natural arena for this. And indeed Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker series and Dave Wolverton’s Runelords series both sort of fit what I’m talking about. In fact, both OSC’s Alvin and Wolverton’s Gaborn are Joseph Smith types (the former, of course, deliberately so). But I think there is room for more in this field. What I’d really like to see are speculative historical fiction works that are more firmly rooted in ‘real’ history — both the ‘real’ history that is generally accepted and the ‘real’ history of Mormon scripture (i.e. Jaredite, Nephites, Enoch, etc.). Situating a narrative in the ‘real’ is difficult, but it can often comment on the ‘other’ histories in ways that fully-fantastic narratives can’t.

It’d also be interesting if such narratives didn’t focus on the ‘main’ figure of the dispensation. Yes, Nephi and Joseph Smith and Moses, etc., are all fascinating figures. But what is it like to be a John Taylor, an Eliza R. Snow, an Alma the Younger, or a Moroni or Ether?

NOTE: Now that I think about it — although I haven’t read them, I would imagine that OSC’s Women of Genesis novels fit in with what I’m talking about.

Elsewhere: T&S poets, Larry Miller’s reputation, M’s letters

Guest blogger danithew has invited Times & Seasons participants to post poems they have written. As usual I have contributed no actual creative work, choosing instead to play the critic. But seriously, it’s a fun thread. Thanks for veering into arts and culture territory, dani.

In other news: “Reputations ride on the success of this film,” claims KSL-TV in a story on the upcoming release of the screen version of Gerald N. Lund’s best-selling historical novel series “The Work and the Glory.” Financed by LDS film sugar daddy and Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller, the film cost $7.4 million — making it the most expensive moive ever made for the Mormon market (I’m kidding about the sugar daddy comment — I wish more successful LDS would support Mormon art).

Considering that the most successful LDS film to date “The Other Side of Heaven” only took in $4,720,112 at the Box Office (source: LDS Film) and that the movie is opening the day after Thanksgiving (i.e. serious competition from the major studios, including a lot of family-friendly movies such as The Polar Express), Miller may have a tough time recouping his investment. DVD sales will help, but he’s not going to be making much profit on the venture — unless the film seriously outperforms. Which it might. Lund’s status as a general authority helps as does the popularity of the novels. Either way it’ll be a very interesting test of the LDS film market.

And: I don’t think that anybody’s reputation (especially Larry Miller’s) is going to suffer if the movie tanks — except perhaps that of director Russ Holt. Although even Holt’s reputation may be untouchable. He directed the LDS favorite “How Rare a Possession.”

Sidenote: KSL says that “Millions of readers of the book series know a movie, featuring their favorite ficticious characters set in history, is about to be released.” Ummm. The Work and the Glory is a blockbuster — the blockbuster — by Mormon publishing standards, but I’m not sure that it has millions of readers out there.

Finally: Deseret Book has published the letters of Marjorie Pay Hinckley and has posted three of the letters on their Mormon Life Web site. The posted letters aren’t super revealing, but they are well-written, and it’s interesting to view church events, such as a 1976 national broadcast about families and a 1977 trip to Asia, through her eyes.

Criticism: Terry Eagleton is Utah-obsessed

Who would have thought that Marxist* cultural theorist Terry Eagleton would have a thing for Mormons?

Not me.

And yet in his recent book After Theory, Eagleton makes a Utah reference not once — but twice.

Some A Motley Vision readers may wonder why I am reading a book by a gasp Marxist, but it’s actually rather interesting. I mean it’s way too strident, and I disagree with Eagleton on many things, but his critique of postmodern literary theory and cultural studies is very good — pointed, polemical and yet substantive. And I do agree with the points he makes about some of the productive contributions of postmodernism to literary studies. I also agree with some of his observations on the downside of a our modern fast-track, consumerist version of capitalism even if we are very far apart on what the ultimate solution is.

However, I also found his not-really-veiled-but-not-straightforward allusions to the events of 9/11 and Islamic terrorism (and other ‘fundamentalist threats’) to be cutesy [the crazed Raggedy Ann doll cute — not puppy dog cute] rather than clever.

Indeed his whole way of tossing out examples that are obviously obvious and casually dismissing or invoking events/beliefs comes across as mere posturing, a descent into punditry that is entertaining [when it’s not irritating] but not illuminating.

This is where the Mormon references come in.

Reference 1: “Postmodernism seems at times to behave as though the classical bourgeoisie is alive and well, and thus finds itself living in the past. It spends much of its time assailing absolute truth, objectivity, timeless moral values, scientific inquiry and a belief in historical progress. It calls into question the autonomy of the individual, inflexible social and sexual norms, and the belief that there are firm foundations to the world. Since all of these values belong to a bourgeois world on the wane, this is rather like firing off irascible letters to the press about the horse-riding Huns or marauding Carthaginians who have taken over the Home Counties.

This is not to say that these beliefs do not still have force. In place like Ulster and Utah, they are riding high. But nobody on Wall Street and few in Fleet Street believe in absolute truth and unimpeachable foundations” (17-18).

One might well ask ‘what’s wrong with absolute truth and unimpeachable foundations?'[and actually Eagleton is critical of ‘realtivist postmodernists’ — he just has a problem with religion (as any good Marxist should)], but I think what irks me about this tossed out comparison is that it seems to be made almost solely for the alliteration.

For example, he uses a similar formulation later in the book when he writes that fundamentalism is flourishing “as much in Montana as in the Middle East” (199).

Of course, it also connects Mormonism to Unionism, and I’m not convinced that that’s a very good comparison. Or at the least, if you’re going to make it, at least provide some sort of justification for it beyond consonant word sounds.

Reference 2: “Absolute truth does not mean non-historical truth: it does not mean the kind of truths which drop from the sky, or which are vouchsafed to us by some bogus prophet from Utah. On the contrary, they are truths which are discovered by argument, evidence, experiment, investigation” (106-109).

There’s no need to comment on this one other than to say that I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling rather vouchsafed at the moment.

ALSO: Spiked has a good review of After Theory that better illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of the book than I have here.

Source: Terry Eagleton. After Theory. Allen Lane: London, 2003.

*Just to be clear Eagleton is a Marxist Marxist — not a Maoist or Leninist. Or to put it more bluntly: he’s a socialist not a ‘commie.’

Criticism: Michael Collings’ The Nephiad, part II

I’ll need some time to absorb Michael Collings’ The Nephiad , a twelve book verse epic based on the story of Nephi obtaining the brass plates, before I can begin to discuss its literary value and (more interestingly) how it fits into the world of Mormon letters; however, I found the following excerpt interesting and thought A Motley Vision readers might enjoy a taste of the work.

If you haven’t already, you might want to read Collings’ description of the work first.

In the first part of Book V, Laman recounts his attempt at persuading Laban to give him the plates:

“In fear and deep astonishment, four shapes
With ceaseless care and silent step retraced
Their paths toward ancestral lands, until
As ghost-white planes, those walls appeared that formed
The outer bulwark of great Lehi’s own.
The eldest son passed speechless through broad gates,
Through doors, to disappear into dark rooms
That soon resplendently reflected light
Of oil lamps, with food and drink brought out
From Lehi’s vast and rich-appointed stores.
With shaking hand and visage pale, Laman
Worried blood-red wines and honey-cakes,
Eating yet not tasting, drinking without
Savor, fear retreating slowly from
His unmanned heart. At last he spake unto
The others sitting near, words hurling sharp
And low: ‘Behold, as fell the causal lot to me,
I went to Laban’s house within the walls,
Along those streets that often I had trod
As I, in heedless youth, with Laban’s son
Great deed conceived that we as men should do;
His doors were yet unfastened against night’s dark
And easily did I approach unto
The Chamber of his Presence, there to wait
Amid rich-gilded ornaments and woods
Deep-carven, fragrant with exotic scents;
And yet methought that Laban’s treasured stores
Less sumptuous and fine than Lehi’s wealth
Appeared, his hangings coarser, gold less pure.
Into his chamber richly robed he came,
With broidered vestments, Tyrian purple dyed,
His bulky grossness dignified by waves
Of precious, liquid, flowing silky garb;
Honored Laban, Elder of the Tribe,
Keeper of the Brazen Plates of Lore
And Family-Lines. Long years had lightly touched
His massive frame since last I spoke with him;
Wordlessly he stood before me, angered,
Glowering at this intrusion bold
Into his evening’s sanctuary-still.
Undaunted strode I up to him, demanded
All that Lehi’s visionary mind
Required; with voice and mien imperious —
Before which onslaught Laban ashen paled
And shrank affrighted beneath my piercing gaze —
I forced my will upon his eld, until
So near dear culmination of my goal,
So near accomplishment of my pursuit,
He raised a sound of anger and of fear
And summoned to his person servitors,
Who, hearing me a Thief and Murderer
Decried (for truly did you fear that he
In great injustice and deceit me for
The untimely passing of his heir and son
Accountable would hold, for reasons that
In honesty and truth I cannot form
Nor understand): yet nonetheless he cried
Me ‘Murderer’ to his open door and to
The sleepless world without his door; yea, thus
He summoned those who with thick staves of wood
Fire-hardened and strong me from his sight
Expelled with threats of force and deadly pain;
Through David’s city’s streets as one accurst
I fled, until at last with mindless motion passed
I buttressed walls and breathed free desert winds;
For then, as on command, the servants paused,
Laban’s fatal-minded servants paused,
Returned within the city’s depths, and I,
With rushing pulse and breath progressed unto
Our meeting-place. And so it is, I say,
That we shall never now these Plates attain,
Since Laban in his hatred grows severe,
Implacable to our desires, and warned
Of our high hopes he never will consent
That they — the Plates of Brass — shall come within
Our grasp. I counsel now that we return
Unto our Father’s tents and with smooth words
Persuade him of fond, foolish paths he sees
Deep-clouded in his misty Vision’s scope;
He cannot longer hope to sojourn in
Thirsty wastes if we, the four of whom
He is most proud, in single mind oppose
His senile wish and him compel again
Toward these homely walls and high-beamed rooms.
Thus counsel I, the eldest, and the one
Who of us four alone the ire of Laban
Felt and knows — return without delay.'”

I have not yet made my mind up about the language — which is, indeed, rather Miltonic — but this passage does show how well narratives from the Book of Mormon can work in epic form. Laman’s speech seems perfectly in character with the Laman we know from the Book of Mormon — fearful, arrogant, untrusting in the Lord, scornful towards his father’s visions and concerned with riches and the comforts of home. Notice how he compares his father’s stuff with Laban’s and finds Laban’s lacking (“coarser”¦less pure”), like a upper crust young man speaking of the nouveau riche. Notice how he casts the episode in superlative terms. He makes this bold intrusion into Laban’s home, takes a commanding (“imperious”) tone with Laban and demands the plates, and then, once Laban calls for his servants, and is forced to flee for his life. His reasoning is so, well, reasonable. He, the eldest, gave the best shot anyone of them could give. It didn’t work. Meanwhile, the trip home is a great reminder of all the wealth they’ve left behind. How about they all get together and convince their father that the family should return home? Very reasonable.

What’s so chilling and amazing and puzzling, yes, even spiritual about this story (and it’ll be interesting to see how Collings approaches this part ) is that it doesn’t end with either the family taking off into the desert without the plates or returning home to the (short-term) safety of their Jerusalem home. No, it ends with Nephi killing Laban and taking the brass plates by force and trickery. It is one of the most difficult narratives in all of scripture, I think, perhaps, second only to God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Great stuff for an epic. I look forward to further reading.

My thanks to Michael Collings for permission to run the excerpt on A Motley Vision. Copies of The Nephiad are available. E-mail Collings for details.

Criticism: Michael Collings’ The Nephiad

Michael Collings, professor of English at Pepperdine, was kind enough to respond to an e-mail request for more information about his Book of Mormon-inspired epic poem The Nephiad, which A Motley Vision referenced in a recent post on another Book of Mormon-themed epic — Peter J. Sorensen’s The Mormoniad.

Collings is a rarity in the academic world — a scholar who is doing serious work on popular fiction (rather than just dabbling in it, or using it in the service of some cultural studies agenda), specifically the works of Stephen King and Orson Scott Card. Some of his work on OSC and other topics is available at Starshine and Shadows.

The Nephiad is not the sole example of his creative work, Collings is an incredibly prolific poet with a special interest in (yes, such a thing does exist, and, yes, some of it is quite good).

Here’s what he has to say about The Nephiad:

“It was a pleasure to receive your email. The Nephiad isn’t everyone’s cup of… [fill in an appropriate word], but occasionally it draws some interest.

It began about 30 years or so ago when I was in graduate school. My Ph.D. advisor, John Steadman, was an authority on Milton, on Epic, and on pretty much anything else he was interested in… a true Renaissance man and a generous and gracious scholar.

Anyway, as part of the Epic seminar (year-long, 25 epics read and discussed), he gave us a generalized list of epic conventions and warned us that some of them would appear on the final exam. It seemed to me that the best way to explore how the conventions worked would be to DO them, to write an epic.

I’ve always been fascinated by Milton and Paradise Lost. I discovered the poem when I was about 18, fell in love with the language, and later discovered as well that Milton was extraordinarily close in his thinking to Joseph Smith (later, I found that almost everything Joseph Smith taught as part of the Restoration was believed by at least one splinter religion during the 17th Century, and most of them between 1640 and 1660, roughly the time Milton was working on the poem). He seemed, if not a kindred spirit, then at least an intriguing mind.

So I decided to write a Miltonic epic, mostly for practice. I had to choose a topic, and since Milton had taken the best one, I tried to find a single moment that defined the LDS perspective on the universe.

For various reasons, I chose the BofM episode concerning Nephi and the Brass Plates of Laban. That was the point at which Nephi had to make a crucial choice — to kill or not to kill — and also the moment from which Book of Mormon history, and subsequently OUR history, became unique.

It seemed as well that, as a poet, I could work freely within the framework of scriptural truth… again using Milton as a model, who incorporated a number of elements into his poems that were not directly biblical. So I added an angel. The evil angel urges Nephi to follow the laws of Moses and of God and NOT kill; the good angel must paradoxically urge Nephi to disobey one law in order to maintain another. Externalizing the debate made it more dramatic… and provided a key scene for the poem.

Most of The Nephiad was written over an 18 month period; it was finished long before my dissertation. It ended up about 6,000 lines long, 12 books, in Miltonic blank verse. I tried a couple of time to get it published, but — as expected — there was little to no market for such a poem.

Then about 15 years ago, I began transferring all of my poetry to computer. Over a year or so, I entered about 1,000 poems into the file so that everything would be available.

Everything except The Nephiad.

It just seemed too long, too complex, too difficult to re-type. I stalled for another year or so, then decided that I really wanted an accessible copy. As I began, I discovered that in the two decades that had passed, I had learned a great deal about Milton, about poetry, about LDS thinking, about myself, about everything that a Renaissance epic had to touch on. So I began revising as well as transcribing, adding about a thousand new lines, tinkering with a number of old ones.

At about the same time, I taught myself book-making, especially cloth-bound books. Since no professional publisher was interested in the project, I published/created the book myself.

It has received some strong responses from several readers, including a couple of BYU professors specializing in Renaissance studies — and, to be honest, it was pretty much savaged by a BYU religion professor who simply wondered why I had wasted my time writing it… after all, the Book of Mormon had already told the story more directly, more simply, and more accessibly.

But I’m gratified by the comments it has received. It’s been compared favorably to other 19th and 20th century LDS attempts, which I much appreciate.

At any rate, that is the story of The Nephiad. It is an attempt at re-creating one of the most complex and versatile idioms in English verse; it does reflect my own beliefs as member and as poet; and it is a real challenge to deal with.”

Thanks, Dr. Collings. A Motley Vision will feature an excerpt from the epic in an upcoming post. Copies of The Nephiad are available. E-mail Collings for details.

Criticism: The Book of Mormon as epic

Dave has some interesting thoughts over at Mormon Inquiry on the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf and the Book of Mormon — specifically the oral transmission aspect to both works. He ends with: “Would that someone like Seamus Heaney would come along and translate the Book of Mormon from its rather dated rendition of the King’s English into modern verse!”

The problem, of course, is that we don’t have a source text to work with. Yes, there are poets who have “translated” works without the source text, but any attempt with the Book of Mormon to reach behind Joseph Smith’s mixture of 19th century Protestant discourse mixed with the language of the King James edition of the Bible must needs rely on non-Nephite/Lamanite sources for inspiration in re-casting the text. Interestingly enough, as Justin Butterfield mentions, a BYU professor has attempted to do just that.

Peter J. Sorensen, associate professor of English at BYU, has written a work he calls the Mormoniad. In a paper he presented at the 2002 annual meeting of the Association for Mormon Letters, Sorenson discussed his project and read a few samples from the work. I can’t do justice to the paper — which can be found in the AML Annual 2003 — but I will share some higlights.

First: Sorensen begins with the premise that the Book of Mormon is not a literary work (although it contains literary elements) — nor was it intended to be. It’s true, but it’s a work intended to teach doctrine and so lacks poetic elements, esp. the “concrete images of great literature” (22). He even mentions something I brought up on a Mormon Metaphysics post on translation — that even though chiasmus appears to be present in the text, there’s no way of knowing if chiasmus is present in the original text (I should have known that somebody already had made that point). What’s more, Sorenson reminds us that chiastic language isn’t necessarily “beautiful” (i.e. has literary value) simply because it is chiastic.

Second: Sorensen decided to recast the Book of Mormon as an epic, drawing upon Milton, Homer, Virgil, the Old Testament and Jewish texts and commentaries.

Third: He draws upon the basic narrative of the Book of Mormon, but in writing the Mormoniad he adds quite a bit of material, speeches, narratives, psalms, etc. For example, he adds several paragraphs on the Ark of the Covenant to frame the section in 1 Nephi about the appearance of the Liahona. In doing so, he follows the model of Milton’s Paradise Lost which takes a few chapters from the Old Testament and interpolates all sorts of actions and dialogues.

Fourth: He uses diction and syntax that is specifically 17th century English (as opposed to Joseph Smith’s use of a mix of 17th and 19th century English), reasoning that that is the type of discourse that rings as “epic” for most readers.

Fifth: He sees Jehovah (Yahweh, the pre-mortal Jesus) as the central hero of the Book of Mormon and the narrative as what happens “when mortals pit their wits against Yahweh’s” (25). He writes: “The tribes of the Book of Mormon, like the Trojans and Achaeans, too easily forget the covenants made with gods, usually in favor of battling others in the name of extendend family pride” (25).

In all, I’d say that Sorensen makes a compelling case for his approach to re-writing the Book of Mormon as epic (he considers it in the form we know and love to be a “proto-epic”). But is the Mormoniad any good? I don’t know. It’s hard to tell as he only quotes a few passages — and they’re from different sections of the work so I don’t have a feel for how it all works together. I can say that it still seems like the sort of thing that would have a very limited audience. I’m a fairly sympathetic reader — and probably much more sympathetic than most readers when it comes to pre-19th century texts — and even I have a hard time getting into the language and tone of the piece.

Here’s an excerpt, you decide:

“(xv)When on the morrow Lehi saw the sun in the east, and morning had risen, he came forth from his tent to praise God for the new day, and Behold! A ball of curious workmanship, of finest bronze, set with precious stones: rubies, diamonds, and emeralds. And within the ball two spindles, pointing. Now by means of this globe, called Liahona, that is, the path ahead, were Lehi and his tribe led into the wilderness, and from thence to the sea, and from the sea to the new land of promise (for that Lehi knew the judgement and doom of Jerusalem, which had been Yahweh his crown’s roayl diadem). And they carried their tents, their food, and seed of every kind.”

ALSO: Sorensen mentions in one of his footnotes another attempt at a Book of Mormon epic — Orson Scott Card and Stephen King scholar Michael Collings’ The Nephiad: An Epic Poem in Twelve Books. I don’t know anything about this work. Although I do seem to remember reading either a selection from this work or an “epic-like” poem on Joseph Smith by Collings that appeared in an early issue of Irreantum.

RELATED: Getting back to Dave’s original point about the Book of Mormon and readability. Check out Kim Siever’s post on Our Thoughts about a reader’s edition of the Book of Mormon prepared by Grant Hardy, chair of the history department at UNC Asheville. Of note, the reader’s edition puts the poetry in the text into poetic form (i.e. adds line breaks), indents quoted text and italicises biblical prophecies.

SOURCE: Peter J. Sorensen. “Mormoniad: The Book of Mormn as Proto-Epic.” AML Annual 2003. Ed. LAvinia Fielding Anderson. Pages 21-33. Association for Mormon Letters: Provo, 2003.

Criticism: Mormon magic realism, part IV

Read: Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

Too lazy to dig into the literary criticism on the genre, but curious about what the surface-level academic view of magic realism is, I decided to turn to The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism. The listing for “Magic Realism” referred me to the entry on “Realism.”

After a brief discussion of “Realism” and its major permutations (naturalism, socialist realism), the entry includes one paragraph on “Magic Realism”:

“Another term that has been used in conjunction with discussions of realism is magic realism. Applied to a group of writers that include Latin American authors Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Márquez, as well as German Günter Grass and Englishman John Fowles, magic realism describes the technique of combining realistic depictions of events and characters with elements of the FANTASTIC, often drawn from dreams, myth, and fairy tales.” (“Realism.” The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism. Pages 255-57. Edited by Joseph Childers and Gary Hentzi. Columbia University Press: New York, 1995).

Not much help. But it’s a good reminder that although the definition can perhaps be broadened a bit more than how I’ve been portraying, don’t forget the “realism” part of magic realism. Works that include fantastic elements but don’t really fit in to the realist tradition aren’t magic realist works.

Which is why I am surprised that Borges is included in the list above. I haven’t read his later novels so perhaps that qualifies him for the appellation, but I don’t see his stories as fitting into realism. Do we call Kafka a magic realist? Maybe, but I’ve never seen the two linked. The world(s) of some of Kafka’s stories have certain resemblances with the “real” world, but they aren’t “realistic” in the same sense as Balzac’s Paris or Henry James’ Boston. This is not to say that neither Borges nor Kafka fits into the “literary” literary tradition — although that’s a whole other discussion (that is, why do certain works of “fantasy” become canonized and others don’t). Nor do I think that “magic realism” has to be set in a real-world place and time. Garcia Márquez’s works invoke (recreate?) the real-world, but are often hazy on the time and place. But they do it in a way that’s much different than Kafka in The Trial or The Castle (actually, now that I think about it “Metamorphosis” might be the one Kafka story that comes close to magic realism).

I balk at Borges’ inclusion in the same way that I balked at Eugene England including Orson Scott Card in his comments on Mormon magic realism. It seems to me that OSC is clearly writing in the traditions of speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, horror) and historical fiction. In fact, he made a conscious turn away from literary fiction. Sure, those are marketing categories decide by publishers, but those categories also affect, in turn, how his books are read and interpreted and what works they are compared with — the tradition they are tied in to. And once an author becomes part of that market, he or she is constrained (and liberated) to a certain extent by the demands of that market.

My guess is that Borges is included simply because he’s a canonical, Latin American writer who works are often fantastic.

But to get back to my original point: let’s not forget the “realism” aspect of magic realism. It’s a crucial part of the reading experience, of why and how the fantastic elements operate in the way they do for the reader (and thus the problem of Mormon readers I bring up in parts I-III). This is why it’ll be interesting to take a look at Margaret Young’s Salvador. From what I understand, she works in the realist tradition.

NOTE: In stressing the link to realism, I in no way intend to discount works that fall more into the fantasy tradition than the realist tradition. In fact, if anything, this discussion on magic realism proves that literary criticism has not dealt satisfactorily with fantasy and fantastic elements in literary fiction. Not to mention the fact that it has paid but meager attention to genre fiction (although that has begun to change).

ALSO: If you missed it, check out The Semiotician’s comments on Mormon magic realism at the end of part III. He summarizes well what I’ve been trying to say about the problems Mormon readers create for a “true” Mormon magic realism.

AND: I apologize that it’s so difficult to track new comments posted on this site. I’m looking for a way to display the last five posted comments on the right nav bar, but so far have had no luck finding a piece of code that works with Blogger.

Criticism: Post-colonial Mormon voices

I decided to track down the lecture by Richard Bushman that Nate Oman referenced in his June 1 post on Mormon Orientalism over at Times & Seasons because I wanted to see what Bushman had to say specifically about literature since the lecture was given at an AML annual meeting. The answer: not a whole lot. Which is to say — plenty for my over-reaching, prone-to-speculation mind.

The focus of Nate’s post was “the extent to which ‘critical distance’ is simply a manifestation of intellectual colonialization” (Nate Oman. “Mormon Orientalism.” Times & Seasons: June 1, 2004.). Thus the resulting comments tended to be about the problems of critical distance, reactions to/against Edward Said (Bushman borrows from his work on Orientalism to help formulate his theory of the colonization of Mormonism), and Michael Quinn. Good stuff.

Now whether or not you buy Bushman’s argument about the colonization of Mormonism — which he claims was effectuated by Mormon insiders, specifically “merchants” who were interested in opening up Mormonism to the outside, along with the work of outside writers — there’s no doubt that, no matter how you want to term it, Mormonism went through a process of integration into American culture and society and that integration included adoption of the discourses and mores of the broader society — business, academic, cultural and political.

ASIDE: Bushman notes: “Even today, outsider writers rely on enlightened insider informants to help them get a line on Mormonism” (20). Heh.

But Bushman isn’t concerned with the colonization, which he thinks was inevitable, as much as with where that leaves Mormons today. In fact, he admits that there are flaws in “colonization theory” and moderates Said’s position on clearing room for authentic indigenous voices (22). “[W]here are the authentic Mormon voices?” he asks (22).

Although he uses the question as an opportunity to make a case for paying closer attention to ‘home’ sources (General Conference talks, private journals, the old Relief Society Magazine, etc.), the answer, of course, is:

“We will never identify an authentic Mormon voice — if by authentic we mean a voice without taint of imperial culture. I think it is safe to say that none exists “¦ The language of broader American culture has percolated into every form of Mormon speech” (22). Bushman notes, for instance, that FARMS “the academic institution most dedicated to defense of the faith, rests its case on Enlightenment rationality” (22).

For Bushman, the solution (and one he personally employs), then, is for Mormons to “attain a degree of post-colonial sophistication” (23).

He ends the lecture with:

“Consciousness of colonization may grant us a little freedom from its influence. If we cannot destroy the authority of imperial culture, we can name it and examine it. We need not be naïve about the mechanics of power. Said said that he hoped ‘to illustrate the formidable structure of cultural domination and, specifically for formerly colonized peoples, [show] the dangers and temptations of employing this structure upon themselves or upon others’ (Said, 25). Similarly, I hope we will not be cowed by the structures of cultural domination, and will voice our Mormonism more freely, more imaginatively, and more faithfully” (23).

I have my doubts (as do others) as to what degree such consciousness is useful and how well authority can be named and examined — especially when it comes to academic discourses. But I do find Bushman’s words inspiring in terms of artistic creation.

I don’t know that Mormon writers can create something wholly unique and new — I’m not asking for a Mormon Shakespeare, Kafka or Joyce. I do think, however, that Mormon literature tends to either demonize or simply ignore the forces of American culture (home literature) or march in step with them, slotting Mormon narratives into the prevailing types and modes and allowable narratives of American literary fiction. What I don’t really see are Mormon narratives that take American culture head on, grapple with them from a faithful (or even backsliding but believing) Mormon perspective.

A big part of the problem, I think, is that Mormon authors have bought into the conventional wisdom of Mormonism as an imperial, dominant force of its own (not that this isn’t the case — but American culture’s focus on this aspect of Mormonism verges on the obsessive and ignores many of the other forces of American culture), and so are busy either portraying how the LDS Church and Mormon culture (and specifically the culture of the Intermountain West) enriches, complicates or ruins the lives of its members. This inward focus ignores, for the most part, what Bushman calls the “imperial forces” of American culture. What I’d like to see is more works that examine how Mormons buy into, subvert, criticize, accommodate, are tainted by, are enriched by and re-write/inscribe the broader culture.

We are a hybrid (post-colonial?) people, trying to live in the world but not be of it. As much as some of us might wish that that means we walk around in a bubble, unaffected by the cultural forces around us, that’s clearly not the case. A full withdrawal is not an option — it didn’t work the first time. The saints fled west. American cultural forces still caught up with them. I agree with Bushman. We can gain but little freedom from these forces. In the end that doesn’t matter — Christ’s culture will reign. But if we can raise our hybridized, post-colonial voices at this point in our history and at the very least subvert a little, mess with, use and transform pieces of American culture, then let’s do it.

SOURCES: 1. Richard Lyman Bushman. “The Colonization of the Mormon Mind.” Pages 14-23. Annual of the Association of Mormon Letters: 2000. Ed. Lavinia Fielding Anderson. The Association for Mormon Letters: Salt Lake City. 2. Edward Said. Orientalism. Random House. New York: 1994.

Criticism: Mormon magic realism, part III

Read: Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

In part II, I discussed the magic realism of Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” noting that the supernatural element of story — the old man with wings — was a baffling presence that challenged the religious conventions of the community he appears in. Neal Chandler’s “The Third Nephite,” which appears in his loosely-connected collection Benediction, also features a supernatural old man that poses a problem for the realistic characters and world of the narrative.

In the story a middle-aged father comes into contact with a mysterious old man who asks for his help. The father decides to give him aid and ends up in a series of situations that culminates in the two being taken by LDS security men to visit a general authority who tries to council (and threaten somewhat) the old man into following Church protocol more closely. It would seem that this old man has been driving the Church bureaucracy crazy by running around doing charitable acts that are rather unorthodox and perhaps more importantly in doing so he subverts the wishes and boundaries of local authorities. Although Chandler leaves room for some doubt on the matter, it seems pretty clear that this old man is what the title of the story suggests — one of the Three Nephites, the three apostles who in 3 Nephi ask Christ that he allow them the same status that he gave to John the Beloved, namely, to not die, but instead be transformed into a state that would allow them to remain on earth until his Second Coming.

There is a rich body of Mormon folk narratives dealing with the Three Nephites. Chandler is clearly evoking these narratives. And by locating the story in a “realistic” seemingly historical-bound time and setting, he creates a narrative that seems to be in the magic realist mode — especially considering how well it parallels Garcia Marquez’s story.

There are some important differences between these two baffling old men, however, and herein lies, I think, part of the challenge for Mormon magic realism that draws upon religious-folk beliefs for its magical elements.

Both old men present challenges to orthodox doctrine, but in parallels Garcia Marquez the challenge is one of definition of being, whereas, in Chandler it is one of conduct. The Catholic authorities get caught up in an unresolved debate about the nature of this old man with wings — and the nature of his being is not solved for the reader either. With Chandler, the being of the old man seems rather clear. Although we don’t receive a 100 percent confirmation, I think most readers would agree that the old man is most definitely meant to be one of the Three Nephites. The problem is not what is he, but is he behaving appropriately?

I like Chandler’s story very much, but I think that it is weak as an example of magic realism because the magic realist element is used in the service of counter-discourse — or to put it in harsher terms — as a teaching tool. The old man with wings represents a puzzle; the old Nephite is used to show how Church hierarchy and bureaucracy can interfere with “pure” Christian acts (in fact, this is one of the main themes of Benediction).

The problem for many (orthodox — although I’m not sure I like the term applied to this situation) Mormon readers, I think, is that they just don’t think that one of the Three Nephites (the last one even?) would come into conflict with Church leaders. What’s more is that he doesn’t seem entirely recognizable when removed from the folk narratives associated with the Three Nephites. I think that this is especially true because even though his charitable are mentioned, they aren’t depicted. Perhaps if these had been dramatized the “magic realistic” feel of the character would have been heightened and made more believable.

And this problem illustrates a major challenge for Mormon magic realism, I think. Although Mormonism has a great foundation of folk narratives, it also has some clear doctrinal boundaries and lines of authority.

One solution for Mormon writers might be to follow Garci­a Marquez’s lead and introduce elements that are baffling for Mormon readers (i.e. not accounted for by doctrine).

Another is to not worry about the category so much and focus on how to powerfully portray those Mormon experiences that are not “supernatural” but are not explainable by modern science. Those things –healings, warnings, appearances, speaking in tongues and other manifestations of spiritual gifts — that are common and uncommon. I’m not sure how non-Mormon audiences will react to such narratives (although in part I, I assume that they will react negatively — if at all). And considering the discomfort much of the Mormon audience has with artistic depictions of sacred moments, perhaps the audience for these narratives is so small as to almost not be worth bothering with. And yet, this is an important part of the Mormon experience — this magic we see in the world, magic that is natural to us, unseen but true and living.

NEXT: I’m ready to move on to other subjects so it won’t be for awhile, but I intend to follow-up on Andrew Hall’s comments and take a look at magic realism in Margaret Young’s novel Salvador. I also will try and track down an essay by Eric A. Eliason that discusses magic realism in a story collection by Phyllis Barber.

Criticism: Mormon magic realism, part II

Read: Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

In part I of my discussion of the possibilities of magic realism as a fruitful mode for Mormon fiction writers, I brought up two complications that, at least for me, muddied the project. First, the fuzziness of the label “magic realism,” especially when transferred from the group of Latin American writers and particular mid-20th century works that led to initial category to other literatures. Second, the problem of the “naturalness” of the Mormon events/actions/figures that are often mentioned as possible sources of “magic” — the Three Nephites et al.

To restate the second point a bit: I think part of the enthusiasm among Mormon literary types for the category of magic realism is that it seems to be a way to create narratives where Mormon beliefs — both religious and folk — are treated seriously. Not only would/do such narratives reflect the Mormon experience in a ‘good’ way, they also then fit into a category that is treated seriously by the literary world.

In part I, I question whether or not such narratives would be accepted as magic realist narratives. I suppose at this point I should dig into the literary criticism — discuss how the term is defined and applied. I have read a little of it in the past — enough to know that it is a term in contention and that its definition as a literary mode really depends on what texts a particular critic is in to.

So my preference is to ground this discussion in texts — starting with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s often anthologized and taught “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” It leads to a very different definition or view of magic realism, but I will bring the discussion back around to Mormon literature by comparing it [I am a comparatist by training, after all] to Neal Chandler’s story “The Last Nephite.”

“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is about exactly what the title suggests. An old man with wings shows up one day in the muddy courtyard of a poor Catholic family in a small Latin American coastal town. No one is sure what to make of him. He doesn’t seem like a real angel. In addition to his wings, the only other remarkable thing about him is that he speaks a language no one else can understand. He experiences some moments of renown brought on by curiosity and the possibility of miraculous healings (miracles do happen, but in a grotesquely funny manner) — and the family gets rich charging money to see him. The local priest tries to get a statement from Rome on the nature of the old man, but that gets tied up in esoteric debates. Finally, a new freak arrives in town and the old man is forgotten, left to languish in a dirty, decrepit chicken coop, his wings reduced to cannulae. The old man survives a winter with the family, re-grows his wings, and one day in early spring flies away.

Although no exact location or time period is given, the narrative seems to be located in historical time. That “magic” element in the narrative is the presence of the old man. But he is a baffling presence. The magic is not, for example, an appearance by the Blessed Virgin or an exorcism or something else rooted within the supernatural possibilities allowed by Catholic doctrine (even folk doctrine). In fact, the old man presents a problem for the Church — a subject for doctrinal debate rather than a wonderful manifestation of the power of God to be sanctioned and publicized.

This type of magic realism where the magical element is a baffling one poses a challenge for the category of Mormon magic realism — a challenge that is illustrated by Neal Chandler’s “The Last Nephite.”

Stay tuned for part III.