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.

Criticism: Mormon magic realism?

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

Damon Linker’s post over at Times & Seasons on PoMo Mormon Enchantment has drawn a lot of great comments including one by Rob on the possibility of Mormon literature written in the on magic realist mode. This idea of magic realism being a natural mode of literature for Mormonism comes up from time to time. The appeal as I understand it is that because magic realism was pioneered by South American Catholic (believing or not) writers as a mode of literature and features seemingly supernatural (“magic”) actions or beings embedded in a realist narrative, it would seem to be a good fit for Mormon writers. After all, like Catholics, we believe in an “enchanted” world — to borrow the term from Linker.

I see a couple of complications.

First: As is their wont, literary critics have stretched and strained and misapplied and muddied the definition of magic realism to a point where one wonders how useful it is. At its’ most reductive level, any narrative written after, say, 1950 that seems to be “literary” fiction but contains fantastical elements is hit with the magic realism label.

For example, Eugene England says about Orson Scott Card’s work [and I think he has specifically in mind her Card’s excellent Alvin Maker series] that it is “what might be called, on the model of Latin American novelists, “magic realism.” (Eugene England. “Mormon Literature: Progress and Prospects.” See paragraph 54.). Yes, England throws in the qualifier “might,” but from my point of view Card is clearly writing in the speculative fiction modes of fantasy (Alvin Maker, Saints) and science fiction (Ender, etc.). What he is doing is quite different from the Latin American novelists.

Second: As Clark Goble points out in a response to an earlier post by Linker on enchantment, Mormonism’s “enchantment is a double move in which the enchantment is naturalized and made ‘normal.'” Granted this was in a philosophical context, but I think it has a literary application as well. Insofar as Mormon magic realism manifests itself in narratives where the “magical” elements are actually natural or ‘normal’ (albeit perhaps not entirely common) Mormon phenomena (such as speaking in tongues, angelic appearances, healings, etc.), it is no longer, in my opinion, magic realism. And yet in my experience, when Mormons talk about a Mormon magic realism, these are the phenomena they give as examples. See Rob’s comments linked to above, for instance, where he mentions the Three Nephites and baby resurrections.

This is not to say that such a mode of literature wouldn’t be good for the field of Mormon literature. In fact, I would love to see more natural-supernatural acts occur in Mormon fiction. But such literature does create a weird situation where non-believers would read it as magic realist [although I have my doubts about whether many would be charitable enough to group it in that category — instead I think it would be received as Mormon propaganda] and Mormons would read it as, well, realist.

NEXT: I’ll explore this topic further in a couple of days by taking a close look at two short stories that are examples of magic realism — “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Latin American writer and the godfather of magic realism Gabriel Garci­a Marquez and “The Last Nephite” by Mormon author Neal Chandler.

Criticism: About that Whitney quote

So about that Orson F. Whitney quote…

No, not this one. Not the one that crops up almost everywhere.

This quote — the one that appears near the bottom of the right sidebar:

“Our literature must live and breathe for itself.”

The quote comes from the same source as the Shakespeares and Miltons one. It’s part of the section in Whitney’s foundational essay “Home Literature” where he most clearly defines how Mormon writers should go about creating a home literature:

“Above all things, we must be original. The Holy Ghost is the genius of “Mormon” literature. Not Jupiter, nor Mars, Minerva, nor Mercury. No fabled gods and goddesses; no Mount Olympus; no “sisters nine,” no “blue-eyed maid of heaven”; no invoking of mythical muses that “did never yet one mortal song inspire.” No pouring of new wine into old bottles. No patterning after the dead forms of antiquity. Our literature must live and breathe for itself. Our mission is diverse from all others; our literature must also be. The odes of Anacreon, the satires of Horace and Juvenal, the epics of Homer, Virgil, Dante and Milton; the sublime tragedies of Shakspeare [sic]; these are all excellent, all well enough in their way; but we must not attempt to copy them. They cannot be reproduced. We may read, we may gather sweets from all these flowers, but we must build our own hive and honeycomb after God’s supreme design.” (Orson Whitney. “Home Literature.” The Contributor: July 1988).

Setting aside the whole Holy Ghost question for a moment, it may seem that talk about muses is out of place in the world of (post)modern fiction, but how many times have you heard authors discuss the process of writing in terms that seem to hearken back to the idea of a muse? Sure, now we call it the subconscious, but authors continue to claim that their characters come from some ‘other’ place. You hear things like: “I thought the novel was going to be about James, but then the character of Tess grabbed me by the shoulders and yelled in my ear and forced me to completely changed the focus.” Or, “At first I didn’t know exactly what her story was so I had to get her to tell it to me.” Or, “Yeah, that was a weird twist for me too — David completely surprised me by doing that.” [Full disclosure: I made all those quotes up. They are based, however, on interviews I’ve heard/read over the years].

Now, granted this is just a way to explain the creative process, and in some cases is probably exaggerated to mystify the experience of writing for non-writers. At the same time, I know that for me writing a narrative, writing about characters, requires a sort of tugging on the subconscious, an inner staging that can’t be consciously blocked out beforehand.

Okay, so that’s all well and fine — the subconscious has a role in the creative process and you could describe that as a sort of ‘muse.’ The real question is: how involved is the Holy Ghost in the process?

I can’t answer that question, of course. Sure there are authors in the LDS market that claim that they were inspired to write a particular work. But there’s no real way to verify that. For even if readers feel the Holy Ghost when reading, viewing or listening to a particular work, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the work itself has received some indelible stamp of the spirit — especially since not only is feeling the spirit a subjective, virtually indescribable experience, but it also varies by reader. Even those of us who claim some sort of orthodoxy, who have built a common ground of trust, of feeling the spirit in similar situations, don’t always respond with the same intensity [or even at all sometimes] to works of art.

Which I guess gets at the real difficulty here. What does it mean for the Holy Ghost to inspire a work? Is it some form of automatic writing where the writer only acts as a conduit? I’d doubt that any Mormon writers would claim that. Does it mean that God somehow wants a particular work to come forth? In my experience, God wants us to use our talents and can encourage us in a particular direction, but that doesn’t mean he sanctions the work for all time and all peoples. None of us are writing for the scriptural canon — no matter how inspired we feel our work to be. [Okay, so there’s some room for discussion on this point, but I don’t feel like going into it here].

No, I think that at most I can say that this about Whitney’s quote: Mormon artists should seek to live close to the spirit, to do those “Sunday School” things [prayer, service, scripture reading, temple attendance] that keep us in tune, and just as importantly, I think, Mormon artists should be obsessed with Mormon materials, with the stuff of our history, theology and culture. Assuming it is possible, and I remain hopeful that it is even though I think that it will take some time and will not be in abundance, originality, a literature that breathes for itself, will come from someone who can digest and interpret Mormon materials in a way that is informed by and refreshes but resists, even critiques Western, canonical [and pop, I think] culture.

CAVEAT: “Mormon artists” above refers to artists who seek to live a life of LDS orthodoxy. In keeping with the big tent definition of Mormon literature, A Motley Vision will, at other times, use the term “Mormon artists” in a broader sense to include those, for instance, who identify themselves as cultural Mormons but are not active LDS. I’m not sure how this Whitney quote would apply to them. But I’m open to comments that speak to that issue.

Criticism: What is Mormon literature?

Now that the introductory material is out of the way, on to the business of blogging…

There are two questions wrapped up in the post title.

The first: What works and authers count as Mormon literature?

The answer to this question varies by audience, obviously. The tendency in Mormon letters has been to take a broad approach, thus, Mormon literature is anything written by Mormons (active LDS or otherwise) or any work that is about Mormons [generally meaning, at least when it comes to fiction, has at least one Mormon character ]. That works for me, for now, and so I expect A Motley Vision to range from Walter Kirn to Jack Weyland. But I have to admit that, for me, certain works and authors ‘count’ more than others. Why is that? And what elements make a work resonate more fully with me [and with others] as a Mormon reader — that arouse my ‘Mormon-ness’ as opposed to simply my ‘literary-dude-ness’?

The second: What type of literature is Mormon literature?

Typically Mormon literature has been regarded as a sub-set of Western regionalism. If you look at the non-LDS bookstore, non-BYU market, Mormon literature crops up in the form of titles published by the University of Illinois, Utah State and the University of Utah as just one part of a catalog of Western works. In addition to its own meetings, the Association of Mormon Letters usually sponsors a session at the annual Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association conference. The Weber State journal Weber Studies and the University of Utah’s Western Humanities Review focus on Western regional titles, including some Mormon works.

This is all fine. But Western regionalism isn’t a very telling category — especially as the field develops and titles come out that aren’t rooted in the Intermountain West. So is it an ethnic [Mormo-American], religious, Christian [certainly much of the Mormon publishing and book selling market is modeled after the Christian market], minor or even national literature?

I think that it’s a strange hybrid. That it is unique in the way that it seems to be caught between and interacts with an active, even dominant institutional LDS discourse , a rather provincial ‘home’ market and the field of American literature . And I think you could even argue that Mormon literature is still in such nascent form that any attempts to categorize it are premature. And yet, I can’t leave this topic alone. I intend to keep trying to tease out where it [or parts of it] seem to point in a specific direction, always with the understanding, of course, that I my perspective is biased because I desire for it to grow and gain in legitimacy as a field of its own, as Mormon literature.