Commentary: Plenary Session of the AML Conference

Eric has given a nice overview of the conference; I’m going to concentrate on two sessions I took notes on.

The Plenary Session was titled, “Looking Back: Memorable Moments in Mormon Literature.” Presenters included Richard Cracroft, Thomas Rogers, Margaret Blair Young, and Susan Howe. Laraine Wilkins, editor of Irreantum, chaired this spirited discussion of Mormon literature’s roots and founding influences. This session was charged with a lot of energy. Here are some highlights:

Richard Cracroft spoke first and took the occasion early on to recommend Richard Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling, and Robert Rees’s collection of writing in honor of Eugene England, Proving Contraries. Among other things (many other things), Cracroft reviews Mormon literature in his column in BYU Today. During the session, he went so far as to say that any Mormon who had not read RSR is in dereliction of duty. Also recommended to anyone interested in the development of Mormon literature: England’s essay, “Mormon Literature: Progress and Prospects,” published in David Whittaker’s Mormon Americana: A Guide to Sources and Collections in the United States. Cracroft told how his interest in Mormon literature began in 1971 and described his goal of helping to foster a strain of Mormon literature “”¦ you can read in the temple on Thursday morning.” He remains very excited about the past, present, and future of Mormon literature and is chock full of personal anecdotes about many founding writers and publications.

In his overview of memorable players on the Mormon drama stage, Tom Rogers mentioned Orson Scott Card for, among other things, Stone Tablets; Douglas Stewart for Saturday’s Warrior; Marvin Payne; Steven Kapp Perry; and Clinton Larson; although his remarks on Clinton’s poetic dramas included an anecdote where he attended a performance of one of Clinton’s plays and watched as the “audience drifted out, and then their eyes glazed over.” Having had the priviledge myself of attending two of Clinton’s plays back when, I know that Rogers’s description of audience reaction during these plays is accurate. Nevertheless, Clinton was, as Rogers put it, “a heavy self-promoter,” and his influence upon the Mormon arts scene and many aspiring writers (yours truly included) is undeniable. Rogers also saluted for their work in theater Charles Metten, Charles Whitman, Richard Cracroft, Eugene England, Scott Bronson, and Tim Slover, among others. Speaking personally on his own experience with his play Huebner, Rogers said he wrote it as a response to a challenge from Alan Keele, staying up all night to complete it. Of theater, he posed a question: Is theater an outdated and antiquated art form? His answer: Yes, but it is an impressively developed form.

In her address, Margaret Blair Young said she has lived through the second Mormon Renaissance. Her reflections on Mormon literature took on personal overtones as she spoke of her awakening to her calling as a writer, triggered in part by her reading of The Brothers Karamazov, a novel that opened her eyes to individual responsibility. She cited Don Marshall’s The Rummage Sale and Doug Thayer’s Under the Cottonwoods as works that influenced her and also said that Tom Rogers influenced her as a teacher and mentor. Her list of mentors further included Bruce Young (her husband), Gene England, and Darius Gray.

In Susan Howe’s presentation, which she was forced to shorten because the session had already run over, she referred to poetry as ” “¦ that other art form for which you can get no money and no fame.” In spite of this, there is, in her opinion, a “fine tradition of Mormon poetry blossoming right now.” As an important source for anyone seeking the roots of Mormon literature, she named the anthology A Believing People: Literature of the Latter-day Saints. She credited Clinton Larson with being the father of contemporary Mormon poetry, saying he combined principles of the New Criticism of the 50s, 60s, and 70s with Mormon themes. Howe honored May Swenson’s “original vision.” She also credited Harvest, an anthology of Mormon poetry, with ” “¦ help[ing] people realize there was a Mormon tradition.” She saluted Emma Lou Thayne and Carol Lynn Pearson for their poetic visions. Howe mentioned three volumes of poems written by her colleagues at BYU: In All Their Animal Brilliance (Lance Larson), Leviathan With A Hook (Kim Johnson), and The Well-Tempered Tantrum (John Talbot), each of which have received, among other honors, the AML Award for Poetry (Larson’s In All Their Animal Brilliance received this year’s award). Howe concluded that the “tradition of Mormon poets is alive and well.”

Between the banter among participants, the spontaneous eruption of anecdotes, and the nature of the all-encompassing topic the plenary session ran well overtime and much of it went crashing by like a train that had jumped its tracks. But it was an lively session and I thought that it and other sessions I attended went well along toward re-energizing the AML’s sense of purpose and direction. While the theme of this year’s conference was “Legacies and Destinies: the Past, Present, and Future of Mormon Literature,” clearly the conference provided the AML a healthy chance to contemplate its own roots, current state, and prospects. Attendance seemed lighter than during some years I’ve attended, which is unfortunate, given that IMO this conference had a thorough mix of academics, professionals, and just plain interested folk (like me) that gave it more breadth and texture than some AML conferences have had. And who knew Richard Bushman would be there? It’s surprises like this that keep me going to the conference any time I can manage.

Next I’ll report in detail on the Wayne Booth session, which I considered very well done and deserving of its own post.

Commentary: Reading the Bible as Literature

My all-time favorite BYU class was Steve Walker’s The Bible as Literature. It was the best of both worlds ““ it had the spirit of the very best religion classes and the stimulation of the best literature classes. What was particularly impressive about the class, though, was not that we covered so much material, but that we covered so little. Throughout the entire semester, I don’t think we covered more than 20 pages of text. The class was two and a half hours a session, once a week. And in each class period we discussed only a single passage, such as Gen. 22: 1-8, Psalms 102: 1-21, Luke 15: 11-32, and the single chapter Book of Susanna from the Apocrypha. I think the most text we covered in a single class was the four chapter Book of Jonah. Continue reading “Commentary: Reading the Bible as Literature”

Criticism: Of Narratives And Cuckoos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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