Mormon LitCrit: Tolle Lege, This My Body

Tolle Lege, This My Body

If a metaphor is successful it becomes transparent. It dies, so to speak, except no one speaks so. We know a mummy was once a living person, and when I see Joseph’s face at the end of Genesis staring up from his coffin, I can think back and imagine that face staring up from the well (“Very deep is the well of the past,” as Thomas Mann described it) at the Ishmaelite traders. Or when I think of Joseph Smith’s mummies I can imagine what they were like in life.  But I never wonder how a dead metaphor felt at the beginning of its life.

We all know of the new converts who thought the stake house was a restaurant. We laugh and say, “It’s spelled different,” but we don’t say, “like a tent stake,” because we don’t think it’s like anything.

Thus I was rummaging through a missionary apartment one day and came across a pamphlet called Mormonism, the cover picturing a Salt Lake temple replica, the Church’s 1963 New York World’s fair pavilion, so I figured the people going into the pavilion picked it up at the door.

I can hear them sitting in the darkness, hear Richard L. Evans’ resonant, “Sometimes in your search for happiness, you ponder the meaning of life.” And I remember a year or so later in Charles Metten’s film class watching the opening credits, listening to the music,  and at about the 6th note all the returned missionaries spontaneously burst out, “beep-beep.” I wonder how many mimed turning the knob to advance the filmstrip projector to the next frame?

The pamphlet was a talk Hugh B Brown, then of the First Presidency, had given at the Pittsburgh theological seminary. He quoted Isaiah’s image of the tent of Zion, with the stakes holding the canvas up and taut.

Oh, of course we’re talking about a tent, I thought, and our stake in what happens in the church, our stake in the tent Lehi placed on a hill in the valley of Laman that tamed the wilderness around it, like Wallace Stevens’ jar tamed a Tennessee flat top hill.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Zion’s tent the last few years and how many leave the tent, not just stepping out for a breath of air, but pulling up stakes and lighting out for the territory.

But why? Of tents thou shalt not speak, the saying goes, but lots of people want to describe the tent, its beauty and symmetry, its history and culture, and then sometimes find themselves blocked from the tent because someone thought something about something they said.

It seems to me some people think their sideshow in the tent is the main show, and take offense when someone won’t come in. Others say there’s no room in the tent for this or that sideshow.

I suspect we sometimes forget that everything in the tent is a sideshow except one main event. I was looking through a back issue of Irreantum recently and saw my name. Hmm, what did I write? Something about the closing scene of Richard Dutcher’s Brigham City, the almost silent scene of passing the sacrament. Hmm, the guy that wrote that was pretty smart, what ever happened to him?

That bread and water meal–that prisoners’ meal, as Dennis Clark suggested[1]–is the main show, or a memorial of it. The main show is not politics, or culture, or culture war, or art, literature, science, or theology, or even obedience. Everything within the culture tries to understand what that meal commemorates. Everything.

Every thing in our culture tries to understand the whole, to bring it together “at one moment” as J Scott Bronson phrased it in Stones.


All this is what I was thinking about when I made a comment on AML-List about enlarging Zion’s tent, about making sure we welcome creative people within the tent. Jonathan Langford suggested I expand the image to talk about literature itself as a tent, and how to enlarge it. A few days later he posted this comment on AML-List and on the blog: “It’s my perception that the Mormon literary world (taken at its broadest) is quite fractured right now, with many different groups pursuing their own interests, often with little knowledge or involvement from other groups” (AML blog slots 11/13/2010).

So how do we expand the literary tent? I suspect that for most of us literary education involves narrowing the tent. As a grduate student my father studied Matthew Arnold’s dictum about culture being “the best that has been said and thought in the world.” He sought out that best, but toward the end of his career I think he saw a dark side to Arnold’s dictum. For one thing, best doesn’t include you, whoever you are. Best is a matter of history, what people return to again and again. You’ll never know what the best of your own culture is. Which means you can’t trust your own judgment, since you don’t know what people will be reading 100 years hence.

So the best that has been thought is a divisive principle, dividing the sheep from the goats, but dividing individuals from their indivisibility as well, telling us that our wholeness is always somewhere else, or sometime else.

And if it divides us from ourselves it also divides us from each other, with cries of hack and populist and genre writer and elitist and boring flying back and forth, and comments about how literature and art should reflect all the hues of human experience.

But with all the cries and hues what are we actually hewing? We sometimes get so wrought up over whether our culture has produced much of any good that we don’t stop and think about what we have wrought.

I was in high school when the issue of BYU Today came out with Doug Thayer and Donald R Marshall on the cover, a 3 or 4-foot high stack of paper by each, representing, I suppose all the work that had gone into Under the Cottonwoods and The Rummage Sale.[2]   Around the same time Richard Cracroft and Neal Lambert published A Believing People. And Clinton Larsen had been publishing his poetry. But there wasn’t much else to choose from.

Dialogue and BYU Studies were publishing stories and poetry and essays, and Sunstone was just sending its rays over the mountains. Now we have added several publications where literature is not just scattered in with other things, but is the main subject, including print journals like Inscape and Irreantum and The Leading Edge, and on-line journals like Segullah, The Provo Orem Word, and A Motley Vision

And there’s a lot I haven’t mentioned, a lot!  a lot to choose from, requiring a principle of choice, I suppose, which is the etymology of canon, a measuring rod. But of course rods can be used to beat and  drive out, as well as measure, and it may be time to spare the rod.


I was all set to teach the Isaiah lesson about enlarging the Lord’s tent a couuple of weeks back (months now), but the other gospel doctrine teacher thought I had asked to swap weeks permanently when I went out of town for the funeral of a homesteader in Idaho, so she enlarged her tent that week, and I taught the lesson on Jeremiah the next.

In reading Jeremiah’s account of his first vision [3] this passage caught my attention. “See, I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10).

I’d been thinking lately about a lecture Bruce Jorgensen gave on the tolle lege of St. Augustine,  who was sitting in his room one day and heard a chant, perhaps from children at play, “tolle lege, tolle lege,” which he interpreted as “take up and read [the Bible].”

But that’s not the only thing tolle lege can mean. Bruce recited a long list of things, including “build up and destroy.” From that long list of possible meanings, Bruce said, Augustine chose one, and it is worth noting that it was a choice, not the only choice [4].

I told my class, there in the alzheimers ward, that St. Augustine had perhaps heard the same words that Jeremiah had heard, that people’s religious experiences are often very similar, and that I was about to listen to a recording of the Confessions, and looked forward to it.

(So why was I a bit disappointed, listening to Henry Chadwick’s translation, to hear the phrase in question in English, not Latin? Maybe because the passage is so short. Augustine doesn’t do any of the analysis Bruce Jorgensen did, only presents us with his conclusion, and I wonder if he even thought of the other possible meanings of the phrase or just chose it so readily that it seemed natural, not like a choice at all?)

I love the rhythm of Jeremiah’s words, “to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant,” and the symmetry of root and plant.

Mormon writers have spent a long time both rooting out and planting, dunging about and pruning, planting and transplanting and replanting,  and there’s a lot for the lord of the vineyard to look out at from an open tent flap,  a lot to root around in.

If my call to spare the rod sounds like flinging the canon wide open I can only say that “everything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praisewothy” is already a pretty wide open canon. In future posts I want to look at the implications of an open canon, and how an open canon relates to the command to “renounce [culture] war and proclaim peace” (see D&C 98:16). Until them there’s a lot to take up and read.


[1] “Bread and Water,” Tinder: Dry Poems, Orem, UT: United Order Books, 1988, p. 23.

[2] This would have been around 1975 or 6. I went to to see if I could find an archives, but the archived table of contents only goes back to Dec. 1984.

[3] I’ve been reading Marilyn Brown’s soon-to-be-published novel Fires of Jerusalem, and she draws several parallels between Jeremiah and Joseph Smith, including his first vision at age 14, and transporting sacred records in a barrel of garbage.

[4] I asked Bruce if he had published it. No. I’ve remembered the lecture for nearly 30 years partly because it fits well with my sense that interpretation is a matter of choice–works don’t interpret themselves, we do.

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5 Responses to Mormon LitCrit: Tolle Lege, This My Body

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Actually, Kathleen Woodbury deserves the credit for suggesting that “Harlow Clark’s AML-list email today might be elaborated on (as only Harlow can do it) to become an interesting AML blog post.” However, I take credit for immediately recognizing that it was a good idea and contacting you about it. Credit all around! And, of course, some small smidgen of credit to you for writing it…

    Very nice and thought-provoking. I’m looking forward to seeing how you explore this in future posts.

  2. Harlow Clark says:

    Thanks Jonathan, Kathleen too, for your friendship and encouragement. It’s nice to know people are reading. You’ve opened up a way to talk about something I’ve been thinking about for years, decades even. It has to do with definitions, with the fact that, say, for all our Christ-centered worship, Mormons are by definition not Christian. Ah, but whose definition?

    Similarly, when people talk about someone being liberal or conservative whose definition are they using? And if the person using the word is talking fiscal policy is the person hearing the same word thinking about politics or culture, or attitude toward the words of our leaders, or confusing all three?

    I’m reasonably certain I could take expressions of values from my liberal friends, tweak the vocabulary a little, and the values would sound quite conservative, and I could vice-versa with my conservative friends’ expressions of values.

    The same is true for expressions of literary values. I listened to Stephen King’s narration of On Writing this past summer. He begins by mentioning that he and Barbara Kingsolver and some other writers have an occasional rock band, and one night before a performance they were talking about the questions interviewers never ask, like about their use of language.

    Throughout the book his concerns are very literary, and the writing literate, no less literary and literate than that guy who wrote “Come Back to the Raft, Huck Honey” (to make a little nod toward the Sanitizing Twain discussion over on AMV ( Oh, yeah, Leslie Fiedler.

    Wie, wie, wie ein Fiedler aeussem dach! as Tvy says in the Yiddish production.

  3. Jonathan Langford says:

    I think there’s a positive virtue in listening to (or reading) each other that we don’t often talk about in literary terms. It may be that part of what makes God ultimately good is that he is the who hears all our stories.

  4. Wm Morris says:

    I played around with this metaphor in a 2008 post at AMV:

    “the LDS fiction crowd has drawn a circle around the work published by DB/Covnenant (and like work by a few other publishers). The lines of this circle are fairly thick and its borders are fairly actively patrolled. It’s a fairly well-provisioned stockade in the middle of a huge war camp located in a meadow. And its soldiers sometimes make a few excursions outside its walls because of concerns about the loyalty and/or actions of the soldiers in the camp.
    The AML has drawn a circle that encompasses the entire field including the stockade. It’s the big teeming war camp in a meadow filled with divisions and brigades and mercenaries and spies and includes the woods outside the meadow (which contains a few deserters). And all fighting under the banner of Mormon. And it displays most of its activity outside of the stockade although there are some comings and goings, particularly among certain brigades and the stockade. And some of the brigades are better trained than others and some are better provisioned than others. And there’s a lot of switching tents and shifting of personnel and officers and sharing supplies and yes, even some brawling when tempers flare over certain issues. And those outside the stockade think that, of course, the stockade is part of the war camp. It’s located in the war camp (even if some of them never even bother to visit or even look at the stockade). And those inside the stockade think, yeah, this is a war camp, but we don’t know if we can really trust everybody outside of the stockade. We’re not sure if some of those folks will really fight on our side if it comes to war. And they don’t wear the LDS Special Forces insignia. And they don’t always use the correct military jargon and sometimes forget the passwords. Heck, we don’t even know if they’re posting sentries. And we’re fairly well secured here with a decent amount of provisions so we don’t really need to visit the rest of the camp that often (or at all).”

    Now that analogy may appear as coming down a little harshly. But at the same I have affection for all the elements of the “war” camp. Plus I still need to figure out how to write part 3 of that series. And also do something with my Mormon culture as pirate’s cove idea.

    All of which is to say: great post, Harlow.

  5. Harlow Clark says:

    Jonathan, you have a way of stating things that brings into sharp focus something I’ve been thinking about, or provokes thought on a subject I care about. I’m reviewing William Logan Hebner’s Southern Paiute: A Portrait for AML-List. It’s a collection of 30 oral histories, both exhilarating to read and disheartening and very sad, as a portrait of a dying culture and language. It’s also unsettling because Mormons have often treated the Paiute no better than any other white people have. But I know that if I say this in a review there will be certain readers who will simply focus on that, ignore the stories, and say, “Ah, he’s just trying to guilt white people.” But the stories are the heart of the book, and if we want to hear the stories we need to listen to the context. Put another way, if we want to know people we have to listen to their stories, even if they make us uncomfortable. And we can’t truly know ourselves without knowing others. Or to put it another way, maybe God’s godness come from his willingness to hear our stories. Thanks for the insight.

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