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–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. 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  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 .
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.
 “Bread and Water,” Tinder: Dry Poems, Orem, UT: United Order Books, 1988, p. 23.
 This would have been around 1975 or 6. I went to byu.edu to see if I could find an archives, but the archived table of contents only goes back to Dec. 1984.
 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.
 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.