Renounce (Culture) War and Proclaim Peace II, Angle of Repose
In my last post I left culture war somewhat undefined. That was partly because when we define ourselves as being at war anything the perceived enemy does can be seen as an act of war, and we can perceive as enemy anyone who challenges our perceptions or precepts, or seems to. Artists are particularly vulnerable in a culture war because they write parabolically and the parabola is likely to skirt propaganda, or outskirt it, going so far out around it as to be of little use propagating a particular side’s viewpoint.
The artist might name “three transgressions of Moab, and [even] four,” but pretty soon the names will shift from Damascus, Tyrus, Gaza, Edom and Moab to Judah and Israel, from our enemies to ourselves (see Amos 1 and 2).
Indicting ourselves is an old tradition, and one of the problems literature teachers created in generalizing Lionel Trilling’s image of the modernists as being at war with their culture, in extending that image to art and literature generally, was that we lost the tradition. Like lots and lots and lots of high scholars I learned that Gulliver’s Travels was a satire of Christianity. But no one bothered to tell me (or maybe I wasn’t listening) that it was an inside satire, not the mocking on of an outsider like Voltaire shouting “‘Tis all in vain.”
Swift was a churchman and when he wrote about the Christian Dutch sailors’ savagery towards Gulliver as opposed to the heathen Japanese sailors’ kindness he was simply following the oldest tradition of Christian storytelling, older even than the rabbi’s story of the man beaten and left by the side of the road unholpen by his own, rescued finally by a despised Samaritan, for the rabbi was simply following an older tradition Isaiah followed when he said, “Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them” (Isaiah 1:14)
And Isaiah was just following an ancient tradition of Yahweh putting his own house in order first, a tradition going back to that couple who, asked to account for their actions, thought they were being asked to assign blame, and started looking at each others’ actions, the serpent’s and even Yahweh’s.
I would like to see artists talk about what we do in terms of that tradition rather than in terms of culture war, and I appreciated Scott Parkin’s last post with his suggestion that we might consider changing the angle of attack.
When I read the words angle of I mentally completed the phrase with the word repose. Wallace Stegner’s narrator in the novel of that name explains that the angle of repose is the angle at which the detritus from a mine ceases to slide, which is related to the internal friction of the matter, the friction which holds the debris together (see Wikipedia for a more technical definition).
I like the idea that art looks at the frictions that hold a family, culture, society together. And yet, my niece Heather the Primary president was telling me about an idea that won’t leave her alone, some adults who take in a pregnant teen and how the relationship between them develops. (I told her it sounded like an LDS version of Kent Haruf’s Plainsong and Eventide–not to denigrate the idea, I would love to see her write a novel as good.)
But not everyone shares my enthusiasm. “We don’t write about evil things,” said a woman writer she shared the idea with. But if I think back a third of a century to the publication of that novel based on the New Era story that prompted the following letter in the Dec. 1974 issue:
In respect to your article entitled “Charly” in the June 1974 issue: It would take a bit more than a sugary-sweet Ferris wheel ride to convince me that a girl who is spiritually unstable enough to be within inches of marrying a nonmember would be worthy to be my wife.
and list a few of the themes of novels Deseret Book has published since I see a lot of writing about a lot of evil and sorrow.
a young man unable to forgive his fiance’s pre-Mormon promiscuity,
incest and sexual abuse of children,
the relation between promiscuity and sexual and emotional abuse,
an anorexic girl who takes the sacrament and virtuously spits it out,
a returning missionary on the run with a member of the opposite sex,
a man who rigs a bomb under a returned missionary’s car then goes into the chapel to hear her homecoming talk,
the joys and trials of a bishop–whose wife and children have been praying for his release because his calling takes so much time away from them,
And these are just a few of Jack Weyland’s novels. Add Lindsey Phillip Dew and you have a story about a bishop/attorney assigned to defend a guilty man who was arrested illegally so the evidence of his guilt is inadmissable, and who makes a joke about “atoning for my sins with my own blood.”
Add Carol Hofeling Morris and you get more adultery, a High Councilor who almost drives his wife to suicide by his unwillingness to forgive her even a little because she hasn’t suffered enough, which helps her conceive a hatred for patriachs, all patriarchs, even God.
Add in Dean Hughes and you have more about teen age sexual ethics, extended scenes of torture, mercy killing with a hand grenade, intense scenes of battle and battle fatigue, assassination and murder, racism, and, on a lighter note, a man in deep depression after his wife dies who impersonates a bishop to gather some confidential info on the boy his daughter is dating.
Add in Margaret Young and Darius Gray and you have more about racism from the beginning of the church to the present, and a group of Mormons lynching a black man.
And these are just five of Deseret Book’s writers. Maybe the others don’t deal in things so appalling to Heather’s friend. I hope they do though. I find it quite encouraging, this willingness to deal with difficult themes, with the internal frictions that hold the church (both capital and small C) in repose.
Stegner’s narrator notes, though, that the phrase has too much resonance to just leave it a mining term, or even to refer to the stiff angle he occupies in his wheelchair, so how about the angle of a young storytelling rabbi reposing at meat with his friends and students?
I find a lot of sacramental imagery in Mormon writing, so I’ll give you some links to recent work and let you decide, is it war or praise?
Most of the links are to my recent publications, partly because I can speak with some authority about the impulse behind their writing.
The first one, “Easter Sermons”, was my notes of two stories I heard in stake conference, and was part of Wilderness Interface Zone’s 2010 Spring Poetry Runoff. The beginning of this year Patricia Karamesines wrote me that she had written a piece for Dialogue called “Why Joseph Went to the Woods: Rootstock for LDS Literary Nature Writers,” and they had asked her for examples of some of the work she was talking about. Would I mind if she sent it to them? It’s in the most recent issue.
The second, “Beautification” came from a remark in a city council meeting. Patricia published it in the 2011 Spring Poetry Runoff, then said she thought it made a nice companion piece to one of her poems,
“Deer In the City which inspired me to write
“Mesa Verde Subdivision” about a 2004 trip to the Mesa.
The invitation to submit work also released a poem I had been thinking of for 6 years “Dinosaur Water”
If I can find links to the posts that list all the poems in the 2010 and 11 Runoffs I’ll add them in.