In Tents 6

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.

Consider:
a young man unable to forgive his fiance’s pre-Mormon promiscuity,
adultery,
incest and sexual abuse of children,
the relation between promiscuity and sexual and emotional abuse,
homelessness,
an anorexic girl who takes the sacrament and virtuously spits it out,
terrorism,
murder,
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,
adultery,
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,
racism.

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.

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10 Responses to In Tents 6

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Harlow,

    Thanks for tackling such a meaty topic. What you’ve written certainly challenges the common perception that popular Mormon literature doesn’t deal with tough topics.

    I wonder if one reason for that perception has to do with style rather than substance: that is, the fact that we don’t usually get a lot of gritty detail in Mormon writing. Which leads to an interesting question: Is the gritty detail necessary at times, and if so, what are those times? I’ve read (for example) that you can make it perfectly clear that your characters are having sex without following them into the bedroom. But what about the times when what happens in the bedroom is a central part of the story? For that matter, are there stories that shouldn’t be told because in order to tell them well requires going into the bedroom?

    All of which digresses from your central notion of the writer’s job as self-indictment. I’d simply point out that there’s a very real difference between a writer who indicts his/her culture as part of an attempt at separation from that culture, and one who indicts his/her culture while acknowledging and owning his/her own place within it. Surely there’s space for both kinds of writing, but our reaction to them is likely to be (and should be) profoundly different.

    • C. M. Malm says:

      “What about the times when what happens in the bedroom is a central part of the story? ”

      Ah, this is a pet peeve of mine, because I DO think that, if you’re writing a story in which significant sex happens (as opposed to ordinary, everyday, long-term-partnership sex) , it’s *very* likely that what happens in the bedroom *will* be important in terms of character and relationship development. (And depending on the story, even ordinary, everyday, long-term-partnership sex can have its character/relationship-relevant moments.) Assuming, of course, that you actually want art to reflect life.

      As for whether you *should* write that kind of story, I guess that’s an individual call. But the Bible is certainly not afraid of talking about sex. Nor is writing about sex necessarily equivalent to porn, regardless of what the prevailing attitude in our culture tends to be.

      *cue same old argument about what is/isn’t porn*

    • Harlow Clark says:

      Jonathan, Thanks for your comment. I wouldn’t necessarily say the artist’s main task is self-indictment. I was thinking more of the audience. If we as audience recognize ourselves in an artist’s work we ought also to recognize that the artists are writing from withing the culture, not without. (I take it that’s James Baldwin’s point in “Everyone’s Protest Novel” when he says Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Native Son both fail to ask, ‘How could someone like me do the things I’m deploring in the novel?’)

      Even an artist whose indictment clearly signals a break with the culture may not be making as full a break as she supposes. Years ago I talked with a man whose daughter had written an entertaining novel, somewhat in the spirit of a Mad Magazine movie parody, that signaled a pretty thorough rejection of Mormon culture, and he told me that writing it had helped her resolve her feelings towards the Church.

      This feels to me like the esthetic reversal Walker Percy talks about in his essay “The Man on the Train” (in The Message in the Bottle), when he says an alienated commuter reading a novel about an alienated commuter is no longer alienated. Now the alienated commuter is part of an alliance with the character and the author, whose work he or she is likely to seek out or eagerly await.

      (Thinking about this it occurs to me that the esthetic reversal of expressing alienation and thus reversing it may be related to the reversal that occurs when a person dispels a traumatic experience by putting it into words–and indeed Percy was training as a psychiatrist when he contracted tuberculosis from a corpse he was dissecting and gave up medicine.)

  2. C. M. Malm says:

    Jonathan wrote: “there’s a very real difference between a writer who indicts his/her culture as part of an attempt at separation from that culture, and one who indicts his/her culture while acknowledging and owning his/her own place within it.”

    I agree that this is a very important difference. Unfortunately, despite all the novels referenced by Harlow, I think most of the really “gritty” Mormon stuff we’ve seen over the years has been from those who are self-justifying their separation from Mormon culture. It’s a game of “look how awful Mormons and their stupid beliefs are.” (And when you read a quote like the one from the [i]New Era[/i], it’s awfully tempting to agree!) Perhaps we are reaching a point, culturally, where we can handle the “gritty” criticism from inside. I would like to think so.

    But I think part of the problem is that many, many Mormons conflate Mormon culture with the church itself. Perhaps, too, there are authors who aren’t careful to separate the two, even in their own minds (although those are more likely to be criticizing-from-separation authors). Is it possible to criticize Mormon culture–even from the inside–without a certain non-insignificant percentage of your readership reacting as if you were criticizing the First Presidency?

  3. Moriah Jovan says:

    There’s another angle (heh) to this no one’s brought up yet, and that’s fear.

    There are a lot of LDS writers out there who have stories to tell that are gritty, but also detailed, but they’re afraid of church reprisal. They’re not afraid of what Sister Whozits and Brother Whatzits will think; they’re afraid of being excommunicated.

    And I know this because I get the distressed and frustrated emails.

  4. Harlow Clark says:

    Thanks, Moriah. That’s part of what I was thinking about when I said “artists are particularly vulnerable in a culture war.” All artists have their detractors and critics but Mormon artists face the possibility that the people who don’t like their work may also have the power to deprive them of a livelihood, the ability to attend family weddings, or even their membership in the Church.

    This afternoon during a break at work a bunch of us took a couple of laps around the parking lot. One said he had a Michigan-hairy son in NY City who said The Book of Mormon musical has been terrific for missionaries. Another said that when they performed a song from the show during the Tony awards, “I felt the Spirit. Truth will come through.”

    Another referred to the authors’ comment that if they do a spoof of Muslims they get death threats, but if they go after the Mormons they get “that’s nice,” and a press release.

    I often wish we could be as generous towards our own artists, whose work is likely to be far less offensive (take the word however you want) the The Book of Mormon musical.

  5. Moriah Jovan says:

    Another referred to the authors’ comment that if they do a spoof of Muslims they get death threats, but if they go after the Mormons they get “that’s nice,” and a press release.

    That bugs the hell out of me, actually, that people who are “courageous” enough to go after Mormons are cowards who won’t touch Islam with a ten-foot pole. Oh Rushdie, how I admire you.

    I formatted a book (actually, I keep having to format it because the author puts out different editions on a continual basis) that rips several religions to shreds. Mormons and Muslims are back to back, right up there with Christianity and Buddhism. He, of course, has no idea I’m Mormon. He just thinks I’m a sweetheart. It’s my personal in-joke.

    /thread hijack

    • Harlow Clark says:

      Moriah, Thanks for your comment and the story about your religion-ripping client. Shortly before he died I heard Fred Rogers’ interview on the Diane Rehm show, where he told her he was going to go down into the basement to play the piano because he felt sad. “Why do you feel sad?” “Because my stomach hurts,” and she couldn’t bring herself to ask him why his stomach hurt.

      He told about meeting Eddie Murphy and how warmly Murphy greeted him, what an honor it was. But how could that be, given the Mr Rogers parodies on Saturday Night Live? “Mr. Rogers, you don’t think we’d want to make you famous if we didn’t love you?”

      That remark is usually the context for me when I think about satire. Years ago, around the time Mad Magazine did Fiddler Made A Goof, someone wrote in and asked if they were going to do a parody of Prime Cut, a Lee Marvin-Gene Hackman thriller. The editor wrote back, “Prime Cut is a little lean for us.”

      Reading that, my 8th or 9th grade self thought, “Aha, they actually like the movies they’re making fun of.” We think of satire as a mode of rejection, but that’s often not the case.

      Back in March the Salt Lake Weekly did a cover story called Elders Over Broadway with a subtitle, “The LDS Church Might Be The Biggest Fan Of The Saucy, Potty-Mouthed Musical The Book of Mormon.” The sidebar review notes that the non-satirical half “could have been written by Mormons, for Mormons,” like Saturday’s Warrior or My Turn on Earth, and a lot of the humor would fit in with “the post-Singles Ward comedies of Mormon filmmakers.”

      Similarly, when Radio West did a show on The Book of Mormon musical the guests and the host commented repeatedly on how much Trey Parker and Matt Stone seem to like Mormons.

      So I don’t think they’re taking on Mormons as an easy target for cowards. It sounds more like a gesture of friendship. I’m not sure what to make of their comment about getting death threats if they spoof Muslims. There’s nothing in the grammar of their sentence to tell me whether whether it’s a joke or a report of actual death threats.

      I don’t like the stereotype of the fanatical Muslim ready to kill at the drop of a joke.

      One Sunday after finishing some branch clerk work I was looking around lds.org and found a link to mormon.org, a new website dedicated to sharing the gospel. You can create an account, and write your conversion story, upload a video or picture, put your testimony, answer some frequently asked questions, and a bunch of other stuff.

      You can also search other people’s stories by a bunch of criteria, including former religion. I searched Muslim and found an interesting story from a woman in NYC, which I shared that afternoon when I went home teaching. My neighbor blanched, and brought her hand to her mouth in a gasp. She was sure that poor woman’s life was in danger for leaving Islam.

      I assured her that Muslims don’t as a matter of course go around killing people who leave the faith.

      (In fact, I’ll bet if you talked to a billion Muslims at random you’d find as wide a divergence of belief as if you talked to a billion Christians at random–and find the percentage of terrorists no higher, and the terrorist stereotype no more accurate than the stereotype of fundamentalist Christians as people who protest outside funerals, or burn crosses on people’s lawns or blow up clinics, or government buildings in Oklahoma City or Oslo.)

      I admire Salman Rushdie as well, and enjoyed Step Across This Line, particularly the title essay and the long account of touring India after the fatwa was lifted, but I can’t imagine he wrote that wonderful description of all the airplane debris falling through the air with the thought that the novel he developed around it would get him condemned to death, send him into hiding for many years, and destroy his marriage. If he did it was folly, not courage.

  6. Scott Parkin says:

    Harlow—

    I apologize for twanging off completely here. How we read can make a huge difference in what we take away from a piece.

    Sadly, I read this over two separate sittings. I started late at night and realized I was missing a lot of the detail and nuance, so I stopped with the intent of trying again the next morning (I like your stuff too much to read it with less than full attention). I had made it as far as the list of themes in DB titles.

    Unfortunately, you hadn’t pulled the trigger on your thesis yet so the idea left dangling in my mind was *not* the question of whether this list of self-indicting topics represented culture war (deconstruction and replacement) as opposed to cultural refinement (difficult self-analysis and constructive change).

    Instead, the idea dangling overnight was whether cultural self-indictment was itself useful or whether it was merely an early (necessary) step to be passed over on the way to a more distant destination. So my subconscious spent the night noodling over what next thing cultural self-indictment might prepare us to do, and all I could come up with was extra-cultural indictment—that we point out our own flaws of understanding and execution in order to condemn the broader culture for failing to recognize those flaws in itself.

    In other words, a sort of antibiotic response where Mormon cultural literature functions as a sort of antibody that attenuates the pathogen and sequesters it in a somewhat culturally insulated package precisely in order to permit the broader culture to ask itself, “How could someone like me do the things I’m deploring in the novel?”

    Of course that’s a circular argument because the best self-indicting cultural literature universally begs those same questions of any culture. It’s why I read so much sf and am currently smitten with both Asian and Eastern European formulations—they repackage old criticism in new bottles and invite me to rethink my currently settled assumptions about my own culture.

    None of which addresses the question of whether any of it is culture war, but it was a fun digression to noodle over before coming back to the question you were actually asking. I think Jonathan summed up my thoughts fairly well—cultural indictment of *us* seems constructive, whereas cultural indictment of *them* seems warlike. When your narrative intent is to draw lines of demarcation between us good guys (those indicting) and those corrupt and evil bad guys (those being indicted), there can only be victory for one or the other rather than an evolution of both.

    That strikes me as less useful or interesting (even though it can be very self-satisfying).

    • Harlow Clark says:

      Scott, reading your comment then looking back at my post I realize I left out a transition. The paragraph that reads,
      “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.”

      Should have said something like this,
      “I would like to see artists talk about some of what we do in terms of that tradition rather than in terms of culture war. That is, I want our culture and artists to recognize each other as part of the same tradition. I’m not suggesting, though, that the tradition of self-indictment is the only tradition we operate within. I want to propose another image that Scott Parkin’s last post suggested to me with his comment that we might consider changing the angle of attack.”

      Introducing the list of themes was my way of saying that as a culture we already examine some fairly gritty themes. The grit may not be as gritty as mining debris, but I find the willingness to explore difficult themes very encouraging, and if we could talk about that willingness in our criticism it might help artists and culture better understand themselves.

      But I don’t think self-indictment and exploring the grit and friction that hold the culture together are the only impulses behind art. The joy of telling and hearing stories accounts for a lot of what we produce, as does the impulse to celebrate and exult–hence the links to the poems.

      Sorry for the confusion. Thanks to you and Jonathan for pointing it out.

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