Seventy years ago come Oct 21 Bessie Lloyd Soderborg married Marden J. Clark in the Salt Lake temple and went across the street to the Hotel Utah to spend their first night together, where Marden’s brothers kept prank calling him, till he had the operators hold all calls.
Nearly 4 years later, on Bessie’s 26th birthday, they returned to the Hotel Utah for a triple celebration. Earlier that day Marden had left his wife and daughter almost 3, son 3 months with his parents and gone to the induction center for a 3-year stint, but once again his crooked spine caused the doctor giving the physicals to say, “Go get dressed. You’re no man for this army.”
So after a 3-hour tour of duty he went back home and he and Bessie drove down through the Devil’s gate, down into Salt Lake and
Together we heard the celebration:
Hiroshima Wiped Out! With one bomb!
With one bomb! Now the war will have to end!
We celebrated with the rest. Celebrated the bomb,
Celebrated rejection, celebrated your birthday, my love.
Bessie’s birthday, August 6, (read the whole poem here) was a prophetic day, the day in 1842 Joseph Smith received the commandment, “Renounce war and proclaim peace, and seek diligently to turn . . . the hearts of the Jews unto the prophets and the hearts of the prophets unto the Jews” (D&C 98:16-17)
That word renounce reverberates powerfully in literature and criticism. In an April 16, 1851 letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne Herman Mellville said,
“There is the grand truth about Nathaniel Hawthorne. He says NO! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes. For all men who say yes, lie; and all men who say no,why, they are in the happy condition of judicious, unincumbered travellers in Europe; they cross the frontiers into Eternity with nothing but a carpet-bag,that is to say, the Ego. Whereas those yes-gentry, they travel with heaps of baggage, and, damn them! they will never get through the Custom House.”
Leslie Fiedler borrowed a phrase for the title of his 1960 book, No! in Thunder: Essays on Myth and Literature, where he talks about the ways literature says No, and also says No to many works, adding that he hasn’t said a No that didn’t cost him something.
Lionel Trilling imaged that thunderous No! as a artillery barrage, saying you don’t point the howitzer of modern literature at your students withut estimating how much damage you might do. For Trilling that power came from modern literature’s insistence on asking personal questions–are you happy with your life, your marriage, family, job, and most insistently, are you saved or damned? And these aren’t friendly inquiries, Trilling says. They’re asked to a destructive end–the end of destroying a corrupt society(See “On the Teaching of Modern Literature,” in Beyond Culture: Essays on Literature and Learning).
Now it’s been a good 50 years since Trilling and Fiedler set out their approaches, and looking at art as renunciation is a common approach. But renounce is only a third of the commandment. I hope in a month or so to look at what happened when Christians stopped trying to “turn the hearts of the prophets unto the Jews and the hearts of the Jews unto the prophets,” but right now I want to raise the question of what it might mean to proclaim peace.
I got some insight into the question through a rejection slip: “If it’s possible for a personal essay to be too personal, this one is.” I don’t remember what essay that was for. It wasn’t for the one with these paragraphs:
Roads take us down life’s journey, but I wasn’t thinking of that metaphor as I walked to work one Tuesday morning in the last week of February 1999 down a mile of long straight road, houses and pastures writing this essay in my head. I looked at how straight the road was and began wondering what it would be like to be dragged down that road, not one mile but three, at the end of a twenty-four foot logging chain, feeling my buttocks scrape away, pebbles rolling under and grinding into them, down to the spine, feeling my elbows wear down to the bone as I tried to keep my head off the pavement, feeling members of my body dismember.
I felt I should pray for that man whose life ended in such torture. I walked over to a fence post, stood by it and started praying, trying to look inconspicuous feeling conspicuous when I reached up and removed my stocking cap. I prayed that he would have peace and be able to recover from the terror of his death, and I felt to pray for the souls of the murderers, the driver particularly, as they approached their own deaths. And I didn’t even know the names of the men I was praying for. I turned on the radio that evening, attentive to hear those names James Bird, Jr. and John William King.
We must know those names. Brutality depersonalizes, reduces a person to a brown stain weaving along a road. Names remind us that those who suffer horror are people, like us, with mothers and fathers, children and siblings and friends; names remind us that those who commit horror are people with mothers and fathers, children and siblings and friends, like us; names remind us of the web of people any violent act will yoke together. Perhaps that is why so much art tries to understand evil, from a deep hope that if we understand we can help to cure, at least comfort. I imagine a great deal of comfort will need giving in our next lives. I imagine there will be as much need there as there is here to help people repent who have chosen to administer pain rather than minister joyously.
That essay was rejected because “the judges felt that, well, it wasn’t personal enough.”
But I wasn’t trying to be overly or underly personal with either essay. I was simply trying to tell what I had to tell, and at least in the second essay combine literary theory with personal essay (or creative non-fiction, as the term was then starting to be band-aid about). That combining is part of my gift, and if it is, then why wouldn’t the very insistent personal quality Trilling said he so feared and loved be part of the gift of modern literature? A gift, say, poured out on the world for building a house for the Lord in Kirtland.
It wasn’t much after the Pentecost of Kirtland that people like Poe and Hawthorne and Dickinson and Melville, not to mention Europeans like Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, began delving deeply into the human psyche.
I mention this only in passing because it raises a question. If the outpouring of tremendous energy in the arts and philosophy and science was a gift to what end was the gift given, or what is the gift a type of? I’ve just finished Rough Stone Rolling (well, I’m still reading the 51 page bibliography) and I was struck by Richard Bushman’s discussion of temple worship as growing out of Joseph Smith’s desire to purify his people as Moses desired to purify his so that Yahweh could appear to them. (See for example Exodus 19.)
Is it possible that the power of art and literature is a type of the power of God, a power composed of love so great as to allow a steady gaze on the very worst sins and pains and sorrows and joys and steady desire to bleed and suffer and die and resurrect for the sinful, sorrowful pain-filled and joyous?
It’s not a rhetorical question, but it is one that has the power to transform the way we think about art and criticism, the way we practice them. I recently set out to read all the fiction published last year in Dialogue, Sunstone, and Irreantum and I’m impressed both by the quality and by sense of joy. I’ll mention just two now, and save others for later.
Eric Jepson’s “17 Facts About Angels” (Irreantum 12:2 109-122) is a charming and ingenious way to bring together 17 fragmentary stories into a coherent whole which also reflects the joy and compassion of angels.
Roger Terry’s “Eternal Misfit” (Dialogue 43:3 182-202) is equally charming in its portrait of the Terrestrial Kingdom as a dystopia and in its resolution of that civilization and its discontents.
So what do you think? What examples do you see recently of literature that proclaims a particular sense of joy? or that may not?