In Tents #37, Some Additional Views on Figures and Speech

I have had a few additional views in relation to this matter.
(D&C 128:2)

We have to drop everyone twice, but we try to drop them gently. If they survive they get to go home and we want as many to survive as we can.

The immediate cause of this New Year’s dream was listening to Diane Rehm’s interview with John Grisham on Dec. 31, where he read the opening of Sycamore Row, a description of a man’s careful preparations to hang himself with a proper hangman’s noose wrapped thirteen times. A more distant cause of the dream was a story called “Far to Fall” from an episode of Snap Judgment I heard August 9, 2013 while wandering through our stake’s third annual clothing exchange. (“Should I take this hat?” “Only if you want to look like Gilligan.”)

Chaplain Chris Hoke was telling about how he had been called to the prison to talk to an attempted suicide, a man who had asked for him by name because he had laid hands on the man for his back pain. The man had made a noose of his bedsheets and put it around his neck. When the cell door opened for lunch he ran out, tied it to the railing and threw himself over. Landing pulled his spine into alignment, and brought him new joy, new gusto. Later, Hoke heard, after being deported to Mexico the prisoner had killed 14 people there, as part of a drug cartel, and used the same word, gusto, when asked why.

I’ve had the dream before. One installment took place in the northeast staircase of the Harris Fine Arts Center at BYU, hanging people from the railings between the ground level and the truck tunnel. But the execution dreams aren’t all about hanging, and may explain the deep affinity I felt for those souls under the altar who “had been slain for the word of God,” the first time I read Revelation 6:9.

The earliest I recall was in elementary school. My father was in the electric chair, and I couldn’t bear to see him killed, so I drained all the power out of the chair. And just as I can’t watch his execution—in the dreams where I am the condemned, where I think, “This will all be over shortly,”—I can’t watch my own. “You can wake up,” I tell myself. I defeat death by refusing it.

I learned, during my short teaching career, that there is a name for this kind of dreaming, where you work within the dream to influence it, and wrote a couple of drafts of an essay called “Lucid Dreaming,” where I examined my dreams and suggested that the reader as lucid dreamer is a better conception of what happens in reading than Lionel Trilling’s image of literature as a howitzer you have to be mindful of when pointing it at your students.

That is, the literary theory I was developing in the essay (still am, when I get back to it) is based on agency, on acting as our own agents when reading, choosing our interpretations rather than being at the mercy of the artist.

But besides the dream, January resonates execution for me in other ways, has since January 1977—a difficult month, and not because I was recovering from brain surgery. It was a rapid recovery, about six weeks total, but while I was recovering the dreadful thing came upon us, the first in ten years.

On January 17, 1977 I listened on one of the morning TV shows as Gary Gilmore’s attorney described hearing the five shots, then seeing the blood spread on Gilmore’s t-shirt. Twenty-one years later, reading Mikal Gilmore’s Shot in the Heart (where his uncle Vern shows him the t-shirt, noting that the state did not follow the custom of loading one rifle with blanks—too much rage to do that—and the man who sentenced him lived in our ward, down in the next block, over the canal and five houses south), I learned that Gary Gilmore also had execution dreams.

Around Christmas Eve, 1946, Mikal says, shortly after his grandmother died five-year-old Gary “started having nightmares. They were always the same dream: He was being beheaded” (105).

“A sad, frightful question,” I wrote in “Lucid Dreaming”:

“Would Gary Gilmore, as a child my age, have stopped his father’s electric chair? Mikal Gilmore opens Shot in the Heart with a dream in which the dead and living of his family are together. Only Mikal is happy to see his father. The rest fear he will spread death and ruin even to the dead. Sometimes he appears in the dream only so the others can convince him to remain dead. Lie down, Father, we say. Let us bury you again (ix-x). A more frightful question: If Frank Gilmore had dreamed his son were being beheaded, would he have stopped the ax?”

But that January is memorable for another reason as well, a happier one. A book. LeRoy and Agda Harlow came to visit me. They had moved into the ward a few years earlier after visiting their friends Karl and Donna Snow and thinking that the next lot north would be nice to build on. The same age as my parents they became fast friends and walking partners along the Wasatch fault, which runs a block above the homes on Oak Lane. Indeed, Agda became my father’s graduate student, one of seven in the BYU English Department’s short-lived doctoral program (Clifton Holt Jolley was another), with a dissertation on “Lessons in Christian Love from the Last Four Plays of T. S. Eliot.” I still remember LeRoy and Agda coming down one night, Agda and my father working in the living room while LeRoy and my mother talked in the family room. A moment I associate with Isaac Bashevis Singer’s portrait of the decorum practiced between Hassidic men and women in Enemies: A Love Story, which I had recently read.

And the book they gave me was about Hassids in New York City in the 1950′s, The Promise by Chaim Potok. I knew it was a sequel to The Chosen, but finally decided to read it without reading The Chosen. Which I did in June when we drove across the Sierra Nevadas and down the California coast (seeing a production of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, while someone broke into our VW Vanagon and stole, among other things, my new missionary suit) to visit my sister at her new home in Glendora.

The story of The Promise will resonate with many Latter-day Saints: Abraham Gordon, a scholar, is excommunicated for his scholarship, and the excommunication greatly affects his family, especially son Michael.

It also affects the narrator, Reuven Malter. Like Michael, Reuven is caught between his culture and his father’s friendship with Abraham Gordon, between the cherem against Gordon and Rav Kalman his professor at the yeshiva, who sees Gordon as an enemy and doesn’t hesitate to slander his enemies, even Reuven’s father.

At one point Reuven’s father tells him Gordon has done a great thing in creating a theology for those who can’t believe. That sentence was a gift, something I’ve thought about often when I hear or read scholars who say things like, “Thus we have no choice but to . . .”  The sentence reminds me that we always have a choice. Texts don’t interpret themselves. We choose how to read them, even if we’re not aware of having a choice. (For a fuller catalog of the coercive language of philosophy and scholarship see Robert Nozick’s preface to Philosophical Explanations, (read courtesy of Charles Altieri) in which he explains why the book isn’t called Philosophical Arguments.)

So I noted, sitting in the waiting room the day after Christmas reading Robert Alter’s The World of Biblical Literature and thinking through what I wanted to say in #36, this phrase Alter quoted from another scholar “We are obliged by these facts . . .” (18) and was glad to see Alter question the obligation.

Doubly glad, because Alter begins his strenuous disagreement by acknowledging P. Kyle McCarter Jr.’s “scrupulous commentary on Samuel” rather than calling into question McCarter’s worthiness.

That willingness to argue civilly and acknowledge the goodness of those we disagree with is something I find deeply moving in Patricia Karamesines’s writing, particularly her vision of language as an environment, and her efforts on Wilderness Interface Zone  to foster a healthy ecosystem where the language doesn’t shut down the discussion, where caustic words don’t acidify the pasture where sheep seek to safely graze.

And so we come to the additional views that caused me to look for Joseph Smith’s phrasing in his Sept 6, 1842 letter to the Church on baptism for the dead. (“It would be about Section 128,” my brother Dennis said, and it was.)

Scholarship can be dangerous work, not just because people who disagree with you might take away your temple recommend, your membership, or more, but because so much of our scholarly vocabulary doesn’t recognize that quality our English teachers were always quoting to us. “I mean Negative Capability, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” John Keats wrote.

A year ago at our branch leadership Christmas social one of the Leaf-A-Ciety president’s counselors told how their son-in-law with two or three engineering-related Master’s degrees had decided he wanted to prove the Gospel true in such a way that no one could doubt the proof. They would have to accept it. And he had just announced he was leaving the Church.

I introduced my lesson the following Sunday with the story, because the lesson touched on epistemology, on how to know truth, how to receive truth and revelation. I didn’t mention names, except Don Norton’s. While I was working in the BYU Writing Lab Don gave us a gift one day in staff meeting when he defined proof as “that amount of evidence necessary to convince the person you’re trying to convince.”

That means, I told the class, that proof is subjective. We decide how much evidence we need before we believe something, which is why Moroni in his ten-four asks us to ponder God’s goodness and pray about the things we receive, rather than trying to back us into a rhetorical corner.

I thought I was giving Bro. and Sr. G a tool that might comfort them, but afterward another class member, Bert, came and talked to me. Bert had been attending the branch with her mother for about a year while waiting for her husband’s company to set up an office for him in Hong Kong, or Singapore, or Taiwan, or wherever they would finally settle on. Bert thanked me, and said her daughter (the one who had been excavating a medieval Eastern European church graveyard?) had announced she was leaving the Church.

The language of scholarship doesn’t encourage the capacity to be “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” We prefer “the ring of scientific precision,” as Alter says of McCarter’s words—that is, “the classic manner of biblical scholarship” (18).

The desire for certainty can cause a crisis for a scholar who comes across something that clashes with other certainties, especially if that scholar has not cultivated as part of her or his being the capacity to exist in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts.

And this is true not only of religious scholarship. If a scholar defines the world as needing certainty, anything uncertain can lead to crisis. Hence, in his early book Marxism and Literary Criticism, Terry Eagleton enjoins his readers not to apply Marxist theory to Marxism itself, because Marxism is the certain truth, not just another critical approach, one more tool in the box.

After I had posted #36 I started thinking more about Eagleton’s abstraction in Chapter 5 of Criticism and Ideology and my early, frustrated claim that there was something sentimental in that abstraction.

In thinking about it I connected it with the excommunication scene I was listening to in Black Boy/American Hunger as I drove down the Columbia toward Portland in summer 2012.

Richard Wright doesn’t quite call his friend’s trial “a court of love,” but he does use the word love to describe the way the other Communists labored to bring this fellow to acknowledge his guilt and error.

Wright acknowledges that if the Communists had been in power in America, as in other places, they would have killed him (Wright). But even that realization doesn’t have the height or depth to separate Wright from his love for the Party.

When I finished the book a few nights later on the way up to Snoqualmie Pass, the love was still there. Even in the final image of Wright’s excommunication from the May Day parade the love is still there, the score one-love. The party has won, and Wright still has the love.

(Next I put in Ivan Doig’s Bucking the Sun, a novel about building a dam—appropriate for driving beside a reservoir.)

The connection I made between Eagleton and Wright was in a passage that has always intrigued me. Eagleton’s task in Chapter 5 is to figure out how a democratic theory like Marxism can assign varying values to works of literature. (That is, how can people who wear the same white in the temple value each other and their works differently in the academy and the rest of the world?)

Eagleton has a long passage, which, if for “Marxism” you substitute “the light and knowledge we find in the Gospel,” paraphrases this way:

The chief value of literary criticism and theory, indeed of literary studies, of literature itself, is that it allows us to understand how people live who don’t have the light and knowledge of the Gospel.

The second time I read the essay I thought, “No, he’s not making that argument, he’s saying it’s a poor justification for literary studies.” The third time I read it I thought, “Yes, he’s saying it’s a poor justification for literary studies, but I’m going to make it anyway.”

After posting #36 I thought to ask, “Why does he have to justify literary studies?” Because maybe he discovered the same fear of literature within his culture that Richard Wright did.

If, as Eagleton says in his injunction against applying Marxist analysis to Marxism, Marxism is a scientific theory designed to free the oppressed, how do you justify spending your time on something as abstract as literary theory, or literature itself? Wouldn’t it be better to be out organizing workers or doing concrete things (like pouring foundations) to alleviate people’s misery and oppression?

NoteTab’s handy counter tells me I’m already above 2400 words, and I’ve only introduced what I want to talk about, the rhetorical uses of abstracting metaphor and figures from scripture, the intents of that abstraction.

I’ll leave that for next month and close by posing the question I’m headed towards. Are parables really concrete representations of abstract principles? or is there a more earthy sense in which the Kingdom of Heaven can be found in a parent rejoicing for one son, and remonstrating with another to let his compassion encompass all those people who cannot tell their right hand from their left from their much cattle. “Can you, who are heir to all I have, not care for those who were lost but now are found, were dead, but are now alive?”

Your turn.

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4 Responses to In Tents #37, Some Additional Views on Figures and Speech

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Put another way, I think the question you ask at the end is another version of a question I’ve wondered from time to time: does the injunction to show charity toward all men and women include literary characters? Is their lack of literal (as opposed to literary) reality sufficient reason to draw them outside the circle of compassion? Or is the test of compassion one that shows us as being more real to the extent that we do *not* draw lines around those worth of emotional solidarity, for any reason?

    I can’t help but think that this post of yours represents an excellent answer to the question of why the Marxist (or the Mormon) ought to care about literary criticism: because in talking about stories, inevitably it leads us into talking about the most important things.

    • Harlow Clark says:

      What an intriguing comment, Jonathan. I remember my father reproving me once for my uncharitable attitude toward some literary or film character or other. I’ve noticed how often movies and thrillers and cop shows traffic in archetypes, particularly how often the villain is shown as implacable, someone who has to be destroyed because there is no other way to deal with her, or him–more often him.

      Back during the original production of Tim Slover’s Hancock County (the trial of Joseph and Hyrum Smith’s murderers) my parents invited us to a pre-performance ice cream social where Tim talked briefly about the play. He said there’s a moment where the play offers each character redemption, though most don’t take the offer.

      Thom Duncan came at the same idea differently, saying several times on AML-List that it was a greater accomplishment to evoke sympathy for Hitler than to make him a total villain.

      Hitler may be too real to us to do a lot more than heil, heil, right in Der Fuehrer’s face, but John Clinch does something like showing compassion for Hitler in Finn. It begins with Finn committing a horrendous murder, and then works to evoke sympathy for Finn.

      Actually it begins with the passage from “The House of Death Floats By,” where Finn’s huckleberry-colored son describes the room he and Jim find and the objects in it, and the disgusting drawings on the wall, and moves around in time showing us what each of those objects means, and why the drawings are there.

      One of the things Clinch does to evoke sympathy is to create an antagonist, The Judge. who is much worse to Finn (his son) than Finn is to Huckleberry. Finn is poised at the end to redo the murder, but while we hope for his intended victim, we also know the only thing that will prevent the murder is his own death.

      Clinch and his wife run a small ad agency and he goes downstairs at 5 AM each day to write before work. After several drafts his wife read it and said, “This is the saddest story I’ve ever read.” About 6 weeks later he was reading a draft and said, “This is the saddest story I’ve ever read.” (There’s an interview with him at the end of the recording.)

      Clinch leaves the story open for a sequel, which means he might find a way to do what Sam Clemens couldn’t. The question for me is will he find a way to evoke compassion for The Judge without pitting him against someone even more evil?

      I agree that talking about stories can’t help but lead us “to talking about the most important things,” though for some people that’s part of the danger of literature. Peter Thorpe says in Why Literature is Bad for You that telling stories about people creates empathy for them–creates understanding, empathy and understanding lead to forgiveness, and there are some things that simply should not be forgiven.

      When I was at the U of Warshington one of the campus art galleries (the one at the other end of the walkway over 15th Ave NE) sponsored a fiction contest, to write a story based on one of several paintings. One of my classmates chose a painting of a church, writing a story about a young teen who committed a terrible crime against a family in the congregation. He will be turning 18 and the record will be sealed, and a group of women are talking about it at a weekday Ladies Aid meeting.

      When we were discussing it in our workshop I told the author she was missing a level of emotional complexity by not addressing at all the question of forgiveness. I wasn’t trying to say something like, “As a practicing Methodist you should know better than to write something suffused with a sense of vengeance.” My comment wasn’t a rebuke, just a sense that if you’re going to set a story in a religious community, and in their church building, you ought to allow the building and community to fully resonate. She explained that for her the resonant idea was that there would be no record of the crime.

      But that’s what forgiveness is about, isn’t it? “I, the Lord, will remember it no more.” I think I wanted something like the emotional and thematic resonance and complexity of a story like Bela Petsco’s “The Sealing,” where Patriarch Jonas can’t perform the temple work for the father who beat his brother senseless–triple resonance, forgiveness, the calling of a patriarch, and retelling the story of Jonah.

  2. Dennis Clark says:

    To me the answer to your question “Are parables really concrete representations of abstract principles?” is “Hell no!” The lawyer asks Jesus which is the great commandment, and Jesus answers with abstract principles. The lawyer, willing to justify himself, asks “So who is my neighbor?” Jesus answers with a story, one which the lawyer has to engage in order to answer his own question.

    I like Jonathan’s restatement of your question, too. At one time I would have answered “Only in good literary fiction,” but obviously that answer begs the question by condemning everything I don’t like to a literary hell of mine own design. And Sartre did it better.

    • Harlow says:

      Thanks, Dennis. Another way to rephrase my question is, “Why did Jesus answer with a story?” Is it simply to make the matter concrete so that the lawyer has to engage the story, has to answer his own question by considering the story? Or is there something deeper going on in the stories?

      Put another way, are stories simply devices that help our weak minds grasp the realm of Ideas where truth resides, or is truth more than abstraction? Is it possible that abstraction is a way of avoiding the concrete realities of life?

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