Mormon Tragedy Revisited

Last November, in the wake of Mark Oppenheimer’s New York Times article on Mormon literature, Mahonri wrote a post on Mormon tragedy that sought to make a case for Mormonism’s capacity for tragedy. His argument, if I followed it correctly, was that Mormons can write tragic Mormon stories because Mormons, like everyone else, are not immune to experiences that cause suffering and negative emotions. As he rightly noted:

The amount of tragedy that I have seen Mormons endure has been no more, but certainly no less, than other people of comparable stations in other parts of the world. There are Mormons I know, or who I know of, who have endured homelessness, death of loved ones (including by suicide and murder), racism, sexism, poverty, self-mutilation, mental illness, kidnapping, abuse, depression, betrayal, failure, disfigurement, etc.  Thus, if you can find it out in the world, you can find it also among Mormons, to a lesser or greater degree.

Based on this statement, “tragedy” is largely something that happens to someone—either because of someone else’s choices or psychological factors beyond an individual’s control. For Mahonri, the fact that Mormons are just as susceptible to the conditions of the Fall as anybody else creates a “recipe” for tragedy that, while present in everyday Mormon life, is not being used in the kitchen of Mormon literature. His conclusion was that “we as a culture” must nurture our tragedians—and, according to his count, we have many—by “hav[ing] the bravery to look at the shadows in our souls and purge them through catharsis.”

When this post first appeared on the blog, I responded by taking issue with Mahonri’s linking tragedy with pain and suffering, suggesting instead that Mormon tragedy, specifically, is linked to an individual’s reception of the gospel message:

I don’t discount what you suggest in this post about pain and suffering being at the heart of tragedy, but I think Mormon tragedy works best when the tragedy involves a misunderstanding or misreading of the gospel message–particularly when the tragic figure never gets or refuses to acknowledge his or her misreading and misunderstanding–or when the tragic figure is a victim of a community that misreads and misunderstands. This is what we see in at the end of the Book of Mormon, but I also think late-twentieth-century Mormonism provides plenty of examples of these kinds of figures and Mormon artists would do well to find them.

For me, back in November, Mormon tragedy was essentially the result of a disconnect between a person’s understanding of the REAL of the gospel and the PERCEIVED of the gospel. Failure to grasp the REAL resulted in individual choices based on the PERCEIVED that distanced the person (and often persons connected with that person) from the joy that they would have otherwise received had they had a better understanding of the REAL. Tragedy, therefore, had less to do with a happening than it had to do with choice and (to some extent) circumstance.

I still feel like this disconnect is a more potent recipe for Mormon tragedy than a happenings-based recipe, although I agree with Mahonri that unfavorable happenings—like any of those mentioned in his post—can at least serve as catalysts for tragedy. I’ve come to think more about this, in fact, as I’ve read Adam Miller’s “Notes on Life, Grace, and Atonement” in his Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays on Mormon Theology (Greg Kofford Books, 2012). In this essay, Miller posits that grace is less a supplement to works—as it seems to function in Stephen Robinson’s famous “Parable of the Bicycle”—than “what comes as a gift” from God, the “givenness of whatever is given and received.” Put differently, Miller characterizes grace as “the unconditional fullness of the present moment […] the substance of life itself.” That which we receive from God, whether welcome or unwelcome, is grace—and how we receive that grace determines our joy.

Sin, on the other hand, results when we flee from grace. As Miller explains:

In sin, we come unplugged. When we refuse the givenness of life and withdraw from the present moment, we’re left to wander the world undead. Zombie-like, we wander from one moment to the next with no other goal than to get somewhere else, be someone else, see something else—anywhere, anyone, anything other than what is given here and now. We’re busy. We’ve got goals and projects. We’ve got plans. We’ve got fantasies. We’ve got daydreams. We’ve got regrets and memories. We’ve got opinions. We’ve got distractions. We’ve got games and songs and movies and a thousand TV shows. We’ve got anything and everything other than a first-hand awareness of our own lived experience of the present moment.

Also:

Say that, in the present moment, something is given that I do not want, that I would prefer not to receive. I become sick, I lose my job, I experience something humiliating, a loved one passes. A sinful response to what is given would involve my withdrawal from this difficult present moment. As a natural man, I would naturally take refuge from the difficulty in fantasy, memories, distractions, blame, and complaints (i.e., in sequence). However, to withdraw in this way would be sinful regardless of whether I have a legitimate preference for what is good rather harmful. Whatever my preferences, the present is imposed unconditionally, absolutely, and to flee its givenness (even on legitimate grounds) is to choose the path of the undead rather than the path of life.

As I understand it, sin happens when we turn our backs on present realities to indulge in distractions that distance us from the joy that occurs when we submit to the givenness of the moment. Sin is rejecting life for the fantasy of distraction.

For me, this understanding of grace and sin has application in our understanding of Mormon tragedy. In his classic essay “Paradox and Tragedy in Mormonism,” Marden J. Clark suggests that Mormonism’s capacity for tragedy stems from our belief in a plan of salvation that depends on opposition. For Clark, this dependence engineers a kind of “cosmic tragedy” wherein heavy human losses accrue as evil battles against good for the souls of humanity (141). Free agency, the ability to choose between these forces, grants everyone a tragic potential, making all of us tragedies waiting to happen. As Miller suggests, grace is given to people through (or in the form of) the givenness of life in the present. We choose the path of tragedy for ourselves when we seek relief from the conditions of the plan we chose in the premortal world. Likewise, in fiction, characters become tragic when they seek escape from the present and fail to find the pathway back from the delusion of their distraction.

Mormon writers who want to deal in tragedy, therefore, must be willing to damn characters—especially characters who are worth saving.

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9 Responses to Mormon Tragedy Revisited

  1. Th. says:

    .

    Is this transcription correct?

    “regardless of whether I have a legitimate preference for what is good rather harmful”

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    I find this definition of sin (and its contrast with this definition of grace) helpful. It feels true, though I will need to walk with it a while before I feel ready to say more than that.

    As far as fiction goes, however, marvelous. This is a useful critical stance for considering one’s own work.

    • Scott Hales says:

      The transcription is correct–I grabbed it off my Kindle. I assume it’s a typo that got missed during proof reading.

      I think it should read “good rather [than] harmful.”

  2. Scott, I really enjoyed this, and I agree that, traditionally, tragedy depended on the “tragic flaw” in a noble person. I think you’ve pointed out well what that tragic flaw can be in the Mormon universe. I have long thought that if any group still had the potential for depicting tragedy in the traditional sense, then it was the writers of Mormon literature and drama. One reason is that we still believe in, let’s say, “a sense of order” to the universe, that the choices we make here on earth count for something, and that an otherwise noble person can misread a situation and fall. Great post!

  3. Jonathan Langford says:

    This aligns with something I’ve felt must be true for a while (though I’m only rarely capable of applying it): that there is a kind of joy in embraces all manner of lived experience, both the good and the bad, happy and sorrowful.

    I think it’s easier to identify with those whose sorrow comes from circumstances inflicted upon them. Conversely, literature that sees acceptance of the entirety of life’s experiences as the ultimate good must be done very well indeed if it is not going to seem callous and/or shocking to modern readers. Which isn’t to say that it can’t be done, but only that it presents, I think, some significant artistic challenges, and some substantial challenges in terms of acceptance in our present culture.

    I also wonder if from this kind of perspective, tragedy doesn’t have the potential ultimately to undo itself. Which, if true, would not be surprising: for Mormons, eternity is a divine comedy, from which only those who thoroughly remove themselves are ultimately excluded. Even “eternal” and “endless” torment become moments in the soul’s progress. Seen from this perspective, it’s only when we unnaturally press the stop button that pain–from whatever source–becomes tragic.

    • Wm says:

      I do believe that Mormonism is ultimately a divine comedy. But that ultimately-ness doesn’t change the tragedy of all the suffering that takes place within it.

      • Scott Hales says:

        I think the divine comedy way of thinking about the Plan works as long as you are OK with you or your family members being in the terrestrial kingdom. In other words, while we believe in a kind of universal salvation, we all know deep down that eternity without family and progress really isn’t much of a consolation prize. Madden Clark, I think, hints at as much in his essay.

  4. Wm says:

    The tragedy is that somehow we ended up with intelligences that are agents unto themselves and capable of rejecting grace and embracing sin.

  5. Wm says:

    “Whatever my preferences, the present is imposed unconditionally, absolutely, and to flee its givenness (even on legitimate grounds) is to choose the path of the undead rather than the path of life.”

    I don’t think that I agree with the way this is expressed. Prayer, symbols, covenants, meditation, reading, storytelling, rituals are all intended to flee the conditions of the present, to transcend the mundane of the present and fix us on the past and the future, to slot us into the overarching drama of the plan of salvation. All those means can be used as a turning away from. But they also have their positive uses. The present is only a moment. Presence is, if it increases, forever.

    • Scott Hales says:

      I think you could make the argument, though, that activities like prayers, meditation, and even reading and storytelling are designed to make you more aware of the givenness of the present.

      My main issue with the ideas in Miller’s essay is that I think his attention to submitting to the givenness of the present could lead some people to passivity–to stop striving to make a better world, better community, better life, etc. For instance, I don’t think it is necessarily sinful to take up a cause that would improve life for self and others–unless that cause itself is a distraction from the realities of life. In other words, social engagement has to be about the present as much as about the future.

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