Criticism: About that Whitney quote

6.9.04 | | 9 comments

So about that Orson F. Whitney quote…

No, not this one. Not the one that crops up almost everywhere.

This quote — the one that appears near the bottom of the right sidebar:

“Our literature must live and breathe for itself.”

The quote comes from the same source as the Shakespeares and Miltons one. It’s part of the section in Whitney’s foundational essay “Home Literature” where he most clearly defines how Mormon writers should go about creating a home literature:

“Above all things, we must be original. The Holy Ghost is the genius of “Mormon” literature. Not Jupiter, nor Mars, Minerva, nor Mercury. No fabled gods and goddesses; no Mount Olympus; no “sisters nine,” no “blue-eyed maid of heaven”; no invoking of mythical muses that “did never yet one mortal song inspire.” No pouring of new wine into old bottles. No patterning after the dead forms of antiquity. Our literature must live and breathe for itself. Our mission is diverse from all others; our literature must also be. The odes of Anacreon, the satires of Horace and Juvenal, the epics of Homer, Virgil, Dante and Milton; the sublime tragedies of Shakspeare [sic]; these are all excellent, all well enough in their way; but we must not attempt to copy them. They cannot be reproduced. We may read, we may gather sweets from all these flowers, but we must build our own hive and honeycomb after God’s supreme design.” (Orson Whitney. “Home Literature.” The Contributor: July 1988).

Setting aside the whole Holy Ghost question for a moment, it may seem that talk about muses is out of place in the world of (post)modern fiction, but how many times have you heard authors discuss the process of writing in terms that seem to hearken back to the idea of a muse? Sure, now we call it the subconscious, but authors continue to claim that their characters come from some ‘other’ place. You hear things like: “I thought the novel was going to be about James, but then the character of Tess grabbed me by the shoulders and yelled in my ear and forced me to completely changed the focus.” Or, “At first I didn’t know exactly what her story was so I had to get her to tell it to me.” Or, “Yeah, that was a weird twist for me too — David completely surprised me by doing that.” [Full disclosure: I made all those quotes up. They are based, however, on interviews I've heard/read over the years].

Now, granted this is just a way to explain the creative process, and in some cases is probably exaggerated to mystify the experience of writing for non-writers. At the same time, I know that for me writing a narrative, writing about characters, requires a sort of tugging on the subconscious, an inner staging that can’t be consciously blocked out beforehand.

Okay, so that’s all well and fine — the subconscious has a role in the creative process and you could describe that as a sort of ‘muse.’ The real question is: how involved is the Holy Ghost in the process?

I can’t answer that question, of course. Sure there are authors in the LDS market that claim that they were inspired to write a particular work. But there’s no real way to verify that. For even if readers feel the Holy Ghost when reading, viewing or listening to a particular work, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the work itself has received some indelible stamp of the spirit — especially since not only is feeling the spirit a subjective, virtually indescribable experience, but it also varies by reader. Even those of us who claim some sort of orthodoxy, who have built a common ground of trust, of feeling the spirit in similar situations, don’t always respond with the same intensity [or even at all sometimes] to works of art.

Which I guess gets at the real difficulty here. What does it mean for the Holy Ghost to inspire a work? Is it some form of automatic writing where the writer only acts as a conduit? I’d doubt that any Mormon writers would claim that. Does it mean that God somehow wants a particular work to come forth? In my experience, God wants us to use our talents and can encourage us in a particular direction, but that doesn’t mean he sanctions the work for all time and all peoples. None of us are writing for the scriptural canon — no matter how inspired we feel our work to be. [Okay, so there's some room for discussion on this point, but I don't feel like going into it here].

No, I think that at most I can say that this about Whitney’s quote: Mormon artists should seek to live close to the spirit, to do those “Sunday School” things [prayer, service, scripture reading, temple attendance] that keep us in tune, and just as importantly, I think, Mormon artists should be obsessed with Mormon materials, with the stuff of our history, theology and culture. Assuming it is possible, and I remain hopeful that it is even though I think that it will take some time and will not be in abundance, originality, a literature that breathes for itself, will come from someone who can digest and interpret Mormon materials in a way that is informed by and refreshes but resists, even critiques Western, canonical [and pop, I think] culture.

CAVEAT: “Mormon artists” above refers to artists who seek to live a life of LDS orthodoxy. In keeping with the big tent definition of Mormon literature, A Motley Vision will, at other times, use the term “Mormon artists” in a broader sense to include those, for instance, who identify themselves as cultural Mormons but are not active LDS. I’m not sure how this Whitney quote would apply to them. But I’m open to comments that speak to that issue.

9 comments: “Criticism: About that Whitney quote

  1. William Morris

    Thanks. More visits would be great.

    Or even better — sign up for my RSS [XML] feed and get automatic updates. I’ve been using an RSS content aggregator for five months now and I love it.

  2. Jack

    Your second to last paragraph says it all, William. I love it.

    I don’t think we need to be overly concerned with what LDS art should “look” like–LDS art that is theoretically influenced by the spirit. We just need to soak ourselves in mormon materials (as you say), the best the world has to offer, and the spirit and then let the chips fall where they may.

    I didn’t know your blog went back to 04. You guys have been around for a while. I’m gonna have to dig through your archives a little more–looks like you’ve got a lot of good stuff here.

  3. Th.

    .

    The “04″ was a surprise to me too.

    This is an issue I think a lot about but never quite allow myself to consider in the depth it deserves. I’ll be watching closely for your further thoughts on this question.

  4. William Morris

    I should probably find a place for that quote, eh? It didn’t carry over once we left blogspot for our own domain.

    I’m also amazed that I managed to churn out 22 posts by myself the first month (June 2004). I did write several so that I would have a buffer for the launch, but I think it was only 3 or 4.

  5. Darlene

    Hey, William,

    I realized while reading this (and somehow I hadn’t read it before, though I try to keep up on everything over here) how much I value you and what you’re doing here. I love that you speak to the orthodox artist and her interests. I think that orthodox and non-orthodox alike can benefit by the discussions you conduct here, but I sure appreciate being treated in your discourses here as if I (and my orthodoxy) am worth addressing seriously. You’ve got a good thing going here at AMV and I’ve been forgetting to thank you. It enriches my life. Thanks.

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