The Things We Bring Home

8.3.06 | | 4 comments

I brought a lot home with me from my mission. Three examples:

(1) A pair of shoes that I knew I would never wear again. I put hundreds maybe even thousands of miles on them—the same pair every day for two years—in the cities and jungles of Brazil.

(2) A berimbau hand-made by a young capoeirista who had recently joined the church.

(3) A small collection of Brazilian literature and music, including three of Djavan’s recordings. One of my favorite Djavan songs is called Limão. My English translation:

Lemon

The luminous veil of the sun in the fog
covers the wet ridge
The sword of the sun strikes
a hole in the mist
liberating the land with its touch
The rain stops
The day is reborn
To wander, to love, to work
The smell is the first thing you remember
The earth drying, baking
Puddles vanishing
The people, the animals, the come-and-go
Today is a day to harvest, to fish
To prepare the fish
The smell of lemon enchants me
And how does it taste?
The green virginity opens itself in drops
To set the savor in the theatre of the mouth
Where teeth grind and roughness wounds itself
And the blood is water, so much water,
A spring

Limão, especially in Portuguese and set to Djavan’s driving, lilting jazz, evokes other things that I brought home with me—things I did not stuff into my suitcase—a people, a terrain, a language, a cuisine, an attitude about life—I could go on.

In one sense, Limão (and the other music and literature I brought home) counts as quasi-Mormon in my mind. I read and misread my small collection through the eyes of my missionary experience: I walked through the scene in Djavan’s Limão most mornings of my mission: the sun baking away the clouds and rain (some mornings were sauna-like), the bustling cities and towns I haunted (Olinda, Caico, Natal), the abundant seafood and fruit I consumed, and me harvesting and fishing (obvious proselytizing metaphors).

In another sense, Djavan’s Limão stands for things that I do not mentally convert into familiar terms. Things that I doubt I fully understand. Still, my encounter and conversion to these things (I am a Brazilophile) was both a by-product of my missionary labors and the direct result of an observance of Mormon theology (i.e., seeking after the virtuous, lovely, praiseworthy, and of good report).

* * *

The Mormon take on the world is limiting in a sense. It draws sharp lines between good and bad, true and false, us and them, and so forth. These lines need not always limit Mormon arts, which may legitimately explore all sides. Yet, engaging in such exploration may often go unappreciated (critically, financially and otherwise). I think the Mormon audience (at least a large part of it) has definite ideas about how the aforementioned lines should affect—and be reflected in—works of art. I am concerned that these ideas can lead to some pretty tepid stuff.

Yet the Mormon experience is also often broadening and Mormon doctrine demands active pursuit and appreciation of good beyond our borders. Witness my mission and the things I brought home.

In light of this tension, some questions arise: is the audience for Mormon art too risk-averse when it comes to seeking out good things? Is the Mormon audience more quick to judge Mormon works than it is to judge say, the latest popular novel or movie? Is the Mormon audience far too concerned about Mormons (authors and characters) maintaining an appearance of otherworldly purity (a burden not imposed on non-Mormon authors and characters)? How should our broadening experiences and doctrinal mandates impact Mormon art? What have you brought home from actual journeys for the church or attempts to enact the admonition of the Thirteenth Article of Faith? Have those things taken on distinctively Mormon meanings to you? Have they enriched efforts to make or appreciate Mormon art?

4 comments: “The Things We Bring Home

  1. William Morris

    I still have a pair of shoes from my mission that I wear every once in awhile. Half-boot type Rockports. I put them on the other day. It had been awhile since I only wear them when the occasion requires closed toe shoes that can be beat up — moving furniture, etc. It was weird. All of a sudden I had this moment where I thought how strange and far away it all was and yet so close. These shoes had walked the street of Bucharest 12 years ago.

    —-

    I enjoyed your translation. It seems to me that with all of the foreign language RMs running around that translation should be a major theme in the world of Mormon letters. Or course, as you point out, the way one approaches the literature of the language one served a mission in is mediated through ones mission experiences.

    Anyway, the questions you answer at the end are big. I know I use this example a lot, but there are only so many works of Mormon literature out there that can serve as examples….

    Angel of the Danube deals with some of these issues — both in the narrative itself, but also in how the novel reflects Alan Mitchell’s mission experiences (not in a biographical sense, but more in what you describe above — the novel would not be what it is without a book of Austrian folk tales/mythology that Mitchell bought).

    I think one of the difficulties for Mormon culture is that we always end up with two or more realms of interest and so it’s hard to find groups of interest that are large enough to financially support a market segment. For example, the group of Mormons who like speculative fiction is rather large. But out of that group there is a much smaller sub-group that is interested in Mormon-themed speculative fiction.

  2. Eric Russell

    A lot of good questions here, Shawn. I’ve thought some about this one:

    Is the Mormon audience more quick to judge Mormon works than it is to judge say, the latest popular novel or movie?

    For the last few years, I have made a conscientious attempt to try to gauge people’s thoughts on LDS arts. I always probe people when I hear they’ve read or seen an LDS work. My eventual conclusion, to answer the above question, is “slightly yes.” It is, of course, different for different people. I know a lot of folks who are much more accepting of mediocre LDS works than popular ones. But, for reasons I can’t yet fully point to, I’ve come to notice that many other people are somewhat skeptical of the relationship between art and religion. Art is entertainment and religion is not. Thus, I think a book or movie with LDS themes and characters is actually looked at much more critically than a very similar one that is simply more universal. I think such ideas are slowly beginning to break down, but LDS art will always face a challenge to the degree that they still exist.

  3. S. P. Bailey

    William:
    I just ordered Angel of the Danube. Looks great.

    Regarding your realms of interest point: it would be interesting to know (1) what percentage of Mormons might under the right circumstances read literary fiction, (2) what percentage of Mormons actually read literary fiction, (3) what percentage of Mormons are aware of the existence (or even the possibility of) Mormon-themed literary fiction, and (4) what percentage of Mormons actually read Mormon-themed literary fiction.

    I imagine that the circle starts relatively small (probably much less than half of the 5 million or so English-speaking Mormons) and gets smaller and smaller at each level. That last number would be particularly interesting to me. Anyone have any guesses?

    The key question: how can we make each circle grow? Hopefully AMV helps …

  4. S. P. Bailey

    Eric:
    I think you are right about discomfort with the specifically religious in art. Generally speaking, there is a two-fold risk: (1) alienating those outside the religion who may not be able to relate, and (2) offending those inside by seeming challenging or at least not appropriately praising or reverential.

    Add to this general situation the Mormon consciousness. To some degree, we are: (1) acutely sensitive to criticism, (2) preoccupied with PR, (3) deferential to authority (to the point of being wary of anything Mormon that does not bear the imprimatur of the church–if not the correlation committee, then at least Deseret Book), (4) used to extremely sanitized, gooey sweet media, and so forth and so forth…

    Despite all this, I am excited about the possibility of really great Mormon-themed art.

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