I have been thinking lately about what I’d do if I had more time to engage in Mormon literary criticism. This is, of course, a spectacularly unproductive way of going about things. But it’s all I have time and energy for at the moment. And at the very least, it’s about the only thing I have going at the moment (most of my non-AMV but Mormon arts-related efforts are in writing creating fiction with a modest goal of producing 3k words per month*). Terryl Givens provided the field with some interesting formulations for Mormon criticism via his paradoxes. But his was more of a cultural studies/sociological approach, and I’m thinking more here in terms of straight up dealing with works of narrative art (both those currently out there and as themes for those who are looking to create more).
I have no idea if these would be productive avenues to pursue. Nor am I as well versed in the doctrinal and philosophical arguments — both those specific to Mormonism and those regarding the wider strains of Western/Christian thought — as I’d like to be. This list simply comes out of reading a fair amount of Mormon (mostly literary) fiction. I also note that there may already be fantastic articles and presentations out there that deal with some of these issues. Feel free to reference them in the comments**.
Freed of the adjective it had accrued over a several decades, agency seems to once again be a hot concept in the LDS Zeitgeist. Eldar Bednar, in particular, has done much rehabilitation and re-situation of the place of agency in LDS thought. We’ve talked about it a few times in Mormon letters — especially in relation to the Twilight series. What intrigues me about it in particular is what role it plays in narrative art, especially in regards to character. From an analytical point of view: what does it mean for characters to exercise agency in a Mormon sense (that is not just freedom of choice, but rather the freedom that comes from making covenants with God and living them as fully as possible — a freedom from sin)? How do Mormon artists represent agency as an element in plot? Does this mean plot is no longer driven by the inevitable encounter with ones fate or the enacting out of what ones social conditions have driven one to? And if we say, yes, (and I think we do), how is agency different from simple consumer choice or libertarian freedom in terms of what our characters actually think and do?
Theric tossed out the word stasis in reference to my story “Return.” It’s an interesting word to use because stasis in literature has actually been one of the key themes of my short career as a literary critic. At some point I hope to write about stasis and The Master and Margarita, and in grad school my paper for the key seminar class of my comp lit program was on stasis in Kafka’s “A Country Doctor” and Eminescu’s “Luceafarul.” My interest in this concept should be obvious: the great horror of LDSness, is not so much the torments of hell, but rather the lack of progression that comes with sin — the condition of stasis. I have remarked before that I think that Satan and the fallen third’s great torment is their lack of story — their inability to enter in to mortality and time and really be part of the narrative flow of this existence.
So considering all this and considering the emphasis on (and great promise of eternal) progression what does that mean for Mormon narrative works (and especially for novels)? If much of literature is about the big adolescent break with (family, religion, society, authority, etc.), then how does/can our literature take on the more challenging but more mature task of showing how progression really works in this life? And how does it really work? And how does this tie back to agency? The great mistake is to assume that God = stasis. That’s why it’s easier to show the devil’s side, right? Milton and Blake and all that. Mormon doctrine corrects that in a breathtaking way, but it doesn’t necessarily gives us a ton to go on in terms of making that case in narrative art. Or at least, I haven’t encountered much. Which is why, much of it (correctly, in my opinion) deals with the small domestic triumphs and set backs of faithful realism.
I’ve barely read Kant. And I mean less aesthetics as a philosophy and more as a discovery of what we as a people value in our narrative art. What we think is beautiful and lovely and of good report (and why). Although when I think of Mormonism’s roots, I see the possibility of an aesthetic of the weak, the marginal, the conflicted, the unschooled, the hardscrabble. A grit that is different than the urban grime that’s so easy for first year MFAs to fall in love with. I also have the sneaking suspicion that we might be able to say something interesting about (and likely subversive of) the sublime.
Two things strike me right away:
1. Mormons are great at re/mis-interpreting the works of the world. It would be interesting to probe more fully how that manifests itself. One moment in particular comes back to me from my youth: The cool priest in my ward requesting the song “Respect” by the gay English duo Erasure be played at a dance and dedicating it to his on-off girlfriend the stake president’s daughter.
2. How does the Holy Spirit work in terms of reactions to narrative art? I have made the claim that even if an author feels inspired when creating it that doesn’t mean that those who consume the work will necessarily feel the same (nor are they obligated to — even if the author and his fans assert otherwise). But are responses so individual as to be worthless to explore? How does one aesthetic and critical preferences interact with “feeling the Spirit”? Are we left to snipe at each other over sentimentality and nostalgia? Or is there more that can be said? One place to start here would be with the work of Neal A. Maxwell — what rhetorical strategies does he use to try and elicit both intellectual and spiritual growth/desires in his audience?
* This is laughable. And it’s okay to mock me for my meager efforts.
** This is where I again bemoan lack of access to most of the papers that have been presented at the AML conferences.