Zion, Utopias and being politically agnostic artists

Based on the evidence we have (the scriptures), it seems to me that it takes extraordinary social, political and economic conditions for a community of believers to form a Zion state. The city of Enoch required a separate city-state protected by a prophet who could work miracles to keep enemies at bay. The no-ites found in Fourth Nephi required a series of natural catastrophes which caused the deaths of thousands (and thus a major reduction of the population) and (presumably) disrupted existing economic and political structures, followed by a personal visit from the resurrected Christ, and the personal calling of Twelve Apostles in front of hundreds, perhaps, thousands of witnesses and all that even managed only two generations worth of Zion. The post-Millennium situation requires Jesus Christ himself to vanquish evil and rule personally (not to mention a fairly dramatic restructuring of the physical elements of the planet itself). Even the not fully successful attempts at establishing Zion, such as certain periods among the Nephites and/or Lamanites, the people of Israel, and the early Mormons required a fairly homogenous population forged out of much tribulation (and, generally, a prophet who was also the main political leader).  And all of those periods were difficult, fragile, and short-lived.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about neo-liberalism and the way in which it erodes families, communities and individuals in the service of technocratic utopian visions, which while may be sincere and well-meaning on the part of some are undergirded by the demands of capital. I am by nature and experience a political pragmatist and radical centrist. Which means I find value in libertarian and Marxist and democratic socialist and crunchy conservative critiques of neo-liberalism (and of each other). But I also find myself frustrated by and/or deeply skeptical of the solutions proposed by each of those political philosophies.

So I think what I’ve arrived at is that all utopias–all ideal states that are not Zion–are flawed and something to be fought against. All political philosophies tend to have elements of them that are totalizing. That are willing to sacrifice humanity and human agency on the altar of the political philosophy.

Satan’s plan is not socialism. It’s not neo-liberalism. It’s not Marxism or libertarianism or anarchism. It’s any world view that attempts to totalize, that degrades, that dehumanizes–that can swerve into fascism on the way to utopia. Anything that loses patience with human agency and sacrifices human compassion on the altar of expediency and tries to smooth out the messiness of this physical existence through force or coercion or seduction.

While engagement in the democratic process is necessary, important and can lead to much good in the world. While engagement in the economic and cultural marketplace is necessary, important and can even lead to much good in the world. While we as Latter-day Saints are not called to the monastery, the compound, the commune, the enclave, I worry that we are too often too much in the world.

I think this is especially dangerous for artists. I’m not calling for solely apolotical art or artists to not engage in politics. Artists shouldn’t be willfully blind to the realities of the modern world. In fact, I think artists should be in dialogue with current political and socio-economic thought and action. I think artists should be angry, concerned, hopeful, curious, engaged and informed about the world. I don’t believe that art for art’s sake is actually possible or desirable.

But I also think that artists, and especially Mormon artists, should have at their core a deep skepticism of utopian solutions and an ultimately agnostic stance towards politics that prods them to interrogate the reifying language of politicians and technocrats even when (especially when!) they happen to lean towards a particular party platform and/or candidate. We should want to make the world a better place within the current social, economic and political constraints. In order to do so, we have to work with the ideas and people of our time. It’s just that Zion should be this pulsating hope inside us that repels other ideologies from burrowing all the way through to our inner core worldview and artistic themes and concerns.

Am I wrong about this?

Note: comments are welcome — this is not, however, an invitation to talk about politics in general or any one politician or party, and rather about artists positioning in relation to the discourse of politics.

Three Poems by Mormon Women to Joseph F. Smith, 1855-1857

Joseph F. SmithMy recent study on the correspondence of Ina Coolbrith and Joseph F. Smith introduced me to three poems Mormon women wrote to the future prophet while he was on his first mission to the Sandwich Islands (1854-1858). While each poem shares some common themes and sentiments, their quality, style, and content vary in interesting and revealing ways.

The poems come from members of Joseph F. Smith’s family. Eliza R. Snow, Smith’s aunt through her plural marriage to Joseph Smith, wrote the earliest of the poem:

Lines address’d to Elder

Joseph Smith, Missionary to the Sandwich Islands

By Eliza R. Snow.

Joseph, the Lord has blest you
To be in early youth,
A herald of salvation—
A messenger of Truth.

And yet, the load is heavy
For youthful nerves to bear,
Amid the hosts of trials
The sons of Zion share.

Continue reading “Three Poems by Mormon Women to Joseph F. Smith, 1855-1857”

On Poets & Poetry: Salt to the World

BYU Studies Quarterly just published my review essay on two recent poetry collections: Susan Elizabeth Howe’s Salt (Signature Books, 2013) and Lance Larsen’s Genius Loci (University of Tampa Press, 2013). Both collections are well-worth your time and they sustain and reward multiple readings. Here’s an excerpt, right from the middle of my review, to whet your lyric appetite:

Mormon theology demands that in all we do—language-making included—we attend closely to the environments we inhabit. “Consider the lilies of the field,” Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount, then again in his sermon at the Nephite temple and to Joseph Smith in Kirtland. His utterance, reiterated across dispensations, calls his disciples to rely on his grace as they seek to build Zion: “You’re worried about where you’ll get your next meal?” he seems to ask. “How you’ll quench your thirst and clothe your nakedness? Well, look closely at the lilies. See how their relationship with the earth sustains their growth? They root in rich soil. They withhold their presence and their beauty from no one. They consume only as their needs demand and what they produce contributes—even in death—to the health and constant renewal of their environment, to which the species readily adapts. Can human institutions, which are prone to excess, say the same of themselves?

“Live, rather, like the lilies.”

Howe, it seems, has taken this imperative to heart (though perhaps not directly via Christ’s statement), using her poiesis as a way to sustain the world and to draw out her presence—as well as her readers’ presence—therein. Poet and professor Lance Larsen, who (like Howe) teaches at BYU, seems to have responded likewise, although the places he inhabits in his fourth poetry collection, Genius Loci, are more directly mobile than those Howe inhabits in Salt. Salt‘s geographies and the people and creatures who populate them are essentially in motion. But a persistent concern in Genius Loci is what it means to live in a world that doesn’t hold still—scratch that: not just to live in a world that doesn’t hold still, but to be fully present in that world.

You can read a PDF copy of the full review essay on the flipside of this link.

(Cross-posted here.)

The Appeal of Science Fiction for (Some) Mormons

The other day, I woke up and wound up writing — well, this. And so I decided that I might as well share…

Science fiction as a genre has a high and holy calling of engaging us in dialogue with science, the future, and technological change (corresponding to fantasy’s calling to engage us in a dialogue with history, mythology, and the unconscious, but that’s a topic for a different essay). Like most such callings, it is a potential caught mostly in glimpses, seldom if ever fully realized. Yet for all the protestations one hears of simple storytelling with no pretense of oracular or legislative responsibility (Shelley notwithstanding), it is a vocation pursued with remarkable persistence by most of the genre’s writers and never really forgotten by the bulk of its readers. (I speak now of literature. Movies are a different thing entirely.)

Continue reading “The Appeal of Science Fiction for (Some) Mormons”

Come now, and let us be wrong together, saith the critic

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Today, an interview with New York Times film critic A.O. Scott appeared in Slate. The following is an excerpt from that interview (I’ve reversed the original bolding—bold is now Scott and plain is interviewer Isaac Chotiner):

Since you became a critic, are there any movies or any reviews you look back on and say, “Wow, I blew it”? Continue reading “Come now, and let us be wrong together, saith the critic”

Is There a Distinctive Mormon Literary Esthetic? Part Two

In my last installment, I mentioned my skepticism about a Mormon literary esthetic. I’ll start this round by explaining in more detail my reasons for that skepticism.

Differing values are relatively easy to come by. Differing stylistic preferences likewise. What group doesn’t vary within itself — often widely — in the personal styles of its members? Within my own immediate family, there are those who are melodramatic and those who are reserved; those who crave excitement and those who prefer contemplation; those with a taste for the subtle and those who like the blatant. (But no one who likes rap.)

A distinctive group esthetic is a rather taller order to fill. A distinctive esthetic, it seems to me, extends beyond differing preferences to become almost a different symbolic language, where words and phrases and characters and stories mean something different to those inside the group than they can ever possibly mean to those outside the group. Outsiders, by and large, don’t “get it.”

Continue reading “Is There a Distinctive Mormon Literary Esthetic? Part Two”

Is There a Distinctive Mormon Literary Esthetic? Part One

I feel pretty confident in asserting, without further evidence, that I find myself in a relatively small number of people who wake up on a Saturday morning thinking about questions of Mormon literary criticism. Possibly almost as small a number as those who might read the fruits of such questioning. (But only possibly.) Still, it is the nature of the essayist to find oneself compelled to write. And so…

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Throughout most of Mormonism’s literary history (such as it is), there has I think been little evidence of Mormons taking pleasure in or valuing a different kind of literary experience than what is valued in larger (mostly American) culture. Home literature, missionary fiction, lost generation fiction, faithful Mormon realism — all find close corollaries and even direct models in the larger writing universe.

Continue reading “Is There a Distinctive Mormon Literary Esthetic? Part One”

Parsing the “Mormon” in Mormon Literature

Ever since Scott Hales announced his plans to edit a new anthology of Mormon literary criticism, I’ve been thinking off and on about my own past grapplings with Mormon literature and where I’d want to take them — had I world enough, time, money, and the requisite academic chops. What follows isn’t that essay, but comes about as close as I can manage at present. Consider this my submission!

Why do or should we — as readers, writers, and/or literary critics — care about whether a text is Mormon? Potential reasons are legion, as varied as readers themselves. Among the most typical and (it seems to me) important are the following:

  • To understand Mormonism better — as a culture, religion, historical movement, or what have you
  • To investigate specific elements of Mormon experience, thought, and culture through literary works
  • To explore the purpose(s) and role(s) of literature in Mormon experience and worldview
  • To articulate ways that literature has influenced Mormonism
  • As a test case to investigate the interrelationships of literature and religion, literature and identity, literature and culture, and a host of other potential intersections
  • To understand better particular literary works that incorporate manifestly Mormon elements
  • To assert our own membership (or non-membership) in the Mormon community
  • To explore what it means to be Mormon and a reader, Mormon and a writer, or Mormon and a critic
  • To seek out and encourage literature we think is worthwhile, in whatever particular relationship to Mormonism we endorse: celebratory, investigatory, critical, or other1

Continue reading “Parsing the “Mormon” in Mormon Literature”