In Almaâ€™s discourse on faith, he spends a great deal of time elaborating his central conceit. After exploring the need for humility and dispelling the notion that to place faith in something is to know that thing completely, he calls his audience to make a place in their being where they could at least receive and consider the character of his words. Then he introduces his extended metaphor: â€œwe will compare the word unto a seed.â€ He continues by outlining some criteria for the seedâ€™s growth: it needs to be planted, it needs to be a healthy seed, and it needs to not be tinkered with but left to interact with the soil.
My focus in this brief note is on Almaâ€™s statement about the seedâ€™s healthâ€”â€œif it be a true seed, or a good seedâ€â€”and what his language (as I read it) can teach us about narrative ethics.
The structure of the statement suggests that Alma felt compelled to modify the adjective he wanted to describe the seed. His rhetorical move prioritizes â€œgoodâ€ over â€œtrue,â€ a priority supported by the fact that he uses â€œgoodâ€ not â€œtrueâ€ through the rest of the discourse. Almaâ€™s revision of this condition suggests to me that there may be more value in privileging the goodness of words, the character of language, over their truthâ€”their supposed correlation to reality. In this light, maybe the questions we should ask about a narrative arenâ€™t â€œIs it true?â€ or â€œHow true is it?â€ but â€œIs it good?â€ or â€œWhat good does it do or encourage its audience to do?â€
The prioritization of a narrativeâ€™s goodness over its truth is an act of privileging narrative function and ethics over narrative content. Many people (includingâ€”maybe especiallyâ€”Mormons) focus on the latter over the former; Alma suggests that we should flip that focus and attend to how words act upon us as individuals and social groups. He wants us, then, to see language and narrative as moral acts that can change us, our relationships, and the world.
I’ve gotten into the, perhaps bad, habit of looking for a Mormon parallel to interesting works I come across. I know I’m not alone in doing thisâ€”after the first online dating site how long did it take before we had a Mormon one?
My most recent foray into potential Mormon parallels came when I purchased a copy of Raymond Queneau’s fascinating book Exercises in Style, which consists of 99 versions of the same mundane story told in a stunning variety of ways. For me this book has highlighted the similarity of much of today’s literature, especially so-called genre fiction. Contemporary fiction seems focused on a narrow range of stylesâ€”either first person or third person omniscient, narrative told in chronological order. [There are, of course, plenty of exceptions. But elements like this seem to dominate.]
In his book, Queneau doesn’t really invent new styles. Instead, the styles reflect what already exists; the way people talk or write or portray stories. Styles in the book include things like Metaphorically, Retrograde, Dream, Word Game, Narrative, Anagrams, Onomatopoeia, Logical Analysis, Official Letter, Past, Present, Reported Speech etc.
For example, the “Notation” style (first in the book) is told this way:
On the S bus, in the rush hour. A chap of about twenty-six, soft hat with a cord instead of a ribbon, neck too long, as if someoneâ€™s been tugging at it. People getting off. The chap in question gets annoyed with one of the men standing next to him. He accuses him of jostling him every time anyone goes past. A snivelling tone which is meant to be aggressive. When he sees a vacant seat he throws himself onto it.
Two hours later, I come across him in the Cour de Rome, in front of the Gare Saint-Lazare. Heâ€™s with a friend whoâ€™s saying: â€œYou ought to get an extra button put on your overcoat.â€ He shows him where (at the lapels) and why.
To me this concept is brilliant. For authors and readers alike it breaks down the customary approach to literature and promotes creativity. It also simply helps us to understand what style is and the breadth of its possibilities.
So, would it be possible to produce a Mormon Exercises in Style? I know many of our fellow Church members who would say no — that Mormons have no style, or that all of Mormon writing and discourse uses the same style. But this seems demonstrably false to me. If nothing else we see stylistic differences in different situations: testimonies have stylistic differences when compared to lessons or talks or interviews. And different authors have their own stylesâ€”who doubts that President Monson’s familiar use of a kind of passive past tense near the emotional and spiritual climax of his stories (“Hugs were shared; tears were shedâ€¦”) constitutes an important element of the Monsonian style?
I don’t know if there are enough identifiable Mormon styles for a book like Queneau’s. But I think the effort of telling the same story in a series of Mormon styles would at least help those who wrote the stories, and likely would enlighten readers about the customary ways Mormons communicate with each other.
Since I’m not at all confident about my own ability to mimic a variety of Mormon styles (I’m not even sure I have the ability to do just one!), I’d like to suggest open this idea up to the online Mormon world (the bloggernacle or whatever you would like to call it) and ask for submissions, which would then be published here on AMV and perhaps improved by the suggestions of our readers and visitors.
In order to do this, we will need a couple of things:
First, we need a mundane story. Make that a mundane Mormon story. I hope to write a post in the next week asking for suggestions about what should be included in this story. Somehow, without being dramatic, I think it will need to include elements of a typical Mormon life — perhaps what happens in Church, at least in part. I’d appreciate your thoughts on this.
Second, we will need a list of possible styles in which the story can be rendered. I’ve mentioned some possibilities above, and I’m including those and a few more below.
[Note that some of these could be subdivided — travelog testimonies may be stylistically different, for example — while others may not actually be clear styles, and still others may not work to tell a story at all. To get started, lets list possibilities regardless of these issues.]:
church lesson (as delivered)
sacrament meeting talk
priesthood leader interview
I don’t know if this will work or not. To me it seems like it might be fun and perhaps useful. What do you think?
Earlier this year, Kent posted about the potentially increasing demand for MoLit classes. I mentioned in response to Kent’s post that I thought “an open access, online Mormon lit is very doable and would be welcomed by many people” and that I would post some ideas for building such a course. Soon thereafter, I created a Google Doc and started an outline of questions to consider.
While I was prepping my fall semester courses (three first-year writing and one intro to lit: all online), looking around for ways to best take my courses into the wild (as it were), to build them outside of institutional walls, beyond the limits of learning management systems, that document came to mind. So I called it out of my Google Drive, updated it with some additional questions (including several I asked in response to Kent’s September 2012 post, “An Online Mormon Literature Course?“), and decided to (finally) public share it with AMV’s community. I’m doing so for two reasons: 1) to get some feedback on how potential course-users would like to see the course structured and delivered and 2) as an interest gauge to see how many people would participate in the course. I’d like to have your feedback and the interest gauged in the next fortnight or so. The next step would be—dare I say it?—to begin building the course. Continue reading “Some Considerations (and an Interest Gauge) for an Online Mormon Lit Course”
Last week Kent asked AMV readers to consider what would make a Mormon theory of literature different. I could be wrong, but Iâ€™m assuming that his points of comparisonâ€”his different thanâ€”are general theories of literature as well as the theories of literature practiced in the Mormon Letters community. In response to Kentâ€™s query, to the responses it received, and to some other things that have been written in the past two years or so about the relationship among Mormons, Mormonism, literature, and theory, Iâ€™m developing some ideas on this relationship and the ways it has been theorized by members of the Mormon letters community; as I develop them, I’ll further address some things that I think are vital to this relationship and how it functions as a critical apparatus. I offer the incipient thoughts that make up this post in earnest of the more thorough treatment Iâ€™m composing. My primary focus in this brief discussion is to outline the ways theory and Mormonism get talked about in Kentâ€™s post and its thread of responses (at least those made up to Jonathan’s 2/10/14 reply).
I’ve been listening to course lectures from a Theory of Literature course by Paul Fry of Yale University available through Apple’s iTunesU. If nothing else I hope that by carefully working through these lectures I can work through my inadequacy in discussing some aspects of literature. But I also hope that the course will help me organize what I’ve found in my “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon” series.
The course is fascinating and entertaining (at least to me)â€”I wish I had somehow managed to cover this material years ago. It has led me to ponder a bit about where Mormons are in terms of literary theory. We’ve explored the ideas of Mormon criticism and Mormon theory of literature here on AMV a little, but I’m not sure that, outside of the idea of Wm’s “radical middle,” we’ve come up with anything particularly unusualâ€”although we’ve certainly argued, as Mormons tend to do, about the details of things like the role of evil in literature and the presence or absence of sex, profanity and violence in literature. We certainly haven’t outlined any theory of literature or even discussed what structure such a theory would need. I’m not even sure yet if anyone has talked much about literary theory from a Mormon viewpoint1.
Part 1, wherein I muse upon the similarities between Darwinism and creationism, may be found here. In Part 2, I muse some more.
And yet . . . and yet. The longer I lived, the more I recognized that I had a tendency to settle into patterns of thought and behavior and into known, comfortable surroundings and not budge unless some act of God demonstrated to me that I could not surviveâ€”psychologically, at leastâ€”dramatic changes in conditions unless something gave. What had to give? Me. I needed to take another step outside my comfort zone and adapt to the new stresses on the old habitat. Based on my own desires for peace and quiet, I came to suspect that, barring a radical change in that Everlasting God whose power made and sustained Eden, the first breeding pair of hominids would likely have stayed in their garden stasis forever, all innocence and naked ignorance. Our own continued, expressed wishes for a return to the Peaceable Kingdom confirm how deeply that environment still interests us. So I suspect that had not some serpent of change appeared in paradise and coiled itself around Eve, triggering a sudden shift in direction for mankind and precipitating all that â€œsweat of the browâ€ stuff,Â leading to the production of copious offspring capable of adapting to environments down through the generations, we might still be who we wereâ€”whatever that may have been.
Steven Pinker, an evolutionary psychologist, linguist and the author of The Better Angels of Our Nature, sees the Old Testament as a â€œcelebrationâ€ of the kind of commonplace yet horrifying (to modern sensibilities) violence that characterized mankindâ€™s behavior during early stages of its social evolution. Continue reading “Part 2: You Say You Want a Creavolution? Well, You Know…”
This two-part post is from a chapter titled “Gardens” in my book Crossfire Canyon, under construction. I haven’t posted on AMV for a while and thought I’d run this out there.
As a reliable account of the origin of life on Earth, the Old Testament story of the Garden of Eden may itself stand only a hairâ€™s breadth from being cast out of the paradise of credence. â€œIt didnâ€™t happen, couldnâ€™t have happened that way,â€ scientists say as they pronounce the Eden story indefensible. Over the last century and a half, they have promoted science-based and evidence-supported stories to supplant the Creation Story: narrative strains of Darwinism and neo-Darwinism, the yet-developing evolutionary tale.
The degree of interchangeability between the two storylines could be framed as a boxing match between contrariesâ€”Creationism v. Darwinismâ€”with each side claiming to have landed multiple knock-out punches. Or perhaps, given both sidesâ€™ claims to Higher Truth, the contention is more like a jousting tournament. Despite the pageantâ€™s being over a hundred-and-fifty years old, sterling knights on either side continue to try to unhorse each other, resulting, at times, in such heated language as to lay the nobility of both sides open to doubt. Rampant name-calling and disrespecting of persons abound, along with the dusting-off-of-feet on each otherâ€™s narrative grounds. Continue reading “Part 1: You Say You Want a Creavolution? Well, You Know …”