Building Blocks & Battlefields
I have not spoken in secret, in a dark place of the earth: I said not unto the seed of Jacob, Seek ye me in vain: I the Lord speak righteousness, I declare things that are right. Assemble yourselves and come; draw near together, ye that are escaped of the nations: they have no knowledge that set up the wood of their graven image, and pray unto a god that cannot save. -Isaiah
Until recently, building castles with my two-year old son James has been impossible. Before Sunday, his only delight was to swing his chubby hands like wrecking balls, scattering brightly colored non-choking-hazard-sized legos or wooden blocks across the floor before I could get much more than a foundation laid. Maybe he was still experimenting with gravity: trying to wrap his toddler-brain around the immutable force that kept him glued to the floor. I’ve wondered, in that hazy age before long-term memory takes root and grounds us in mortality, did we still see angels hovering weightless above us? Saying “before long-term memory” assumes some absence of memory, a blank slate or unformed clay; was our infancy, rather, a time of weening, a time of exchanging the spirit’s eternal-memory for the corruptible memory of the flesh? Did we recall, in those first tender years, our pre-mortal flight through the cosmos to this terrestrial sphere? Couldn’t we have a recollection of watching our expectant parents from above their heads, receiving some final instructions for this mortal journey? But then, there’s a form of gravity in those acts of pre-mortality too, isn’t there? I’m not one of those who supposes every family tie was appointed before our earth’s gravitational center began gathering bits of unorganized matter. But you and I, dear reader, have certainly found ourselves drawn, at one time or another, by an inexplicable sense of pre-acquaintance.
To have the memory of pre-mortal majesty ripped from our consciousness in an instant might have been too traumatic for our spirits. Our bodies might have been rejected, like an incompatible transplant, or abandoned to catalepsy. Even after our pre-mortal memory has been eclipsed by the fleshy veil of temporal cognition, light peeks through synaptic gaps now and then, quickening our psychic throbbing; compelling us toward some word, some action, some soul; bonding flesh and spirit, man and woman, parent and child, savior and sinner; through holy atonement.
Has my son been so fascinated with falling blocks because he still has vague memories of the fall-less world where we used to live? Is the tug of this earth still wrapped in the thrill of novelty for him?
I don’t know.
But now he’ll carefully stack the blocks with me before knocking them across the room with a smile and a whoop.
Art—whether visual, literary, musical, or otherwise—is the business of demolishing the constructs of scholarship. Parleys are occasionally held, but the resulting armistice is always brief. This is because academics spend their time building what no artist wants: a box in which the artists work can be labeled, classed and neatly stacked. An artist employ order; an academic is employed by it.
I realize this is a gross generalizations which surely offends any broad-minded soul. I may as well have divided all animal life as follows: those that live in the sea are fish, those that live on land are mammals. But as with all scientific or scholarly activity of classification, someone’s got to draw a line somewhere. If I were to even approach a just taxonomy of academics, artists, and their respective works, I would have to establish an expansive matrix with its own version of kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species, subspecies, and so forth. I tried to do just that the first time I wrote this essay, before I changed my mind about how I’d like to use the time you’ve so graciously placed in my hands, dear reader. It was meant to be a joke. But then I started to get delusions of grandeur, in which I envisioned that my little system—thrown together in a few idle hours on Google Translate and Wikipedia—would dramatically alter the landscape of literary studies. That’s how the joke turned on me. I’ve included the matrix as an appendix so you can have a good laugh or two, at least one of which should be at my expense.
The joke gets better—or worse, depending on your vantage point—as Dr. John Bennion took interest in my matrix and invited me to share it with our LDS lit class. This (almost) unexpected misfortune revived my nearly vanquished fantasy and I imagined that with a little more work, I could yet revolutionize the world of genre studies at BYU. When the class responded favorably, some approaching me after class to discuss the implications of what I had done, I became entirely powerless against my grand delusions, and I remain their captive to this day. At the time I am writing this, I have begun work on a website which features the taxonomic matrix in question, as well as several short essays written in collaboration with two other students.
Developing this taxonomic system, however, has only provided more evidence that no system can eradicate the twin problems of subjectivity and anomaly. Take the red panda, or Ailurus fulgens, for example. The first time I saw a red panda in person was at Salt Lake City’s Hogle Zoo and I had no idea what it was. The first time you saw a red panda may have been while watching Kung Fu Panda—Master Shifu, voiced by Dustin Hoffman, is an anthropomorphized red panda—but you may have just figured him for a nameless rodent. I did. But now that I’ve seen the animal in person and online, I think Dreamworks exaggerated the ears and underrepresented the shining foxes redness.
What does a Red Panda actually look like? Imagine a raccoon, but round out all the corners on its head and shorten the nose, loose the bandit mask, keep the bushy fur and the white stripes on the tail, but exchange the grey for brownish red.
But neither of us should feel too badly about mistaking the red panda’s identity: even zoologists have had a rough go at it. This is evident in their struggle to give it a serviceable name. Initially, Major General Thomas Hardwicke, and English naturalist, called the red panda a wha, an onomatopoeic name based on the sound the animal makes. When I first read that, I that it was the sound Hardwicke made when he first saw the animal. Either way, the name never stuck: before Hardwicke had a chance to publish his research on the animal in 1927, he revised his paper to reflect the common and still current name given by the French Zoologists Frédéric Cuvier in “Histoire Naturelle des Mammifères” three years earlier.
Given Cuvier’s common name, you’d probably have imagined a big, cuddly red and white bear. The scientific name is only marginally helpful: Ailurus fulgens means shining cat. In China, which three to seven thousand red pandas call home, the shining cat is known as xiǎo xióng māo, or small bear cat. The common panda is called xióng māo, or bear cat. Here’s what they call the panda in some other languages: червена панда, малая панда, panda roux, panda rojo, panda éclatant, kultapanda, petit panda, kleine panda, panda menor. While some of these names focus on the size of the animal, or describe its coat as “shining” or “gold” rather than red, all of them include an equivalent of “panda” as the bear is identified in their country. Hence, the red panda is inescapably defined in relation to either its distant—and generally dissimilar—bear cousin, or to the common cat. We may as well name the parrot “green eagle.” After linking the red panda taxonomically with raccoons, cats, and bears for centuries, we finally gave it its very own genus: Ailuridae. We’ve studied this anomalous critter since the 13th Century and this is the best we can do.
Why is the red panda so difficult to define taxonomically? It’s that pesky old question of nature or nurture again. It’s hard to discern whether a trait shared by two different species came as an adaptation to similar environments, or a common ancestor. We face a similar quandary when studying LDS Literature as a genre: should we consider Refuge mormon literature because Terry Tempest Williams was raised mormon, even when she has adapted the mormon tradition to her own brand of feminist, naturalist mysticism? Does Virgiania Sorenson’s Memories from a Mormon Childhood justly depict a small-town mormon experience when she was raised in a semi-active part-member family? What about Pat Madden’s Quotidiana? His essays include as much catholicism as mormonism, and the mention of mormonism is generally incidental. The only consensus I’ve heard concerning the mormon genre is that a particular series of books written by an active Latter-day Saint woman is best considered as neither LDS nor literature. They’re about a clumsy girl and her vampire boyfriend. Maybe you’ve heard of it.
Why do we bother with defining the LDS genre anyway? I figure it’s merely to establish a meeting point where artists and scholars can begin a skirmish or parlay. Since most of such meeting points are indefensibly arbitrary, allow me to propose the following: LDS literature is any literature that supports the work of the Kingdom in the Latter-days. I know “supports” is a tricky word to use here. As in Zenos’ olive tree allegory—where the same roots produced a “all sorts of fruit”—I’m likely to react quite differently to Mein Kampf than did Ezra Pound. Likewise, while the Lord commanded his prophets to detail the works of darkness in writing, they were commanded not to share those writings with everyone “lest peradventure they should fall into darkness also and be destroyed” (Alma 37:27). Apparently, even the most un-redemptive literature—composed entirely of dark oaths and satanic covenants—supported the work of the Kingdom in Alma’s days as long as they were in the right hands and read by the light of the right spirit. Though there may be trends in literary response, each reader presents a distinct and complex rhetorical situation for every author. That’s how I interpret Brigham Young’s words, anyway:
Our religion takes within its wide embrace not only things of heaven, but also things of earth. It circumscribes all art, science, and literature pertaining to heaven, earth, and hell. Is there any good? It belongs to you and me. Is there virtue? It is ours. Is there truth? It is ours. Is there knowledge? It is for us.
Journal of Discourses, Vol. 7, No. 41
It’s notable that President Young’s identification of our literature isn’t limited to that which is “virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy” (Articles of Faith 1:13). Truth and knowledge is for us as well, if we are prepared to receive it under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit. The challenge is, as always, knowing the will of the Lord. For this reason, and because such revelations of readiness are most certainly personal, I’m grateful for professors like John Bennion, who do not urge students to trust his judgement and discard their own concerns as others have.
Before I continue, I should note that it seems we have erroneously placed a premium on a knowledge of darkness. We are easily impressed by power, and the powers of entropy are within the reach of all those who’ll give their souls to her. The Lord has often permitted mists of darkness and ruinous powers “from an unseen world” to seize upon His anointed in the course of necessity, but not even they have been instructed to release their grasp of the Iron Rod to take a dip in the Gulf of Misery for educational purposes.
Returning to Brother Brigham’s words, it may seem I’ve taken them and compounded all literature in one hulking, useless mass; “if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead.” (2 Ne. 2:11) Not so. I’ve proposed we think of LDS Literature as a critical method, not a genre. Studying literature written by mormons, to mormons, about mormons, among mormons or in the defense of mormons might teach us something about the mormon culture and how it may be expressed; studying the literature of all mankind as Latter-day Saints—informed by the restored gospel, seeking insight from the Holy Ghost—will teach us something about the culture of mankind and endow us with the power to express and address the universal through any subcultural particular, mormon or otherwise.
In the particular is contained the universal.
- James Joyce
It’s absurd for us to reverence the various schools of literary interpretation, who treat the gamut of literary history as expressions of their own ideology—as if the text were produced by one of their own—if we shrink at the thought of doing the same. Why shouldn’t we magnify every written word through the lens of our faith when every work has welled up from a kindred spirit: a brother or sister struggling to remember home. Unlike the red panda, there is no doubt concerning the parentage of human spirits. We are all children of an Eternal Father and, try as we might, we cannot escape our relationship to Him. Our every word and deed testifies of Him and His Plan as it charts where we have been, where we are, and where we are headed relative to His divine center. Whatever truth may be found through Feminist, Marxist, Formalist, or Psychoanalytic Criticism, or any other critical theory, those truths are circumscribed by that which can be revealed through the lens of the Gospel. Why should we settle for puttering around the superficial coastline of literary understanding?
Nearly four hundred years have passed away since Columbus discovered America. He found here. what? Forests and Indians, and tropical fruits; little else… One day a little boy went into the woods and prayed. God answered him and gave him more than he asked. A book came forth by the power of God; a buried record, hidden in a hill. It told the story of the past, it prophesied of the future, and from that hour, Joseph Smith, the despised Mormon Prophet, became the real discoverer of America.
-Orson F. Whitney, Home Literature
These ideas are not particularly new, though I thought they were right up until I started this paragraph. Some folks who are much more studied and eloquent than I am have already proposed the idea of Mormon Criticism. You’ll find links to many of their statements in The Canon section of this website, including this one from Gideon Burton:
If we will view both literature and criticism within the larger context of the Restoration, then… fidelity to the Mormon mythos and openness to otherness become complementary and mutually interdependent necessities in a venture so significant it cuts across lines of Mormon membership: the building of culture… Mormon criticism begins in the fact that Mormonism itself is a critique of the world it has entered, and its set of claims about God and man and time and eternity provide the basis for a rich critical tradition.”
Gideon Burton, Should We Ask, “Is this Mormon Literature”: Towards a Mormon Criticism
What concerns me is that these ideas are not widely discussed at a university which believes in learning from the best books “by study and also by faith.” I see no course offered on the subject and no mention of the concept in the classes I took on literary interpretation. Only after a few in-office consultations, a fair bit of Google-search manipulation and a bit of luck did I stumble into these ideas. Can we not imagine what might grow from such seeds?
If all mankind are, primarily, spiritual creatures and participants in a common Father’s plan, only a criticism which consciously and unapologetically addresses these eternal, inescapable roots of identity, intent and action can hope to understand man’s creative expression. To embrace the literary philosophies of men while neglecting the divinely revealed roots of all mortal acts is to claim residence in that great and spacious building hovering above the earth without foundation. Or, as Burton observes, “If our roots are not deep in the soil of Mormon experience and the spiritual reality of the Restoration, we are only voices in the relativistic maelstrom of modern Babel and Babylon.” How can we have forgotten the celestial fruit we pursue, or turn from it once it has been tasted?
The day my son began to stack blocks neatly, he called our tower “temple.” At first, I was proud that showing him pictures of Temples, like flash-cards, had paid off. Then he destroyed our little temple with one swipe, and a nervous chuckle escaped my lips. It was ok when I thought we were oscillating between construction and demolition, but the only instances I knew where the House of the Lord had been demolished, apostates did the job. Later, I remembered that the Lord had once said “destroy this temple” and promised to rebuild it in three days. Maybe theres a time for every pinnacle to be laid low. Maybe a spire only becomes a Temple when it ceases to be an idol. Maybe it didn’t matter one way or the other—he’s two, for crying out loud, and they were only toy building blocks—but I decided on the traditional “castle” moniker anyway.