Writing Towards Atonement

Reading Stephen Carter’s Writing as Repentance, thanks to a recent Motley Vision review of What of the Night, all his talk of dreams got me thinking. Thinking of my dreams, the dreams of others, and the interpretation of dreams.

I understand Stephanie Myer had a series of dreams that became the basis for the Twilight Saga, which has gone on to delight millions of teenaged girls and middle aged women–much to the chagrin of many in the LDS literary community–and sparked a massive revival of the vampire romance genre in print and television.

One night in St. Paul, Alberta, I also had dream. I was a missionary at the time, living in a basement apartment in a very rural, wooded area. I dreamt that, as I was studying the scriptures, I saw a large animal which was either a wolf, a dog, or something in-between trotting toward an open back door (which didn’t actually exist). I couldn’t determine whether the animal was likely to be friendly or hostile, so I chose to play it safe and closed the door. At about this time, the animal fixed his eyes on me and began a more focused course toward me. With a growing sense of anxiety, I closed the door only to discover it had been previously smashed and splintered from the door jam to the floor, leaving a 2-4 inch gap that prevented me from latching it closed. Almost immediately, the animal was pawing and sniffing with aggressive curiosity and I struggled to shut him out.

According to Freud, this dream was about sex. Or at least that’s what a book I stumbled across while doing community service at the public library the next morning told me. It was a book on the interpretation of dreams. Not by Freud, but derived by the psychologist’s writings in part. And though I suspect I should have viewed it with suspicion, having found it by chance while doing community service, I regarded it as a gift.

I quickly thumbed through the pages and found the interpretation for both wolves and dogs. The former was identified as a representation of sexuality and untamed passion while the later represented domesticated natural urges. I then shelved the book and thought things over, finally deciding the dream manifested a subconscious sexual tension between a puritanic attitude toward sex–in which I viewed it as a necessary evil–and the doctrinal Latter-day Saint view of sex as a sacred act–a culminate expression of love and union between husband and wife–and concluded that while I believed the latter, I struggled to abandon the apostate concept of sex smuggled into my culture. To me, the wolf/dog represented the sexual drives of my id, my missionary-self represented my superego, and my apartment represented my conscious ego. My superego couldn’t determine whether my sexual id was dangerous or domestic and opted for a futile fight of repression.

My Freudian interpretation seemed to fit pretty well, but I’ve grown increasingly dissatisfied with it. Even if we adopt Freud’s preoccupation with the libido, I’m not sure the semiotics of my wolf/dog can be so neatly reduced to a dangerous/domestic dilemma on the subject. Somewhere between reading Jack London’s White Fang, Disney’s White Fang and Kevin Costners Dances with WolvesI had come to think of wolves as dignified, admirable and even royal, rather than wild, ferocious and menacing. And the wolf/dog in my dream never snarled, never bristled, never charged–so there would have been little cause for me to react with such panic in light of my accepted schema for wolf-human relations.

The more I think about it, the more I suspect the wolf/dog really represented a general drive for power and prestige. This more closely fits the essence of a wolf as I saw it. As a Latter-day Saint youth, I had been taught that the desire for self-agrandizment was generally a prideful vice, that while “it may not be on a mountain top that the Lord has need of me” I should humbly go where He sent me. We are to be docile, like a dog, and submissive to the Lord’s command. And yet, Latter-day Saint lore is filled with stories of obscure farm boys growing into world-famous prophets–grown men whose prestige and charisma have played a significant role in the spread of the Gospel–and I had a desire to follow in their footsteps to some summit. I have learned since that these conflicting desires may be connected to my inheritance as an Ephraimite. As Brigham Young put it:

The sons of Ephraim are wild and uncultivated, unruly, ungovernable. The spirit in them is turbulent and resolute; they are the Anglo-Saxon race, and they are upon the face of the whole earth, bearing the spirit of rule and dictation, to go forth from conquering to conquer. They search wide creation and scan every nook and corner of this earth to find out what is upon and within it. I see a congregation of them before me today. No hardship will discourage these men; they will penetrate the deepest wilds and overcome almost insurmountable difficulties to develop the treasures of the earth, to further their indomitable spirit for adventure.

Though much of this description is unfavorable, an indomitable spirit for adventure comes in rather handy if the Lord intends you travel the world to gather scattered Israel. Which is what I was doing at the time of my dream. Of course, as much as I had grown to love serving in rural Alberta, I really wanted to go to Japan, or to become one of the first missionaries to open mainland China. Maybe my dream represented a subconscious fear that I wanted to become the alpha in whatever pack I traveled in for the ego trip, not to become a humble hero in God’s service. Indeed, this fear remains in me today as I struggle to make my voice heard as a writer.

Returning to Twilight, I wonder if there’s an element of this conflict present in Stephanie Meyer’s dream and corresponding series. It seems evident in the werewolf Jacob, as well as the Edward-Bella-Jacob love triangle. I’ve only seen the movies, so I don’t think I’m fit to give an in-depth analysis, but Edward has all the wealth, mobility and prestige of a glittering God, while Jacob is primarily bound to humble familial obligations on his reservation. This doesn’t seem to be a simple binary, but it may be the internal conflict experienced by a presumably Ephraimite author and her legions of rabid readers.

Another word on false or overly-simplistic binaries to that will lead us back to Stephen Carter’s essay: I recognize complex drives lead us to create and embrace whatever we are most captivated by, but I also believe all truth can be circumscribed into one great whole. This site is dedicated to situating the nuance and complexity of traditional literary theory within the hermeneutics of LDS theology and to applying the LDS lens to the world’s literature, not just to the work of LDS authors as I have done here. Like Carter’s Writing as Repentance, I believe such a course will lead Latter-day Saints and national readers towards atonement in a variety of ways. With this in mind, I’d like to offer the following alternate interpretation of an image from Writing as Repentance:

An artist friend said that while she was reading the essays, a very strong image came to her. She painted it for me: a slight human figure faced by two overwhelming mountains. Entranced, I immediately hung it up in my living room and began contemplating it. After a few weeks of this, I finally saw what was going on in my writing.

Those mountains were the contradictions in my life. Sometimes the priesthood is a wonderful thing to me. Other times, it’s an oppressive weight. Sometimes I can feel the binding power of the temple. Other times, it seems only to cut me off from my loved ones. My mission was at once an elating and awful time.

I have similarly felt those contradictions, and I think Carter uses the image painted by his friend in a very apt way. But here’s another interpretation–to supplement, not supplant: what if those two mountains were really one? The imposition of the veil at birth seems to give us double-vision; rather than seeing a single–though multidimensional–reality, we experience two flat, translucent mirages. If we pursue one peak or another, we may find ourselves increasingly disoriented or disconnected. We may loose ourselves in the pursuit of a platonic essence, or we may sacrifice vital ideals to the false-god of skepticism. But it seems that very often, if we faithfully ascend the perceived canyon in an attempt to discover how and where the twain may meet–rubbing our eyes to clear our vision along the way–we’ll find the ground rises to meet us until we reach the summit and the sunlight.