Welcome to the first email in a series looking at Marden J. Clark’s collection Liberating Form: Mormon Essays on Religion and Literature. In this email, we’ll cover the Foreword.
As a reminder, the in-depth treatment of this week’s essay, including discussion questions, is at the end of the email and the discussion post for it can found on AMV, but first:
Snapshot: In the Foreword, Clark discusses how the essays in the collection deal with the tension between his love of the humanities and his love of his Mormon religion; notes that theme of “liberating form” and the “unifying quest for unity” are the main themes of the collection; and asks readers to approach each essay as “a tentative excursion” (xii, xiii).
Best Line: The essays in the collection “have grown out of my struggle to come to terms with the complex, sometimes delicate, sometimes exasperating, and always challenging tensions between my professing of humane letters and my professing of my Mormon religion” (xi)
Why: the collection is very much about those tensions, but also those adjectives–complex, delicate, exasperating, challenging–are evocative and, in my experience, true.
Mormon Lit Recommendation: I don’t plan on making a habit of touting my own work in this section (that’s for the William Update section), but I’m making an exception because one of the most interesting Forewords in Mormon Lit is the one Theric Jepson wrote for States of Deseret, the alternate history mini-anthology I edited for Peculiar Pages. If you own it, I suggest re-reading the Foreword. If you don’t, you can get it in ebook form here for $2.99: Amazon | Kobo | Nook | iBooks
Other Culture Recommendation: Neither of the recommendations will necessarily be related to that week’s Clark essay, but today’s is because when I think about delicate, complex, exasperating, and challenging tensions, The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa comes to mind. Lampedusa, a 20th century Sicilian aristocrat, wrote very little fiction–just one collection of stories and this one posthumously published novel, which is about his great grandfather and his family as the era of the princes of Sicily was fading. The novel was adapted for film by Luchino Visconti. I don’t think it’s streaming for free anywhere (although it comes in and out of the Criterion collection), but it’s available to as a digital rental, and your local library likely has the DVD. There’s a long scene that takes place at a party that is one of the most stunning examples of the power of film as a storytelling medium I’ve ever seen.
William Update: I’m putting the finishing touches on a collection of strange Mormon stories. Fully half of the 18 stories in the collection haven’t been published elsewhere. The ones that haven’t been published play with story form and the Mormon weird even more aggressively than the ones that have. I’m excited to share them with you at some point. I’ll send out publication news to this email list as soon as I am able to. It most likely won’t be available until late 2022/early 2023, though.
I completed the first draft of the final story for the collection back in late November. It’s titled “Emma Goes West” and finds me returning to Mormon alternate history. Here are a few lines (possibly subject to future revision, of course) from early on in the story:
Emma travels west.
Arrives in Salt Lake late at night.
Arrives in Salt Late late at night in a black, doorless carriage with black curtains and long black fringe hanging from the hood and drawn by a pair of large, bay Morgan stallions.
Liberating Form Deep Dive: Foreword
True to the spirit of the collection, the form the deep dive will take is likely to vary in structure, length, theme, and discourse style, but for the Foreword I’m taking a straightforward approach with a series of bullet points:
- Clark opens the Foreword talking about the tensions between his “professing of humane letters” and “of [his] Mormon religion” and that all of the essays represent a “struggle towards unity” on his part (xi). The modern world (or to be more precise but less clear: modernism) has a way of exacerbating such tensions, but also making one feel as such tensions are unhealthy or shouldn’t exist. Mormon intellectuals have a long history of talking about such tensions and paradoxes (Terryl Givens wasn’t the first to use that term, btw). I, myself, have often spoke of productive tension as important to both creativity and discipleship (feel free to interpret both of those in their widest senses), and the entire metaphor for this collection–liberating form–encapsulates that idea. We’ll be exploring if this notion of productive tension is actually true, and for whom and in what ways it might be/can be true, in future essays, but for now, let me say that even if I think the specific tensions of the humanities and Mormonism can be productive, I acknowledge they aren’t so for everyone. At the same time, I think all of us (and by us I don’t just mean Mormon of all stripes–I mean anyone who feels the stresses of modernism) are often too shallow in how we treat these tensions, glossing over how erosive they can be, but also too quick to grasp onto solutions (ideologies) that appear to resolve them (but never do so in as satisfying and lasting ways as they promise). I also have thoughts on the struggle towards unity, but that’s best saved for future essays where we can add more nuance to what Clark means by that.
- I was struck by Clark’s use of the verb “professing.” In one sense, it’s a natural word to use: he was a literary professor, after all. And while it’s not a term much in fashion anymore, it wasn’t unusual back in the day to talk about what faith one professes. It struck me as an old-fashioned word to use. On other hand, there’s a sincerity and life-long striving to the idea of professing certain ideas rather than just having hot takes on every subject social media surfaces that appeals to me. Listen, I clearly love Twitter and am known to periodically fire off a flaming take or have a good long rant, but I hope that more often than not those come out of the things I truly profess. That there’s a practice and productive affirmation (and lack of pretension) behind those opinions.
- Clark notes that “quite a few of the essays are rather divisive” and claims he’s “not happy about this” (xi). That he could describe these essays as divisive says a lot about where Mormon literature was at in the 1980s and continues to be at three decades later. Also: it may seem glib, Clark saying he’s not happy about it. There are 14 essays in the collection, representing three decades of work. Clearly, he wasn’t unhappy enough to stop circling his core themes even if they could be seen as divisive. And yet, I know exactly how he feels. No, I’m not happy that we have to keep having these same discussions about Mormon art and intellectual life. I’d like to move on to some other, more interesting topics. At the same time, I’m not going to shut up about it. Thus this email series (and, perhaps, future ones on other works).
- Clark alludes to the BYU English Department and uses words like “tensions” and “struggles.” This collection was published in 1992. The late 1980s and early 1990s were a particularly tumultuous time for BYU English. For more background on this, see Terryl Givens’s Stretching the Heavens: The Life of Eugene England and the Crisis of Modern Mormonism and Kristine Haglund’s Eugene England: A Mormon Liberal. See also the On Mormon Criticism section of the Mormon Literature Website created by Gideon Burton for key texts related to the Mormon literaturestreit (my term) which took place throughout the 1990s as several BYU professors traded barbs (in the form of reviews and AML presentations/essays) related to their specific visions for Mormon literature (this may be a topic for a future deep dive series).
- Clark mentions that he “can think of no better image of liberating form than those interpenetrating spirals” he mentions in the final essay in the collection (xiii). We won’t get to that specific image until near the end of this email series, but I want you to note how important poetry and specific poetic images are to these essays. If you want a preview of that, turn to the Acknowledgements section and peruse the reprinted with permissions notices. But also I want to acknowledge that I come to Clark with a bias towards fiction and a certain distrust of and love/hate relationship with poetry. Hopefully, this will make for some productive tension itself.
- The essays are published in chronological order except for “Liberating Form,” which comes first because Clark sees that essay as definitional for the collection as a whole. I agree with him. I’m excited to talk about it in the next email.
- Finally, Clark nods to his colleagues and students at BYU as well as his family and friends. A common thing to do in a Foreword. But he specifically thanks them for providing “intellectual and religious stimulation and nourishment” (xiii). Nourishment is a proper Mormon term, but I like that he also mentions stimulation. The great Mormon stimulant is sugar, of course, and the number of times items containing a great deal of it that have been blessed to provide us with strength and nourishment is likely in the tens (if not hundreds) of thousands, which is both ironic and endearing to me. Also: this will come up in later essays, but one of the great tensions in and tragedies of Mormon culture is that we’ve tended to value art only insofar it has easily perceived nourishing properties and ignored or even been hostile to it as a stimulant.
- In what ways are the tensions you experience–whether they come out of your love of humanities or your Mormonism or other vectors of identity, modes of thought and being–delicate, exasperating, complex, and/or challenging? What is the value in acknowledging those specific qualities of the tensions you experience?
- Have you found specific poems and poetic images useful to your thinking on art, religion, society, life? Which ones and in what ways do they help?
- In what ways do you find art and culture nourishing and stimulating? What existing communities provide you with intellectual and/or religious stimulation and nourishment? What communities do you wish existed to provide you with more, different, or better stimulation and nourishment?
Thanks for reading!
If you have questions or observations on my discussion questions, feel free to reply to this email, at me on Twitter, or comment on the companion post on AMV.
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