SUBJECT: AMV Deep Dive–Graduation! To What?
Welcome to the sixteenth 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 final essay in the collection: “Graduation! To What?”
As always, 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.
Snapshot: This essay is a slightly revised version of a speech to BYU graduates Clark gave at some sort of dinner (the collection doesn’t specify the exact occasion). He encourages the graduates to reflect on what they learned, acknowledges that there are problems and horrors ahead for them, and encourages them to keep learning. He notes that such learning “must be significant, purposeful and responsible” rather than “trivial” like the news is (224). He describes this image of a cone-shaped spiral that spirals upwards from the base of our egocentric self concerned with the trivial and narrows into what we can become. Except that the point at the top isn’t this small confined thing. It’s expansive because another cone is interlocked with this one where God is the circle at the top and it spirals and narrows down until it reached the bottom of the original spiral creating the point of contact we have with deity. Clark suggests that if we are to travel up that spiral and become our true, more godly self we have to leave our ego behind and keep learning.
Best Lines: “And you are free to move on to—or move back to—more important things, the things that your own initiative will keep you consciously, vigorously, and continuingly learning” (224).
Why: This is a typical speech to graduates, all about going out and solving the problems of the world and remembering to never stop learning. What I like about these lines is that Clark attaches three evocative, useful adjectives to suggest what the process of life-long learning should be like.
Mormon Lit Recommendation: October just ended, which means it’s a good time catch up with any contributions to the ARCH-HIVE’s weird Mormon art/writing prompts Archtober. Easiest way to do that is scroll the timeline of the ARCH-HIVE’s Twitter and Instagram accounts or the #archtober2022 hashtag on Twitter and Instagram. Enjoy! I haven’t seen every single item, but I’ve found a lot to like in what I have come across.
Other Recommendation: Clark quotes from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, and I do like that volume of poetry. But if we’re talking heady poetry about life and death and creativity, my absolute favorite is Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. I recommend the Willis Barnstone translation. Not only is it my favorite translation, it also has excellent supplementary material on Rilke and the sonnets.
William Update: In case you missed it, I wrote about the process of putting together my short collection for the AML blog.
I also dipped a toe into the world of music with my own ARCHtober contribution: The Prophetic Ox Enters A Cosmic Temple. I hope to add more releases in 2023 to that Bandcamp profile. Esplin is a name that I’ve used in a couple of my short stories. It’s my great grandmother Morris’s family name. The Esplins were part of the United Order in Orderville. I’ve always liked the name and decided to adopt it for my music releases.
Last week, I revised the weird West slot canyon story I mentioned in an earlier newsletter. One more polish, and it should be ready to go out on submission. I really like where it ended up, although its setting and ~8,000 word length limits the SF&F mags I can submit it to.
I need to start the next novel, and it’s always tempting to start something new. But for the rest of 2022, I really should focus on finishing existing projects so I can keep up a stream of steady releases in 2023 and 2024. I have this bad habit of taking things I work on 95% of the way, and then not actually getting them out to the world, whether that’s playing the submissions game or self-publishing. I’m hoping to change that.
Clark’s speech to BYU graduates doesn’t break the form at all. The advice really boils down to: the world you’re inheriting from us has some pretty great things but also there are a lot of problems that your generation is going to need to solve (like the threat of nuclear weapons) and so you should keep learning throughout your life.
Since it very much fits into it the commencement speech drama, rather than go through the whole thing step by step, I’m going to cherry pick a few tidbits I find to be unique and interesting.
“But you also graduate to the horrors. They may represent the profoundest challenges that you face—if you don’t solve at least some of them you may find yourselves with no problems at all to solve, no human race to solve problems. You will find, too that the solution to one problem tends to create problems of its own” (222).
This is a good reminder that previous eras also had not only concerns for the future, but fears about the actual extinction of humanity. Nuclear catastrophe was much on Clark’s mind due to recent (at the time of his speech) Chernobyl disaster. I especially like that he recognizes how solutions to current problems can lead to their own problems, although I’d say the story of the past three decades is that quarter and half measures in many areas and inactions in others have combined to create a
At the same time, it’s unclear to me how the lifetime learning Clark proposes is supposed to change anything. Will it change how people vote? Where they choose to work? What they do with any wealth or power they accrue? How they spend their time?
He doesn’t say.
Clark staying at the level of abstraction has been a theme throughout this series. And maybe that’s fine. He is a literature professor. But some sort of nod to political, economic, and cultural institutions, realities, and specifics would be nice. I suppose he might argue that the application he thinks we should focus on is the Gospel (and by extension the LDS Church).
Which leads me to the metaphor I attempted to describe in the summary. I’m going to quote at length here—I don’t think any summary I can do can do it justice. Clark notes that this is image is what “Mormons might call a Celestial Spiral.” He calls it it a “liberating form” (225):
“Start by imagining—not that the root of imagination is image—a cone-shaped spiral, its base on the table in front of you and its point in the air as high as you want it to be. Now imagine the self that is you now as the base: you with all the clutter and confusion and trivia with which we ordinarily surround ourselves and to which we give our attention and energies. Now imagine the point up there as God (It might help to remember the traditional idea of God as small enough to dwell in our hearts). Label that spiral A. Now imagine another spiral, B, upside down, its point on the table and its base up there where you imagine the point of the other. (Don’t worry about its balancing: we’ll solve that in a moment.) This time imagine the point as yourself—all of that ego-centered you—and imagine the expanded top as the potential you. Now very slowly and carefully slide B over and into A until the point of B is resting at the center of the base of A and the point of A is the center up there of the base of B, that is, until the two cones are superimposed or interpenetrating” (225).
Clark wants the students to keep that image in their minds while he reads these lines from Eliot’s Four Quartets:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
Clark knows we might object to his image of the two spirals. He notes that we are both the base and the point, that growing towards the eternal and infinite doesn’t leave where we started out behind. It’s still the base.
He admits that by using cone-shaped spirals, he’s suggestion that our learning and growth is symmetrical and steady but “our experiences with exploration and growth—our confused, erratic, stumbling steps upward—tell us otherwise” (227).
But he likes what the image suggests. Like that it’s a form, but one that liberates us. That teaches us how to leave our ego beyond and increase our capacity to love others—even our enemies.
Heady stuff for students about to graduate. For anyone.
I admire the attempt, though. Asking the audience—and readers—to create this visual model in their head and then absorb four lines of poetry from Eliot and view and interpret both through a Mormon worldview.
And I suppose that’s the main lesson I take away from both this essay and the collection as a whole: here is someone not afraid to mesh the literary with the personal with the religious and do so in an attempt to persuade others to engage more fervently and attentively with all three.
Even if you don’t agree with the exact forms Clark does or how he defines liberation, even if you have doubts about the final utility and success of his project, it’s a project worth taking on and still has resonance for today. Yes, there are gaps and misses. I’ve pointed quite a few of them out.
But it’s a coherent, sustained argument that should matter to those interested in Mormonism, and especially Mormon literature.
We’ll have a final word from both Clark and me on that topic in the next (and final) email this series, which will cover the Postword. See you in two weeks!
Thanks for reading!
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