Welcome to the eleventh 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: “Paradox and Tragedy in Mormonism”
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.
Best Lines: “[T]hough Mormonism is fundamentally a religion of divine comedy, both its theology and its practices are permeated with paradox, the very stuff of tragedy. A corollary to this is that Mormonsm has a high potential for tragedy. A second corollary is that Mormon playwrights, fiction writers and poets have a full and flowing vein of tragic materials to tap” (131).
Why: Because it sums everything up and repudiates that old canard about Mormons not being capable of writing tragedy (more on that in the full discussion).
Mormon Lit Recommendation: Have I already recommended Heike’s Void by Steven L. Peck? If I did, consider this a second recommendation. But also, if you’ve already read it, then go read his novel The Tragedy of King Leere, Goatherd of the la Sals. Oh, you’ve read that as well? Then read the play Huebener by Thomas Rogers or the drama duology Little Happy Secrets by Melissa Leilani Larsen. You’ve read all of those? Then please tell me which works of Mormon literature you consider excellent examples of tragedy.
Other Recommendation: Ted Gioia mostly writes about music, including music history, technology, business, and culture. But he also has interesting things to say about culture more generally, including narrative. Most of his writing appears on his substack The Honest Broker and last week he posted a fascinating essay about tragedy that you should read: 10 Observations on Tragedy in a Digital Age .
William Update: I’m delighted to announce that my story collection The Darkest Abyss: Strange Mormon Stories* will be released on Oct. 4 by BCC Press.
This collection features 18 stories, half of which were published previously and half of which are unique to the collection. Of the 9 previously published stories, four of them were expanded for the collection. These were all Mormon Lit Blitz finalists I felt could use a higher word count than the contest’s 1,000 word limit, although none of them go longer 2,000 words.
I will talk more about the new stories as we get closer the publication date, but if you’ve been following my fiction the past five to eight years and like the direction I’ve been going, I think you’ll be pleased. These new stories are more experimental, more strange, and possibly even more Mormon.
I’m going to dispense with the personal anecdotes Clark opens the essay with (they’re both too personal to be easily summarized and open a separate can of worms that may be interesting to explore but would require a separate email), and instead open with an anecdote of my own.
I can’t remember if this conversation happened when I was a teenager or in my early twenties, but at some point my dad mentioned to me that he had a professor at BYU who had claimed that Mormons can’t write tragedy. I don’t recall us examining the claim in much detail, only that my we both shrugged at it and thought that it was a ridiculous overstatement.
I also don’t remember if the name of said BYU professor came up or if my dad even remembered his name. But it very well could have been Marden J. Clark because near the beginning of this essay, he writes:
“For years I have heard it argued and have even argued myself that Mormons have little sense of tragedy and that Mormonism has little potential for tragedy, simply because we have the answers to nearly all the great imponderable questions that tragedy has nearly always gotten itself involved with” (132).
He then goes on to list these question (What is God? Why does evil exist? etc.) and the standard Mormon answers, nods to his belief that Mormonism does have “deeply satisfying answers” to the questions, but then claims that “many of the answers are themselves deeply paradoxical and that when alongside other answers and practices in the Church, we find both theology and practice permeated with paradox” (133).
Clark also expresses some reluctance to use the word paradox but also “take[s] comfort” in something he heard about how Mormons “will have arrived at spiritual maturity only when we learn to recognize and live comfortably with paradox” (133), which is another truism I’ve heard over the years and don’t quite buy either in that if something is truly a paradox, I don’t think it’s possible to live comfortably with it. People can get better at recognizing paradox, and they can become better at not being threatened by ambiguity, but if something is an actual philosophical and/or theological paradox, then it must remain a perplexity. I’m not a philosopher, but I’ve read some philosophy and as best I can tell none of the big questions actually get solved–they only get restated in interesting ways. Which is great! Literature and art often do the same thing, which is part of why they’re also valuable.
Anyway, Clark tries to convince us that paradox is “the very stuff of tragedy” (133), and I probably lack some academic context for this, but does this really require convincing? How else do you get tension into a narrative?
Let’s move on to the paradoxes specific to Mormon thought that Clark identifies (note that this essay was first published in the Association for Mormon Letters annual for 1979-1982—twenty five years before Terryl Givens’s People of Paradox):
Much of Mormon literature deals with the last one on the list.
As Clark writes: “‘Where much is given much is expected.’ This succinctly catches the dilemma, but it hardly catches the paradoxes inherent in those expectations. Any Mormon with a testimony know something of what he or she had been given. They can hardly help expecting high things of themselves. Or help feeling deeply the day-to-day failures to live up to those expectations” (139).
Indeed, much of the internet discourse about Mormonism from those who were raised in an LDS home (whatever their current status in relation to the LDS Church) has revolved around these expectations, often refracted (sometimes fruitfully, sometimes not) through all manner of political, therapeutic, and other discourses—fall out from or an inevitable byproduct of Clark’s observation as he continues the paragraph:
“And yet I sense that as a people we have implicitly denied the tragic implications of what I have been outlining, largely because we have kept our eyes so firmly fixed on the ultimate resolution in Heaven that we have denied the earthly paradox. That heavenly resolution makes of our earthly suffering and tragedy divine comedy, to be sure. But much of it cannot be easy comedy” (139).
I think that’s right.
I also think that every belief system and worldview, including atheism, existentialism, nihilism, and secular humanism, have the same issue of an ultimate resolution that if firmly focused on at the expense of the here and now elides the ongoing tragedy of mortal existence.
We live life sequentially not all at once, which means every moment has the chance to be something other than what it was and that every moment and every choice can have a ripple effect on ourselves, on those around us, on people far away, on animals, on ecosystems, in short on the personal, social, cultural, economic, political, and natural environments in which we exist.
Tragedy is all around us. Which is part of why it’s so amusing, so absurd, such a comedy (in both the comedic and classical senses of that word) to be human. We have no idea what we’re doing and yet we’re all going around saying and doing things. It’s hilarious. Just ask (read) Kafka.
Clark goes on to discuss these paradoxes in more detail and references some examples of Mormon tragedies, including Clinton F. Larson’s plays Coriantumr and Moroni, Robert Elliot’s Fires of the Mind, andTom Rogers’s Huebner. He also shares an incredibly sad personal anecdote about him father telling him “Son, no Mormon has a right to feel depressed” (139).
I can’t do to justice to all of this in summary form. I think this is one of the essays in the collection most worth reading for yourself even though I think some of it is not quite as approachable now simply because so much of the late 21st century approach to ideas of happiness, agency, the problem of good and evil, etc. has been deconstructed and complicated by official and folk LDS discourse, Mormon theologians and culture critics, Mormon artists, etc. in the past three decades.
And I think there’s a lot more work to be done on the specifics of the Mormon worldview in relation to tragedy. And on his observations on Mormon responses to depression.
But I do want to share this final passage from Clark’s essay because it’s one of those moments where I find myself in most agreement with him:
“It makes a big difference whether we see our human life and human death as important only because they make possible that eternal bliss in afterlife or whether we see them as cosmically important in their own right, as this paradoxically crucial time sandwiched between two eternities wherein what we are able to experience and how we are able to respond to those experience have eternal consequences [and I would add: earth and time bound consequences]” (144).
Mormon funerals are sad because even if we hold the hope we will see the deceased again, we still miss them in the here and now and mourn that they can on longer cause ripples in this life.
Every word and action by each of us contains within it the possibility for tragic and/or the comic (usually both) and doesn’t matter as much as we think it does, but also really matters.
Every word and action we receive and send is inevitably misinterpreted or at least can’t be received or sent perfectly.
This world is a mess. We should we do all that we can to make it better for ourselves and others. But we should also revel that because of this mess we are able to experience all these tragic and comic moments.
And art is one of the best ways I know of doing that.
If all goes to plan, quite a bit of my fiction will be published over the next year.
Authors should never tell their readers how to read their work. But I will say that as a general rule with all of my fiction published or yet to be published: if you think it’s supposed to read as tragic or comedic, if you think it’s referencing something or several somethings, if you think I’m satirizing or paying tribute to, if you think I’m both taking the piss or lovingly depicting, the answer is always yes and always both/and.
I offer that not as authorial arrogance or really even intention, rather it’s what I observer with the critic part of me that while not objective can step back and look at my work and realize it’s an inevitable byproduct of who I am as an artist and a Mormon.
For whatever reason, and I suppose this is both obvious and inevitable even though I mostly resisted expressing it in fiction for the first 35 years of my life, I’ve always been highly attuned to the strange, terrifying, comic, tragic beauty of this existence.
Can Mormons write tragedy?
Hell, yeah, we can. We can, do, and will.
Thanks for reading!
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