Welcome to the sixth 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 “Science, Religion, and the Humanities: The Profounder Challenge.”
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 mis-titled. It’s not really about science and religion or science and the humanities—or about all three. Instead, it’s mostly a defense of the representation of darkness in art because it leads us to experience truths about life and the world around us and, ultimately, takes us on a journey that brings us closer to God. Thus, darkness in art is not to be feared or spurned, but rather approached with a certain cautious openness that increases our understanding and love.
Best Line(s): “Perhaps we have lingered too long in these chambers of the sea. Perhaps I feel the pull (of the infernal) too strongly” (76).
Why: Because I haven’t recognized as much as I should so far in these emails that Clark is often self-deprecating and self-confessional in ways that can be humorous or touching or both. Because of the recognition that he might feel something differently than others. This is something we don’t do often enough (in Mormon discourse—and just generally): recognize that we experience things differently from each other and what may be fine or even good for some, may not be that way for others.
Mormon Lit Recommendation: I wrote about darkness and art on Twitter, and Andrew Hall was so kind as to compile it into a post on the AML blog. I didn’t have this Clark essay in my mind when I wrote it (although, we, of course, both deployed the same Joseph Smith quote). But I think it makes an interesting companion piece to Clark’s essay.
Other Recommendations: Clark mentions several works of narrative art that have a certain darkness to them (here’s a link to the complete list). When it comes to dark art, we often think of horror films and novels and heavy metal music (or at least I do). I’m not really into any of those. Instead, I’m going to recommend some works that are are horror adjacent. As with any of my recommendations, but especially with these ones, your mileage may vary.
William Update: I presented last weekend at the Mormon History Association conference. The audio of that should be up for those who paid for the conference. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with the full paper just yet, but here is a paragraph from it where I’m kind of harsh about the state of Mormon literature: “As much as I love the works of Mormon literature that have been written so far. And I love them—most of them—a lot. When I think about Mormon literature as a whole in relation to the depiction of the Grand Canyon in Love and the Light, I’m left with this feeling that our body of literature is characterized most strongly by a certain careful restraint. So much of it, and this applies to a lot my own writing as well, seems to be following behind the plow of larger literatures, especially American and Canadian traditions. We’re very good at belatedly planting our seeds in existing furrows.”
As I mention in the snapshot, this essay is more about darkness in art than about the tension between science, religion, and the humanities. Indeed, the genesis of the essay seems to be Clark’s (holy?) envy over the fact there’s quite a bit of work that seeks to reconcile science and religion and sees that as a worthwhile endeavor. There’s also a hint, of course, of the long-running complaint of folks in the humanities that science is privileged over the humanities in regard to its use for uncovering truth, being of use to society, etc.
But what Clark really wants to do is take us “through a special kind of journey through literature” (72). To do that he ends up referencing just over 30 different literary works, all of which (except for the lesser works) would be considered part of the western literary canon—everything from Kafka and Dostoevsky to Dante and Milton.
If you’re curious to see the full list, I’ve documented the works he mentions here: Every Literary Work Marden J. Clark mentions in “Science, Religion, and the Humanities”
Because this journey is what the essay really is about, any attempt on my part to summarize the essay falls apart because it really is mostly an expression of Clark’s experiences in relation to his religious belief and personal experience, and taking the journey Clark wants us to take not only relies on trusting the lessons he draws from that journey, but also requires familiarity with all of the works he cites.
So instead I’m going to take a cue from him and respond in a personal way to a few lines from the essay.
Page 70: “Yes, art can bring us pain as well as comfort. If we really give ourselves to a great novel or play or poem or painting or musical composition we may well find ourselves profoundly shaken rather than just deeply move.”
I think audiences are right to be wary of art even as I wish they’d be less so (especially Mormons about Mormon art). I suppose Clark would say that the qualifier “great” is what matters there. But even if we could agree what those great works are (something less certain these days now that we understand the limitations of all types of literary canon), I would argue that how much pain or comfort or insight or value a given work can provide varies widely depending on the individual experiencing it.
Nor is this simply a milk before meat or we experience works differently in different seasons of our lives argument. It’s more diverse and complex than that. At any given time where we are at with our health, spirituality, mental state, emotional state, intellectual state, the personal, familial, community, and world context is slightly or vastly different mixture than at some other given time.
I started reading Emily Saint John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven in late February 2020. I read only the first chapter, went on vacation to San Diego (we were aware enough that we work surgical masks on the place and in the airport), returned, and read the rest of it just as everything in the United States was beginning to lock down. I knew that it was a post-apocalyptic novel. I’d had no idea what the cause of that apocalypse was.
It was an intense experience. And a rewarding one. Rewarding for me. Even at that particular time.
I don’t think I could’ve done it further into the pandemic. I also think the genre part of me would have been more critical of it as science fiction prior to the period in which I read it.
So yes, art can bring us both pain and comfort. Although: do I agree with Clark? Do I want to call it pain?
I’m okay with it. But I might like a different word.
Page 75: “I can let Kafka stand for all of the absurd worlds of the modern existential artists that may tease or compel us into facing the void, the nothingness they feel at the center of existence. But we may face an even more distressing challenge from contemporary writers of what one critic calls Surfiction, a fiction that in both form and rhetoric forces us to question all the assumptions about form that have given us comfort even in the profoundest depths, the assumptions that art much have form and that the form itself is a saving grace not matter what the embodied challenge”
As I’ve hinted before, where Clark and I would disagree most strenuously is likely on the merits of postmodernist (and even some modernist) art. Which is what he seems to mean by the term Surfiction, which according to Oxford Reference is: “A term coined in 1973 by the American experimental writer Raymond Federman to designate a new kind of fiction which is now more often referred to as postmodernist. Rather than attempt to mirror some pre‐existing reality, surfiction abandons realism in favour of metafiction, self‐consciously advertising its own fictional status.”
Certainly given the title of the collection, we shouldn’t be surprised to find Clark placing so much value on literary form.
And I agree there is a lot of art that draws on postmodernism, and especially on meta-fiction/meta-narrative, that is just plain bad.
But form is not quite so fragile as Clark makes it out to be. And when works break form in interesting ways, they provide us with reading experiences and insights about the human condition and narrative ways of exploring that condition in ways they couldn’t if they hadn’t used modernist/post-modern techniques.
Off the top of my head, I’d say I’ve found works by Thomas Pynchon, Phillip K. Dick, Gene Wolfe, Kate Zambreno, Grabriel Josipovici (his are more high modernist), and Volodine (recommended above) valuable.
Page 83: “We may accept the danger [of challenging arts], too, for another of the magical rewards from the literary journeys I have been talking about: that they give us a kind of sensitivity to scriptural experiences, an enrichment of them, that we can get in no other way that I know of.”
I’m skeptical of the idea that literature makes us better, more empathetic individuals. I think it can operate that way for some people. But let me point back to my comments above that the reader and the contexts in which they experience a work of art matter a lot.
However, I do believe that applying literary reading protocols to scripture—alongside other mental tools—can be immensely helpful, especially in a religious community that is prone to prooftexting. In my (sadly all too short) stints teaching Gospel Doctrine class, I have attempted to help class members focus on the historical, narrative, rhetorical contexts of whatever we’re studying. What are the political, social, and geographical, and material contexts for this chapter/story/verse? Whose point of view is it from? Who is their audience? What literary tools (symbolism, parable, narrative, anecdote, etc.) are they using?
Those are all mostly intellectual engagements with scripture. But hopefully they lead to an attunement that may make us a bit more sensitive to what is going on in the scriptures we’re reading.
Page 84: “But He [God] undoubtedly embodies truth beyond the ranges of the humanities, too.”
Here towards the end of the essay, Clark returns to the ostensible theme of the essay, and gets at (although not quite as forcefully as I expected from him) “the profounder challenge” the title alludes to.
What I believe he’s saying is in this section is that scientists who are also religious, especially Mormon ones, will argue that scientific advancement can only deepen our understanding of and appreciation for both the works of God and God himself. That God isn’t in the gaps, but rather encompasses both all that humanity has discovered about the universe, and everything that we have yet to discover, and everything we have no capacity to discover (because we are beings stuck in mortality in the flow of historical time).
In an LDS context, this is the idea that things like miracles are higher order physics. That the priesthood is the ability to manipulate what engineering and science can’t, but that in the end it’s all actually one thing, one unified physics.
Clark’s implication, then, is that just as higher order science exists, so exists higher order humanities. And we should be as serious about their place in the knowledge base of what we know about God and his works as we are science.
There are truths to seek through “the creative process that produces art” (84).
Clark then ends the essay by framing these in relation to the journey, the quest. He even invokes Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Now, I think we should be a bit more expansive in our narrative forms than sticking to the hero’s journey, especially that journey told (and re-told) in the three-act structure Hollywood films and commercial novels love to deploy.
But for all that I prod some of Clark’s biases in art, his dedication to processing it deeply, thoroughly in relation to his personal and religious experience is something I admire deeply.
Thanks for reading!