Welcome to the thirteenth 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 Virtue of ‘Virtue’: A Sermon”
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: Clark quotes and analyzes three poems—“Virtue” by George Herbert; “The Burning Babe” by Robert Southwell, and “I Knew A Woman” by Theodore Roethke—and relates varying students reactions to them. He argues for an expansive Mormon definition of virtue, as positive energy and a creative force—as power. He calls for a “vision of wholeness” (179) that involves losing ourselves in order to find our whole, virtue-full selves.
Best Lines: “We do not want, I have to argue, to scare ourselves into goodness or even virtue. What I would want for us is so deep an awareness of the virtue of virtue, so full a sense of the positive energy, so strong a drive both external and especially internal from that positive energy, that the negative forces would carry no enticement…” (174).
Why: Even with his call for a more expansive definition of virtue, Clark hews to traditional LDS notions of sexual morality and the purpose of sexual feelings and drives. Whatever your feelings are about those traditional notions, I’d hope we could all agree that scaring ourselves and others into goodness/virtue is ineffective and, for some, even damaging.
Mormon Lit Recommendation: It may be difficult to find, and I’m not sure it would hold up if I were to re-read it, but Gary Huntsman’s 2005 Cedar Fort novel Leaving Moscow is an interesting attempt to bring some nuance and light within the darkness to the LDS experience. It does fall into the long line of young person with a troubled life joins the Church novels. Here’s part of what I wrote about it on AMV back in the day:
“Eddie drinks, has premarital sex and smokes a lot of dope. Both the pleasures and the dangers and waste of drug use are vividly present throughout the novel. But Eddies is no burned out loser. He is given to fits of introspection and musings about the meaning of life-—and especially death, something that his life has been filled with (moments that he recalls in the form of [literary] flashbacks).
So, yeah, it’s all set up to be your typical conversion story. Except—it’s not facile, and one of the main virtues is that the whole thing is rather understated.”
Other Recommendation: I mean, it’s Middlemarch, right? It’s always Middlemarch, but considering the topic, it’s especially the Dorothea and Casaubon story line.
But also: watch Reservation Dogs on Hulu.
William Update: It’s been awhile since I’ve written fiction that had no Mormonism in it, but I recently began writing a short story that’s sort of a weird west kind of thing that takes place in a landscape similar to the American Southwest. And it’s about magic, grief, death, and the desert. So I guess it’s still kind of Mormon-ish literature, especially since one of the characters ask the other to sing a hymn at some point. Of course, it being me, the hymn is from the faith tradition of a people who call themselves the placid, and it’s sung by an individual who grew up among the placid, but in a family who were on the edges of the faith community. This is subject to revision or being cut entirely, of course, but the hymn is, quite coincidentally, on topic for this newsletter so here it is:
There’s a meadow in the forest
There’s a still pool in the meadow
The water refreshing and pure
There’s silence in the foul tempest
There’s light in the darkest shadow
God gives the placid faithful more
The still pool refreshing and pure
The still pool refreshing and pure
The still pool refreshing and pure
Virtue is a loaded term these days among several different discourse communities. Although, I suppose it’s always been a bit of a loaded term.
Clark attempts to reclaim it and wrap an expansive yet specific Mormon context around it.
He does so first by citing and reporting on student responses to and his own analysis of three poems:
The first is, obviously, about virtue and, Clark claims, comes across as a bit simplistic and sentimental, but had deeper meaning. The second provides some startling imagery about the Christ child but also has deeper meaning once you unpack the symbolism. The third is filled with double entendre and outrageous, even “gross” imagery, but is also a deep, real expression of enduring love.
But what is that Clark really wants here? Why spend all these words on all this set up with the poems? Well, partly it’s because, as we’ve seen, it’s one of the primary ways he understands culture and society and his Mormonism.
Partly it’s that he is preaching a sermon here. Partly it’s that this marks another attempt to elucidate the theme of his collection. I’m going to try to lay out his argument here in brief because, as always, while Clark isn’t shy about stating things plainly at times, he often connects everything with literature, personal anecdote, and either repetition of or complication of the conventional LDS worldview of his time and place.
Here’s what he’s up to:
I may be mischaracterizing this. If you’ve read the essay, feel free to let me know what I got wrong. But that’s the argument as I see it.
It is, to a certain extent, the same truism used in countless talks and discussions in LDS Church venues from Sunday School classes to General Conference: that the commandments or the rules or the tenets of the Gospel don’t exist just so we don’t do stuff that seems fun, but rather to help us become our best, most powerful selves.
I don’t know how many of those make the argument by reciting a sexually explicit (but mainly implicit) Theodore Roethke poem, though.
But even thought the material is different, even heretical to some, Clark is engaging a similar liberal call to those that Eugene England made, although Clark is even more restrained. He wants the Church but more intensely more rather than the Church but altered and more expansive. He’s looking to take the same rhetorical tactics and general mores, doctrines, and practices and elevate them through a more literary rhetoric. It has worked for him and so he believes it will work for others.
That’s pretty much what we all do.
I still would like him to do more work on interrogating the nature of the form and of the liberation. Not because I want him to betray his loyalty to the LDS Church or his understanding of the Gospel or his desire to be an active member of the Church. And not because I’m so post-modernist whose only move is to deconstruct language.
But because I’m genuinely curious about what nuance and detail he’d add. I started this series because I find aspects of Clark’s vision for Mormon literature and culture interesting and inspiring. That remains true and has also become a lot more complicated. Take, for example, this long passage:
“We’re never quite the same after really experiencing any poem, or any other work of literature or art. It has moved us from one condition to another, presumably higher.
“The idea of the work of art as a liberating form doesn’t stop here, of course. The virtue of the poem as form relates to the virtue of any other form. The family is or can be a liberating form; the gospel, the Church itself, the Relief Society and Sunday School and Primary; forms within forms—all can liberate. Can, I’ve had to say. If felt and responded to as confining forms, they can do little liberating. I know of no sermon that needs repeating more often or more insistently, especially to students of literature and the arts, than this paradoxical one that form, which seems to be a source of limitation and constriction, is actually or potentially the source of liberation. The power of the Priesthood should be perhaps our best example. And should need no further comment” (176).
Well, Brother Clark, I’m in need of further comment. I need some further assertions and examples of the how and what and to what end. I suppose his numerous readings of various works of literature give some glimpses. And so do some of the personal anecdotes.
And I suppose I’m being churlish in wanting more. But I do.
And, perhaps, this is what Clark was able to give. He writes later in the essay about how he wants all that he does “to somehow come together in unity and wholeness” (179).
He doesn’t want to feel that gardening, writing, church work, family, or teaching are stealing from each other. He used to feel guilty when writing poetry, and now he feels guilty when reading or gardening when he should be reading.
And it’s like: okay, but isn’t that the whole point of the being bound to time and a physical world?
Time and energy are finite. Unity and wholeness are elusive. Probably even impossible. Certainly made much more difficult by the distractions and addictions of the modern world compounded by the demands of attention and self required to participate in a society formed by the hungry maw of modern capitalism.
All that can be done is rotate among your activities as best you can, stave off the distractions and attempted encroachments on self, and devote as much to the present task you are in as you can in that time and place.
Or to put it another way: form is liberating. But there are many forms and many modes of liberation and the wholeness, and perhaps even the virtue, is to be found not in some ever-present state, some bubble where everything is suited to you and you suited to it, some honed down state of harmonization, but rather in a multitudinous engagement, a variegated experience, a procession of selves, that, if possible, positions you at any given time to find meaning in activity and conversation and relationships, and if with luck and a bit of work, you can stay in some of those selves for awhile in ways that, at times, do feel free, then that’s no small thing.
Thanks for reading!
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