Hello! This is the last email of AMV Deep Dive Season 1. Thanks for sticking with me!
Before I get into Liberating Form, some links related to my story collection The Darkest Abyss: Strange Mormon Stories:
This is the end of Season 1. Season 2 won’t launch for several months; probably not until next summer. I’ll send out a couple of missives in between with updates and an announcement of S2 when we get closer to.
But I’ll need some time to plan S2. Help me do that by taking this very quick survey. I’m particularly interested in knowing what you thing of the topics I’m considering.
And so now with the business out of the way, here is the seventeenth and final 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 his “Postword”
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 reflects on the essays in the collection, focusing in on the metaphors, images, and literary works that thread throughout them. He affirms the importance of religion and literature and his Mormon worldview. He admits that he has mostly dealt in abstractions and that his references are focused on the Western canon of literature and wonders if maybe he should have brought in some folk art.
Best Lines: “Many of the essays develop around such concepts as virtue, love, joy, peace, life of the spirit, even enrichment. But while these are abstractions as we talk about them in the abstract, they seldom are when we see them guiding actions, our or anyone’s” (233-234).
Why: One of my critiques of Clark throughout this series has been that he tends to always sit at the abstract level even when he’s invoking specific moments, images from specific works of literature. So it’s good to see he has some awareness about that. But also, that’s a pretty a good list of concepts, and while I think it can (and often does) go wrong, I do think literature and religion can inform and enrich those concepts in a fruitful way.
Mormon Lit Recommendation: Mimi Parker of the band Low died last week of cancer. Mimi and her husband Alan Sparhawk grew up Mormon in rural Minnesota then married and raised a family and grew a music career in Duluth (and on the road touring). Their work is suffused, often elliptically, often strangely, with Mormonism.
If you aren’t familiar with their music, it’s worth exploring. It’s hard to say where to begin—every album is excellent and is different, although never in the cringey way when bands lose their inspiration. They never made a bad, or even lesser album. Only ones that some folks will like more than others. So all I say is that if you try them out and don’t like what you hear, try a different album. I’m quite partial to Drums And Guns, which is their most New Wave offering (for lack of a better term).
But also: their Christmas album is a must for the holidays.
Other Recommendation: Somehow we made it all through this series without me recommending one of my favorite novels: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, which starts with a beheading and ends in cozy domestic bliss and is both horrifying and hilarious, but really neither that nor any other description does it justice. And it’s fitting that I’ve waited until now to recommend it because in addition to the many remarkable things about it, the novel is known for its’ ending—and ending that is both simple and complex and a bit of a litmus test, all without being some unsatisfying slice of ambiguity because the author refused to commit to an actual ending.
William Update: I recently approved the page proofs for my short story “The Ward Organist.” It’ll appear in the Winter issue of Dialogue so keep an eye out for it. If we set up a scale that runs from the Mormon weird of The Darkest Abyss to the faithful realism of the non-SF stories in Dark Watch and other Mormon-American stories, it sits firmly in the middle but with a toe towards the weird side.
And it’s a good appetizer, even a bridge, to what comes next for me and Mormon fiction, which is a pair of longer works have some experimental elements to them, but mainly fall into the faithful realism mode, and specifically address aspects of 21st century Mormonism.
The first of those is The Courtship of Elder Cannon, the short novel I wrote that’s part of the Mormon Lit Lab book mentorship program. I recently revised it and sent it off to a friend for feedback. And then I’m currently in the middle of revising the novella I wrote earlier this year: The Unseating of Dr. Smoot (that title might change, though).
I’m hoping to publish one—or perhaps even both—of them next year.
Clark begins his Postword expressing his excitement over the image of “the interpenetrating and infinite spirals” (231) he developed in the last essay in the collection (see email #16).
And notes: “I can still generate no better image of liberating form. The containing structure of the spiral, always defining what one now is, also always defines what one may become, but always within and therefore controlled by the infinitely containing form that is God” (231).
He also notes that, upon review, the literary works (and types of literary works) he knows and values best are apparent across the essays.
He also mentions his suprise at finding how often he used the “Dantesque pattern of descent through Hell then ascent toward paradise” (232), which is somewhat amusing to me considering that his liberating form image uses cones and movement upwards.
He talks about the standard plan of Salvation (coming to earth as a journey) in literary archetype terms, and then again states that what he has been describing “may suggest the most important boon that literature and religion have to offer each other: Each can give the other images metaphors, large patterns by which we can express, explore, and deepen our human experiences, religious and literary. Such a boon strikes me as almost an ultimate one, worthy of whatever literary and religious energy it takes” (233).
I’ve criticized Clark for a number of things during this series of deep dives on his essays. Even if he and I share a faith and a love of literature, we come at both of those in rather different ways.
But whatever my discomfort with some of his approaches, I do believe in the importance of both literature and religion as ways “by which we can express, explore, and depend our human experiences.”
Efforts have been made in the past few years to stake a claim for the importances of the Humanities, especially literature, in helping individuals and communities develop more humane, attributes (especially empathy) and more intelligent and complex worldviews. Those efforts have also been pushed back against by those who say that there is no proof that, say, reading fiction increase the moral valence and strength of readers. Plenty of terrible people have read, even loved, the great moral novels. Plenty of terrible have written fiction and poetry.
And so while the defenders and the detractors debate utility, and while Clark may want to put it all into his abstract, formal concepts, for me it comes down to this: being someone who loves (and creates and is critic) of narrative art and being someone who believes in something (a religion, a faith, a deity, a cause) and who plays both against each other and joins and builds communities in both areas (and where they meet) is a pleasurable, interesting way to live in the world, a world in which our time is limited.
I’m here to learn. I’m here to create.
Now as it turns out, I’m not the first to complaint that Clark deals mainly in abstractions and the Western literary canon. He notes that a roundtable on one of his essays complained that he focused on abstractions. His defense is to mention the Sermon on the Mount and that “what we think of abstractions, like good and evil” aren’t “abstractions to Deity” (234). This is a very Mormon approach, indeed, it’s one often found in general conference talks—some personal anecdotes, some citations (of scripture, of literature).
I continue to be frustrated by it. Because I think both the history of Mormonism and the world and the place of art in the world since this collection was published shows that the abstract, the general principles aren’t enough, especially when we limit our set of abstractions or when we err on the side of the concrete but in doing so ignore what history, art, and the wisdom of various communities have to teach us.
Indeed, what I’m looking for, what many of you may be looking for, is specificity and diversity of narrative. I don’t want to focus solely on the material conditions of production. But I don’t want to ignore them either. I don’t want to break everything down into identity, but I also want to feel free to speak from my identities and have the patience and charity to pay attention to others when they speak from who they are. I don’t want to throw out canonical works of literature, but I also know the joys and importances of paying attention to the popular and generic.
Which leads me to another thing Clark mentions: he notes that his friend, the folklorist Bert Wilson has criticized him for his elitism. He writes “Bert insists that folk art and folk literature can also be great, sometimes even as great as most of my examples, and much more immediately accessible to readers and listeners” (234). He then says he agrees but wasn’t equipped to use it because he doesn’t know folklore well enough.
And that made me realize something: Clark doesn’t talk about genre literature either (except, perhaps, in cursory, disparaging terms). That intrigues me, but he doesn’t say enough about it in these essays for me to do much with it so rather than get sidetracked by that let me build upon the “I want/don’t want” series above: I want to reward rigor and experimentation in art, but I also know the fun of the folk, the ad hoc, the fannish. I want to challenge readers in my own writing, but I also want bring them joy and escape.
Long story short: I think maybe Clark gave us a bit too much form and not enough liberation in these essays.
He ends stating his modest ambition: “if the essays do nothing more than to help ever so little to reduce the tensions between literature and religion, I will be delighted” (235).
The tensions is where the fun is.
And yet, at least for me, Clark has accomplished his ambition. Certainly, the intersection of religion and literature is something I have thought about and written about for a very long time, especially in regards to Mormonism. However, this collection of essays has given me a set of ideas—perhaps, more importantly, a mind, a Mormon mind, a Mormon reader of literature—to react to, which then helps me refine my own ideas and mind.
It’s been a worthwhile journey for me. I hope it’s been worthwhile for you as well.
A reminder that you’ll be hearing from me less often for the next six months or so. Please fill out the survey. It’s very quick, and the results will help inform what I do for Season 2.
Thank you for your time. You are always free to email me if you have thoughts about any of these essays (or Mormon literature or literature of any other variety).
Take care! Talk to you soon!
Thanks for reading!
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