Tending the Garden
Lavina Fielding Anderson, editors
To Tell and Hear Stories:
Let the Stranger Say
Bruce W. Jorgensen
[p.49]This opportunity tempts me with definitiveness, the lust of the Last Word. But I mean to speak as a scribe, not as one having authority. There is a huge liberty in that: the freedom to say what I think as generously as I can. I expect also to mingle the philosophies of men with scripture, but I will not teach that mingling for doctrine; and in fact I hope to show how poorly at least one “philosophy of men” mingles.
Recently, in a course I teach, a student raised his hand and, acknowledging he might be the only person in the room who felt this way, said he didn’t think we ought to read or discuss, in a class at Brigham Young University, Russian writer Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Pet Dog” because it “glamorized immorality.” It’s the story of a habitual womanizer who begins a casual affair with a much younger married woman and finds himself seriously in love “for the first time in his life.”1 As often happens, I wasn’t prepared for the objection, but I gave the obvious pedagogical rationale: this is a short story course, Chekhov is a great master of the genre, and this is generally recognized as one of his great (and genre-changing) stories. I offered an analogy of a kind I don’t trust very far: Is sulfuric acid dangerous? If so, why are BYU students instructed to fitrate it in chemistry labs? And I said the question seemed central.
[p.50]I said that partly because at the same time I’d been rereading and preparing to discuss Socrates’ “quarrel with the poets” in Books 2, 3, and 10 of Plato’s Republic, which poses the question in an acute and highly general form. Socrates says in essence (and in persistently gender-exclusive language, at least as Rouse translates him) that it’s bad for both the poet and the audience to “imitate” a bad man, or a “mixed” man, since what we must do is cultivate virtue, and to imitate badness or mixedness is to make our souls rehearse badness. “The listener,” he says, “must be ever careful,” for “great is the struggle … between good and evil, to be a good man or a bad man.”2 If Socrates means what he says and is right, we’re all, all of us TV watchers and novel readers, rather steadily contaminating ourselves with mixed-ness if not badness.
Yet Plato’s dialogues themselves “imitate” both “mixed” characters like Phaedrus and the interlocutors here, Plato’s half-brothers Glaucon and Adeimantos, and pretty decidedly “bad” ones like Meno and Alcibiades. So we might suspect some subtle, midwiring form of Socratic (or Platonic) irony at play in the famous quarrel. Socrates may be trying to provoke his interlocutors to question the notion that Homer and Hesiod “educate” by offering models for “imitation”; or to question the more general notion of “imitation” as an adequate account of how fictions work, how they’re made, how they’re received.
I’d venture to state Socrates’s supposed position this way: Poetic works educate us by offering us models to “imitate” in our actual political and ethical lives. But to do so they “imitate” the political and ethical badness of mixed or bad persons. Thus while offering to “educate” us they actually infect us with badness. Therefore, from any city that would be a good city, we must ban poetical “imitation.”
But I notice that no matter how generally Socrates poses the question, he also rather insistently returns to specific, even singular, instances—Achilles, Priam, Odysseus, Zeus, and so on. Is he inviting Glaucon and Adeimantos to consider such narrative singulars so closely as to “deconstruct” the general “theory” he seems to be giving them? My own experiences with the question, too, are always provoked by literary singulars, though the would-be censors (in my class or in myself) nearly always appeal to some general or even “universal” principle.
[p.51]For Mormon readers and writers, versions of the quarrel and of the Socratic and/or Platonic position keep coming up as we write, read, review, and commend or condemn works of putative “Mormon poetry” or “Mormon fiction,” etc. A few days after that one came up in my class, another came up in Gene England’s Mormon literature class, when I guest-lectured, in the form of troubled reactions to “Answer to Prayer,” Dennis Clark’s story in Greening Wheat (ed. Levi S. Peterson [Midvale, UT: Signature Books, 1984]). Was this pun-riddled story about a troubled Mormon husband who masturbates in the john at work, invents fantastic/domestic bedtime tales for his children, and prays with shocking fervor and honesty “really Mormon” fiction? and was it “good” or “harmful” to read it?
Yet another version came up not long ago in Richard Cracroft’s review of England’s and Clark’s anthology Harvest, which found many poems in the latter half of the book, apparently, lacking a “whole and absolute” “vision of the universe,” and thus failing to express “the innateness and immediacy of the divine.” These were poems turned up by an editor “rooting in the humus of recondite and not-very-fertile Structuralism.” In these poems the Reviewer found “only occasionally … that distinctively Latter-day Saint voice, the sensibility of the believing poet,” but rather more often the spoor of “a faltering spiritual vision” or even the “repressi[on] and replace[ment of] soaring spirituality with earth-bound humanism.” These were “decidedly non-LDS poems.”3
It was at best a mixed relief, amid all this, to find a couple of my own poems let into the fold. But distressing, overall, to read so much xenophobia, so much of “Surely thou also art one of them; for thy speech betrayeth thee” (Matt. 26:73; emphasis mine). I wondered aloud a tired, head-in-hands question: Is there a Mormon criticism?
In The Republic, Socrates first disposes of the “matter” of poetry-the kinds of stories about gods, heroes, and men that should and should not be told in educating the “guardians” in a well-ordered city. Then he says, “We must make up our minds whether we will let the poets imitate when they make their narratives, or imitate in parts and narrate in parts … or whether we will allow no imitation at all.” It’s [p.52]one of the few places in the dialogue where Adeimantos pulls up sharp: “‘O my prophetic soul!’ he said. ‘Your question is whether we shall admit tragedy and comedy into our city, or not.'” And Socrates allows, “‘Perhaps … and perhaps I mean something more than that.'”4
By “imitation,” Socrates means that kind of composition in which the poet takes on the “voice” or “manner” of his character,5 that is, using direct dialogue or first-person narration—or, in modern fiction, interior monologue or stream-of-consciousness. The inquiry eventually moves us toward implications like these:
If [the young guardians-to-be] do imitate, they should imitate from childhood…men who are brave and temperate, pious, free, all things of that sort; but things not for the free they should neither do nor be clever at imitating, and nothing else that is ugly, that the imitation may never give them a taste of the real thing.
Then … we will not allow [them] to imitate a woman … nagging at a husband … , much less one in sickness or in love or in labour of child.
Nor must they imitate slaves … Nor wicked men, as it seems, cowards. … And I think they must not get the habit of making themselves like madmen in word or act. They must know about madmen, of course, and about bad men and women, but they must do nothing of all this nor imitate this.
… The decent man in his narrative … will not be ashamed … especially to imitate the good man acting firmly and sensibly, but less willingly and less often a good man shaken by disease or passions, or again by drunkenness or some other misfortune.6
In the last book of the dialogue, Socrates says he finds the “city … in words” he and his interlocutors have built “especially” admirable in regard to poetry, for their having decided “not to let in the imitative part of it” because “all such things are the ruin of the hearers’ minds, unless they possess the antidote, knowledge of what … things really are.” (Notice the implied “poison” or “contamination” metaphor, to which I shall return.) Here, Socrates reviews and expands his critique of “imitation.” Imitation works “at three removes from truth” by imitating only appearances of things, which are themselves imitations of the Forms. “Then the imitator will neither know nor have right opinions about what he imitates, as regards [p.53]fineness or badness”; and “his imitation is a kind of play, not earnest.” Worse still, it “joins hands and makes bosom friends with that part in us which is far away from wisdom, for no healthy and true end,” and is thus “an inferior uniting with an inferior and breeding inferior offspring.” The poet “establishes an evil constitution in his soul; he gratifies the unthinking part of it … by imaging images very far away indeed from the truth.”7 The imitative poet does himself ill; he is self-corruptive.
And that, says Socrates, is not “yet the strongest accusation against imitation. For it is surely monstrous that it is able to corrupt even the decent people, with very few exceptions,” by enticing them to “yield” themselves, with “delight” and “sympathy” no less, to “womanly” states of soul in imagined characters of which they would be ashamed in themselves. This is true, Socrates maintains, of “pity,” of jesting at “the ridiculous,”
And the same with love-making and anger and all the desires and griefs and pleasures in the soul which we say go along with our every action-poetical imitation produces all such things in us. For it nourishes them by watering what it ought to dry up, and makes them rulers in us, when they ought to be ruled that we may become better and happier instead of worse and more miserable.8
Farewell to poesy, then, unless she “can give some reason why she ought to be in a well-ordered city,” for though we must admit we are “enchanted” by her, “especially when [we] see her through Homer,” we must “do as people who once were in love with somebody, if they believe their love to be no good to them: they don’t want to give it up, but they must.”9 So the intellectual male “founders” of a (mental and verbal) city reject the works and the presence of imitative imagination, personified as female.
Was that what my student wanted, what those students of Gene England wanted, what the reviewer of Harvest wanted? that well-ordered city, uncontaminated by the “alien” poison of the “imitation” of “bad” or even “mixed” men and women? that well-guarded citadel of the (male, mailed) mind, that castle in the air, that cloud-cuckoo land? Poor Chekhov will condemn himself to exile from that city of words by the words of his own hand, in a letter written on April Fool’s Day 1890 to his millionaire conservative editor-friend Alexei Suvorin, [p.54]who had scolded him for his “objectivity, calling it indifference to good and evil”:
You would have me say, when depicting horse-thieves, that stealing horses is an evil. But…stealing horses is not simply stealing but a passion. Of course, it would be gratifying to couple art with sermonizing, but, personally, I find this exceedingly difficult and, because of conditions imposed by technique, all but impossible. Why, in order to depict horse thieves in seven hundred lines I must constantly speak and think as they do and feel in keeping with their spirit.10
As an artist-indeed the great poet of that form we call the short story—Chekhov, grandson of a serf and son of a father who beat him; Chekhov, who said he had “squeeze[d] the slave out of himself, drop by drop,” consciously chooses to do just what Socrates warns against, to “speak and think…in keeping with [the] spirit” of men and women shaken by passions, sometimes of women “in sickness or in love or in labour of child”; he consciously embraces the risk of what Socrates felt was a form of slavery, and in that risk he finds one form of the liberty he prizes most highly: “to be a free artist and nothing more,” free “from force and falsehood, no matter how [they] manifest themselves.”11 And I am saying that in so doing he is true—as a great many other modern and contemporary writers are true—in a very deep way to the central passion of Judaeo-Christian story: the passion of the Other
I think the central question of all story—and thus possibly of every form of human culture—is just this: How shall we greet the Other? Shall we devour, or annihilate, or welcome? In the Odyssey, Polyphemos answers: eatemup! (9.273-93) But the apostle Paul, once Saul of Tarsus, once “consenting unto [the] death” of Stephen, once making “havock of the church,” once a persecutor “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord,” once stopped and questioned by a Stranger on the Road, says: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Acts 8:1, 3; 9:1; Heb. 13:2). Paul may have in mind the way Abraham rushes out of his tent to welcome strangers in the plains of Mamre (Gen. 18:1-2), or he may have had by heart these ancient texts of the Law: “But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye [p.55]were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:34); and “Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19).
I mean to take the ancient and widely understood habit of hospitality as metaphor and ground for Christian (and Mormon) imagination and criticism. In the Odyssey, when Telemakhos, seeking news of his absent father, reaches Pylos, a sacrifice to Poseidon is in progress; but the stranger is welcomed and feasted before Nestor speaks: “Now is a better time to interrogate our guests and ask them who they are, now they have had the pleasure of eating. Strangers, who are you? From where do you come sailing?” (3.69-71)
In Greek, xenos means both “stranger” and “guest”; and in the world Homer imagined, the stranger/guest is always, if the means are available, washed, sometimes fully bathed and clothed in clean garments, and fed to repletion—all this before being asked his name and story. Sometimes the story is asked before the name, I suspect because the story will tell us, better than a name could, who the stranger is among us.
The lost father Odysseus himself, when he makes his way, already bathed and wearing garments laundered at the inlet by Nausikaa, into the hall of the Phaiakian king and queen on the island of Scheria, spends a night and most of the next day, first given the seat of the king’s best-loved son (7.168-71), then feasting, telling the last leg of his journey, sleeping, hearing bardic singing, sporting in the agora, and watching “a dance on the generous earth” (8.378), before anyone asks who he is. Then we hear the Great Wanderings, which take up the next four books of the poem, with all of the listeners “stricken to silence, / held in thrall by the story all through the shadowy chambers” (13.1-2). Last, I remind you that one way to translate the opening words of the Odyssey (as both Butler and Lattimore do) is simply “Tell me, muse”—as if the muse were a feminine guest with a tale the poet welcomes. Do all stories come from the Other? Are they all breathed into us by the visiting stranger?
The rule at any rate seems clear: welcome the stranger, bathe and clothe and feed, maybe even hear the story, then ask who. By then the stranger is among us, our guest, entertained like one born here and come home from long wandering. Back there on the plains of [p.56]Mamre, before a certain stranger leaves he has promised you the son you’ve almost given up hope of having, laughed at your old wife for her laughter, knowing he’ll have the last laugh and you—you’ll name your son for that: Isaac, “he laughs” (Gen. 21:1-6). Strangers, hosts, guests, old wives, newborn babes—we all say the laugh’s on us.
From Abraham and Homer at least down to the much-traveled Saul of Tarsus, then, there flows a perennial comprehension of hospitality as that gesture in which the wayfaring stranger becomes our guest-friend. We may watch it flood to the surface of Orson Scott Card’s science-fiction novel Ender’s Game, in the “xenocide” Ender Wiggin’s version of what the “Bugger” Hive Queen would say to the destroyers of her alien species: “But still we welcome you now as guestfriends. Come into our home, daughters of Earth.”12 In the Book of Mormon, too, as a couple of my students pointed out to me, Amulek understands this when he welcomes Alma: “Go with me into my house and I will impart unto thee of my food; and I know that thou wilt be a blessing unto me and my house” (Alma 8:20). As readers, perhaps especially as readers in the formal role of critics, I suggest, we often too quickly judge the stranger by her language—her speech betrayeth her as “not one of us” (what else?)—before we hear her story. Perhaps especially male guardians or priests, charged as we feel we are with the purity of the city, sniff the odor of contamination so quickly as to reject the gift the stranger may bring, or withhold the gift the stranger may need of us.
There’s a holy urgency, we may tell ourselves, because the end is nigh and the city must be every whit holy, pure as a bride arrayed for the bridal. In the meantime, we’ll have mean time, niggardly, narrow, miserly time; not time as the Old Shepherd of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale grasps it when he and his Clown son take up the abandoned Perdita, lost daughter of Leontes and Hermione: “‘Tis a lucky day, boy, and we’ll do good deeds on ‘t'” (3.3.136). We’ll have mean time; not time as a merciful means to something else, something or somebody other than we already are; not time to mean all we can to one another while the judge graciously defers his arrival, giving us all this meantime.
The one we expect as judge and bridegroom, who may appear a stranger to us, and we strangers to him, lived, while he was here, in [p.57]the comprehension of hospitality I’ve been sketching out. His sojourning mother and foster father found “no room…at the inn” (Luke 2:7), and he himself said he had “no place to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20; Luke 9:58). Yet, invited once to eat at the house of a Pharisee named Simon, as he lay at lunch, a woman came and began to bathe his feet with her tears and wipe them with her hair, the means available to her for welcoming this stranger as a guest. And Simon said in his wary heart, If this man really were a prophet, he’d know what kind of woman he’s allowing to touch him. Simon could sniff out contamination, whether in the itinerant rabbi or the woman come in off the streets so hungry to meet the rabbi that she’ll crash a private party. But the young rabbi, catching a whiff himself, says, Simon, I’ve got something to tell you—then tells a parable and goes on matter-of-factly to upbraid Simon for falling in his ordinary duties as a host: You didn’t wash me, you didn’t kiss me; but this woman here, since I came in she hasn’t stopped kissing my feet and washing them with her tears and wiping them with her hair. She loves much, so her many sins are forgiven (Luke 7:36-50).
Another time, the young rabbi took off to the borders, tired perhaps from walking and teaching, and lodged in a house in the city of Tyre (Mark 7:24-30). I imagine him again lying at lunch or supper. Again a woman comes in with her trouble—a Greek—and her daughter is sick, contaminated, possessed of another kind of stranger, a demon. She’s heard of the rabbi, about whom news always seems to travel fast, and she breaks in on his supper to beg him to come heal her little girl. It’s the only time I can think of in Mark’s Good News that the rabbi even temporarily draws a line to keep somebody out. He tells her, You don’t feed the dogs before the children have eaten. Maybe he just wants to finish his meal before it cools. But this woman, full of love for her daughter and hope for the rabbi’s good gift, comes right back at him with wit that the Pharisees and even the disciples seldom show: she says, But sir, the pups under the table eat the crumbs the children scatter. Welcoming, loving her wit and the passions that drive it, changing his mind, perhaps even laughing, he says, “For this saying, go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter” (Mark 7:29).
In Jerusalem Jesus is constantly harassed by Pharisees trying to snare him in a word, trying to make his speech betray him so they [p.58]can hand him over to the law. One day (Mark 12:28-34), a scribe asks him, Rabbi, what’s the greatest commandment? Jesus quotes him straight: “Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God is one Lord.” Then for good measure he adds, “And the second is like, namely this: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” The scribe likes this answer (scribes always like accurate quotes, plus extras, in oral exams), so he echoes it back, and adds another line for good measure himself: This “is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Well, the rabbi likes that, so he says, with what I take to be a generous smile of welcome, You’re not far from the reign of God. Then Mark tersely says that nobody dared to ask him any more questions. Nervous, I suspect, about finding themselves invited in where they were busy trying to keep somebody else out.
I want now to enter upon the yoked questions of what might be called “Christian imagination” and “Christian criticism”—of which I hope anything we might call “Mormon imagination” and “Mormon criticism” would be an instance. To guess how “Christian imagination” might act, I’ll tell another story (John 8:2-11) that may let itself be read as suggesting what the imagination of Jesus was like.
Once a gang of scribes and Pharisees, all men we must suppose, priestly guardians of communal purity, seeking one more time to trap Jesus, drag before him in the temple “a woman taken in adultery,” caught “in the very act,” to which these gentlemen have somehow made themselves witnesses. The old law says stone her; what does the young rabbi say? (We may wonder where her partner is, who presumably also was caught in the act, but the crimestoppers aren’t saying.) Jesus buys a little time by scratching in the dirt, thinking is my guess, but more than that, imagining, taking in the story. And that would mean all of it: first, yes, the woman’s desire, her pleasure, her fear and shame and guilt, her agony at being hauled into open daylight (half-naked? the text doesn’t say); but the men too, their conniving, their so-conscious righteousness, their prurience, their pleasure in cruelty, maybe mixed with shame and pity, whatever passions shake them. I must suppose that, being who and what he is, this constantly tested stranger dives to the bottom of whatever they all feel, each one, descending “below all things” (D&C 88:6; compare 122:8) to become [p.59]enough to answer their need more than their bad-faith legalistic question.
The imagination of Jesus, I’m suggesting, which is the ordinary Christian and Mormon imagination, will take precisely the risk Socrates warns against as the ruin of the soul: to understand an other, whoever the other is, however bad or mixed. Something like this, I am persuaded, must lie behind the response Jesus makes. Christian imagination, I suggest, chooses to be the antithesis of Socratic imagination: where the Greek will fly every possible contamination to keep the city of pure soul well-governed and sterile, the radical Jew dives to the bottom to seize the root of our cruelty and sorrow, to search out the venom that festers our wounds and thus begins to heal us. To do that, Christian imagination risks hearing our voices, the voices of all the others; “alternate voices,”13 if you like, voices speaking by turns.
The risk of listening to other voices brings me, then, to what I propose—have been proposing all along—as the first gesture of a “Mormon reading,” a “Mormon” way of judging the works of the imagination. Here I can rely on two quite explicit statements in Mormon scripture. This was the partial answer I took back to my class a week or so later, with the question of Chekhov’s story still hanging over us. First the voice of the sojourner known as Jesus: “And whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do good is of me; for good cometh of none save it be of me. I am the same that leadeth men to all good” (Eth. 4:12). Then the voice of Mormon, chronicler of a culture wrecked by fraternal estrangement, his words handed on to us by his son Moroni, a visitor who showed up shining in a boy’s bedroom: “I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God” (Moro. 7:16).
Clearly, these voices urge all of us who meet a stranger or a story to consider what it “invites” or “persuades” us to do. It’s the burden of every censor: if I would censor, I must first say what “it” invites me to do. My student challenging Chekhov did not say he felt invited to do evil or to persuade not to believe in Christ; he seemed to want to persuade me and the rest of the class to be better Christians. But I’m [p.60]already ahead of myself. First of all, what “thing” are we talking about? The story? Or any one experience of it? I suspect it’s the latter, since not all of us are persuaded alike by the same story, and each of us may find different persuasions or invitations in the same story upon different readings. Probably, too, it is wrong, or at least rash, for us to take a part of the thing—the subject of the story, or a scene or detail or word in it—for the “thing,” whether a scriptural narrative or anything else.
Concerning whether it’s “right” or “wrong” to read a story like “The Lady with the Pet Dog” in a BYU class, then, how would we judge? Does it “persuade” or “invite” to do good or to do evil? Chekhov’s story invites me to believe that love is better than sexual predation and to understand something of the hearts and minds of two casual adulterers (the “he and she” of it) who painfully and problematically (and however imperfectly) come to love one another and face at last the question of what now to do. Is it always “wrong” to divorce? Has marriage always and everywhere persuaded or invited to do good? (A friend told me he once heard a man say, “I never could understand how anyone could commit adultery until I got married.”) Reading literature is risky, as living in Western culture, in America, in Provo, at BYU in the 1990s is risky. So we read and discuss literature in class, which is also risky, but which may help us to be more critical—and more merciful—”readers” of the culture we live in. Chekhov, I find so far, helps me that way.
Something like that was my belated partial answer to a hard question that still has not gone away; I trust rather that it has begun to be listened to, has become part of the conversation in the household. I want to turn now at last back to questions of “Mormon literature.” Implicitly, perhaps, to questions like “Is there a Mormon criticism?” or the one Dennis Clark asked in his afterword for Harvest, which I hope you now hear as highly pertinent: “Is there a Mormon audience for poetry?”14 Explicitly, to questions about fiction, about short stories and novels. And for responses, I want to listen awhile to the voices of some others, novelists and story-writers.
About being a Mormon audience, about Mormon reading, including the formal, institutional kinds of reading we call literature classes and criticism, then, I answer first that it would be generous, [p.61]hospitable. With Emmanuel Levinas, it would take “subjectivity as welcoming the Other, as hospitality.”15 It would listen, then take its turn and converse. We’re not a court, not even a “court of love.” We’re more of a wayside inn, and complaining and dissenting voices, too, should be entertained in our conversation. Diversa non adversa, the condemned Catholic heretic Peter Abelard wrote to his stern opponent Bernard of Clairvaux: we—our minds, our voices—differ but are not against one another.16
Maybe the idea of “criticism” itself, of a crisis in which we have to decide, is the problem; we are to “receive” and “hear” before we judge. Hospitable reading would be slow to shut out. It would be slow to decide whether a literary visitor is “Mormon” or not, especially slow to gauge this by some presumed “doctrinal” criterion or some elusive metaphysical or “essential” notion of “spirituality.” After all, we are instructed by the visiting resurrected Christ in 3 Nephi 11:28-40that his “doctrine” is repentance, faith, and baptism: “And whoso buildeth upon this buildeth upon my rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them. And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock” (vv. 39-40). If that and only that is “doctrine,” then it offers a test no poem or story can either pass or fail, since only personal agents can repent, have faith, and be baptized; and those are acts, not “essence.” Maybe Mormonism itself has no essence but only a story,17 which comprises all the stories of all the agents who come upon Christ’s invitations to action and offer to take them up.
I suspect it’s what Ecclesiastes called “vanity and vexation of spirit,” a striving after wind (Eccl. 1:2, 14), to pursue the “essence” of Mormon literature. When the Reviewer of Harvest says that “the more pertinent question” is “What is a Mormon poem?” he’s asking emphatically a question framed by Western ontology, which has always asked “What is it?”—always sought essences uncontaminated by time, space, matter, or the stories of existences. Stories always tell not what it is but how it goes. “Essentialism” is the problem in that review, and it’s why the Reviewer’s judgments and descriptions of the poems he shuts out don’t attend closely enough to the poems to notice traits that might “pass” even his criteria.
Of Kathy Evans he writes, “Neither is [her] beautiful revery, [p.62]’Midnight Reassembled,’ rooted in the Mormon ethos in any way that I can discern,”18 and offers in evidence these lines:
Somewhere, out there
in the immensity of night
a swan glides across
the surface of its own image,
wings touching wings on the water.
We touch the world this way.19
Perhaps he glimpsed “the self-fascination of much contemporary poetry” in the mirror-image here, and that made him miss the pun in “a swan glides across,” forgetting that in the immense night Cygnus is the Northern Cross and that the swan has served as one of the many figures of Christ from at least the twelfth-century Celtic Christian Speckled Book down to the contemporary Galway Kinnell’s “To Christ Our Lord.”20 Yet it should have been harder not to hear in these lines the echo of “the Spirit of God mov[ing] [or brooding] upon the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2).
I notice that all but one of the specifically named shut-out poems are by women, while all but two of the specifically shut-in are by men; both of those are Linda Sillitoe’s, and one, to be sure, is her “Song of Creation,” which the Reviewer calls “lovely, feminist lines about the Mother and Father sharing in the creation of the world.”21 Mother and Father make a world together, but their daughters’ voices sound a little too strange to this guardian of the city.
The one poem by a male writer specifically shut out of the fold is Lance Larsen’s “Passing the Sacrament at Eastgate Nursing Home,” which the Reviewer describes as “a portrayal of routine and sterile Aaronic priesthood service in which the sacred ritual never rises beyond the ‘bikini splendor, of the Hunsaker twins’ or ‘the lady in 243 who wore her breasts at her waist.”‘22 Deflected here, perhaps, by the attention the youthful persona does pay to female flesh, young and old, the Reviewer elides the boy’s clear awareness that “we gave them / bread of another world” (the sacrament as hospitable meal). Those Hunsaker twins may now be “sex objects,” as is “the wrinkled / Miss July behind the door” of the janitor’s closet where they prepare the sacrament; but this boy is coming to know they will one day be [p.63]women like the fallen lady in 243. He can add two plus two. At the end of the poem, he’s thinking not of the twins’ “bikini splendor” but of that lady and of how he “with clean and careful hands / laid the bread on her tongue.” This is one of the tongues we must learn to hear, as this boy may now begin to try.. The one female tongue that speaks in the poem calls him “Jesus”—this priesthood holder headed for the Order of the Son of God. And his priestly service is not “sterile”; his hands are “clean and careful.”23 Would those be enough “hint[s] of transcendence and greening spirituality” to make the poem “Mormon”? By my own argument I should not trouble to seek them out. I don’t offer my readings as “definitive” (I don’t believe in definitive readings, though I do believe in worse and better, smaller and larger); but I would say my readings seem to receive and respond more fully to the poems’ available language.
Mormon reading would be patient, longsuffering, kind; its truest guides might be 1 Corinthians 13 and the 13th Article of Faith. “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal” (1 Cot. 13:1). I suggest that this saying of Paul says if I don’t graciously welcome and hear the tongues of others, I “thing” my own tongue, I become a noisemaker, a nonperson, incapable of true saying. Wouldn’t a Mormon criticism conduct itself “ethically” in some manner rather close to what our friend and neighbor Wayne Booth recommends and exemplifies in The Company We Keep? Might it not ask what “kind of friendship” an implied author offers us in the gift of a text? what “kind of desirer” the text invites us to be? whether it beckons us into a “pattern of life…that friends might well pursue together”?24
A Mormon criticism will surely not judge very quickly by superficial elements such as the presence of the always-ready-to-hand clichés of pop Mormon “spirituality” or “virtue,” or, negatively, by the presence of topics we disapprove or words we must not say. Mormon reading would be slow to shut out a poem or story merely because it takes up the matter of sex—”the great relation between men and women, the constant world-renewal,” as Henry James called it, noting its “immense omission in our fiction” in his 1899 essay “The Future of the Novel.”25 That may have been only part of what Chekhov had in mind when he advised his aspiring-writer brother [p.64]Alexander, “Don’t have too many characters. The center of gravity should be two: he and she.”‘26 I can take Ghekhov generally here, supposing “he and she” epitomize the play of difference, of necessary complementary opposites, Same and Other, which might beget all stories. Still, there are “The Lady with the Pet Dog” and a great many others in which Chekhov tries out the “he and she” of it.
E. M. Forster said that “human beings have their great chance in the novel.”27 And D. H. Lawrence wrote that “the novel is the highest form of human expression so far attained … Because it is so incapable of the absolute.”28 Flannery O’Connor, that fiercely orthodox Catholic, wrote:
Fiction is the most impure and the most modest and the most human of the arts. It is closest to man in his sin and his suffering and his hope, and it is often rejected by Catholics [Mormons, too, as we know] for the very reasons that make it what it is. It escapes any orthodoxy we might set up for it, because its dignity is an imitation of our own, based like our own on free will, a free will that operates even in the teeth of divine displeasure.29
I think they all had in mind the same conception of fiction that Milan Kundera has in mind when he says, “The novel is the imaginary paradise of individuals. It is the territory where no one possesses the truth, neither Anna nor Karenin, but where everyone has the right to be understood, both Anna and Karenin.”30 The world of fiction is not that of some absolute, “essentialist” either/or, these voices say, but a world of both/and, all together. Novels especially are polyglot and heteroglot: many-tongued, other-tongued.
For Kundera, the European novel thus understood is “the depreciated legacy of Cervantes.”31 But I think he hasn’t traced its genealogy back far enough. I think the fiction that is “incapable of the absolute” and in which “everyone has the right to be understood” descends lineally from Mark and Luke, from the stories they tell about that wayfaring stranger Jesus and his doings on dusty roads and streets; and behind them, I think, it goes back to some of the stories the stranger himself told. The stories I’ve already retold may suggest where I’d start looking; but to see this genealogical line start to trace itself, read Luke 15 and notice there how different Jesus’ last parable, the one we call the Prodi-[p.65]gal Son, is from his first two; how it gives everyone, even the grudging Pharisees, their chance to be heard and understood, and then doesn’t shut the story down with the “absolute” of a “doctrinal” message, Then notice how the good-news writer Luke doesn’t shut his story down either, doesn’t tell us how this particular bunch of Pharisees took that tale. I suspect that a lot more fiction-writers than are dreamt of in our theory or history have learned from these storytellers. We shame ourselves by not taking instruction from them too. Kundera comes closer to this genealogy when he calls the novel “the art inspired by God’s laughter.”32
D. H. Lawrence seems to have had such open, generous storytelling partly in mind when he wrote in “Why the Novel Matters” that “only in the novel are all things given full play; or at least, they may be given full play … ” For him, “out of the full play of all things emerges the only thing that is anything, the wholeness of a man, the wholeness of a woman, man alive, and live woman.”33 More and more, I find, I want that wholeness in the fiction I read—and, because I’ve tasted it richly there, in the life I live. For D. H. Lawrence, in a letter written 2 June 1914,
The only re-sourcing of art, re-vivifying it, is to make it more the joint work of man and woman. I think the one thing to do, is for men to have the courage to draw nearer to women, expose themselves to them, and be altered by them: and for women to accept and admit men. That is the start-by bringing themselves together, men and women-revealing themselves each to the other, gaining great blind knowledge and suffering and joy.34
Like Henry James, Rainer Maria Rilke writes of “the great renewal of the world,” in the fourth of his Letters to a Young Poet,’ and rather like Lawrence, he suggests that it “will perhaps consist in one phenomenon: that man and woman, freed from all mistaken feelings and aversions, will seek each other not as opposites but as brother and sister, as neighbors, and will unite as human beings, in order to bear in common, simply, earnestly, and patiently, the heavy sex that has been laid upon them.”35 And in his Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, in a section that recalls the seventh of the Letters to a Young Poet, his narrator writes: “But now that so much is changing, isn’t it time for us to change? … What if we despised our successes? What [p.66]if we started from the very outset to learn the task of love, which has always been done for us? What if we went ahead and became beginners, now that much is changing?”36 More and more I’m persuaded that to undertake the great task of love—all of its works—I must listen to the voice of the Other, let the stranger say. I’m urged this way by some of the voices, female and male, that I’ve listened to longest and most attentively.
In an essay, “Looking Back at the First Story,” Eudora Welty wrote, “Imagining yourself inside the skin, body, heart, and mind of any other person is the primary feat, but also the absolute necessity”:37 the absolute necessity for making fiction. Reynolds Price’s richest early story, “A Chain of Love,”38 in which he imagined himself into a country girl named Rosacoke Mustian, was helped by his reading of Welty’s fiction in the year he wrote that story; and more recently, in A Common Room, Price has urged specifically: “Men should excavate and explore, however painfully, their memories of early intimacy with women, and attempt again to produce novels as whole as those of their mammoth and healing predecessors [such as Tolstoy]. More women should step through a door that is now wide ajar—a backward step, also painful but short, into the room of their oldest knowledge: total human sympathy.”39 I welcome both these voices, and I pass their word on to my students.
I’m urged on and encouraged by the examples of several among us: Douglas Thayer and Levi Peterson,40 who in recent (and, for Thayer, yet-unpublished) essays have begun to write movingly about their mothers; Bert Wilson, who listened so well to his mother’s stories that one of her sentences helped guide him “through the dark.”41 My own first step out of my hard male skull and into a voice and experience much like my mother’s, in a story called “Two Years Sunday,”42 still seems one of the genuinely liberating things I’ve done in my slow effort to learn to write stories; other equally nourishing steps farther into that “common room” have followed, and I mean to take more.
But the step I take here and now is “down” or “aside”—to something near a voice whispering low out of the dust in valediction: Welcome to our common room. Tell us your story so our hearing and telling can go on. That would be faring well.
38. In Reynolds Price, A Palpable God (New York: Atheneum, 1978; reprint ed., San Francisco: North Point, 1985). My retellings of the New Testament episodes echo Price’s translations from the gospels.