“Stephenie Meyer Is Thinking of President Monson”: Mormon Literature and the Desire for Ideological Clarity

There is a scene in the wonderful Chinese film, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, that has stayed with me for years (click here and start at 4:32). In this scene, the hero—a young Chinese violinist who has been sent to a rural mountain village for “re-education” during the early days of the Cultural Revolution—is about to lose his violin unless he plays something that the village party boss finds acceptable. His friend (also being re-educated) suggests that he play a favorite Mozart sonata, and the boss demands to know the name of the song. 

The right answer, which Luo cannot give, is that the song is called “Divertimento No. 17 in D major K334,” a piece of music named simply by a genre, a key signature, and a number in a catalog. Luo tries to explain this to the mountain boss, who keeps demanding a name that he can understand. Finally, Luo’s friend says that the name of the song is “Mozart Is Thinking of Chairman Mao.” “Yes,” the boss nods knowingly, “Mozart is always thinking of Chairman Mao.”

A lot is going on in this scene. For one thing, it is a substantial critique of the Marxist world view. The party boss could not process a work of art that did not correspond to an ideology because, for orthodox Marxism, there can be no such thing. Art, music, and literature exist in the superstructure of a society; they cannot, therefore, fail to respond somehow to the economic base. Music has to be about something. Art has to reflect ideology. Literature has to mean stuff.

But it’s not just Marxists who think like this. Human beings are narrative animals. We think in stories, which means that we think in plots. “Art for art’s sake” is a nice motto, but it is difficult to get one’s mind around the kind of ideology-free aesthetic that Oscar Wilde articulates in the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, when he says that “all art is quite useless.” This is especially true because The Picture of Dorian Gray seems to be anything but a book that doesn’t mean anything.

If we pull Wilde back just a little bit from the brink of nihilism and assume that he wasn’t quite saying that all books are random collections of meaningless letters, we arrive at something like the literary version of “Mozart Is Thinking of Chairman Mao”: a rejection of the idea that a work of literature must always have an ideological position towards the events it describes or the characters who inhabit it’s pages. This notion insists that there must always be a point, always a judgment. Moby Dick, when all is said and done, has got to be for or against whales.

I think that something like this will-to-ideology infects a lot of discussions about Mormon literature, through the vehicle of questions like, “Is it ‘pro-Mormon’ or ‘anti-Mormon’?” or “Why would anyone consider this ‘Mormon literature?’” or maybe even, “Is Stephenie Meyer thinking of President Monson?” Like Caliban, we want to see our own face in every glass. And (also like Caliban), we usually get upset with the picture.

We see this on display most clearly when authors, Mormon or otherwise, write about Mormon issues and Mormon characters. When Mormon readers read such books, we often try to maneuver the author into some definite ideological relationship to Mormon religion and culture. At the very least, we ask questions like, “what is X trying to say about the Mormons,” which, when viewed from an external perspective, is roughly the same question as “what is Cervantes trying to say about windmills?”

Cervantes, of course, was saying a lot of things, but nothing about windmills. The windmills were simply the thing that drove the plot. But they had to be windmills or the particular scene wouldn’t have worked. I have argued elsewhere (in a forthcoming essay) that we should read the Mormons in the Broadway hit The Book of Mormon the same way. It is important that Elder Price and Elder Cunningham be Mormon missionaries. But the authors aren’t really using Mormon characters to say things about Mormons any more than Cervantes was using windmills to say things about windmills. They just happen to be what is needed for the plot to succeed.

Great literature, and even pretty good literature, succeeds because it is able to infuse ordinary events with universal ideas, most of which are invoked in the reader more than they are placed there by the author like candy eggs on Easter. The problem that most of us have when reading literature is that we ask fairly simple questions—questions that demand quick and compact morals, obvious positions, and, above all, ideological clarity. With very few exceptions, the answers to such questions—be they about Mormon literature or anything else—will usually sound a lot like “Mozart Is Thinking of Chairman Mao.”

13 Thoughts on ““Stephenie Meyer Is Thinking of President Monson”: Mormon Literature and the Desire for Ideological Clarity

  1. “They just happen to be what is needed for the plot to succeed.”

    Yeah, but art isn’t alone in the world. And artists aren’t hermits. Politics get mixed up with art, and representation matters, and all works are ideological in that they come from and enter into ecosystems that are entangled with power, knowledge, etc. While litmus tests [is this work pro or anti Mormon?] are an ineffective way of talking about a work of art, I think it’s highly appropriate to interrogate and interpret how Mormon elements are deployed by the artist. And while we should go beyond the simple questions, sometimes the simple questions can lay bare a lack of engagement with Mormonism. This is especially true when American artists deploy Mormon elements in ways that barely rise beyond a standard trope (numerous episodes of TV shows) or where Mormons are selected to stand in for what the artist is actually talking about (Angels in America).

    • Harlow Clark on March 15, 2017 at 5:14 pm said:

      But it’s not always a matter of how certain elements are deployed; sometimes it’s that the elements are deployed at all. Years ago someone at an AML conference (Michael Austin? Neal Kramer?) suggested that if you have a character in a story who has to go to confession, why not make the person receiving the confession a Mormon bishop? There are all kinds of incidental characters in fiction who could be Mormons as easily as any other religion or no religion, so why not make them Mormons?

      I just remembered an instance this morning, an episode of Law and Order SVU (I think) where the police are searching for a young woman who has come to NYC to work as a nanny and disappeared. They’re interviewing a couple of her friends, who say something like, “We got concerned when she stopped coming to Relief Society.”

      As for interrogating how particular elements are used by artists, Fred Rogers told Diane Rehm a good story about that, about how excited Eddie Murphy was to meet him. Puzzling, because Murphy made fun of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on Saturday Night Live. “Oh, Mister Rogers, you don’t think we’d want to make you famous if we didn’t love you?” Murphy replied.

      We’re used to thinking of things in very precise terms, and that may not always serve us well. I remember the first few times I read Exodus 15:27 “And they came to Elim, where were twelve wells of water, and threescore and ten palm trees: and they encamped there by the waters,” wondering who had gone around counting the palm trees. Then I read Robert Alter’s commentary in The Five Books of Moses. One connotation of seventy is perfection, so the author is telling us this is an ideal spot with water for all the tribes. I mentioned this to my Gospel Doctrine class, telling them that we’re used to being very precise with numbers. In the winter Olympics going on at the time the difference between 1st and 2nd place might be 1/1000 of a second. The ancients had no way to measure that precisely and probably had a very different relationship to numbers than we do.

      I suspect the same is true of words. Words are not precise entities with a single meaning, and what we take to be the primary meaning of words may not have been a meaning the author was contemplating.

      Bela Petsco told me once that he upset some people with a vignette he included in his MA thesis, Nothing Very Important and Other Stories, where Elder Agyar comes into the living room, sees his missionary companion doing pushups, snaps his fingers like he’s just understood something and says, “Missionary intercourse.”

      Some people in the English Dep’t thought that was a pretty crude joke, but in Queens, NY where he grew up intercourse was not a common euphemism for sex. He said “I figured that scene was the perfect way to say here we have a companionship that’s not getting along together,” so for him Agyar’s words conveyed something like, “So this is what you do when we have a problem we need to talk over, pushups.”

      I don’t know whether to take the story with a grain of salt or not, because I don’t know what the idiomatic meaning of intercourse was in Queens in the three decades after the War. Bela said he asked Janice Cracroft (Richard’s wife) how people in Utah used the word. “They don’t.”

  2. Jonathan Langford on March 14, 2017 at 12:48 pm said:

    The key, I think, lies in your sentence: “The problem that most of us have when reading literature is that we ask fairly simple questions—questions that demand quick and compact morals, obvious positions, and, above all, ideological clarity.” Because, yes, I agree with this. At the same time, I also tend to think that “a work of literature must always have an ideological position towards the events it describes or the characters who inhabit it’s pages.”

    The question, I suppose, boils down to what you think of as an “ideological position.” Borrowing Althusser’s notion of ideology as an imagined relationship to something that is real, there’s an awful lot more to “ideology” than simply “for or against.” In fact, it’s kind of hard to imagine an author or work of literature not possessing an “ideological stance” of some kind — much as it’s hard to imagine a body not possessing “a temperature.” Such a position can be complex. It can focus less on whether a thing is good or bad, and more on how to understand the thing, or position it as part of something larger. But the idea that you can include elements in a story without actually including any kind of stance toward them *at all* is kind of like saying you can have a sentence without a verb.

    I’ve written elsewhere (http://www.motleyvision.org/2015/parsing-the-mormon-in-mormon-literature/) about the variety of ways I think Mormon elements can be examined in connection with a work of literature. Much of this is an attempt to move beyond binary thinking and simple questions to uncover the richness of works of literature seen for what they actually do and accomplish, not forced to fit a framework of predefined positions. But that doesn’t mean works of literature don’t take positions, whether intention or not. Art *does* reflect ideology, and we as its readers or listeners are also complex bearers of (often conflicting) ideologies. This is true even of works that don’t highlight their own ideological implications. To ignore this — as, to be fair, I don’t think you ever do, in the criticism you actually write, but what you wrote here could *sound* like you are advocating — is as much an oversimplification as to attempt to force a work of art into one of a few simplistic positions, toward Mormonism or anything else.

    • Harlow Clark on March 17, 2017 at 12:10 pm said:

      “The question, I suppose, boils down to what you think of as an ‘ideological position.'”

      Indeed, and I’ve found the term ideological rather fraught. In Criticism and Ideology Terry Eagleton defines ideology as the system of ideas and attitudes the ruling class uses to justify its power, and its oppression of the others. Marxist Criticism is the antidote to ideology, the way to dismantle ideology through analysis, so at the end of the preface to Marxism and Literary Criticism Eagleton implores his readers not to apply Marxist theory to Marxism itself, because Marxism is a scientific approach to liberation, not just another fashionable approach to litcrit, and if you make it just another tool you rob Marxism of its ability to do what it’s supposed to do.

      That was an astonishing comment, especially considering that I read it not very many years after Boyd K. Packer had published “The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect” in BYU Studies 21:3, where he said something very similar about Mormon history and cultural studies, about using our disciplines to critique the Gospel instead of doing what we should and using the Gospel to critique the ideas of the world.

      Thinking about all this I realized Eagleton was treating Marxism as a salvation religion. I mentioned this to my professor, Charles Altieri, and he said, “Oh, sure, Marxism is based on the Judeo-Christian paradigm,” as though that were the most natural thing in the world to be aware of.

      Chapter 5 of Criticism and Ideology, which is all I could get through, expounds a Marxist theory of value, dealing with the thorny question of how a worldwiew that sees everyone as equal can assign a hierarchy of value to literary works, saying one is greater and another lesser. (I revised the paper for that class, contrasting theories of literary value from Terry Eagleton and Marden Clark, for my first AML paper.)

      I don’t know if Eagleton would still define ideology in a way that exempts Marxism, and I don’t know what his neutral term would be for a system of ideas. One problem with exempting Marxism is that there’s no check on Marxism, no room in that exemption for an alternative to correct what is lacking in Marxist theory in the way that womanism arose to address what was lacking in feminist theory. (See my review of Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings for some links to womanist writings.) I wish that instead of exempting Marxism Eagleton had given a gentle warning that the tools he was laying out were powerful tools, and that one lesson of history is that people who gain power almost always use it to oppress other people rather than to liberate them.

    • Harlow Clark on March 24, 2017 at 5:11 pm said:

      Thanks for the link to “Parsing the ‘Mormon’ in Mormon Literature,” which I initially read as Praising. I particularly like the idea of Mormon as a way of reading, a property of the reader rather than the text. (It reminds me a bit of that piece in Critical Theory Since Play-Dough where (I think) Julius Caesar Scaliger defines a classic as an author rather than a work.) I can see a lot of good coming from looking at how I approach a work because of my Mormonness rather than trying to justify it as a Mormon work, though I suppose someone could argue that since the Gospel claims all truth anything that seeks for truth is by definition Mormon–maybe someone could even boil that down into a pithy saying.

  3. “Like Caliban, we want to see our own face in every glass. And (also like Caliban), we usually get upset with the picture.”

    It seems to me the onus is on the artist to hold up a mirror that’s effective. It’s kinda hard to provide charitable readings when it’s clear that the mirror was borrowed from the same room in the fun house that it’s always been borrowed from.

    • Harlow Clark on March 16, 2017 at 1:57 pm said:

      Wm, I read the quote as “Like Taliban,” having just finished reading Salman Rushdie’s long New Yorker piece “The Disappeared” which he revised as the first 70 or so pages of Joseph Anton, his memoir of life in hiding after Khomeini’s death sentence. (The piece ends with him choosing the pseudonym Joseph Anton.)

      The idea of not liking the face we see in the glass reminds me of a story my friend who was in charge of illustrations for the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley told me about walking through the BYU bookstore one day and his old missionary companion had an easel set up for caricatures. Called him over and drew a caricature, quite good (he later won the Puke Lizard Prize for editorial cartoons in the Arizona Republic), but Mike told me he couldn’t stand to look at it because every flaw in his face was there and magnified, everything he didn’t like about his face.

      “It seems to me the onus is on the artist to hold up a mirror that’s effective.” I agree mostly. It reminds me of the idea that you shouldn’t have to have and MFA or PhD to enjoy art, which is reminiscent of Tolstoy’s sentiment in What is Art? that the duty of a Christian artist is to make art accessible to the peasants, and that to do this art must testify of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.

      There’s a lot to recommend that sentiment, but if I think about it in practical terms–how I would practice it in writing a story or essay or my column–I realize that what might testify to one person might not testify to another. For example, I’m quite open to the idea that the Gospels are competing documents, that Matthew was correcting Mark, and Luke was offering some of his own alternatives, and John wanted to tell the story in a completely different way. To me the differences testify that disciples can have differences, even sharp differences and still be disciples. Other people would find the idea of disharmony among the gospels threatening  or dangerous.

      Similarly, what constitutes an effective mirror depends on who’s looking in the mirror.  One day my missionary companion and I came across the following letter to the editor of the Dec. 1974 New Era from a missionary in Brazil:

      In respect to your article entitled “Charly” in the June 1974 issue: It would take a bit more than a sugary-sweet Ferris wheel ride to convince me that a girl who is spiritually unstable enough to be within inches of marrying a nonmember would be worthy to be my wife.

      “Gotta read that,” we said, and fortunately there was a copy in our apartment. (I attach this memory to the apartment in Elmira Heights, NY about this time of year in 1978, but it may have been another area.)

      On the other hand, shortly before the end of my mission I came across another Jack Weyland story, “The First Day of Forever,” that didn’t work at all for me.

      The premise is interesting, a couple runs off the road in a snowstorm on their wedding day, and are rescued by a farm couple embittered by the loss of a son years earlier. Attempting to comfort them the couple starts teaching about eternal marriage and sealing. I particularly didn’t like the sentence, “Steve felt the sweet influence of the Holy Ghost bear witness to Cathy’s words.” (The link is LDS.org’s.) It felt to me like it belonged in a church talk rather than a story.

      But if the story’s mirror was not effective for me it was effective for the woman who wrote this letter in the August 1979  issue:

      Thank you for the January–February New Era. I thoroughly enjoyed “The First Day of Forever.” I’ve only been married 15 months and can really appreciate all the feelings going through the story. The Lord has blessed our home, and with the help of the New Era I really feel on top of the world.

      A couple of years later I was in Weyland’s play Home Cooking on the Wasatch Range which included a very funny scene where two college students are trying not to think about what their friends who got married that day are doing at the moment. “I suppose they’re . . . eating.” Part of the humor is that they’re also trying to avoid thinking about the sexual tension between them, the attraction they feel for each other. Weyland later cut most of the scene. He told us (or the director did) that he was serving as a bishop and he would read his stories to his stake president, and he felt too embarrassed to read that scene.

      Thinking about this it occurred to me that Weyland probably wrote “The First Day of Forever” because he wanted to explore the irony of a couple wanting to start their eternal family, but instead spending their wedding night trying to heal someone else’s family, but the sexual tension that should play out in the story is so understated as to be ineffective.

      In contrast I think of Larry Morris’s story “August” (or was it “September”? His MA thesis was called December. I read part of it, 20-odd years ago but didn’t have time to finish it, though I think the library put scans of all the Mormon-related theses online) in the first issue of the student magazine Century2 (August or Sept 1975, the first year of BYU’s second century), though I can’t find it in the BYU Library catalogue, under that title, Century 2, or Century II), the precursor of Inscape. The story is about a jet-lagged missionary just arrived in Japan, on his way to the mission home, desperately wanting rest. At one point, looking at some Japanese girls he thinks, “I’ll bet they could give me rest.”

      Reading that, my brother-in-law Bruce Campbell quipped, “I didn’t start looking up girls’ dresses till my third month in Japan.”

      For one more wrinkle on effective mirrors consider Rebecca West’s comment, talking about Yugoslav peasant art, in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon that Tolstoy seems never to have known any real peasants or he wouldn’t have created such an idiotic literary theory around them. I listened to it about 4 years ago, some while driving across Oregon at night on vacation, courtesy of Orem Library selling off all their books on cassette, then found a copy of the paperback–about 1400 pages–on Pleasant Grove library’s sales table. I listened to her engrossing account of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination while trying to get my mother from Provo to Orem one day when the police had shut University Avenue down for a footrace coming out of Provo Canyon. It may be included in this excerpt in the January 1941 Atlantic.)

  4. “Similarly, what constitutes an effective mirror depends on who’s looking in the mirror.”

    Sure. Although if people are shown enough distorted mirrors they may stop looking in mirrors. Or become blind the mirrors that are just a little bit off in a way that’s interesting or beautiful or wise.

    “There’s a lot to recommend that sentiment, but if I think about it in practical terms–how I would practice it in writing a story or essay or my column–I realize that what might testify to one person might not testify to another.”

    I agree with this. On the other hand, I do think there are things that artists can do*. Things like: doing a bit more research and thinking; resisting the urge to push things in a more respectable direction (respectable to Deseret Book, to liberal American literary culture, to conservative dogma, to mainstream genre readers); fending off decisions driven by self-indulgence, pride, fear, etc.; breaking out of or away from forms of storytelling that push for certain tropes/character arcs/endings.

    Of course, even doing so does not necessarily mean that we still won’t end up with a bunch of Mormon readers/viewers who look in the mirror and don’t like what they say or (much more likely) refuse to look in it at all. Nor is it easy for artists to resist the temptations of respectability, pride, self-doubt, commerce, etc. Nor do it mean failure to resist is an automatic indictment of the artist or their work. We all fall short.

    *whether I actually practice them is a different matter.

  5. Harlow Clark on March 20, 2017 at 10:37 am said:

    Thanks Michael.

    “Art for art’s sake” is a nice motto, but it is difficult to get one’s mind around the kind of ideology-free aesthetic that Oscar Wilde articulates in the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, when he says that “all art is quite useless.” This is especially true because The Picture of Dorian Gray seems to be anything but a book that doesn’t mean anything.

    I’m not sure “all art is quite useless” equates to “doesn’t mean anything,” or “all books are random collections of meaningless letters.” I hear it the same way I hear Brigham Young’s statement on education (quoted in Hugh Nibley, “Educating the Saints: A Brigham Young Mosaic”)

    Will education feed and clothe you, keep you warm on a cold day, or enable you to build a house? Not at all. Should we cry down education on this account? No. What is it for? The improvement of the mind; to instruct us in all arts and sciences, in the history of the world, in . . . laws of life, and how to be useful while we live.

    I see both Brigham Young and Oscar Wilde as refusing to make utilitarian justifications, as saying a thing’s worth is not determined by its utility, which I assume is what you were saying in your paragraph about “pull[ing] Wilde back just a little bit from the brink of nihilism.”

    Thinking about this I started wondering if some of the “desire for ideological clarity” isn’t a byproduct of the academy.

    Consider “The Rise of English,” chapter 1 of Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction, surprisingly witty, engaging, and accessible after the density and abstraction of Criticism and Ideology, Chapter 5. It answered a question I had grappled with several years earlier in my last undergrad paper, for John Tanner’s Shaxbeard class. So here we have a play where two men murder their wives, one after a prolonged buildup of jealous rage and another in a calculated effort to shut her up. Now why have I never heard Othello discussed as a social problem play? Why do we discuss Othello as a noble character, rather than a person who destroys his nobility like Macbeth does? and how do I know that most English teachers would say discussing Othello as a social problem play (or Romeo and Juliet as a play about gangs and teen suicide) trivializes the play?

    Eagleton’s answer? He says the study of English literature as an academic discipline was begun in nineteenth-century England by professors who wanted a backdoor to admit women into the academy, and figured English was sufficiently non-taxing that their weak minds could absorb it.

    But the professors were also aware of the potency of literature–this was, of course, the modern period, whose literature Lionel Trilling said was full of immense destructive power designed to bring down a corrupt society, and the professors didn’t want to give these women ideas about social reform and other things, or vindicate ideas they might have heard. (You might suffer these little ones to come unto the academy, but you didn’t want to suffer them to come unto the voting booth, so don’t teach Mrs Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women.)

    One way to teach literature without liberating people is to center the canon on the past, and create phrases like “works that have stood the test of time.” Another is to teach that literature is about the higher values, about the sublime, about the beauty of language, that it doesn’t stoop to things like social problems, so to treat the sublime Shaxbeard as a person interested in such things as teen gangs, teen suicide, political assassinations and domestic violence is to trivialize him.

    Still, once you give people the tools to engage critically with texts, they will and if you make them work twice as hard to be taken seriously they may turn the tools on you to analyze your privilege and how you exercise and shore it up, and how your choice of words and jokes reveals your privilege and bias.

    Donald Hall does this in “Poetry and Ambition,” calling out Roman Jakobson’s joke that he wouldn’t hire Vladimir Nabokov because, though he had nothing against elephants he wouldn’t hire one to teach Zoology. So, Hall says, creative writers are the zoo animals of English departments (and since he won the Caldecott Medal for Oxcart ManI’ll add that children’s writers are the zoo animals of writing programs–or were 30 years ago). So zoo animals like Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransome, and Yvor Winters had to prove their academic rigor to be accepted by the zookeepers.

    One way of proving your academic rigor can be to make precise technical analyses of a work’s ecosystem. The analyses won’t necessarily serve the works well, or the students (see Walker Percy’s “The Loss of the Creature,” in The Message in the Bottle), but if it satisfies your keepers, or your keeper’s brothers and sisters, you can keep doing the important work.

    Of course, the semiotics may change and the zookeepers may no longer accept as orthodox the idea that  a particular work shows we’re thinking about a dialogue between President Monson and Chairman Mao. And not everyone is adept at reading the semiotics of a situation. In 1970 my father finally took a sabbatical and applied as a Fulbright fellow at the University of Oulu, Finland. During the orientation down in Helsinki one of the presenters said, “Why do the Russians not like cats?”

    I knew the answer to that! I’d read James Michener’s The Bridge at Andau about the 1956 Hungarian revolution and knew that sometimes people would take cats to the border and let them loose to clear out some mines.

    The instructor acknowledged that might be true, but the real reason Russians don’t like cats is that they say, “Mao.”

    • Jonathan Langford on March 21, 2017 at 11:08 am said:

      Interesting thoughts. Where I differ from Marxists, I suppose, is that I think strategies to make literary analysis (and literature itself) less demanding of activist contemporary readings — e.g., centering in the past, focusing on esthetics as opposed to politics, and focusing on character analysis as opposed to social analysis) — tend to be at least as much in the interests of allowing ourselves not to have to rethink our own politics (“politics” here including social attitudes, traits of how we interact with others, etc., as well as things having to do more directly with government) in order to enjoy literature, as they are about disenfranchising others — though I’m not denying that the disenfranchisement occurs. In short, the natural (literary) man is reluctant to accept that the literature we love often (always?) is calling us to repentance.

      • Jonathan Langford on March 21, 2017 at 11:12 am said:

        And from the context of a Mormon/Christian perspective, there is nothing more utilitarian (and perhaps more ideological) than a call to repentance. (Remembering also a point from last Sunday’s gospel doctrine class, that “say nothing but repentance” includes not just being told that our deeds are sinful but also why we should repent and what the larger goal is to which our repentance is in service, e.g., the Plan of Salvation.)

        Are there any great works of literature that don’t call us to repentance in some way? This isn’t just a rhetorical question…

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