New Website for Immortal for Quite Some Time

Some context, photos, and the first chapter.

Find them HERE

 

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Mormon Literature?

Julie Nichols recently posted her thoughts on the writing and reading of Mormon literature here:

http://associationmormonletters.org/blog/2016/07/mormon-fiction-weird-joke-serious-paradox/#comment-32246

I responded with these thoughts:

Julie, I love the questions you raise here, questions I’ve been thinking about myself as I read and reviewed your book and Mette Harrison’s books and Brian Evenson’s books and Alex Caldiero’s books and just these past couple of weeks as I read Judith Freeman’s books and Phylis Barber’s books.

After a recent reading by Alex, in response to these lines (“We recognize / each other as fellow makers, humans, & not / too anxious for immortality”), I wrote this:

Alex reads in short bursts, a single word, two words, the words that make up a line. His emphasis breaks up the meaning. I have to wait for memory to reassemble the thought. These poems are themselves fragments of meaning, often written before dawn, bordering on the subconscious. They remind me a bit of John Ashbery’s work in the way they make me agree to forego clear and sustained meaning in favor of accumulated meaning. But while Ashbery’s poems are assembled from fragments of overheard or (over)read speech, while they are arranged and rearranged, Alex’s poems have simply happened. There he is in the night. There is his notebook. There is his pen. He writes. He draws. And he turns to the next page. His is improvised poetry, fixed on the page the way a recording fixes an improvised jazz performance .

“You are too present / Or you don’t exist.”

Alex is too present. It is a difficult existence. It produces poetry. And he is my prophet.

 

Okay, that’s what I wrote.

I don’t believe in prophets. Alex is a mystic.

His work is metaphorical for me. It strives to grasp what can’t be grasped. German mystics like Meister Eckhart reached for the same unreachable truths and in doing so enriched the German language immeasurably. Every neologism is a metaphor. Every good metaphor brings new insight. “Truth is a mobile army of metaphors” Nietzsche wrote, and I love the idea, both as it brackets out any sense for absolute truth and as it welcomes that mobile army.

Alex claims he doesn’t believe in metaphors. We are dear friends despite and because of our respective disbeliefs.

I titled my blog post on your book “A Tight Sphinctered Response to a Novel in Seven Stories.” I loved your characters. I loved the book’s warm-hearted portrayals of them in all their difference. I loved the interwoven stories. But I had trouble with the healing, if you remember, with the supernatural. I figured it was my problem as opposed to the book’s problem and ended the little essay like this:

Nichols I thought, a sudden thought, maybe even an epiphany, loves nature like I love nature. These are my flowers. I know them. They help me make sense of the universe. Nichols’ characters love nature too. So what if they also love the super-natural? Give them a break. Loosen your rational sphincter a bit. You don’t have to believe them. Their believing is their business. Isn’t it interesting, after all, to find your way into minds like these — such varied minds and bodies all of whom the author so clearly loves. Come on man, you can straddle the air for a bit. Nobody’s asking you to walk on water.

I can sometimes suspend my proverbial disbelief.

You are working in this essay with the idea of “Mormon literature.” One version would include work by faithful Mormons and its products would be faith promoting. Or it could include work by faithful and not-so-faithful Mormons and ex-Mormons with its works ranging from faith promoting to antagonistic. I guess I prefer the latter.

You quote Brian Evenson, one of my favorite writers. I reviewed several of his works for Open Letters Monthly a couple of years ago.

http://www.openlettersmonthly.com/affliction-fiction/

Here’s a taste of the long piece:

In Evenson’s novel The Open Curtain, a young Rudd Theurer experiences a break between what he thought to be true and what he now perceives to be true. Letters to and from his dead father reveal, perhaps, an illegitimate half-brother. His mother tightens her lips and claims the opposite: “It’s simple truth. . . . We know the truth. There’s no reason to speak of this again.” Not surprisingly, given his mother’s Mormon preference for “truth” over reality, Rudd begins to “have an odd relation to words.” He reads an old story in the 1903 New York Times about William Hooper Young, a grandson of Brigham Young who was on trial for a ritual murder. The newspaper account, supplemented by symbolic signs and penalties Theurer experiences in the Mormon temple ritual, works in him corrosively, structures and de-structures his identity until he commits ritual murders of his own. When Theurer cuts Mormon/Masonic temple symbols into the bodies of his victims, he reifies violent metaphors with which his religion has made sense of the world.

If reifying metaphors is dangerous, so is the making of metaphors. In the story “Contagion” from the book of that name, characters fatefully construct metaphors from a barbed-wire fence. The fence is a given, simply there, and the men who ride it are just doing their jobs: “They were to travel due South, checking fenceline for $2/day to territory’s extreme, and then to cross over and observe conditions beyond.” Their written notes are a straightforward litany of the various types of barbed wire until they encounter a deadly contagion, when the notations begin to stray to more subjective considerations.

Past the fence’s end the riders find a town dominated by a religious sect whose leader locks one rider in a room to write oracular notes about the barbed wire that has become the sect’s object of worship. When he runs out of paper he writes on the walls, encircling himself with sentences that resemble a long, enclosing strand of barbed wire.

As a tool in the real world, barbed wire controls, separates, and imposes order. In light of that fact and in response to the incomprehensible and frightening contagion, the town’s panicked populace has transformed the wire until the fact of the wire becomes the coercive truth of the new religion: “You shall know the fence and the fence shall make you free.” This is precisely the process of truthmaking Nietzsche wrote about so devastatingly: “What is truth? a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms . . . only insofar as man forgets himself as . . . an artistically creative subject does he live with some calm, security, and consistency.” Evenson’s work insists on this. We are the artistically creative authors of the truths we live by. We must then, if we are honest, live more tentatively in relation to the security and consistency we achieve through language. The effect of this conclusion, at least for me, at least most of the time, is bracing.

 

I’ll end this long response by saying thank you for your thoughts here and especially for your wonderful book.

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I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now

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WHITE POWER

WHITE POWER. WHITE POWER.

One sign after the other — Summit Creek’s big signs offering land for sale along the road I climb almost daily to work up a sweat — was defaced by white spray paint.

The next three signs were sprayed with bright orange:

GO AWAY. GO AWAY. GO AWAY.

I get the impulse for graffiti. Years ago, Blake Donner tagged a brand new stone wall on Provo’s University Avenue, a wall that created a gated community for wealthy buyers, with beautiful calligraphy:

DILDO.

But there’s a big difference between calling conspicuous consumption into question and albino racist attacks.
I decided to read the signs downhill, from left to right rather than right to left:

GO AWAY. GO AWAY. GO AWAY. WHITE POWER. WHITE POWER.

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Death and Beauty and Time

I’ve been reading Norwegian novelist Tomas Espedal’s book Against Art. After a confrontation with a neighbor who brings a shotgun to the conversation, the narrator walks away with a sense that he has lost the day, that he can no longer see: “No trees, no road, no freedom, no future, nothing. And so it was a fragile thing, this day of mine.”

Yesterday Espedal posted this note on his Facebook page: “Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illich, harrowing reading, about life’s end, it made me think of this song by Lucinda Williams, her prayer before death.”

It’s her song “Faith & Grace” from The Ghosts of Highway 20. All I need is a little faith and grace, she sings, gravelly voice and searching guitar, a slow song…over 12 minutes long.

Last night I sat on the deck as the sun set and listened to the song and thought about death.

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And about beauty. And time. Time passed and the sky changed.

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The minutes passed. I watched the sky change and listened to Lucinda Williams sing that she’ll stand on the Rock, stand on the Rock, stand on the Rock as she hopes for faith and grace.

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Get right with God, she sang, get right with God, get right with God. And time passed. And the sky changed.

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Darkness gathered and I thought about loss, about despair, about change, about longing while Williams’ steady percussion continued and the guitar searched and the song stretched out and the sky changed and I thought about beauty. I didn’t think about God or faith or grace. I don’t believe in them anymore than she does. And yet I did think about the grace of beauty and my faith in healing time.

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not too anxious for immortality

Christian Asplund, a composer, performer, and professor of music occasionally hosts a kind of salon he calls Avant GaRAWge. Last night’s event featured a performance piece by Christian on guitar and voice and body interacting with another guitarist/vox/corpus. There were readings by poet laureate Lance Larson and by the Sonosopher Alex Caldiero.

Alex read last, and after the applause I gave him a hug and told him he was my prophet. What made me say that?  I don’t believe in prophets. What does the word prophet mean? Why didn’t I just say you’re my sonosopher?

Sonosopher would have described the profound sounds. Alex’s deep voice, so resonant that at times it awakened strings on the grand piano behind him, overwhelmed me.

alex

The experience was profound in ways that included the aural dimension and expanded it. Alex has produced a remarkable series of chapbooks in the last year, one of which contained the work he read last night.

EPSON003

He told me that in the foreseeable future he was only going to perform work that had never been performed. Last night he chose a section from TAKE THE RAP FOR GOD. In this fat little book Alex reproduces the contents of a notebook he filled early in 2007. Images of actual pages are often followed by a typed version on the facing page. Sometimes the reproductions stand alone and a reader needs patience and a magnifying glass.

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Alex read about an old friend (and while he read I replaced the Frenchman with my old Sicilian friend):

my old friend Mallarme / open his book and he’s there

the patterns on the page / read him into existence

if I say the words just so / he returns and tells me more

Alex turned the pages from poem to poem, turning to tell me more, pausing at times, as he notes at the end of the Mallarme poem, for an “indeterminate length.”

He read about creation:

This ability to shape alter and produce it / is too much a case of mistaken abilities / or should I’ve said identities.

The poem is about shapeshifting makers, about poets, and ends like this:

We recognize / each other as fellow makers, humans, & not / too anxious for immortality.

Alex reads in short bursts, a single word, two words, the words that make up a line. His emphasis breaks up the meaning. I have to wait for memory to reassemble the thought. These poems are themselves fragments of meaning, often written before dawn, bordering on the subconscious. They remind me a bit of John Ashbery’s work in the way they make me agree to forego clear and sustained meaning in favor of accumulated meaning. But while Ashbery’s poems are assembled from fragments of overheard or (over)read speech, while they are arranged and rearranged, Alex’s poems have simply happened. There he is in the night. There is his notebook. There is his pen. He writes. He draws. And he turns to the next page. His is improvised poetry, fixed on the page the way a recording fixes an improvised jazz performance .

You are too present / Or you don’t exist.

Alex is too present. It is a difficult existence. It produces poetry. And he is my prophet.

EPSON001

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A Tight-Sphinctered Response to A Novel in Seven Stories

My colleague Julie Nichols’ new book Pigs When They Straddle the Air (Zarahemla Books, 2016) kept disturbing my sleep last night. The interlocking stories have great characters, many of whom are Mormons: lesbian Mormons, straight Mormons, polygamous Mormons, energy directing Mormons, criminal Mormons, herbalist Mormons, business Mormons, lapsed Mormons, priesthood wielding Mormons, feminist Mormons, and so on. Nichols likes these characters one and almost all. She weaves their stories into an intimate textile, a text whose sentences are the work of a careful and brilliant writer; she loves language as much as she loves the people of her stories. The warm-hearted and cantankerous  communities of her characters are mirrored by her rich and well crafted paragraphs.

But that wasn’t what kept waking me up. It was the healers. New-age healers, no less than Mormon priesthood healers, are, in my mind, wishful and hopeful and mistaken and sometimes outright frauds. A “master healer” from California dominates the book’s final story, the one I read before falling asleep. The healer heals an autistic boy. Horse shit, I muttered. The healer heals a comatose victim of a head wound (or perhaps it was the priesthood healers who did the healing, or was it the child performing “child reflexology” who did the healing?). Bull shit, I said. And so on.

I had been warned. Karin Anderson wrote in a blurb that the book made her willing and even delighted “to suspend my own (painful) cynicism and simply follow the mystical premises of the story.” I obviously wasn’t quite so willing to suspend my own (painstaking) cynicism.

 

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So I woke again and again wondering what to think about a book that elicited responses from me like “chicken shit.” I wouldn’t have cared about any of this if I didn’t like the book, if I didn’t like the characters, if I didn’t find the book challenging, if it weren’t meaningful to me.

One answer came this morning when I reread a paragraph following the child reflexology healing/California healer healing/priesthood holder healing:

In every season follow nature skyward: snowshoe first at the edges of snowmelt in late March to catch the pale upturning springbeauties and woodlandstars and the hanging yellow glacier lilies.

Nichols I thought, a sudden thought, maybe even an epiphany, loves nature like I love nature. These are my flowers. I know them. They help me make sense of the universe. Nichols’ characters love nature too. So what if they also love the super-natural? Give them a break. Loosen your rational sphincter a bit. You don’t have to believe them. Their believing is their business. Isn’t it interesting, after all, to find your way into minds like these — such varied minds and bodies all of whom the author so clearly loves.Come on man, you can straddle the air for a bit. Nobody’s asking you to walk on water.

lily3

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Immortal for Quite Some Time

immortal

The Fall/Winter 2016 Catalogue of the U of U Press makes it official!

Cover design by Jessica Booth

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Dreams and Puzzles and Power

During the night I kept waking up to a puzzle that I then set about to solve. The problem was clear. The solutions were there, I knew they were, but they kept slipping away.

I have been reading Greg Prince’s new biography of Leonard Arrington, for 10 years the official historian for the Mormon church, beginning in 1972. The details of Arrington’s struggles with three apostles who opposed the writing of objective history and who, in the end, shut down the history department, have been working in me. Prince also details subsequent events in which the attack on history continued through witchhunts and then excommunications in 1993. Ezra Benson, Mark Petersen, and Boyd Packer were the main adversaries, and obedient functionaries in the bureaucracy their servants.

arrington

In 1984 Arrington sent his finished biography of Brigham to Knopf. Prince reports that he had originally written this dedication for the book: “To Elder Rameumptum J. Moriancumr who, by his stupid regulations and irritating bureaucratic pronouncements, has helped me understand Brigham Young’s impatience with self-important people of his own day, thus provoking some of the colorful language which I am delighted to reproduce in this biography.”

That’s funny; but the systematic undermining of Arrington’s history department wasn’t. Prince repeatedly points out Arrington’s naiveté concerning the politics of the situation. Benson, Petersen, and Packer were powerful in ways he didn’t understand.

Like Arrington, I had no clue that the men I described in an essay published in Sunstone while I was a professor at Brigham Young University had been consolidating their anti-intellectual power for two decades before I took them on. I wrote, among other things, that recent speeches by Dallin Oaks, Neil Maxwell, and Boyd Packer were making distinctions between faith and reason that were damaging our efforts to wed the two at BYU. My essay was called “One Lord, One Faith, Two Universities,” and here is what I wrote about Boyd Packer:

Two influential talks in the last decade by Elder Boyd Packer, another board member, have likewise served to divide the spirit and the mind and to denigrate reason. . . . “Now listen carefully! It is crucial that you understand what I tell you now.  There is danger! Church-sponsored universities are an endangered species-nearly extinct now.” The talk quotes a passage from the recent debate on the secularization of church-sponsored colleges that asserts that “the schools that lost, or are losing, their sense of religious purpose, sincerely sought nothing more than a greater measure of ‘excellence.’ . . .  The language of academic excellence is powerfully seductive.” The talk further asserts that BYU can only be kept “in faith with the founders” if the prerogatives of this unique board of trustees are neither diluted nor ignored….  Theirs, and theirs alone, is the right to establish policies and set standards under which administrators, faculties, and students are to function-standards of both conduct and of excellence. . . .  History confirms that the university environment always favors reason, and the workings of the spirit are made to feel uncomfortable.  I know of no examples to the contrary.”

            Why the defensiveness? Why the distrust? Why the need to assert exclusive control? Why the absolute division between the faithful board of trustees and the unfaithful university-the very university that is and can be an “example to the contrary”?

I find a clue in attitudes expressed in an earlier talk by Elder Packer. “It is an easy thing,” he states, “for a man with extensive academic training to measure the Church using the principles he has been taught in his professional training as his standard.  In my mind it ought to be the other way around.  A member of the Church ought always, particularly if he is pursuing extensive academic studies, to judge the professions of man against the revealed word of the Lord.” And why shouldn’t academics “measure the Church using academic principles”? Because, the talk asserts, academics will vitiate religion and true religious scholarship whenever possible.  The talk gives as an example a friend, a CES employee who went East to do a doctorate in counseling and guidance.  He chose as his dissertation topic, “The Ward Bishop as Counselor.” He was forced by his professors to delete references to power of discernment and revelation.  If he would do so, he was promised, he would become “an authority in the field, his dissertation would be published and his reputation established.” In the end he both compromised and didn’t compromise, and the dissertation became neither the inspired document it might have nor the academic success promised by his professors.  The writer, the talk reports, returned to the modest income and to the relative obscurity of the CE System. “He summed up his experience this way: ‘The mantle is far, far greater than the intellect.'”

            The audience was to conclude from this that professors don’t understand things of the spirit, that academics are forced to produce spiritually sterile work, and that truly wise men and women will retreat from academia.  The example was so foreign to my experience that I went looking for the dissertation mentioned in the talk.  It turned out to be typical of so many dissertations written for weak departments. “The purpose of this study,” the author wrote, “is to measure the counseling attitudes of bishops and seminary instructors of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and to compare their counseling attitudes with various measures of activity in their wards and class rooms.” The startling conclusions were that “There is a relationship between counseling attitudes of bishops and their effectiveness as bishops….  Also the amount of training received in counseling is positively related to counseling attitudes.”

            This example is bogus.  The dissertation is clearly a weak piece of work done for a weak department.  To use it as the key example in a talk pitting academia against spirituality is unfair.  Contrast the anti-intellectual spirit of that example with this passage from Joseph Smith’s letter to Isaac Galland, 22 March 1839: “the first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men, or by the dominations of one another, when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same.”

            Academia, at its worst, is indeed sterile, mind-numbing, and spiritually destructive.  So is religion at its worst.  We don’t choose to be academics or practitioners of a faith because of how bad they can be, but rather because of the power they give us to live good and productive lives.

It has been 16 years since I formally resigned from the church that reentered my dreams and half-dreams last night. Prince’s book on Arrington and especially his analysis of his political naiveté brought into focus my own remarkable naiveté. I was arguing the facts and interpretations of facts with no regard for politics, with no understanding of the structures of power. And I’m glad that was the case. In my half-waking states I almost worked the whole thing out. The fact that I was trying to solve the puzzle indicates that I haven’t yet done so, at least subconsciously.

My book Immortal for Quite Some Time, which will appear in October with the University of Utah Press, which also published the Arrington book, reflects 25 years of work on this same puzzle. It includes a 1993 written exchange I had with Boyd Packer about the Sunstone essay and also a round-house curse he proclaimed on the writer of a subsequent essay (my only work published anonymously—I wasn’t totally naive), a thundering denunciation given in the church’s general conference.

“We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.” Joseph Smith

And that, folks, is my sermon for this Sunday morning. Hope I sleep better tonight.

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Prophecy Fulfilled

A headline in the Salt Lake Tribune this morning:

Mormon church wins full recognition in Vietnam, sees chance for growth

When I was a student at BYU in the late 1960’s, this eventuality was prophesied. The full account is included in my forthcoming book Immortal For Quite Some Time (University of Utah Press, October 2016). Here’s an excerpt:

The next step for a young man who had been equipped by the Boy Scouts to stand up for America was my military obligation. The mimeographed pamphlet we received at Brigham Young University was called “A Guide to Opportunities Open to the Young Men Faced with the Obligation (Opportunity) to Serve in One of the Armed Services: Prepared by Detachment 855 Air Force ROTC BYU for Bishops’ and Stake Presidents’ Day.”

We gathered in the DeJong Concert Hall where an Elder of the Church, Hartman Rector, spoke to us about duty, obedience, and patriotism. He reminded us that “the members of the Church have always felt under obligation to come to the defense of their country when a call to arms was made.” He described the war that liberated Japan as a war used by God to introduce the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Japanese. Ditto the Korean War. And “exactly the same thing will happen in Vietnam. When we pull out the U.S. troops . . . we will move the mission president and the missionaries right in behind them. We will build up the kingdom of God there. Yes, it took some of the best of this nation to do it, but these nations must be redeemed by blood. It’s in the economy of God. . . . Yes, this is God’s nation, and the stars and stripes is God’s flag.”

Over the decades I had come to discount the prophecy. Should have been more patient.

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