Mormon Literature?

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

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.

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.

About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at
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