On Poetry And The Joys Of Language


The beauty of the machine, like all beauty, is for its own sake.
—Adam Miller

Have you ever noticed that no matter where you go, no matter when you are experiencing something, there you are?… I sit still, an anchored thing, as temporal changes roll past. From one perspective it looks like I am moving while the river remains still, but in truth I think it is time itself that moves rushing past me, dividing to flow around me.
—Dora Daphne Tanner, from The Scholar Of Moab

The past year has witnessed the opening up (discovery?) of new ecosystems on the Mormon intellectual landscape. I’ve noted elsewhere my satisfaction with some of the advances in historical scholarship. But here I’d like to focus on the brilliant and challenging work of Steven Peck and Adam Miller. This post is not intended as an in-depth, extended review of their work, but rather as a rumination on why I find their work so moving and important.

At the outset, the choice to review both scholars together is itself a kind of commentary. By placing their work side by side I am, at a minimum, inviting comparison between the two, suggesting that their writings in some sense belong together in evaluation. The thing under consideration here—the something that I see their work as sharing—could be most simply described as a fruitful combination of literary prowess and theological creativity. Which is to say that Adam (the theologian/philosopher by training) writes theology with unusual literary and poetic quality, while Steve (the biologist-cum-poet/novelist) writes literary fiction that is also extremely compelling (if mischievous a little bit hilarious) as theology. Each in his own way is a gifted poet and a compelling theologian (just last week, Steve published what might be the best Mormon poem I’ve ever read, a work of staggering theological creativity). And I’ll also note that Adam’s review of Steve’s book was probably my favorite bit of writing in the bloggernacle of the last year.

Both have a certain poetic sensibility, both have incredibly interesting things to say about life, Mormonism, and the universe, and both have recently written outstanding books. While he just republished his delicious novella A Short Stay In Hell, and I just purchased several copies of his recently released Rifts of Rime, in Professor Peck’s case I have in mind his ingenious, wonderfully strange The Scholar Of Moab. This is a terrific novel in its own right. It does everything a good postmodern novel should, and none of the things such a work should avoid. An artful combination of naturalism, magic realism, poetry, non-linear narrative, dark humor, and philosophical depth, there is also something very distinctively Mormon about the book. Like Mormonism’s keystone, this book is profoundly, obsessively self-conscious of its own constructedness as a narrative and a text. It beckons the reader with the mystery of its own historicity. I had a hard time putting it down, but also found myself reading deliberately slowly, and rereading, on the strength of the aesthetic power of the prose alone. (I’m told that incontrovertibly scientific wordprint studies performed by famous researchers have conclusively concluded that there are multiple authors to the text, none of which is either Steven Peck or Solomon Spaulding).

The conjoined two-headed, three-spirited philosopher/cowboy(s) furnished some of the book’s strangest, most compelling, and arguable most distinctly Mormon sections of the text. In these indecipherable written characters, magic runs up against the palpably real and mundane in a way that makes the reader genuinely question the distinction between the two realms (while in the world of the narrative, the conjoined twins also conjoin other binaries in a way that re-situates them along a messy, human continuum: faith/intellect, belief/doubt, religion/science, sane/insane, speaking/silent, gay/straight). William’s own self-described experience gets at deep, difficult questions that run through the heart of the philosophical (and the Mormon) imagination in a way that utterly de-abstracts them for a reader so deeply invested in their story:

We stand in relationship closer than any human beings really ought to. I’ve been there for all his experiences. We started with the same phenotypical brain at birth, genetically identical heads; we’ve had identical experiences, identical nature and nurture, yet here we are—he gay, me straight; he religious, me an unbeliever; he mad, me clinging to rationality by a thread. Can the universe depend so thoroughly on who is on the right and who is on the left? Is it all chaos, and hung precariously on such tiny breaks in symmetry?… Since Marcel [the headless third consciousness that controls the legs] experiences both of us inwardly, is he a more complete person? An entity of wholeness, combined of our two consciousnesses? Maybe he does not see us as separate entities…. But the self that I experience from all these competing “persons” is one complete thing, one consciousness. One consciousness. Me. Maybe Marcel is like that? Maybe he is the higher consciousness formed from our separate contributions, like the two hemispheres of a single brain. I am but one piece of his/her more comprehensive whole, providing input to his integrated self…. maybe this kind of coming together is something closer to what God is (if there be such a thing). Maybe God is just the integration of millions of such consciousnesses? Marcel is just a smaller version of God. A divine entity with only two such consciousnesses…

Professor Peck’s trinity is coarse and earthy, deformed and messy, freakish and unholy, yet beautiful and compelling, a relationship where the reader encounters the divine. Not dissimilarly from how Edward Babcock first encountered Deity (as related elsewhere by William):

He said: “God came to me. Not as a person, or a vision, or some manifestation of the senses.” Rather, he explained, he became aware aware of His presence—an “other” that he has formed a relationship with. A presence he has befriended in a mutual exchange of being-there-for-each-other. That is what I’ve never understood. I’ve been whit him my whole life. How can I have missed out on their close relationship?

God manifest not in the wind or the fire or the earthquake, not even in the flesh or the spirit, but in the relationship.

Adam Miller (who has been busy lately founding and running a splendid new independent academic press) recently published a collection of essays. Adam is a theologian. He is also healthily, even playfully skeptical of the value of theology. It isn’t false-modesty or cheap non-conformism, but rather a doubtful approach to the question of whether the divine can be apprehended or ordered according to a systematically rational system. Still, Adam is a very good theologian with evident philosophical training and an unusual intellectual rigor. If he is skeptical of the wisdom of seeking God in the realm of Platonic absolutes or the interplay of Kantian Categories, it is only because he finds God so immanently grounded in material reality, in the presence of the Present. The title Rube Goldberg Machines is an admission and a statement about the utility of thinking philosophically about the divine. Such machines (not unlike a great deal of modern intellectual theory-making) deploy absurdly contrived, deliberately over-complicated mechanisms to perform the simplest of tasks. But like the comical machines, theology itself can be, when approached with appropriate self-awareness and self-deprecation, tremendously fun, even joyful. There are a number of extremely gifted, serious theologians in the Mormon tradition, from the Pratt brothers and Roberts to Truman Madsen and Blake Ostler. There work is invaluable, and Adam would be the first to admit it. But while Adam’s theological writings probably have closest Mormon kinship with the work of the wonderful Jim Faulconer (Adam’s writing in my mind combines Faulconer’s hermeneutic aversion to systematic theology with Kierkegarrd’s demanding gravity and an invigorating dose of Nietzsche’s poetic indulgence), they are indeed fun. Not because they take you to fun places, but because the journey is a genuine (if challenging) pleasure.

Adam’s essay on Atonement (separated out into 118 numbered aphoristic propositions) shines a wonderfully original, provocative, but also thoroughly Mormon light onto age old questions about estrangement and reconciliation, intercession and submission, Father and Son, and repentance and resurrection. He works mightily to drag these questions from the realm of eternal abstraction and grand narratives into the brute, material reality of the humanly experienced present. This allows him to (re)frame and discuss the problem of grace-versus-works in a dramatically new and unexpected way. He draws some of the momentum he needs to re-set the stage by addressing Atonement in distinctively Mormon terms: the reconciliation and at-one-ness at stake is not just between Gods and humanity, or between spirits and bodies (though both are vital), but (and perhaps especially) between families and generations. Part of the payoff is that this approach enables him to creatively and persuasively synthesize the concerns over materiality and this-worldly community that drive liberation theologies with the other-worldly, eternity-oriented, occasionally mystical claims that animate more traditional creedal formulations. Perhaps best of all, if my own experience is at all telling, it is an essay that not only affects how the reader thinks or conceives of the nature and mechanism of Christian Atonement, but deeply affects the reader in the act of reading it. One reads in the fixed thrall of the words in precisely the way that the words describe and prescribe (a felicitous essay, to turn Adam’s own phrase).

A final point, on both writers. One often hears discussion about the longed-for truly Great Mormon Author. There are a number of truly fantastic Mormon poets and novelists and playwrights and philosophers and theologians and critics and essayists and songwriters. What I find so compelling about these two is that they embody what, in my mind, marks the truly great Mormon writer. A great Mormon poet is not merely a great poet who happens to be Mormon or even who also writes about Mormon things. A great Mormon poet does not simply bring the tools of great poetry or poetic theory to bear on Mormonism in some form or another. A great Mormon poet does something like the opposite: she applies the truths and depth and richness and insights and fabric of Mormonism to Poetry itself, enriches the poetic enterprise with the greatness of Mormonism. The Scholar Of Moab is not merely a great novel written by a Mormon that contains Mormon themes. It is a great novel that could only have been written by a Mormon. By a gifted and original and impassioned and Mormon-to-the-core Mormon. And Adam’s work does not merely apply the insights or axioms of materialist philosophy or Zen existentialism to Mormon questions, in an effort to enlighten Mormonism with good theology. Rather it enlightens the philosophical endeavor with Mormonism’s richness and singularity. It is a work of truly great theology that only could have been contrived (and perhaps only in Rube Goldberg fashion) by a brilliant Mormon.

Both Adam and Steve have an uncommon aesthetic gift with language, and both writers apply and multiply that gift to the great and genuinely pleasurable benefit not just of intellectual Mormons, but of serious students and fans of great literature, poetry, and theology everywhere.

Comments

  1. An Imperfect Saint says:

    Thanks for this interesting perspective. I think it is great to see the work of one great poet/scholar when contrasted with another. I wonder though how much that helps in passing on the messages of the gospel to other generations, and if it matters that it does or doesn’t.

    I will use a thoroughly overused example so that I shouldn’t have to go into a ton of detail to illustrate the point. I would be surprised if anyone hadn’t had some previous exposure to Orsom Scott Card’s book Ender’s Game. He is a good author, he is LDS, you can see LDS themes, and if his work had just been put before an LDS audience, he would probably be considered a relevant but not inspired author, who embraces science fiction more than your average Deseret Book reader.

    You find this book everywhere, the BYU bookstore, an MIT game theory class, military academies (in lots of countries), seminary lessons, High School and College English lit classes, and available for sale a most SciFi conventions. (I have a friend who owns a bookshop and does a lot of online business, when a SciFi convention sold their 1,000 copies by Friday, they had her literally fly out with the 1,000 copies she had in stock.). The most funny thing to me is to here people talk about Ender’s Game in such a ubiquitous fashion. Most of its readers have no idea Card is LDS, and wouldn’t care if they did.

    They simply love some part of the book, it speaks to them, and their lives in a way that is relatable. I find that any good author does this, no matter what the genre. As someone who is a SciFi addict (especially short story anthologies) and someone who tries to keep up with LDS authors in other genres, I find that it is easy to pick out LDS authors, which can be good or bad.

    I like to read the biographies of authors after I have read at least one of their books. I don’t want to know too much about their background until I come to know them as writers, poets and authors. I agree that Miller and Peck both bring unique voices, themes and styles that are hard to find elsewhere. Certainly no one is going to put them in a box with, books to send to DI, and neither of them is likely to end up on an Oprah’s reading list. Their viewpoints are unique, often poignant, but I wonder if they would resonate as well with a non-LDS reader? I don’t know the answer to that.

    On a long dead blog that several friends and I wrote reviewing science fiction stories that were at least ten years old and now in print, I realized that by design or not, I had done all of the reviews of books by Orson Scott Card. I had just finished reviewing the Alvin Maker Series when it hit me, and so I announced I wasn’t reviewing any more of Card’s work. It was someone else’s turn. (Since we always had a list of 60+ books that we thought were worth reviewing, a monthly editing session on our BBS – yes it was that old school that one of us still had one set up – would choose the ten or so for the next two months, and we would divide them up.). The next time a Card series came up to be reviewed, I think it was the Homecoming Series but am not positive, it got assigned to someone who wasn’t raised in the US. He didn’t know Scott was Mormon, and he didn’t know I was. I was the one editing that cycle, so I got his review in and started marking it up with my red pencil. While some was grammar, most of it was me editing the things that he had “gotten wrong” because he wasn’t understanding the grand sweep of the story in relation to the Book of Mormon.

    The next morning when I went over my edits before sending if to him, I realized that his review was spot on, and it was my inability to look at Card without my Mormon Glasses that was the problem. I reprinted and edited it like a would a review of a Asimov review, and sent it off with only a few suggestions for fleshing it out.

    I got long winded again (I guess if I am ever banished it will be for that) but I guess my point is that I completely agree with Brad, but I wonder how a review by someone who is not LDS would be different, and which points would still resonate just as strongly across religious, geographical and educational boundaries, and which would “be missed” or seem irrelevant to a non-LDS reader.

  2. I’m a bigger fan of the theology from Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve.

  3. Rimshot!

  4. Seriously, I can’t BELIEVE I failed to anticipate that one..
    Well played, sir.

  5. No congratulations necessary for low hanging fruit plucked from the tree of life

  6. Brad, I am wondering if I just missed it, but is Miller’s essay on Atonement that you reference in the book Rube Goldberg Machines or is it elsewhere? I am very interested in reading it as I am ravenous for all things related to the Atonement lately. Thanks for the review. Rifts of Rime, Scholar of Moab, and A Short Stay in Hell are all on my birthday/Christmas list this year.

  7. Yes, EOR, it’s the opening essay in RGM. You’ll love it.

  8. Thanks! Another book for my list. I can’t wait. :)

  9. themormonbrit says:

    I love poetry! And I love theology! And I really really love poetic theology and theological poetry!

  10. I agree with themormonbrit, theological poetry is the cat’s pajamas. However, theological rock songs are the cat’s poopjamas.

  11. These are both wonderful writers, who happen to be Mormons. Steve knows I love his work, but I don’t believe anything he has done to date is to be compared with what he will do in the future. I’ve praised Scholar pretty highly, but I’m not going to let him rest on his laurels. I’m not sure I agree that Scholar is a particularly Mormon novel. I’m not sure that it could only have been written by a Mormon. It could only have been written by Steve, who is a Mormon – so that is something close. Based only on what I read of Adam on T&S, I’m not sure that I consider him a particularly Mormon writer. When I read him, I get the sense that the Mormonism I have loved is giving way, that He is a very religious thinker. There is a thread of negation in what he writes that runs contrary to what I believe about my religion. His skill as a writer is undeniable.

    I case this seems out of step – this bit, on receiving good reviews, is something I meant to send to Steve a while back. This is Ted Hughes writing to Anne Sexton.

    “Don’t you worry about reviews. I’ve just been getting a load of them, too. Both kinds are bad, but the favorable ones are worse, I think. They tend to confirm one in one’s own conceit. Also, they make you self-conscious about your virtues – just as when you praise a child for a natural charm. Also, they create an underground opposition: applause is the beginning of abuse. Also, they deprive you of your own anarchic liberties – by electing you into the government. Also, they separate you from your devil, which hates being observed and only works happily incognito. Also, they deprive you of your detachment from the scene into which you are injecting your work, by making you a visible part of the scene. Also, they satisfy ambition, which only works from discontent. Also, they banish your spirit helpers, as when the Eskimo hunter opens a gift shop and buys a car. Also, they falsify your life, by forcing you into an identification with your (work): your work hears the praise, but your read it and accept it. etc. Whereas bad reviews are like an humiliation: you feel you must conscript every reserve … and produce the absolute reality that will withstand everything. They send you into the wilderness.”

    So, if I don’t join the love train, it doesn’t mean I’m not acting out of love.

  12. Thomas, wise words well-received. I also happen to know that you can visit the future so speak from experience and I can’t wait to see what I will have written.

  13. Thanks, Steve. Very glad this is well received.I feel like I’ve been kind of disagreeable lately!

  14. I really enjoyed reading this essay, Brad — thanks!

  15. Brad, great analysis–in its accuracy and articulation. Well done.

  16. Ha, Parkin’s polemic against reviewers…

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