Mormon Tragedy Revisited, Part II

Since finishing my post on Mormon tragedy for Dawning of a Brighter Day, I’ve been thinking more about the relationship between authors and characters. As I stated in the post, Mormon tragedy is (likely) only possible if we are willing to damn our characters–by which I mean I think we must be willing to let them step off the path towards exaltation and stay there. Following the essay I cited by Adam Miller, this stepping off can have much to do with the way  characters respond to conflict: do they face them in the present moment or do they reject and flee from them? Tragedy, I concluded, occurs when characters run from the grace of Christ–or that which has the potential to redeem them.

If this is the case, I don’t see a great deal of tragedy in Mormon fiction–at least among primary characters. Douglas Thayer’s The Tree House, for example, is one of a Mormon literature’s best studies of suffering and pain, but it’s ultimately hopeful message, which affirms everyone’s dependence on grace, makes it a somber comedy. The same is likewise true about Levi Peterson’s The Backslider and Jack Harrell’s Vernal Promises (the latter being a kind of rewriting of the former), as both novels depict the journeys of characters who step off and then return to the path of exaltation. Indeed, if there is any Mormon novel that affirms the sanctity of the present as givenness, it is The Backslider and its life-affirming and life-advocating Cowboy Jesus. The same is true for Steven Peck’s often bleak A Short Stay in Hell, which, despite its rather tragic feel, ends with Soren Johannsen’s affirmation of purpose in his search for way out of the hell in which he finds himself.

Rare as it might be, tragedy appears in other Mormon fiction. Perhaps the two great tragedies in contemporary Mormon letters are Levi Peterson’s Aspen Marooney, which is about a man who lives in the past, and Steven Peck’s The Scholar of Moab, which is about a man who lives in the future. Even so, these novels seem odd choices for great tragedy since both have more than their share of comedic moments that, in some ways, almost eclipse the fact that both novels end before the protagonists find their way back to grace.

It is worth mentioning, of course, that some Mormon novels complicate this understanding of tragedy. Linda Sillitoe’s Sideways to the Sun, for example, tells the story of a Mormon woman who “finds” herself after discarding what we might call the cultural baggage of Mormon life. Abandoned by her once-seemingly righteous husband, she begins to see weaknesses in Mormon patriarchal society, which leads her to give up certain assumptions that had served as the very foundation of her spiritual and social life. Here, the protagonist experiences a transformation that, for the reader, is meant to be the achievement of a higher state of spirituality and personhood–an embrace, even, of the givenness of life. That this achievement happens through a turning away from temple ordinances and priesthood, however, complicates its comedic quality in the minds of many Mormon readers (including Eugene England). Can the protagonist’s rejection of temple Mormonism really be her moment of grace? Furthermore, do her vengeful acts at the end of the novel, which the novel seems to portray as good things, really constitute a higher or enlightened level of being? Or do they merely invite the reader to deconstruct the protagonist’s transformation? Personally, as a reader, I have a hard time accepting Sideways to the Sun as a comedy because of the spirit of vengeance that permeates the last fourth of the novel. Maybe grace can happened through well-intentioned turnings away from the temple and priesthood (that is: I don’t want to discount the possibility), but in revenge and manipulation? For me, the motivations for such paths seem anchored in the past, in recycled pain. If Sideways to the Sun is supposed to be a comedy, it is probably a failed one–at least from my subjective viewpoint.

Which brings up the fact that tragedy and comedy–at least Mormon I tragedy and comedy–are a matter of individual perspective. It is likely, after all, that what I have been trying to work out in this and my previous post is a notion of tragedy that is caught too much in a rather orthodox Mormon understanding of mortality, sin, redemption, and exaltation. That is, it could be that the only way for a novel like The Scholar of Moab to be tragic is to take Mormonism seriously at its word. Otherwise, who’s to say that Mormon comedies, as I have defined them, are not tragedies for those who do not take Mormonism seriously? Indeed, what is to stop someone who sees Mormonism as a delusion from taking great pain in Frank Windham’s return to the fold? Could it be, after all, that tragedy is only ever possible for audiences who share convictions with characters (or, for that matter, authors)?

One final thought: Does the institutional church’s seemingly new openness to doubt (or recognition of and sympathy for those who doubt), as articulated in President Uchtdorf’s talk “Come, Join with Us” from the October 2013 General Conference, create a more fertile field for the cultivation of Mormon tragedy? In other words, as we come to speak in more nuanced ways about where and how one stands in relationship to doctrine, belief, and orthodoxy, will we begin to see more stories about characters who get mired tragically in the nuance? It seem likely to me, after all, that the great Mormon tragedy of the first quarter of the twenty-first century will involve a protagonist who falls because he or she cannot reconcile old orthodoxies with new. In his or her inability to evolve with and adapt to information-age Mormonism, that is, he or she becomes lost in allegiances to paradigms, principles, and policies that no longer have (or should no longer have) much relevancy to contemporary Mormon life. It is a tragic circumstance that people at both right and left poles can find themselves in, I think, along with those who seem to exist in what we might call a false middle–that seemingly middling zone where one listens to all voices, is open to all opinions, but does nothing with them.


9 thoughts on “Mormon Tragedy Revisited, Part II”

    1. “run from”

      I experimented by writing this post on my iPad with Evernote. I keep finding spots where the autocorrect function (or my own bad typing) confused my meaning.

      What I have in mind here is a character like Flannery O’Connor’s Hazel Motes from Wise Blood–someone who actively tries to escape the redeeming power of Christ. I think there are probably people who misunderstand grace and therefore live tragic lives–but do not escape the divine comedy that Mormonism promises.

  1. I like that you point out the different readings of what a Mormon author may intend to be a “tragedy.” I’ve been struggling with that conundrum while working out the trajectory of my own novel addressing “faith and doubt.” If the protagonist loses his faith and leaves the Church, that would likely be a tragedy to Mormon readers. But at the same time, others who have left the Church (or non-members), would likely find the work to be a comedy—in the literary sense—because they would view the protagonist as escaping to a happier life. I’m not sure there’s a way to make it tragic for both audiences, anymore, without emphasizing the tragedy of experience that most “tragic” works present nowadays, since so much of traditional tragedy depends on a person of noble character falling because of a tragic flaw; and the definition of a noble person is so up for debate since the beginning of the 20th century.

    I’ve been reading some of Unamuno, the Spanish philosopher, and he sees the tragedy of the human condition working between the extremes of rationality and irrationality. Richard L. Rubins summarized it at as “The central, defining characteristic of the tragic sense of life is its insistence on the balance between the striving for rationality on the one hand, and the recognition of the underlying irrationality of existence on the other.” In other words, as I understand it, the tragic sense is recognizing one’s being caught between rationality and irrationality. Rubins says, “Despite its monumental commitment to the search for rational understanding, the hallmark of the tragic sense of life is its recognition that rationality has its limits. Man’s understanding, while indefinitely extendible, is never total in its extent. So while the tragic figure is willing to risk everything in his pursuit of the truth, he must also recognize that his quest will never be completely fulfillable. He must accept the irrationality that underlies existence, and not artificially attempt to reduce that irrationality to something less than it is.” What I take away is that the more we learn rationally about the universe, the more we may be tempted to embrace that view wholly (even though we can never know for sure that we have learned everything we need to or can know) and discount the irrational (faith), when the ideal, perhaps, is to pursue truth with faith in tow. Unamuno said, “My religion is to seek for truth in life and for life in truth, even knowing that I shall not find them while I live.”

    I’m kind of rambling, but I’m very interested in the tragic aesthetic, and trying to make it work for Mormon literature.

    You mention damning the character and leaving him/her there. Not sure if this is what you meant, but it reminds me of Brian Evenson’s idea that negative events and characters highlight more positive ways of living by contrast.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

    1. I’m not entirely sure what I mean by damning characters in Mormon fiction, since so few writers seem willing to take that step–and the idea of “damning” itself is rather ambiguously presented in Mormon theology. Maybe what I’m getting at is a resistance to the impulse to redeem characters. Of course, in Aspen Marooney–which is a novel that should be read as much as The Backslider–the protagonist remains unredeemed, but another character–the title character, in fact–expresses hope that he will someday understand grace and find redemption. The problem is, his understanding of those principles are so mired in bad Mormon theology and culture that he can’t seem to get there.

      I need to read up on Unamuno–and other theorists of tragedy for that matter. I think Marden J. Clark is one of the few who have written specifically of Mormon tragedy, but I’m sure there are others out there.

    1. I got sidetracked in my reading of Mormon X. Has it come to an end yet? It has quit showing up in my Feedly reader, so I assume it’s over–or at a pause.

      Maybe a worthwhile project for someone would be to assemble a list of Mormon tragedies–broadly defined. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more short stories than novels that take the risk of Mormon tragedy. Also, there are probably many Mormon tragicomedies out there, like the Tree House or any of the works Mahonri wrote about in his post on the AML blog.

  2. Hi Scott,

    I’ve been closely following your essays on tragedy, as well as Mahonri’s. Excellent insights. I’ve often thought that the extreme optimism and hyper-orderliness often present in Mormon culture (particularly in Western European Mormonism) is a result of the severe trauma of the events of the 19th century and the difficult assimilation period of the early 20th century. We essentially came to repress and re-order our past in order to deal with its traumatizing events.

    In any case, I’m in the middle of writing a book comprised of a series of essays on theological and philosophical meditations on the problem of evil and suffering. A kind of Mormon manifesto for existentialism, though I don’t explicitly discuss Mormonism’s teachings per se. I think it will resonate with much of your thinking here. There are ways to confront the irrevocably tragic in Mormon thought that aren’t readily available in other traditions.

    1. “I’ve often thought that the extreme optimism and hyper-orderliness often present in Mormon culture (particularly in Western European Mormonism) is a result of the severe trauma of the events of the 19th century and the difficult assimilation period of the early 20th century. We essentially came to repress and re-order our past in order to deal with its traumatizing events.”

      I couldn’t agree more with this statement–although I think the trauma has become so distant and so internalized that most never see the connection. I think most people would assume that it is tied to teachings about seeking after appropriateness and uplifting content in media, which they might tie back to the thirteenth Article of Faith. Mormons have always been conservative in their aesthetic choices, so it would be interesting to do a history of Mormon reception of tragedy–on stage, page, and screen. I vaguely remember hearing about Brigham Young disliking Shakespeare’s tragedies…

      Your book sounds interesting. I’ll have to take a look at it when its published.

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