His fruitful new study provides lots to chew on this winter.
IN 1888 Orson Whitney issued his stirring, stentorian appeal for a Mormon home literature: â€œIt is from the warp and woof of all learning, so far as we are able to master it and make it ours, that the fabric of our literature must be woven. â€¦ [But] above all things, we must be original.â€ Terryl Givens might have taken Whitneyâ€™s challenge as the inspiration for his fine new book, People of Paradox, which works outward from tensions in the â€œwarp and woofâ€ of Mormon thought to the tissue of those tensions in Mormon artistic and intellectual endeavors. Givensâ€™ approach succeeds in many ways; above all things, it is original.
Givens achieves many high points in his critical survey of Mormon artistic culture. He has a keen nose for the paradigmatic figure and the telling episode, as in his twinned discussions of Orson Pratt and, later, Hugh Nibley. If Prattâ€™s thought exemplified his eraâ€™s vigorous public wrestling with the competing imperatives of individual moral and priesthood authority, Nibleyâ€™s work, one hundred years later, signaled a shift in the wind, â€œa kind of insularity in the churchâ€™s intellectual engagement with the world at largeâ€ (97, 230). Givensâ€™ skill in sketching this kind of episode is matched by his eye for the illustrative detail, as in his discussion of the ways in which basketball hoops and freethrow lines in the chapel overflow collapse the distance between the Mormon sacred and the banal (245). And as in his earlier work, Viper on the Hearth, Givens shows himself to be a masterly reader; his finest performances in this volume, uniformly intelligent and incisive, include interpretations of cultural texts as diverse as D.A. Weggelandâ€™s 1875 painting â€œGypsy Camp,â€ the architecture of the Washington D.C. temple, and Greg Whitelyâ€™s recent documentary film â€œNew York Doll.â€
Givens is at his best in the mid-length critical set pieces encountered throughout the book, each one addressing a particular question for several pages of sustained, sensitive discussion that presented this reader, at least, with novel views to familiar problems. His treatment of Mormonism and tragedy, which draws widely on scripture, history, speculative doctrine and institutional structure; his lucid explanation of the ways in which the aesthetic notion of the sublime undergirds Western modernityâ€™s privileging of ambiguity and irony, and how the sublime is at odds with Mormonismâ€™s cosmological positivism and philosophical monism; and his discussion of the Mormon ethic of progress, characterized, he suggests, â€œby a pervasively systematic monitoring of and reification of progressâ€ (308)—each of these little plums contributes something fresh and suggestive to Mormon cultural criticism. And Givens musters the occasional moment of humor to temper the heavy and the heady: in his discussion of standardized meetinghouse architecture, Givens dryly notes that official guidelines allow expression of local color in the choice of â€œnatural or mechanical ventilation systemâ€ (246); and he quotes Maureen Whippleâ€™s Brigham Young, â€œI would say to you always, pay your debts, keep your bowels open and walk uprightly before God and you will never have a careâ€ (292).
The book is more than a survey, however. It advances the claim that Mormon cultural expression has achieved a distinctive complexion through its engagement of four philosophical â€œparadoxesâ€ inherent in restoration scripture and doctrine. Givensâ€™ innovation is his framing of Mormon thought as a series of problems—not so much paradoxes as interrelated pairs of competing, antithetical ideas—and thus it is his premise that is original, not his critical tools. While Orson Whitney would no doubt be pleased at his finding in favor of an original Mormon â€œhome culture,â€ Givens stops somewhat short of practicing a â€œhome criticismâ€: that is, the book is not a Mormon examination of culture, which might bring unique insights to bear on the notion of culture itself, but rather an examination of Mormon culture using categories and concepts inherited from a broad Western tradition. Indeed, Givens spends very little time rendering any sort of theory of culture; the notion receives its most extensive treatment in a brief passage of the introduction. Culture, he asserts, comprises
a general habit of mind, the intellectual development of a society, and its general body of arts. I have taken these three emphases, and their interrelationships, as my particular focus: the seminal ideas that constitute a Mormon â€œhabit of mind,â€ their development and elaboration over time, and their manifestations and permutations across a spectrum of artistic media. (xiii)
As slight as this account is, the reader should not conclude that Givens works with an untheorized notion of culture. On the contrary, the argument silently imports several influential theories of culture, but leaves them latent in the analysis rather than articulating their deep structures and assumptions. In particular, Givens relies on a narrow, modern construct of culture as high art, in all its conflicted reliance on and alienation from authority, tradition, and official discourse. Moreover, he adopts a fairly hard-line ideological hermeneutic, meaning that he sees ideology (in the form of scripture, doctrine and theology) as the original ground of culture, with art merely reflecting or engaging a prior, purer ideological substrate.
Givensâ€™ spare treatment of the cultural theories that undergird his argument is certainly a deliberate rhetorical choice on his part. The advantages of this approach are real: by skipping a slow-going theoretical section, he retains the attention and enthusiasm of readers like Julie, who would find such a discussion an irrelevant diversion. And in a book that already tops 300 pages, he buys himself a little more shelf space to devote to poets, painters and makers. But the drawbacks of this choice are real, as well. Chief among them, in my view, is the danger that an unexamined concept of culture will, like the Trojan horse, smuggle into the argument a certain set of assumptions about art and artists that may inflect or even deform the analysis, however subtly. When he declines to interrogate, say, an elite cultural argot of inquiry, transgression, authenticity, and self-expression, Givens naturalizes a model of culture that, in truth, is no less constructed, no more inevitable, than the Mormon framework to which it is juxtaposed. Theory ought to serve reading, of course, not the other way round, and this powerful but concealed set of assumption intrudes most on Givensâ€™ discussions of contemporary Mormon literature and visual art, in chapters 15 and 16. Thus in his disappointment that mainstream Mormons largely ignored or rejected the self-consciously literary novels of Virginia Sorensen, Givens suggests that
it is clear that such steady certainty, or sanguine acquiescence to the unknown, precludes a kind of restless yearning, anxious struggle, and animating curiosity that exists across the divide from the orthodox Mormon personality. (295)
This statement and others like it are probably true, but they fail to excavate the assumptions beneath high cultureâ€™s self-defined privileging of yearning, struggle and alienation. Expressions of the orthodox Mormon personality generally do not conform to the categories of elite art, but there is no reason why terms of the analysis must belong to the latter.
Givens is aware of all this, of course, and from time to time he concedes as much. Near the end of chapter 16, for example, he sketches a brief history of the decline of religious art in the West, and in doing so he brings the roots of the modern aesthetic into the light of critical scrutiny
In the twentieth century, a long tradition of benign cultural neglect [of religious art] turned into something more like a profound incompatibility. Beginning in architecture, but soon spreading to the visual arts and beyond, came the movements that drew heavily upon consumer culture and philosophical cynicism and that celebrated fragmentation, difference, anxiety, alienation, and the ubiquity of the superficial. These movements emphatically resisted any effort to privilege history, venerate humanity, or express religiosity. (332)
But this ideological disgorging of the Trojan horse occurs only in passing, and near the end of the volume. It is unlikely that most readers will recognize its implications for the project of measuring Mormon cultural expression against an inherited model of culture.
What Givens succeeds in conveying, and superbly, is the signature of what he calls â€œJoseph Smithâ€™s method of working by contrariesâ€ on the artistic expression of his theological descendants. Givensâ€™ discussions of the four core tensions are characteristically elegant and articulate; his discussion of the sacred and the banal in chapter 3, drawing as it does on his deep and fruitful seaming of Romanticism to Mormonism, is especially fine. As a set, the eight vectors he identifies work as a flexible, capacious critical tool, lending a unity to the study as a whole while enabling a sensitive and nuanced reading of individual cultural texts. But because Givens has framed his argument according to a reflective model of culture, in which art largely reflects prior ideological forms, his paradoxes do not register the counterweighted influence of cultural production as practice and artifact on ideology itself. Art is merely the coefficient of idea. In many ways, this formulation follows the Mormon logic of authority, in which divine inspiration to prophets directs church and church members. Yes, the teachings of Mormon prophets and scripture have left their imprint on, say, Mormon tragedy and Mormon painting. But have the practices and forms of Mormon tragedy and painting left an imprint on the teachings of Mormon prophets and scripture? Has cultural expression mediated or transformed Mormon ideas and ideals?
Almost in spite of itself, People of Paradox answers this question in the affirmative. Though the insights lie off the main route of the argument, Givensâ€™ analysis gestures toward several ideas derived from cultural practice itself that broadly inflect a characteristic Mormon cultural grammar. Iâ€™d like to offer four of these, gleaned from Givensâ€™ own comments, as a parallel framework from which to understand Mormon cultural expression, not to replace the original four but to supplement, with the advantage of bringing the transformative work of culture into focus. First, Mormonismâ€™s regional writers and artists often draw on the conventions of landscape and setting to make place stand metonymically for theology; and the theologies of place native to Mormon doctrine make them especially susceptible to transformation by this cultural trope. Second, artistic appropriation and recontextualization, processes absolutely central to every artistic tradition, come to be figured in Mormon cultural expression as providential instances of the literal fulfillment of prior types and shadows; this habit of mind then circles around to guide Mormon practices like scripture reading and personal history. Third, an emphasis on excellence of performance rather than originality of composition characterizes Mormon engagement in the arts, performing and otherwise, and this preference adds a new dimension to Mormon doctrines of obedience and consecration. And finally, the problem of portability, what Givens calls â€œa movable Zion,â€ has largely determined the material conditions in which much Mormon artistic expression unfolded; as form followed function, Mormon cultural preferences were shaped by artistsâ€™ solutions to the formal challenges posed by â€œthe ceaseless transmutations of Zionâ€ (248). If it will be the work of future studies to cultivate these ideas, or others, I predict that it will be the distinction of People of Paradox to have laid the seedbed.