Givens’ Winter Wheat

November 26, 2007 | 17 comments
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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: “It 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. … [But] above all things, we must be original.” Terryl Givens might have taken Whitney’s challenge as the inspiration for his fine new book, People of Paradox, which works outward from tensions in the “warp and woof” of Mormon thought to the tissue of those tensions in Mormon artistic and intellectual endeavors. Givens’ 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 Pratt’s thought exemplified his era’s vigorous public wrestling with the competing imperatives of individual moral and priesthood authority, Nibley’s work, one hundred years later, signaled a shift in the wind, “a kind of insularity in the church’s intellectual engagement with the world at large” (97, 230). Givens’ 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. Weggeland’s 1875 painting “Gypsy Camp,” the architecture of the Washington D.C. temple, and Greg Whitely’s recent documentary film “New York Doll.”

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 modernity’s privileging of ambiguity and irony, and how the sublime is at odds with Mormonism’s cosmological positivism and philosophical monism; and his discussion of the Mormon ethic of progress, characterized, he suggests, “by a pervasively systematic monitoring of and reification of progress” (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 “natural or mechanical ventilation system” (246); and he quotes Maureen Whipple’s Brigham Young, “I would say to you always, pay your debts, keep your bowels open and walk uprightly before God and you will never have a care” (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 “paradoxes” inherent in restoration scripture and doctrine. Givens’ 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 “home culture,” Givens stops somewhat short of practicing a “home criticism”: 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 “habit of mind,” 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.

Givens’ 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 Givens’ 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 culture’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 “Joseph Smith’s method of working by contraries” on the artistic expression of his theological descendants. Givens’ 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, Givens’ analysis gestures toward several ideas derived from cultural practice itself that broadly inflect a characteristic Mormon cultural grammar. I’d like to offer four of these, gleaned from Givens’ 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, Mormonism’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 “a movable Zion,” has largely determined the material conditions in which much Mormon artistic expression unfolded; as form followed function, Mormon cultural preferences were shaped by artists’ solutions to the formal challenges posed by “the ceaseless transmutations of Zion” (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.

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17 Responses to Givens’ Winter Wheat

  1. ECS on November 26, 2007 at 8:46 pm

    Beautiful writing, Rosalynde! I love the imagery you’ve woven into your analysis. It makes me want to curl up with a steaming hot bowl of Cream of Wheat and melting brown sugar.

  2. Rosalynde Welch on November 26, 2007 at 11:42 pm

    Thank you, ECS, what a kind thing to say! Cream of Wheat is one of my favorite cold weather foods, too. When I was a kid home sick from school, my mom would make it for me with butter and brown sugar. Yummm.

  3. Richard O. on November 27, 2007 at 4:00 am

    “Givens relies on a narrow modern construct of culture as high art in all its constricted reliance on the alienation from authority, tradition, and official discourse.” Insightful critique Rosalynde.
    Givens points out that theology and the arts are connected. Since Mormonism rejected some of the theological thinking of the West, one shouldn’t be too surprised that Mormon art might not fit very smoothly into modern (Western) artistic constructs. This should be especially expected when we consider that a significant percentage of Church membership isn’t even part of the modern West. Using “modern constructs” of culture, especially in the case of contemporary Mormon art that includes international art and folk art, run the risk of actually narrowing, rather than expanding, our artistic vision and our intellectual tools.

  4. East Coast on November 27, 2007 at 2:20 pm

    You mention Virginia Sorensen. The only book of hers I’ve read is Miracles on Maple Hill. (Our local library has it because it is a Newbery Winner and because it is set in this region.) My response to Miracles on Maple Hill is that it was a nice story but a rather minor read and may have won the medal because of its post-war theme. It beat out Old Yeller for the top spot. I wonder if it would win a medal nowadays if judged alongside recently recognized books like Maniac Magee, Number the Stars, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Missing May, or Holes. Perhaps.

    Does anyone know if any of her other writings are worth tracking down and reading? Have they stood the test of time? Were her children’s books read in Utah when they were published? They do not seem to be particularly connected to Mormon culture. When I “read” Miracles on Maple Hill (we actually listened to it on tape) I did not know she was a member of the church. Knowing that since then does not immediately bring any greater understanding of the book or the themes in it. I agree that a case could be made that it has undercurrents of “restless yearning, anxious struggle, and animating curiosity” but the book does not seem to fit in the category of either Mormon orthodoxy or elite art. It is certainly much better than most if not all of the “Mormon” fiction that I read growing up.

    But to develop this thought a little further, does Miracles on Maple Hill fit into Rosalynde’s four frameworks?

    First, landscape. Yes. The book is inseparable from the landscape of the story. It plays a direct part in the second theme… literal fulfillment of types and shadows. That could be the theme of redemption in the father’s recovery from PTSD. Third, excellence of performance rather than originality of composition. I would have to think further as to whether the book fit this framework. I’ve read other children’s books with similar themes and settings so it is not strikingly original. It is well done, however. It did win the Newbery and that is not a minor accomplishment. Fourth framework, portability. I can’t see how to apply this framework to Sorensen’s book. Storytelling is certainly portable. We listened to it in the car driving back and forth to church activities. I’m not sure if this is what either Rosalynde or Givens meant.

    From my reading of this particular book, I would guess that since it neither stood in opposition to Mormon culture nor affirmed it, except in a historical-paradigm sort of way, it was probably benignly neglected by that culture.

    Thinking about Miracles on Maple Hill makes me want to re-check it out from the library, so I’ll try and do that and read it while eating a bowl of Cream of Wheat with maple syrup.

  5. William Morris on November 27, 2007 at 2:52 pm

    East Coast:

    Virginia Sorensen’s Mormon Literature Database entry.

    I tried to read Sorensen’s great Mormon novel _The Evening and the Morning_, but just couldn’t get into it. I found it boring. But it’s quite likely that I just wasn’t in the right place for that type of reading.

    I believe that _A Little Lower than the Angels_, her first novel, is considered the classic Sorensen novel to read if you are in to Mormon literature.

  6. Naomi Frandsen on November 28, 2007 at 1:03 am

    Rosalynde, thanks for taking the time to review this book. I think reading your review has now warmed me up intellectually to actually read the book itself (which would otherwise be quite impossible, coming off of my most recent read, Jurassic Park).

    Your portrayal of Givens’ latent theory seemed to have Marxist overtones. Would…let’s see, what was his name…Althusser be one of the soldiers hiding inside that Trojan horse? Mostly I just want you to give me a review of English 352 and how it relates to what you wrote about what Givens wrote.

    Virginia Sorensen wrote Miracles on Maple Hill? That Virginia Sorensen? That Miracles on Maple Hill? I’d never made that connection. Makes me want to go back and read it again.

    So does Givens do a reading of the International Art Competition issue of the Ensign?

  7. Nate Oman on November 28, 2007 at 12:29 pm

    “So does Givens do a reading of the International Art Competition issue of the Ensign? ”

    No. It is an unfortunate weakness in the book.

  8. Ben H on November 28, 2007 at 1:47 pm

    What about this book makes it relevant to say it is a weakness that it doesn’t cover this competition? I mean, none of my writing does a reading of this issue of the Ensign. Is that an unfortunate weakness in my writing?

  9. Nate Oman on November 28, 2007 at 2:10 pm

    Because the international art deals with many of the themes that Givens discusses, and it would advance his thesis that Mormon culture cannot be understood simply as Utah culture or a subsection of American culture. It also significantly changes ones interpretation of institutional invovlment in the production of Mormon art, moving from a narrative of the-church-only-buys-second-rate-and-maudlin-illustrations-by-seventh-day-adventists to one that acknowledges that through the Church Museum, the church as an institution has put substantial resources into fostering high quality Mormon art and has the largest such collection anywhere. Given the fact that the book did spend some time analyzing the art in official church publications, the failure to flag the way that the Ensign has sought to give the collection at the church museum a higher profile within Mormonism seems worthy of note.

    I don’t think that this is a lapse that decisively undermines Terryl’s analysis, and I realize that one can always make the complaint that the book should have been longer. I think that it is a really great book; I just that on certain points I think that the cultural landscape is somewhat different than how Givens describes it.

  10. Janet on November 28, 2007 at 2:13 pm

    Excellent as always, Ros.

  11. Rosalynde Welch on November 29, 2007 at 2:14 pm

    Thanks for the responses, all, and sorry I’ve been unable to respond in a timely manner.

    Richard, your (mild and constructive) criticism is well taken. I suspect that Givens would respond by saying that yes, precisely, the constructs of high culture are insufficient to account for the ethnic and folk art that comes from the international church, and this is a major reason why he has largely excluded them from his analysis. As I argue in my review, I think think the book would benefit from foregrounding the assumptions behind his use of the word “culture”. But I wonder if the international church is really yet to the point where the periphery is changing the cultural complexion of the core, to borrow a postcolonial vocabulary. From my position, tucked into a midwest ward full of Utah transplants, I’d have to say “no,” and for this reasons I wasn’t too troubled by the omission of contemporary international art.

  12. Rosalynde Welch on November 29, 2007 at 2:28 pm

    East Coast, thanks for the great comment. Givens centers his discussion of Sorensen around her 1942 novel _A Little Lower than the Angels_. The book follows its female protagonist, Mercy, through her struggles in the settlement of and expulsion from Nauvoo and her spiritual anguish over plural marriage.

    Sorensen fits uneasily into categories of Mormon art. Like Maureen Whipple and Fawn Brodie and Levi Peterson and many others, she was an insider-outsider: culturally affiliated with but philosophically and emotionally alienated from Mormonism. It’s her insider/outsider status that makes her work “high art”—that is THE classic posture of literary fiction as it has developed in the 20th century—and it’s also precisely what makes her, deep down, not so very Mormon. This is NOT to argue that she should be excluded from a Mormon canon or that her work shouldn’t be understood from a Mormon framework—just to concede that the fit will not be perfect.

  13. Rosalynde Welch on November 29, 2007 at 2:34 pm

    Naomi, I’m not exactly sure what you mean by “Marxist overtones.” Givens is absolutely not a hardcore materialist—he doesn’t see the means of production as the base of society and everything else as superstructure. On the contrary, he’s a bit of an ideologist: ideology is the base, and everything is merely superstructure. In this way he shares something in common with what’s sometimes called “cultural materialism”—a school of criticism that descended, complicatedly and conflictedly, from Marxist thought—and with cultural studies generally. But the basic insight of Marxist theorists like Althusser is anti-humanist: human subjectivity is an illusion, a product of an ideological structural apparatus. And Givens doesn’t go near anything like this: he’s fundamentally a humanist, I think, but the question isn’t an important part of his analysis.

  14. Rosalynde Welch on November 29, 2007 at 2:39 pm

    Nate, do you really think that contemporary international Mormon art expresses the four tensions Givens works with? I’m not an expert by any means, but my impression is that, in fact, it might not.

  15. Janet on November 29, 2007 at 8:44 pm

    “But I wonder if the international church is really yet to the point where the periphery is changing the cultural complexion of the core”

    Probably not, but the (often folk art) entries into the church art contest do give one hope. Ethnocentrism works poorly in an international church.

  16. Rosalynde Welch on November 30, 2007 at 1:28 am

    Janet, I wonder what historical instances we can look to for insight into how ethnocentrism works in an international church ( ie, poorly or well). How would you classify the Catholic approach? The muslim approach? Are there any instructive parallels to be drawn?

  17. Janet on November 30, 2007 at 3:34 pm

    Good questions, Ros. I may try a stab at the Catholic question, probably focused on Jesuit history since I’ve absorbed some of it osmosis at SLU. The Catholic and Mormon organizational structures and cultural apparatus share commonalities, but I don’t know how to compare our present religions so well as their histories. The histories–especially for the Jesuits–too easily faciliate a justifiably harsh anti-colonial but inevitably myopic anachronistic eye that I almost feel like talking about our histories simply throws a red herring into the path of understanding what we should do know, or what we are now.

    Oh Dear! Hmm, may not be making sense. I just reread the last sentence of previous paragraph and laughed aloud at how convoluted I sound. Haven’t eaten all day and my blood sugar = low. Perhaps later. Overall, Catholicism does well. But the Catholic populace strikes me as more willing to approach the interface between culture and religion cafeteria style than do Mormons. Perhaps that’s because they *have* such a long history and their faith has weathered (and, um, authored) so much cultural change–not to mention Vatican II. We’re still such neophytes.

    Ok, eating now….