Romantics and their Fragments

November 7, 2007 | 8 comments
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Reading the Book of Mormon is a lot like reading Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” While one is a lengthy work of scripture and the other is a 54-line poem, both works are, at their core, fragments. They are incomplete documents that ask their readers to imagine the rest of the story, and in fact they both locate transcendence in the act of completing the fragmentary text.

“Khubla Khan” opens with what at first glance seem to be historical figures and places, but there is friction between secular history and the entities in the poem, which have been loaded down with sacral and symbolic significance:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea…

The poem gestures toward civilized achievement, which stands in contrast to the ominous wilderness, and suggests a cataclysmic conflict:

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round…
……….
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
……….
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

But then, two-thirds of the way through the poem, the scene changes to that of a lone woman playing a dulcimer and singing, and then the narration breaks off altogether. In its place, an authorial voice intervenes; the vision has been lost. If only the vision could be regained, the author says, the wonders only glimpsed in narration could become real and tangible:

Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Coleridge had a story about the origin of “Kubla Khan” involving opium-induced dreams, which many scholars find unconvincing. What they do find, among other things, are textual influences, including some echoes of Marco Polo’s travel writing, and a near-perfect invocation of the Romantic ideal of the fragment.

Many scholars find Joseph Smith’s account of the Book of Mormon’s origins even less convincing, but the far more interesting parallel is how the poem and the scriptural book ask readers to do much the same thing. Both inside its text and as a matter of historical fact, the Book of Mormon is a fragment. It describes its own textual history as an assemblage from disparate parts, some of which are pared down by editing, and some of which are sealed and inaccessible. The Book of Mormon actually has the better historical claim to be a true fragment (rather than a poetic invocation of fragmentariness), for its first 116 manuscript pages really were lost. The Book of Mormon, as a fragment, challenges its readers to extend the text, by faith or by imagination, until the world of the text articulates with the world of fact. This is not an easy task and may require the mystical shortcut offered in Moroni 10:3-5, but restoring the Book of Mormon from fragment to complete text (even if only as a matter of faith) also promises a level of transcendence—salvation, reversing the Fall, partaking of the Tree of Life—exactly equal to Coleridge’s draught of the milk of Paradise.

In this sense of restoring a fragmentary work to wholeness through a combination of faith, critical reasoning, and speculation, John Sorenson’s An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon is perhaps the quintessential work of LDS interpretive criticism. If there is a distinctive Mormon way of interpretation, then it will be based in part on the faculties of criticism and imagination required to restore fragments to completion.

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8 Responses to Romantics and their Fragments

  1. john f. on November 7, 2007 at 6:40 am

    Great post Jonathan. I really enjoyed this one. I too have sensed the value added to our experience in reading and learning doctrines from the Book of Mormon by this fragmentary aspect of its nature. Thanks for promoting more consideration of this characteristic.

  2. mlu on November 7, 2007 at 12:03 pm

    Nice.

    It’s part of the pattern.

    We glimpse eternity in fragments and through a glass darkly. Those who desire a better, more complete, view–and prove it through diligence, paying attention, stepping past distractions, returning again and again to the questions do get more, here a little and there a little.

  3. mlu on November 7, 2007 at 12:03 pm

    Nice.

    It’s part of the pattern.

    We glimpse eternity in fragments and through a glass darkly. Those who desire a better, more complete, view–and prove it through diligence, paying attention, stepping past distractions, returning again and again to the questions do get more, here a little and there a little.

  4. Kristine on November 7, 2007 at 2:06 pm

    And now we know why there are so many Mormon Germanists :)

    Nicely done, Jonathan.

  5. Kyle R. on November 8, 2007 at 7:19 am

    It describes its own textual history

    The self-referentiality of the Book of Mormon struck me on first reading – the way it includes in its historical / spiritual narrative a meta-narrative about itself as a record. There is a quite striking and perhaps instructive parallel between the spiritual struggle of ancient peoples in the historical record and the struggle to preserve the record itself in the meta-narrative. From Nephi’s dangerous – and possibly near-fatal – mission to obtain precious records from Laban all the way to the careful guardianship of the Book of Mormon plates by Mormon and Moroni in very dangerous and lonely times, there is a pervasive sense that the written record, the written testimony and witness itself, is extremely precious, fragile and vulnerable to many dangers and threats: it can so easily be lost, stolen or destroyed. The scribes of the Book of the Mormon seem always very conscious of this.

    The parallel, for me, is that the spiritual progress of Book of Mormon peoples is also shown to be very precious, fragile and vulnerable to many dangers and threats. The hearts of people opened to the light of Christ show themselves in the Book of Mormon to also be so vulnerable to loss or destruction, so vulnerable to darkness driving that light back out again.

    This overwhelming sense of vulnerability and fragility – whether the concern of scribes for the safety of the record, or of prophets and leaders for the safety of souls – is for me one of the most emotive things about the Book of Mormon. The fact that the records have been kept no more guarantees their survival without vigilance than does spiritual progress reach a safety zone without an always alert diligence.

  6. Dr. B. on November 8, 2007 at 9:34 am

    Your interpretation of the BOM is very interesting. It is almost hermeneutical in that the reader must deconstruct or make meaning of the text. I think that is the beauty of scripture that the individual finds their own meaning. I feel Habermas would be proud of your post. I think since you are dealing with a collection of writers that you have to make meaning fragmentary since the Book of Mormon is actually snapshots of different people over different time periods not a running narrative. The Holy Bible would also fit your explanation for the same reason as would most other books of scriptures.

  7. JimD on November 8, 2007 at 1:14 pm

    Not to threadjack, but will there be a post forthcoming about the Church’s change in the introduction of the Book of Mormon? Apparently the Lamanites are no longer the “principal” ancestors of the American Indians, but “among” the ancestors of the American Indians. See today’s Salt Lake Tribune.

  8. Jonathan Green on November 9, 2007 at 6:03 am

    Thanks for all the insightful comments.
    Kyle R, the parallel between a perilous textual and spiritual history is something that hadn’t occurred to me before, but once you mention it, it makes a lot of sense. One of the subplots of Genesis is how the descent and birthright of the covenant people is constantly threatened. The Book of Mormon parallel would then be, as you point out, that preservation of the text is constantly threatened. Interesting.

    Dr. B., I’ll return to some of the ideas you mention in an upcoming post that finishes off the outline of a paper I won’t be presenting.

    JimD, your wish has been granted.

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