miércoles, 4 de noviembre de 2009

The Star in the Sky Again

It was night, and the menoronu (age class of initiated young men) were sleeping in ngobe (meeting place for the men in the center of the village). One of them did not have a wife. He lay there, looking up at the sky. He looked at a beautiful star and thought: "I want a pretty wife; I wonder if she'll marry me?" He fell asleep.
The star came down to earth and took the menoronu by the hand.
"Who's that?"
"It's me, I came down from up there. Didn't you call me?"
She lay down on the ground with him. She was very beautiful. When the day dawned she went back up. The next day she descended again.
Early in the morning he gave her something to eat, and then he hid her in a large gourd so that no one would see her.

The beginning of a story collected by Professor Lux Vidal from the Xikrin Kayapo in Brazil, and given to me when I was her student in Austin, this is the kind of material with which Claude Levi Strauss wrestled. His work stands by itself as a masterful reading of myths and will continue to stand. Professor Levi Strauss, with whom I never had the pleasure of studying, still was the Star in the sky of desire for many young anthropologists and other scholars. His works line our shelves, and we carry them, like a gourd with us, wherever we go.
Even in this small vignette, merely the beginning of a much longer story not meant to be written but told in certain contexts, there is so much one can think of in structuralist terms. There is the opposition of sky:earth, aligned with women:men, night:day, women’s houses in circle: men’s space in center (ngobe), married:unmarried, adult:adolescent.
Quickly, by the star coming to earth, that structure shifts and the boy begins his transition to a man and the star to a wife. Coming to earth and eating food are the mediums of the change, the gourd is a womb and a medium of transport until at the end of the story, the woman returns to the sky and brings crops so people now can have food.
But there can be so many more transitions, such as the graduate student scholar who hopes to become scholar looking with desire on the works of masters taking them off the shelf and taking them home where he reads them and thinks with them, until over time, the master comes and gives the crops of scholarship to a new generation.
Levi Strauss showed us how similar structures of oppositions can align in very different material, seeking similar resolutions. Though he was a relativist, still he sought to comprehend the human mind. Part of what will always draw us together as people is how we think with stories and differences and how, though my world may be in Utah, while his was in Paris, we all share with those who worried about the origins of corn and how people got fire from jaguars.

domingo, 1 de noviembre de 2009

Sentimental Mormon Stories

This is a response to a question about the open, almost cloying sentimentality in Mormon poplar fiction and folklore, as well as in the writing of Glenn Beck, posed to me by someone who is not Mormon and was trying to understand what felt forced and definitely foreign.

If I understand, you are asking about the sentimentalism that perfuses Mormon story telling. The question asks about the role of sentiment in narrative and what it does, because of the strong difference you see between Mormon narratives, especially popular narratives, and those in mainstream society.

Absolutely. However, to answer the question I have to bring part of my past and present, which is about growing up in a Latin world where feeling is often expressed in art and music in ways that challenge formal training in literature and art. Although celebrated now, I think of a Garcia Lorca with his open reliance on feeling, often very raw feeling, to make his art as he drew from the naked vein of emotion that haunts flamenco song. It is not always in the words, but in the nuance of sound.

In other words, I want to point out that maybe the odd man here is the formal distance from sentiment and what it is expected to accomplish. While that may be taken for granted by your audience, I do not think it wise to leave it so natural lest I over exoticize people who feel differently about the role of feeling and emotion in life.

Mormons are not Latins, just as flamenco performers are not upper middle class madrileños and much less Argentines. Of course I could have described the role of nostalgia and emotionalism in tango or of the same in Portuguese fado with its saudades, a word that absolutely cannot be translated simply in English, in part because of the rawness and yet beauty in the emotion laden term.

So, Mormons. Compared with the Latins I mentioned above, Anglo Mormons, I could say ethnic Mormons, tend to be quite stoical and phlegmatic in so many ways in daily life. However, the emotions are very important. Instead of a part of the self seen as ripe for manipulation, the emotions are seen as the purist and most genuine place of the self, particularly if a person is righteous and pure. Through the emotions a person can connect with God since it is in the emotions that one feels God’s movement and notices his hand.

It is often in the rawest and most naked of moments when a Latter-day Saint will feel God and rely on God. That emotion goes deep. It also means that the difficult and emotion laden moments are those that witness of God, as a result they become a testimony to people.

Let me use an example. Three years ago I attended a flamenco competition in the amazing city of Cordoba, Spain. The song really struck me for many reasons. One song lasted maybe seven or eight minutes. Yet its words were very simple. The performer played them out over the course of the song, little by little with heart rendering nuance and wails.

They were “It is late. My son is not home. I wonder where he is. So many things can happen to a young man at night. What can I do?”

To Latter-day Saints, many of whom have had those very same concerns, this would not be a moment expressing the basic human frailty and insecurity before life, it would be one of faith. They would still worry, oh my would they worry, but they would be worrying with God and pleading with God. They would be asking where there child was and begging for insight. They would hope for the calm of the Spirit to enter into their hearts. But they would know that, no matter what, even if things go terribly wrong and their child is hurt or even dies, that all is in God’s hands. He knows best, His wisdom is not our wisdom.

I write in words, but for a believer this would happen over a period of time. There would be words, but much more would be feeling from worry, to fear, to concern, maybe panic, and faith as they connect with the Spirit; calm and confidence.

Emotions, therefore are also the spaces of morality where righteousness wins out over baser feelings and drives as one rises to the Lord.

Another story, this one personal from when I was a young and believing Mormon.

So, I was maybe ten years old. I had “borrowed” my father’s pocket knife, even though I was specifically told not to touch it. I took it with me to play among the pecan trees and tumble weeds on the banks of the big ditch that sliced through our neighborhood.

I had been trying out the knife on all kinds of sticks, and it was sharp, before putting it in my pocket and getting involved in exploring the hidden world beneath giant tumbleweeds.

Suddenly I could no longer feel the knife in my pocket and had no idea where it had gone. I panicked, afraid of facing my father and his wrath. No doubt in those days it was worth a solid spanking.

I looked and looked, trying to retrace my oath to no avail. I did not know what to do and was crying. Then what I had been told in church appeared in my mind. Pray to God in your moment of need. So I knelt among the tumbleweeds, beneath the pecan trees. I prayed. I confessed my bad behavior and begged forgiveness from God with all my heart, driven by fear of my real father’s wrath. And I pleaded for help to find the knife even though I was not worthy.

A calmness came over me, and suddenly I knew where to look for the knife. It was there and I avoided a spanking, but also learned a big Mormon lesson. For right now the lesson is about feelings and God and narratives, although I could have told it with different, religious ends though those are not where I am at these days.

Sentiment, is a privileged space of the self for Mormonism, where the transcendent is made evident. It brings truth, when reason can twist you into knots.

As it says in the Book of Mormon, words that I memorized while young and still serve as a warning to this intellectual and scholar: “O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they thing they are wise, and they hearken not to the counsel of God [...]”

In this is a structure of feelings, to use Raymond Williams term. Sentiment is organized and has purpose in ways that make structural sense. They do serious work in organizing the community and its system of power.

Mormons just simply do not trust reason to the same degree they trust feeling. People with formal training do not trust sentiment to the degree they trust reason, because reason is subject to formal rules that allow you to evaluate it while emotion is dangerous. I think of the Philosopher Kaufmann making a post Nietzschean call for intellectuals to bring emotion and feeling back into their analyses. But there is a rubicon that separates the formal thinker from trust in sentiment, just as there is one between a Latter-day Saint and trust in reason. Even Latter-day Saints who are formally trained thinkers vacillate between the two structures of feelings, often without realizing quite why they are doing so or its meaning.

God, after all is love, or so they are taught with the LDS nuance that love means sentiment, discipline, morality, and righteousness.

These kinds of root theological and phenomenological issues find themselves played out in the ways narrative is structured. This is especially true in religious stories, but it is also found in other kinds of Mormon story telling, including popular, published fiction.

As Raymond Williams brings to the fore, these ways in which feelings are structured make barriers of understanding between people and mark cultural experience. Mormonism definitely has its own ways of being and doing.