1975: Eric B. Shumway - Literature as Religious Experience

1975: Eric B. Shumway - Literature as Religious Experience

E Shumway

Although Eric B. Shumway delivered the thirteenth McKay lecture in 1975, his was the first in the series given at Brigham Young University-Hawaii Campus, as Church College of Hawaii was re-named on September 1, 1974. A dynamic personality, Shumway has pursued a colorful career. B.A. and M.A. degrees at Brigham Young University in 1964 and 1966 prepared him to accept an appointment in English at CCH in 1966; similarly, interest kindled in Tongan language and culture during his mission in Tonga (1959-1962) led first to his work as Tongan Language Coordinator for six months on Moloka'i University of Hawaii Peace Corps Training Project and then eventually to his producing a textbook, Intensive Course in Tongan (1971). A sabbatical from the College took him to the University of Virginia in 1970, where he completed his Ph.D. in 1973, writing his dissertation on Browning's love poetry. Previously a bishop and a high councilor, Shumway became the first stake president of the newly created BYU-Hawaii Stake. Active promoters of the arts, Shumway and his wife Carolyn frequently sing together at various Church gatherings. They are the parents of Merrilli, Angela, Jeff, Aaron, Heather, Emily, and Doug.

Part I

Recently I found in the writings of David O. McKay an essay which celebrates the 18th century Scottish poet, Robert Burns. I had known of President McKay's passion for Burns as well as his wide knowledge of literature in general. But I was not quite prepared for this exuberance of a prophet for a poet. Burns, says President McKay, is a "living-light fountain" whose song is not an "imitation of life, but life itself running into laughter and tears" (Treasures 534). His greatest power, continues the Prophet, is his ability to "think clearly and independently, to imagine vividly, and to sympathize sincerely" (Treasures 535). It is from "the breadth and depth of his sympathetic soul that his poetry flows to immortality" (McKay Treasures 537). As to Burns' personal moral indiscretions, President McKay suggests that "his open, honest life. . . as well as the divine injunction to 'judge not,' will justify us in 'scanning gently' this side of his nature" (Treasures 535).

In this essay President McKay is not trying to write modern literary criticism. He is not concerned about poetic technique, literary influences, nor about Burns' position among other poets of our language. Still less does he worry about the condition of the poet's immortal soul. The essay is simply a testament of appreciation for the poet's powers of beauty and truth. It is a confession of gratitude for the difference a poet made in the quality of the religious life of a prophet.

It is mainly a confession of gratitude I wish to make today for persons and moments in literature that have made a profound difference for good in my own life. As I do this, I want to explore the idea of literature as religious experience, and the study of literature as a Christian "exercise in otherness" (Keller 20).

Exercise in Otherness

I will begin by saying that some Mormons think the general study of literature to be dangerous and destructive. For them it is a preoccupation with the world, a concession to Mammon and the flesh. They boast in priesthood meetings that the only books they ever read are the Standard Works. They view literary people in the Church with uneasy suspicion and fret about their so-called liberal ideas. I myself have been confronted by this paranoia. I recall the mortified expression on the face of a distant cousin of mine, when I told her I was majoring in English and was planning to teach literature in college. Her shock at my statement could hardly have been greater if I had announced that I was going to toss a Molotov cocktail into the Priesthood Session of General Conference. She pleaded with me, telling me about several young men and women she knew (even one or two at the BYU) who had left the Church or who had become irretrievably liberal, all of whom were English majors. Returned missionaries, mind you, solid members from pious pioneer stock, going into English and falling away. Politely (that is politely for an English major) I pointed out her bad logic--post hoc ergo propter hoc--to which she gasped: "See ! There you go with your subtle arguments. Before you know it you are going to be thinking your way right out of the Church."

Just as there are those who fear literature, except didactic literature which explicitly conveys the Mormon message, there are also those people who want to view literature as separate from their religion. In a recent article, one Latter-day Saint teacher says:

Literature is seldom written, and can be seldom written, in the service of religion. It is something else. But the fact that religion has no business in literature and that literature has no place in the Church does not invalidate either as a way of life and mind. They are simply two different kinds of life and mind. (Keller 16)

In my experience this position is false. Indeed, in the latter part of the same article the author himself seems to refute it. The best literature is always in the service of religion. The aim of true religion and the aim of literature is the same, truth and man's perfection; the first aim to know God (John 17:3) and therefore man, and the other to know man and therefore God. At the bottom of both religion and art, Matthew Arnold would say, is the "desire, native in man, for reason and the will of God, the feeling after the universal order, --in a word, the love of God" (124).

Problem with Definition

The problem is with our definition of religion or religious life. We talk as if a person had many lives, his religious life, his business life, his aesthetic life, his professional life, his sex life, his life of leisure. This fragmentation of lives, even as a labelling expedient for discussion, encourages schism and war between parties that are really on the same side. For the true Latter-day Saint even the phrase "religious life" is a tautology, a redundancy; for his life is his religion. Life is total, and all of its loves are imbued with reason and the will of God. Thus he cannot separate the "spiritual or religious" from the "aesthetic or imaginative." The Gospel, his academic training, and his love of the arts work within him a oneness, a mutually sustaining relationship between a "spontaneity of consciousness" and "a strictness of conscience" (Arnold 124). In that relationship is an irrevocable life line between aesthetic appreciation and moral being and even moral action. Neither the head nor the heart can say to the hand, "I have no need of thee" (1 Cor. 12: 21). At its own peril will the hand ever say to the heart or the head, "I have no need of thee."

For the purposes of this paper, I will define true religion as all the values and truths revealed by God to man and all the truths man has induced about God and man. True religion is also the sum total of man's inner life which is grounded in those truths: the quality of his impulses and desires, the way he perceives, acts, and enjoys. Finally, any experience that lifts and ennobles man in a greater reverence for God or a deeper love of fellow men and better prepares him to act morally is a religious experience.

Aesthetic Comprises Emotions of Religious Experience

I found out early in my life that an aesthetic experience in art comprises many of the emotions of religious experience--wonder, awe, surprise, reverence, fear, gratitude, humility, and a sudden awakening of the soul to a specific truth that hitherto had gone unnoticed and unappreciated, or even unknown. In fact, the most memorable religious moment of my early youth was an aesthetic moment. It was listening to a recording of Tchaikovsky's 6th symphony, Pathetique. My family was one of the first in our little country town to own a high fidelity phonograph. I was about eleven and my mother had given me the record as "something to do" while I was getting well after surgery. I cannot quite explain what happened to me as the dark, melancholy strains of the Symphony's first movement penetrated our quiet house on that late summer afternoon. But suddenly amid the sounds and harmonies, I was lifted out of myself, out of my youth, out of my sheltered ignorance, and brought to a kind of communion out of time with all of suffering humanity. It was as if I saw in a vision the soul of man in a cosmic struggle against evil. I saw man both as predator and victim, inflicting and suffering ghastly injustices. Lured by wealth and power, he was wasted by vain ambition and uncontrollable passion. In the midst of this special moment I also sensed what the torments of hell must be, the pounding of an outraged conscience, the panic-stricken search for relief in all manner of delusions, the terror of outer darkness. The experience ended as the symphony ends, conveying a deep sense of tragedy and loss. The beat of the last movement throbs like a weary heart about to break. The lamenting melody simply trails off and collapses in a chaos of grief and despair, as if the soul had fallen over the edge of eternity into the abyss.

What, one might ask, was so spiritual about that experience? It sounds more like a nightmare. The miracle of it was what happened to me inside. Rather than being haunted by fear and self-doubt, I was filled with a profound pity for a humanity that I didn't even know yet empirically; my compassion transcended the limitations of my extreme youth and my country environment. Insights and feelings came to me which only in later years could I rationally justify from literature--world history, biographies of Peter Tchaikovsky, and, of course, from scripture. You can imagine, for example, with what feelings I first discovered that Enoch had a similar experience as recorded in Moses:

And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto Enoch, and told Enoch all the doings of the children of men; wherefore Enoch knew, and looked upon their wickedness, and their misery, and wept and stretched forth his arms, and his heart swelled wide as eternity; and his bowels yearned; and all eternity shook. (7: 41)

Comes by Chance

Artists and critics have given different names to the experience I have just described. It is a familiar phenomenon in both art and religion but not usually one that can be consciously willed. As Wordsworth says, it comes "by chance collisions and quaint accidents. . . to impregnate and to elevate the mind" (I. 589-596). It comes as a grace, as dew distilling from heaven (D&C 121: 45). Robert Browning calls the crescendo of emotion which culminates in a flash of moral insight, a "moment. . . infinite" ("By" l. 181). The bar between life and life is broken and the soul is bathed momentarily in the truth and joy of eternity. Juanita Brooks would call the phenomenon a "sunburst" (qtd. in Bitton and Ursenbach 16-17), Thomas Hardy, a "moment of vision." James Joyce would call it an epiphany (qtd. in Joyce, S. 124). One of my colleagues calls it a "gestalt."1 Tennyson records such a moment in In Memoriam (1850) when his soul was "whirl'd/About empyreal heights of thought,/And came on that which is, and caught/The deep pulsations of the world" (XCV. 37-40). Joseph Smith would explain it as that moment when "pure intelligence flow[s] into you. . . giv[ing] you sudden strokes of ideas" (381).

The Gift of the Word

The special power of music to lift one to "empyreal heights" of feeling and joy is well known. But it is the written word as well as the spoken that God communicates most articulately with men. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us" (John 1: 1,14). The language of Jesus, his sermons, his stories, his conversation, worked a far more lasting influence in the hearts of men than did his miracles.

God has given to other men the gift of the word. Enoch had it. For when he spoke,

the earth trembled, and the mountains fled, even according to his command; and the rivers of water were turned out of their course; and the roar of the lions was heard out of the wilderness; and all nations feared greatly, so powerful was the word of Enoch, and so great was the power of the language which God had given him. (Moses 7: 13)

Christ's and Enoch's words were perfect measures of their perfect lives. But Nephi reminds us that the gift of the Word will be found in every nation, in the records and literature of men whose powers of language no doubt are greater than their powers of will:

For behold, I shall speak unto the Jews and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the Nephites and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the other tribes of the house of Israel, which I have led away, and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto all nations of the earth and they shall write it. (2 Ne. 29: 12)

I have no doubt it was the voice of God that President McKay heard in the poems and songs of Robert Burns. That same voice can frequently be heard profoundly and sweetly in imaginative literature of the nations just as in canonized literature which we call scripture. To be sure, in imaginative literature it is often a voice crying in a wilderness of lesser and sometimes false voices. But those who know the voice will recognize it, embrace it, believe it, wherever it is heard. "Truth is truth where'er 'tis found/Whether on Christian or on heathen ground" (qtd. in McKay Gospel 440). Perhaps that is why Apostle Orson F. Whitney said: "poetry of the highest order is always prophetic. . . and that is why the poet is a prophet" (31).

Literature and Religious Experience

I now turn to consider more specifically the question: What is the relationship between the study of literature and religious experience? The answer, I believe, is rooted in the concept of otherness. True religion is born and nourished in otherness. Any theology, private or public, grounded totally in the concept of self is false. The concept of otherness implies at least four main virtues or powers: (1) perception, a way of looking at another; (2) attitude, the way of thinking about another; (3) sensibility, the way of feeling about another; and (4) behavior, the way of treating another. Abandon any one of these virtues and you have something less than true religion.

The first three virtues of otherness, perception, attitude and sensibility, are the ultimate concerns of literature; the fourth, behavior, is the ultimate concern of scripture. Joseph Conrad, the literary artist, says: "My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel--it is, before all, to make you see. That--and no more, and it is everything" (X). James, the apostle of Christ, says: "be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves" (James 1: 22).

The need for a synthesis of all four virtues is obvious to the Latter-day Saint. Without vivid and accurate perception, clear thought, and genuine feeling, religious action is little more than hollow exercise. Without action, however, seeing, thinking and feeling, can be moral delusions. I am persuaded to believe that we are more inclined to act without looking, loving, or thinking than the other way around. That is why the study of literature is integral to the development and quality of our total being.

Let me say it another way. We are commanded to love God and man. We know there can be no loving of God apart from loving one's fellow men. We also know that there is no loving one's fellow men in the abstract, as in a theory of love, or at a comfortable social distance. There must be a sense of equality, and identification which carries one into the mind of someone else and there to understand his fears, heartaches, foibles, and all the forces which bear upon him; to see as he sees, feel as he feels, above all to recognize his infinite worth. Only by this process does man learn to love man or God.

Mind and Heart of Another

And how does one effectually enter the mind and heart of another? By an act of the imagination! Imagination touched by reason and the will of God. How does one enter upon prayer? True, there must be a sense of need, humility, reverence, and awe. But there must also be a projection of mind to the throne of God, a struggle to visualize, a will to revelation. How does one enter upon the life, the teachings, the suffering of Jesus Christ? The answer is the same, through the imagination. One of the functions of the Holy Ghost is to vivify the imagination so that one sees things as they really are, things that are behind and beyond appearances or our own physical limitations.

Joseph Smith says: "the Lord touched the eyes of our understandings and they were opened" (D&C 76: 19).

What the Prophet calls the "eye of understanding," the poet calls the creative imagination, both describing a means of vision in which otherness can be achieved and truth apprehended. Thus, says Shelley:

A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. (486)

Moral Sensibility verses Otherness

One of the disasters in trying to cultivate strong moral sensibilities without developing the virtues of imagination and otherness is getting caught in the vice of narrow dogma and prejudice. This vice crushes sensitivity and freezes fellow feeling. It may rob us of some of the sweetest and most instructive of associations. Worse, we fail to recognize the worth of souls.

Brigham Young said:

Every man, and more particularly my immediate associates who are with me daily, know how I regret the ignorance of this people--how it floods my heart to see so many Elders of Israel who wish everybody to come to their standard and be measured by their measure. Every man must be just so long, to fit their iron bedstead, or be cut off to the right length: if too short, he must be stretched, to fill the requirement.

If they see an erring brother or sister, whose course does not comport with their particular ideas of things, they conclude at once that he or she cannot be a Saint, and withdraw their fellowship, concluding that, if they are in the path of truth, others must have precisely their weight and dimension.

This ignorance I see, in this particular, among this great people is lamentable. Let us not narrow ourselves up; for the world, with all its variety of useful information . . . is before us; and eternity, with all its sparkling intelligence. (JD 8: 8-9)

Huck Finn and Otherness

To illustrate how a literary masterpiece provides a means to exercise the virtues of otherness and helps us cut through the elements of ignorance and prejudice, let's take the case of Huck Finn. I suspect no other boy in all of literature is more universally loved by readers, even Mormon readers. Jim says he is the "bes' fren'" anybody could ever have (Twain Adventures 87). We are all moved by his intuitive morality, his tenderness for all human beings, even deadbeats and criminals, his love of beauty, and his self-sacrifice. We are ready to defend Huck against all comers, including Miss Watson and the official in Concord, Massachusetts, who refused to allow the book Huckleberry Finn (1885) on the shelves of the community library (Haight 57).

No doubt this librarian was offended by what the rest of us, especially Latter-day Saints, very mysteriously forget or ignore: that Huck, in the orthodox religious context of his day, is a liar, a thief, and a cheat. He swears, smokes, and swims in the nude. His grammar is bad, his manners worse. He is ragged and dirty and loves it. He avoids school, plays humiliating jokes on adults, and crashes infant Sunday School parties. He hates church going, doesn't believe much in prayer, refuses to be civilized, and says that he would rather go to hell than conform to what Society had taught him was right.

Why do we suspend these so-called "moral considerations" that bothered the librarian? Because by imaginative participation we come to know Huck's whole self. Seeing as he sees, we trust his sincerity and recognize his power of telling the truth; his conscience is frequently wrong, his heart is never wrong. Understanding his boyish foibles, we assuredly sense his infinite worth. No one need admonish us to scan gently the irregularities of his manners. That is unconscious with us. It never occurs to us to want Huck to don the trappings of traditional religion before we take him into fellowship.

It is precisely the unconsciousness of our identification, the ease with which we forgive unconventional behavior, the compassion born out of knowledge, and the recognition of infinite worth that constitute the religious experience of otherness. In literary art it is the beginning and the end. Such instant otherness, I believe, is also the hallmark of a genuinely religious person.

Part II

I have already described what for me was a supreme moment with Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony. Of the many moments of great visionary power in literature, I would now like to turn to several which affect me in profound way. In them I seem to hear the thunder of Sinai and feel the thrill of gratitude in the union of aesthetic beauty and moral truth. In all of these moments the reader experiences intensely the virtues of otherness which lift him above stereotyped perceptions and distorted conventional judgments. Most of them show souls in conflict with forces of destruction, which they finally defy and are "glorified," as if they were responding to a compelling inner voice, like the voice out of the whirlwind which spoke to Job: "Deck thyself now with majesty and excellency; and array thyself with glory and beauty. . . . Then will I also confess unto thee that thine own right hand can save thee" (Job 40: 10,14)

Tess of the D'Urbervilles

The first moment I want to mention is found in Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891). Like Huckleberry Finn, Hardy's novel was castigated by some as a low, indecent book because it tells the story of a young girl who loses her virginity by force, has an illegitimate child, finally kills the man who originally violated her, and is executed in Wintoncester prison (Haight 47). Yet throughout the work the author maintains that Tess is a pure woman faithfully presented. Few readers will now disagree with Hardy. There are some inconsistencies in the novel, but no one is unmoved by the fact that circumstances, both accidents and the designs of immoral men, can break the pure intent of the heart and shatter the will. Reared by a foolish mother and a drunken father and deserted by a morally squeamish husband, Tess is betrayed by almost everyone whom she really loves. Her beauty, her nobility of character, her purity of mind become fatal liabilities in an age of uncertainty and change. The landscape is changing in the wake of industrialism. Society is in travail, the older order is in decay and a new order is being born, an order stricken by false religion, or no religion, and symbolized by the machine.

Although Tess is the victim of many alien forces she is not altogether helpless. She makes choices which elevate her suffering above the merely pathetic to tragic proportions in the classical sense. When Tess is passive in her unjust suffering she is beautiful and serene: When she takes action to try to rectify an injustice, she is sublime.

Nothing in the novel is more astonishing in its beauty than the scene in which Tess herself baptizes her child, Sorrow. The baby is dying. Tess's father had refused to let a clergyman come to the house because of the shame Tess had brought on the family. In her simple Protestant faith, Tess is seized by panic at the thought of her unbaptized baby suffering in Hell. Her cries for mercy in behalf of the child rush from her lips but are instantly blanketed by the silence of the night. So she acts. Pulling out the wash stand, she wakes up all of her sleeping brothers and sisters and tells them to gather around the makeshift altar. And there in her nightgown, by candle-light, she pronounces the baptismal service on Sorrow whose little body is later to be denied proper Christian burial by the parson. The children respond in the appropriate places with sleepy "Amens." Tess

duly went on with the Lord's Prayer, the children lisping it after her in a thin gnat-like wail, till, at the conclusion, raising their voices to clerk's pitch, they again piped into the silence, 'Amen!'

Then their sister, with much augmented confidence in the efficacy of this sacrament, poured forth from the bottom of her heart the thanksgiving that follows. . . . The ecstasy of faith almost apotheosized her; it set upon her face a glowing irradiation. . . while the miniature candle flame inverted in her eye-pupils shone like a diamond. The children gazed up at her with more and more reverence, and no longer had a will for questioning. She did not look like Sissy to them now, but as a being large, towering and awful--a divine personage. (93-94)

The power of this scene is certainly not in any denial or vindication of dogma. What Tess believed or didn't believe about baptism, death, and hell is irrelevant. The power of the scene, besides its melancholy beauty, is in the triumph of personality: a woman acting according to the best that is within her in spite of crushing outside forces which eventually destroy her.

Continued Triumph

The triumph of two other women in works of the same period immediately come to mind. These women are Charlotte Bront's Jane Eyre and Ibsen's Nora Helmer. Unlike Tess, both of these women, in an assertion of self and will, are able to rise above and defy the harassment of male arrogance and possessiveness. The two scenes in which these women resist a barbaric male ego are moments which seem to exist alone and for all time. And in Nora's case all of 19th century Europe trembled.

Nora's husband in Ibsen's play A Doll's House (1879) has treated her for eight years as little more than a delectable plaything, a songbird, a little squirrel. His masculine honor weighs on her and suffocates her individuality. What he thinks is integrity in himself is really a political concern about what people might say. What he thinks is his love for Nora is really mere feelings of pleasure when she is doing something feminine for him. His exercise of the husband's "rights" over his wife is really a form of psychic cannibalism which devours Nora's selfhood. In the first crisis of their marriage, Helmer is enraged in discovering that his reputation may become a little sullied because of an error in his wife's business judgment. Nora's intent had been honest, her motives magnanimous, but Helmer denounces her as a "liar, a hypocrite--even worse--a criminal!" (Ibsen 221). When the crisis is over and Helmer realizes he is no longer in danger himself, he cozies up to his songbird and purrs: "I've forgiven you, Nora" (Ibsen 223). Later, with much condescension and self-pride he says:

There's something indescribably sweet and satisfying for a man to know deep down that he has forgiven his wife--completely forgiven her, with all his heart. It's as if that made her doubly his. . . . So from now on, that's what you shall be to me, you poor, frightened, helpless, little darling. (Ibsen 224).

The full recognition of what he really is and what he has done to her leaves Nora numb with humiliation, but she is determined to act. She announces she is leaving him:

Helmer: But this is disgraceful. Is this the way you neglect sacred duties?

Nora: What do you consider is my most sacred duty?

Helmer: Do I have to tell you that? Isn't it your duty to your husband and children?

Nora: I have another duty, just as sacred.

Helmer: You can't have. What duty do you mean?

Nora: My duty to myself.

Helmer: Before everything else, you're a wife and mother.

Nora: I don't believe that any longer. I believe that-- before everything else I'm a human being--just as much as you are. . . or at any rate I shall try to become one. (Ibsen 227-228)

Nora finally realizes that self-sacrifice in marriage cannot mean self-annihilation, it cannot be unequal. The most degrading marriage relationship is the one in which r™les are defined in terms of a stereotype of male power, authority, and superior intelligence. Marriage must rest on the inviolability of the individual soul.

Nora Helmer's insistence on equality and the rights of selfhood recalls the greatest scene in Jane Eyre (1847), in which Jane, poor, small in stature, and unbeautiful, resists the domineering Edward Rochester, even though she loves him. Rochester as you remember is a heroic blend of wealth, rank, intellect, and volatile passion.

The major conflict among the many conflicts of the novel occurs just after Rochester's secret plan fails. He has taken Jane to the marriage altar, but a man stops the marriage and reveals that Rochester is already married and that his wife still lives. Rochester admits his bigamous designs but offers to Jane an eloquent justification for them. He then begins to persuade Jane to go with him to Italy and be his mistress. After all, they are both passionately in love, they would have been married if they could, and true love is more important than mere convention. Moreover, Jane has no family, so no one would be hurt by their living together.

Rochester makes a strong case for relative morality. Because of Jane's consuming love for Rochester, her very conscience and reason turn against her and say to her mind: "'save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his. Who in this world cares for you [but him]?, or who will be injured by what you do?'" (Bront‘ 348-349). Jane gives her indomitable reply both to her reason and her conscience and to Rochester:

I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad [with love]--as I am now. Laws and principles are not for times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigor; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them what would be their worth? They have a worth--so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane--quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. . . . [F]oregone determinations are all I have at this hour to stand by; there I plant my foot" (Bront‘ 349)

Jane's firmness has sent some modern readers and critics into a frenzy of disgust. How priggy can you get, they say, to pass up true love, security, and happiness because of an antiquated convention or an old-fashioned morality? But I think Robert Martin is right when he reminds us that Jane's morality "is not a cowardly bowing down to convention but an heroic assertion of the sanctity of the individual soul" (84). Elsewhere Martin has said:

The issue is never whether Jane should become Rochester's mistress. To settle for nothing less than the best is not to be narrow; the test is to become worthy of love, not to take it on any terms but to deserve it: not to violate one's own nature and morality but to expand that nature. (83)

Moment of Vision

For me the moment of vision in Jane Eyre comes when Jane defies even her own conscience when it tells her it is crime to forsake Rochester. She chooses to keep a moral law even though in the passion of the moment that law no longer makes any sense to her reason. It is in a similar moment in Huckleberry Finn that Huck is immortalized among the great characters of literature: when he defies his conscience and decides to go to hell rather than allow the runaway Jim to be taken back into slavery. His conscience, of course, is a product of snatches of frontier religion and Southern attitudes toward slavery. He is torn between his affection for Jim and his belief that Jim is stolen property and must be returned. In the end Huck's love triumphs over his deformed conscience.

Healthy Discomfort

In reading thoughtfully the dialectic of Huck's great moral crisis, we admire him for his courage and self-sacrifice; but there is also a healthy discomfort in the realization that what we often consider to be the clear dictates of moral reason may really be only the ingrained prejudices of a particular time and place.

Feodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment (1866) contains for me one of the profound religious moments in all of my present experience. It is that haunting scene in which Sonya the harlot and Raskolnikov the murderer sit in the waning candlelight of Sonya's apartment and read the story of Lazarus from the Bible. Before I knew this scene, or the novel, redemptive suffering and human regeneration were little more than vague notions, hollow doctrines about which I could give the "right" answers but which eluded me totally emotionally.

In the novel, Raskolnikov is assailed by an eroding self-centeredness which has led him to a belief in man-made reason and will-controlled morality. Sonya is tortured by a life completely alien to her religious sensibilities. Raskolnikov is feelingless. Sonya is all love. Raskolnikov has murdered an old Jewish pawnbroker to prove that he wasn't a "louse," and, like Napoleon, was above traditional morality and could justifiably remove any obstacle that blocked his path to power. Sonya, exhausted by poverty, a neurotic stepmother and a drunken father, and terrorized by the thought of starving brothers and sisters, has become a prostitute to support the family.

Raskolnikov's inability to love is a veritable hell to him. Sonya's overwhelming love for her stepmother and the children has brought her to a hellish existence. In this particular scene, Raskolnikov sneers that her self-sacrifice is in vain, since she will, no doubt, die of infection, the stepmother of tuberculosis, and the children of starvation. Sonya is impaled on the barbs of his cynicism. He renders the unkindest cut of all when he predicts that Sonya's little sister Polechka will also have to walk the streets simply to prolong the agony of life:

'No! No! That can't be! No!' Sonya almost shrieked in desperation, as if someone had plunged a knife into her. 'God--God will not allow such a terrible thing! . . .'

'He lets it happen to others,' [cried Raskolnikov].

'No, no! God will protect her! God will protect her!' she repeated, beside herself!

'Perhaps God does not exist,' answered Raskolnikov, with malicious enjoyment. He looked at her and laughed. (Dostoevsky 308)

Moments later, Raskolnikov suggests suicide to be better for Sonya than living a life so loathsome to her. Sonya's answer is simple: "what will become of [the children]?" (Dostoevsky 309). Raskolnikov is stunned into silence. The light of Sonya's love shines in the darkness of his own mind. He can't comprehend it. He decides it must be religious fanaticism, a mad hope that a miracle will happen. He is determined to tear that delusion from Sonya's heart:

'So you pray a great deal to God, Sonya?' he asked her. . .

'What should I do without God?' she said in a rapid, forceful whisper. . . .

'And what does God do for you in return?' he asked, probing deeper. . . .

Her flat little chest heaved with agitation.

'Be quiet! Do not ask! You are not worthy. . . . He does everything!' (Dostoevsky 311)

In a final malicious whim, Raskolnikov invites Sonya to read the story of Lazarus. And so in this setting, with the stench of the Petersburg slums pouring in the window, Sonya reads the sacred words:

I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:

And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. . . .

And he that was dead came forth. . . bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him and let him go. (Dostoevsky 313-315)

Here is the "infinite" moment, the moment of vision. It marks the beginning of Raskolnikov's regeneration. But it is much more than the pivotal moment in the lives of two imaginary persons. It is a moment for all time, for all men, wrought by the skill of an inspired artist who lets the truth of the scene speak for itself without the heroics of moral preachment. It is the voice of God speaking out of the human predicament, not merely out of a holy text.

Divine Motive

If the scene I have just described in Crime and Punishment dramatizes the divine fact of redemption and resurrection, Robert Browning's poem "Saul" dramatizes the divine motive. In the poem the boy David tells of going to sing for Saul who is tormented by deep depression. A suicidal blackness within the dwelling barely reveals the tortured king, "stark, blind, and dumb" (Browning "Saul" l. 33) crucified against the "great cross-support" of the tent (Browning "Saul" l. 30). Fearfully, tenderly, David begins to sing and gradually the king is called back from living death. As Saul peers intently into David's young sweet face, David's deepest yearnings for his king spill forth. He tells Saul that if he could he would heal him forever and give him eternal life. With this expression of love, suddenly the universal truth breaks upon David in a flash of revelation. If he, a weak mortal, could love Saul so intensely as to suffer in order to give Saul eternal life, how much more would an all-powerful, all intelligent, all-loving God do for him and for all men?

'O, Saul,' [David cries] 'it shall be

A Face like my face that receives thee; a Man like to me,

Thou shalt love and be loved by, forever; a Hand like this hand

Shall throw open the gates of new life to thee! See the Christ stand!' (Browning "Saul" 309-312)

David has seen the new dispensation. His love for Saul has induced God's love and made it a logical reality as well as a spiritual fact.

Thus are only a few of the grand moments out of our limitless literary inheritance, which have made a difference in my life. In conclusion I would like to summarize briefly the basis for my gratitude for the minds of our literary past. Besides providing innumerable moments of vision, such as I have described, literature has helped me purge the elements of false religion, which like barnacles have a way of encrusting themselves to my ecclesiastical dogmas--elements of ignorance, prejudice, and false piety.

Literature a Moral Corrective

Literature is a moral corrective, a kind of spiritual mirror of myself which reflects back to me what I am as others may see me. I see others, I see myself in others, I can feel the "deep pulsations of the world."

In literature one sees through the eyes of God. For the artist, as creator, is like a god, building a world which he inhabits with beings and endows with laws. As a reader, one enjoys the omniscience of deity and roves about that created world partaking of its creatures, its environment and ideas--seeing, understanding, loving, or even rejecting.

In this imaginary world of the artist one can see at once the beginning and end of things (an advantage that frequently eludes us in the real world), the conclusions to a course of events set in motion by an act or an idea. Literature is the grand exposé of good and evil in their mortal struggle. It is, in Carlyle's words, the "'apocalypse of Nature,' a revealing of the 'open secret'" of the Universe, of God and man" (391). Finally, my study of literature has given me an approach to the scriptures that helps me to "liken them unto myself" (1 Ne. 19: 23).

False Ideas of Literature

Then what about the false ideas of some literature? My impression is that we should not fear false ideas as much as not having any ideas at all. If an idle mind is the devil's workshop, then a vacant mind is his castle. Mark Twain reminds us that the person "who does not read good books has no advantage over the [person] who can't read" at all.2 I know people who tremble for fear a work of art may challenge or even destroy certain basic assumptions they have about religion or morality. Frankly, I have always relished such a challenge, because what is always destroyed is that in my faith which is false or superficial. On the other hand, there is much in literature which I reject as false. I feel no obligation to read all literature, analyze it, or dissipate my energies in sifting through some works for scraps of redeeming social value. One sign of an intelligent Latter-day Saint is the ability to recognize when his formal education becomes a liability to his common sense, his moral commitment, and his understanding of revealed truth.


Finally let me affirm the synthesis of the four virtues of otherness. Literature, or art in general, should never be an end in itself. The virtues of seeing, thinking, and feeling must culminate in the virtue of the deed. Fascinations in art, ecstasies, titillations of the flesh, swells of emotions that do not impact positively on the moral nature of man are of a lesser order. And if there is any feeling in art that is not in the alchemy of the will converted to righteous action, its ultimate value is lost.

May God bless us with a love of His work wherever it is found and the will to live by it I pray, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.


1Ed. Note. Thanks to Robert J. Morris for the word "gestalt" in the present context. Back to Top

2Ed. Note. Interestingly, nearly everyone except Twain scholars themselves seems to have "heard" this putative remark by Twain. For instance, Lou Budd, author of several books on Twain and his work and long associated with the Mark Twain Papers project at the University of California, Berkeley, notes that the comment "doesn't sound very Twainian" (Lou J. Budd to Jesse S. Crisler, 14 December 1992), while Alan Gribben, dubbed by Budd "the undisputed expert on MT's reading and his commentary about reading," was also unable to dredge up anything remotely akin to this observation in his recollection of Twain's work: "I'd like to attribute it to Twain, but I can't recall it" (Alan Gribben to Jesse S. Crisler, telephone conversation, 4 January 1993), and Tom Tenney, editor of the prestigious Mark Twain Journal, when consulted concerning the origin of Twain's declaration, observed, "I wish I could help you with . . . [this] statement. . . but I draw a blank" (Tom Tenney to Jesse S. Crisler, 18 January 1993). In a recently published work entitled Greatly Exaggerated (1988), which organizes various observations by Twain into alphabetized categories, Alex Ayres includes under the category "Books" Twain's purported statement that "the man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them" (26), which corresponds almost exactly to the passage supposedly by Twain which Shumway quotes, but Budd distrusts Ayres's volume: "the book gives no attribution for this passage. More largely, the book itself is a cut and paste job, with clear inaccuracies--starting with the title itself (which chooses the now popular version rather than what MT actually said)" (Lou Budd to Jesse S. Crisler, 22 January 1993). Like Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and the Bible, Twain wrote or said a good deal on most subjects though not, alas, on all. Still, the Twain apocrypha is a healthy one: as Tenney concludes, "Franklin, Lincoln, and Twain tend to get credit for a lot of things they didn't say."
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Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew. Culture and Anarchy. The Works of Matthew Arnold. Ed. George W. E. Russell. 15 vols. London: Macmillan, 1903. 6: 1-226.

Ayres, Alex, ed. Greatly Exaggerated: The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain. London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1988.

The Bible.

Bitton, Davis and Maureen Ursenbach. "Riding Herd: A Conversation with Juanita Brooks." Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 9.1 (Spring 1974): 11-33.

The Book of Mormon.

Bront‘, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1847. New York: Scholastic Book Services, 1962.

Browning, Robert. "By the Fireside." 1855. The Complete Poetical Works of Robert Browning. Ed. Horace E. Scudder. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1895. 185-187.

---. "Saul." 1855. The Complete Poetical Works of Robert Browning. Ed. Horace E. Scudder. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1895. 179- 184.

Carlyle, Thomas. On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. 1841. Sartor Resartus and On Heroes and Hero-Worship. Ed. W. H. Hudson. London: Dent, 1969. 239-467.

Conrad, Joseph. Preface. The Nigger of the Narcissus. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1924. vii-xiii.

The Doctrine and Covenants.

Dostoevsky, Feodor. Crime and Punishment. 1866. Trans. Jessie Coulson. Ed. George Gibian. New York: Norton, 1964.

Haight, Anne Lyon. Banned Books. New York: R. R. Bowker, 1970.

Hardy, Thomas. Moments of Vision. 1917. Collected Poem of Thomas Hardy. New York: Macmillan, 1961. 401-505.

---. Tess of the D'Urbervilles. 1891. New York: Bantam, 1971.

Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll's House. 1879. Trans. Peter Watts. A Doll's House and Other Plays. London: Penguin, 1965. 145-232.

Journal of Discourses. 26 vols. London: Latter-day Saints' Book Depot, 1855-1886. Vol. 8.

Joyce, Stanislaus. My Brother's Keeper. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1958.

Keller, Karl. "On Words and the Word of God: The Delusions of a Mormon Literature." Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 4.3 (Autumn 1969): 13-20.

McKay, David O. Gospel Ideals. Salt Lake City: Improvement Era, 1953.

---. Treasures of Life. Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1965.

Martin, Robert B. The Accents of Persuasion: Charlotte Bront's Novels. New York: Norton, 1966.

The Pearl of Great Price.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. A Defence of Poetry. 1840. Shelley: Selected Poetry and Prose. Ed. Kenneth Neill Cameron. San Francisco: Rinehart P, 1951. 482-490.

Smith, Joseph. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Ed. B. H. Roberts. 7 vols. 2nd. ed. rev. Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1932-1951. Vol. 3.

Tchaikovsky, Peter I. Pathetique. Symphony No. 6, op. 74.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. In Memoriam. 1850. Tennyson: Poems and Plays. London: Oxford UP, 1967. 230-266.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 1885. Ed. Ralph Cohen. New York: Bantam, 1965.

Whitney, Orson F. The Strength of the 'Mormon" Position. Independence, MO: Zion's Printing and Publishing, 1917.

Wordsworth, William. The Prelude or Growth of a Poet's Mind. 1850. Ed. Ernest de Selincourt. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1959.