Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Liberating Form

This month I finished Liberating Form by Marden Clark. I had been sampling it a little at a time—it was that good, and that challenging. My friend Harlow Clark gave me a copy of this book, which was written by his father. The fact that Marden Clark is the father of Harlow and Dennis Clark, two of the most interesting and intelligent literary people I know, explains a lot.

I wanted to retain the gist of each essay, but it's hard to hold them all in my head at once, especially since I began the book six months ago. The subtitle is "Mormon Essays on Religion and Literature," and that is accurate, although it doesn't do justice to what these essays make, all together. They are a blueprint for intellectual inquiry, rigor and honesty. I especially enjoyed the references to Mormon culture (particularly BYU culture); they were spot-on, and very brave. (For example, he speaks of being in shock that a BYU student would take out a no-interest student loan and invest it for profit with no regard for the government he was defrauding, and that a BYU professor would advise the student to do so.)

The title refers to the way that a defined form (such as a formal poetic form like a sonnet) can liberate the ideas contained within it. Through the essays (and, especially, the title essay) he also extends the metaphor to the church itself, a form which liberates, and even our earth-life experience.

On liberating form:

All this may be the only sermon I preach. Perhaps it is the only sermon any of us preaches, though in many variations. But it may be enough of a sermon: that we live by and bear the burden of Christ, that His Church is the form that liberates us and the energy we generate, that it provides us with the vision of form within which we find instructions to explore and express our love, that it provides the form to lead us toward our vision of heaven and our rejection of hell.

            -from the title essay. This quote reminds me of England's "Why the Church is as True of the Gospel."

On engaging with difficult ideas instead of sheltering ourselves from what might be challenging:

But surely a testimony, like education and freedom and creativity, is self-creative, is inwardly dynamic and alive, is something to be invested like talents. No hot-house plant, it needs exposure to wind and rain and cold to give it toughness, resilience, endurance. It too responds to opposition in all things.

            -from "On the Mormon Commitment to Education"

On why we should expose ourselves to great art (in particular, for me, fiction):

We may submit ourselves to the Inferno, to the heart of darkness, for the sake of experience itself or for the sake of the artistry that creates it. but we also submit for the purpose of deepening our capacity for experience and awareness and compassion and love. We submit because our experience in the depths maybe the best way—perhaps even the only way—to know and experience the ultimate heights.  If we really believe that there must needs be opposition in all things, we submit ourselves to the ultimate literary validation of the meaning of opposition. In more strictly Mormon terms, we submit ourselves to the trials of earth life—which can be enough of an Inferno—for the sake of a higher existence, for the ability to live a celestial life. As with literature, we have no assurance that we will survive the ordeal. Hell yawns, in Dante's version, for those who do not. But if we do, we should be much the stronger spirituality and in most other ways for having made the journey. we add the literary equivalent of a physical body which makes possible the literary equivalent of celestial experiences.

            -from "Science, Religion and the Humanities"

On the importance of art in building Zion:

What we need along with [Jesus] is whatever will nourish our spiritual lives. . . . But some kinds of knowledge will surely minister better to our spirits than others. And here is where I see a high destiny for the arts in our Zion.

            from "Zion and the Arts: What Will Really Matter?"

On the importance of honesty, and complexity, in Mormon art (and life):

Implicit in what I have been saying has been the sense that one of our most significant failures as a people has been the failure to really face such possible and actual tragedy inherent in our beliefs and practices.

            from "Paradox and Tragedy in Mormonism"

Well, you can see why I loved this book. I think we could have each chapter presented as a paper at an AML conference and have beautiful, stimulating discussions in every session. I wish every aspiring LDS artist and scholar could read it.


Wm said...

Agreed on all counts.

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Roger said...

Since I have never been accused of being a literary enthusiast or fanatic,I especially agree with the phrase, " As with literature, we have no assurance that we will survive the ordeal." I loved that one, I think it fits me.

Th. said...


I'm in the middle of slowly reading this, myself. And I've stolen a few paragraphs from the title essay (his analysis of the XJ Kennedy poem) and now use them every semester with my AP kids.

Jonathan Langford said...

This collection is also a favorite of mine. I understand about not being able to hold the essays in your mind after they're done -- I've read the collection twice, but some of the things you've mentioned are things I forgot are there. It's a testament to the richness of the essays.

On top of the insights, one of the things I like best about these essays is Marden's open, honest, and utterly unpretentious voice, which comes through so clearly in his writing. Both Marden's enthusiasm and his eagerness for others to join the conversation shine through in everything he writes.