May 13, 2011

Review: Stephen C. Taysom, "Shakers, Mormons, and Religious Worlds: Conflicting Visions, Contested Boundaries"

Title: Shakers, Mormons, and Religious Worlds: Conflicting Visions, Contested Boundaries
Author: Stephen C. Taysom
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Genre: Religious History/Comparative Studies
Year: 2011
Pages: 280, + forward, bibiography, index
ISBN13: 978-0-253-35540-9
Binding: Cloth
Price: $34.95 (ebook, $22.95)

Stephen Taysom’s new book sets out to explode superficial views of what sociologists have called "high-tension religious groups," or religious groups who seem to define themselves over and against "the religious, political, economic, and social elements of the larger culture of which they are a part" (3). Two nineteenth-century religious groups, the Mormons and the Shakers, provide his case studies. Taysom combines meticulous historical research with more recent sociological theories and models to examine the distinct ways such "high-tension" groups negotiate their identities among themselves and with the larger society (ix). Being outsiders had advantages.

Shakers and Mormons provide excellent templates for this goal. Ann Lee and Joseph Smith inspired the creation of distinct communities of believers who would help create and maintain their “peculiar and particular visions of divinely sanctioned life” (1). A casual glance at Shakers and Mormons raises similarities: both groups sought to build their own geographical communities and both had counter-cultural ideas about marriage (celibacy or polygamy, respectively). But Taysom transcends such superficiality to reveal significant differences in the way these groups responded to their host cultures. He’s looking at how the odd ducks fit in or fit out of their larger communities. Both groups follow a similar pattern of development in that they are born in the “social and cultural margins amid feverish charismatic frenzy,” but within time begin to harden and struggle to move from margin to mainstream (2). This trajectory is helped along by outsiders, whose opposition can be beneficial to help define marginal groups to begin with.
In the first chapter Taysom argues that the underlying beliefs and values of a community can be traced in the physical structures they create. The village embodies the faith. Believers experience a tension, however, between the “culturally postulated world” and the “experienced world” (4). Taysom’s familiarity with the origins and development of the Shaker faith are most evident in the sources he uses and the scholars with whom he interacts. He skillfully weaves the religion’s history into his account of their beliefs built into villages, perhaps the most prominent physical symbol of Shakers to the outside perspective of 19th century Americans. Shakers early sought a unity and connection and used a communal village model as a bulwark against the sinful world, the “culturally postulated world” of the “natural, generative order” (7). They sought a Garden of Eden-like state which existed prior to the messiness of procreation and selfishness ushered in by the fall of Adam and Eve, interpreted primarily as a sexual act (8, 106-107). The natural world=bad, the spiritual higher life=good.

But a chasm opens up between this rhetoric and practice, which is is evident in the way Shakers had to conduct business and interact with people outside of their community in order to survive in the world as constituted, in what Taysom calls the “experienced world” (9). But it wasn’t only their needs which fueled these interactions; in the wake of the Irish potato famine of 1847 Shakers sent donations overseas, even though overseas was part of that sinful, natural order from which they fled (10-11). Thus they preached about an evil world from which they remained separate, but which in reality they still had to participate in, however marginally.

Taysom’s book is especially notable in the correctives it offers to previous scholarship. On the nature of separation and the Shakers, for instance, he offers an alternative to Sociologist Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s view that that Shakers created strict geographical and self-contained boundaries and thus lived like recluses (12). Taysom shows a “penumbra rather than a wall” built by the Shakers separating them from “the world,”, a penetrable boundary which relied on internal behavioral standards while allowing for exchange with outsiders. Using sources like hymns, contracts, and personal letters Taysom shows how Shakers maintained their distance while peripherally participating in the larger, in their view sinful, world.

Visitors were allowed to some of their gatherings—they even encouraged a bit of tourism—but conversion required a trial period and strict adherence to rigorous rules of living (30). A particular problem was orphaned or runaway youths who might seek shelter in Shaker villages until they came of age and realized that celibacy wasn’t for them (32-33). Taysom concludes this chapter by showing how the immediate circumstances affected the Shaker’s ability to fulfill their religious vision. Shaker villages in the eastern United States were much easier to maintain compared to satellite villages they began creating in the west as they expanded. Shakers in new communities lacked the requisite numbers to maintain the leadership and organizations structure central to Shaker identity (49).
In chapter two Taysom identifies “four general phases of Mormon physical boundary creation in the nineteenth century” (53). Like the Shakers, Mormons sought to come out of the wicked world and create a holy place for a holy people. Joseph Smith’s early revelations noted that “the world is ripening in iniquity” and “the saints” were to separate (51). These revelations directed followers to move to divinely sanctioned communities, cities of refuge. The first period, 1831-1833, included plans for a city of Zion. A liminal phase between 1834-39 left the Mormons without a sure foothold until the next phase between 1840-1844 when Zion rhetoric focused more intensely on a city at Nauvoo. Taysom shows how earlier revelations designating particular places were re-imagined by the community in order to account for failed expectations. In the final phase, 1844 to the twentieth century, boundary markers were increasingly emphasized through the ideas of the Temple and the personal body.

Taysom deftly argues that, even as the Mormons prepared for their exodus they received means of boundary maintenance through sacred temple rituals: “When the Mormons left Nauvoo, they literally wore a physical boundary marker on their bodies, a sacred shell that tied them to the first scene of creation and insulated them from the world in which they had to live, and it increased in importance as the memory of their sacred cities grew more distant” (95). This is not Taysom’s own imposition of perspective, he cites Mormons who made the same observations sans the sociological jargon.

Undoubtedly, historians will have opportunities for quibbling throughout all of this, although Taysom recognizes the somewhat artificial nature of phasing the development of Mormon boundaries. (For instance, temples had been discussed in earlier phases, like at Kirtland, and dreams about a physical refuge remained potent for many even when external causes prevented their realization). But he provides interesting correctives to past historical narratives of Mormonism throughout. One of the most interesting sections in this chapter for Mormon readers is Taysom’s analysis of how Mormons reconciled revelations calling them to build Zion in specified locations to their ultimate decision to abandon those very places and journey to the west. Nauvoo, he notes, only retrospectively was seen as a brief stopping point on the Mormon trail, a place of testing for the nation, where the faithful would eventually be required to pack up and go once again. Taysom argues that Mormon “leaders had to reinforce a collective memory that was literally false but was fashioned into a remembered, functional truth” (85).

Taysom justifies this argument in a most striking and meticulous revisionary section. He analyzes the historical evidence to demonstrate, or rather to demolish the idea that Joseph Smith himself foresaw the saints’ relocation to “the Rocky Mountains” of the Utah territory (87-89). “There is evidence,” Taysom acknowledges, “to suggest that Smith was looking for possible places for the Mormons to settle over a wide swath of territory,” but the specific and exclusive location could not be determined until after his death (88-89). As far as the historical documents demonstrate, the retrospective accounts which describe Smith specifically prophesying of the ultimate settling place for the Church do not find any contemporary corroboration.

Here Taysom is trying to demonstrate the power of collective thought in the creation, maintenance, and reformulation of physical boundaries. Mormons needed a version of the past which would motivate current projects (86). Thus, sacred boundary markers shifted according to revelation and historical circumstances from city to temple to self. From one specific centerplace community of Zion to satellite stakes of Zion throughout the world with multiple temples: “Earthly temples were now gates to heavenly Zions” (93).
Mormons and Shakers were probably most known in the 19th century for their respective peculiar marriage practices: polygamy and celibacy. Clearly these were very different ways of living differently than the prevailing culture, but Taysom seeks to uncover the common ground between these practices. He finds it in the “structures motivating those behaviors” which were “nearly identical” (100). Relying on the accounts of Mormons and Shakers themselves he explains:

“The master motive, or the ultimate goal, for the Mormons and the Shakers was to behave in ways that imitated God…The Mormons taught that God was married…The Shakers, by contrast, held a view of an androgynous God that transcended all physicality” (101). 
He spends the balance of the chapter describing the internal functions of these practices and the opposing reactions from outsiders, which for Mormons were often more extreme and legally-based as the Church grew, but which for the Shakers declined as their community dwindled by lack of reproduction and inability to swiftly convert and retain outsiders. The legal pressures brought to bear on Mormons were largely absent for Shakers, but in both cases these marital/sexual practices set the groups apart from the broader cultural sensibilities. Taysom also notes how these two marital/sexual approaches resonate today—for the Mormons who retain a semblance of plural marriage practice: “Mormon policy allows men who have been sealed for eternity to be sealed again for eternity once their wife has died, as long as the second wife has not been sealed to another man previously” (150). For the Shakers, the resonance is more of a faint echo, as only three living Shakers remain. Celibacy was a “remarkably stable boundary marker” but failed at adjusting “in the face of diminishing returns” (150).

I was personally most interested in the fourth chapter. Taysom has been making the case that Mormons and Shakers defined themselves partially based upon the opposition they encountered from outsiders. When such opposition was disrupted or somewhat alleviated, a period of crisis arose because the communities had relied on opposition. He intriguingly posits that the so-called “Mormon Reformation” of the late 1850s was largely self-generated within the community, while the Shaker “Era of Manifestations” responded to an actual internal crisis faced by the community (152).

In the late 1830s various “communities of negation” inside the Shaker communities seemed to disrupt their order (154). In other words, some members weren’t playing by all the rules. A variety of Shaker youths began experiencing visions calling for a separation of wheat from chaff. Taysom’s model, which points to internal conflict and the need to maintain a separate identity from the outside world, accounts for the sudden burgeoning of revelation which spread to various Shaker communities. Taysom makes use of Shaker hymns, written revelations, group manifestations, angelic visits, and other Shaker artifacts in exploring this turbulent period. The methods Shakers employed to counter the influence of disruptive insiders lead Taysom to explore the Mormons approach to similar problems.

As for the late 1850s Mormon Reformation, Taysom describes the oppositional identity which the Mormons embraced as a sign of their divine chosenness. Persecution of believers became a marker of their identity, and when that immediate pressure was somewhat alleviated after the saints moved to the west a time of tranquility alarmed Mormon leaders who needed a crisis in order to keep things together. I still wondered about this argument on the grounds that developing a new state out of scratch in the face of desert and famine may have been crisis enough for the Mormons.

Nevertheless, Taysom’s argument is a provocative and new approach to what led to the fiery rhetoric, brimstone sermons, mass rebaptisms, the suspension of the Mormon sacrament, and even indirectly the Mountain Meadows Massacre which comprised the Mormon Reformation (although he tantalizingly brackets the implications of so-called “blood atonement” doctrines!, p. 189). In order to shore up church members and reassert their need for divinely guided hierarchy, Mormon leaders stirred their community up to a reassertion of group solidarity by use of “home missionaries” and public performances in group confessions and rebaptisms. Catechisms outlined proper worship habits and personal standards. Without providing an in-depth analysis of the chapter in this review, I believe Taysom’s sociological approach offers important new possibilities for understanding the Mormon Reformation.

The book concludes by looking at ultimate fates. Mormonism, which made changes and adjustments to its boundary markers, has grown into a global faith with several million members. Shakerism maintained very stable boundary markers in celibacy and has petered out to three members residing at Sabbathday Lake, Maine (197). More pressing to Taysom than pointing to a religion’s success based on boundary creation and maintenance is the continuing relevance of broader society’s interaction with marginal religious groups today. Various news media and law enforcement individuals have demonstrated a certain “inability to grapple with the complexities of and differences among high-tension religious groups” (198). The People’s Temple at Jonestown, Guyana and the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas are potent examples of how misunderstandings on the part of outsiders can exacerbate disaster for members of marginal high-tension religious groups. Taysom believes that by examining nineteenth-century Shakers and Mormons who also embraced their own "outsider" status, readers will better be able to identify patters within, and differences between, current marginal groups. Taysom argues that different groups can be approached using different models which help outsiders understand and thus work with such groups.

The Mormons demonstrated an “episodic crisis-driven tension model” (199). Their boundary markers brought on highly charged reactions from official, legal, and vigilante outside forces. At the final moment of conflict before an ultimate tragedy, Mormons were able to reduce the tension through accommodation. 19th century Mormonism is characterized from Taysom's view as a series of mounting tensions “followed by capitulation and the reformulation of boundaries,” i.e., the cessation of polygamy, the Mormon reformation, etc. (199). The Shakers demonstrated a “stable high-intensity moderate-risk tension model” (200). Their selected boundary markers were of “moderate risk,” meaning they did not result in the sort of legal responses Mormonism received, but did result in occasional violence and much societal pressure. They were of “high intensity” because they demanded much from insiders, living in Shaker communities with other strict rules such as the prohibition of sexual relations. They were of moderate risk “in terms of the level of response” they received from the larger culture (200).
To put Taysom’s overall conclusion more succinctly: there is usually more than meets the eye with marginal religious communities (usually defined today as “cults”). Comparing any particular group with other marginal groups might disclose some superficial, even some important similarities, but ultimately they also ought to be addressed on their own terms as far as possible. By employing theories from thinkers like Clifford Geertz, Mary Douglas, Michael Foucalt, and Catherine Albanese, Taysom seeks to avoid superficial reductions of marginal religious groups. At the same time, he offers a fresh historical reading of Shaker and Mormon religiosity, from revelations to recapitulations. 

Certainly this approach is not without its flaws—new reductions can result from such a studied attempt to avoid reductionism. Also, because Taysom’s lens is more sociological than traditionally historical he overlooks some interesting possible questions. One example: oddly enough, he never notes that these two marginal groups actually encountered each other, and that a revelation regarding the Shakers remains even today in the Mormon canon of scripture. It is unclear here whether the Shakers recorded anything of this interaction. The story behind this interaction would be an interesting examination under the model approach Taysom employs.

Shakers, Mormons, and Religious Worlds: Conflicting Visions, Contested Boundaries is part of Indiana University Press’s “Religion in North America” series, and its prose is highly technical and analytical as opposed to simple chronology or comparison of distinct historical narratives. Rather than recommending this book to the average reader I suggest it to people with a more sustained interest in religious boundary creation and maintenance. For that audience the book is both enlightening and challenging, even a must. Taysom teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Cleveland State University. His book demonstrates the intriguing possibilities his field offers to those who employ an interdisciplinary approach to examine religion.

May 10, 2011

Review: "The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney, a novel written by Christopher Higgs"

Title: The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney, a novel written by Christopher Higgs
Author (Editor?): Christopher Higgs
Publisher: Sator Press
Genre: Experimental Fiction
Year: 2010
Pages: 352
ISBN13: 978-0-615-33999-3
Binding: Paperback (or .pdf. Or audiobook?)
Price: $13.99 or name your price (for now).
Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,629,010
Weather: Stormy, raining, flood warnings in Utah
Shirt: Black and red flannel

"Certainly this is more than just a long jumbled course of calamities."
—(Marvin K. Mooney, p. 262)

This is the first sentence of this review of a book, which is long and scattered. If you enjoy this review you'd probably enjoy the book it reviews. I could be wrong about that. Either way, I'll personally be reading this book, or at least excerpts from it, again. I'm the sort of person who likes thinking about footnotes, brackets, editorial insertions, and there is plenty of that stuff here. Plus, this book also got me in the mood to write fiction. Something I'd been wanting to start doing for a while.

Most of the books I read and nearly all of the books I review are non-fiction. As a reader/reviewer I've developed a variety of attitudes, call them postures, toward the various books themselves. I approach a book differently if I know I'll be writing a review of it, for instance. I look for the architectonics of the book, the main themes, unspoken assumptions, stated goals, and their successful or unsuccessful completion. I heavily annotate and have a weird two-color highlighting system (green and yellow) complete with symbols, brackets and other techniques I've developed over time. I'm almost always happy to read a book without the specter of a review hanging over my head, which is one reason I took a friend's advice and bought a copy of The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney. But once I finished it, this review just sort of spilled out, and if it seems a bit disjointed I blame Mooney. After all, he practically demanded a review from me, really:

If someone asks you:
"Hey, what's that you're reading?"
You could answer a number of things, one of them being: "It is a new work of creative non-fiction by Marvin K. Mooney."
In follow-up, you may be asked:
"What's it about?"
To which you can simply reply: "It is a text about itself. It is pretentious, egomaniacal, megalomaniacal, and hardly worth my time; but for some reason I continue to read it - perhaps because I am being forced to at gunpoint, perhaps I am slightly enjoying it" (320-321).
That's a fairly good description of the book, actually. After Marvin K. Mooney (whose parents named him after a Dr. Seuss character and whose Social Security number ends with the digits "43") disappeared several years ago it evidently fell to novelist Christopher Higgs to collect and compile Mooney's disparate papers into one volume (as per Mooney's own instructions, 82-83). The difficulty of this task is multiplied because Mooney's works are often rambling or disjointed and they hop genres. Throughout his controversial career, Mooney tried to find his narrative voice in different modes ranging from poetry, to short story, to academic paper, screenplay, and other genres. You'll find each of these literary approaches here. Included also are his attempts at historical writing. One extended chapter traces something of a tragi-comic history of the circus complete with real names and sketchy details, providing that Google can be trusted (198-210). A personal memoir compares the chambers of Mooney's heart to the people who mean most to him as he suffers heart failure, literal or metaphorical I'm not quite sure ("Hang Up Words For Ardor," 261-277). An encore to the Collected Works tells the historical narrative of the "Invention of America," but physical participation on the part of the reader (in addition to the actual act of turning pages) is required if you want to finish the book (332, 335-351). Chapter Five, "The Discursive History of a Familiar Integer" gives a brilliant and funny overview of the number five (but it isn't five pages long, 114-120). Chapter Seven, "The Eight Word Essay," appears to be Mooney's brief commentary about/personal enactment of environmental destruction: "This essay is about the destruction of nature" (136-143). Each word gets its own page. This point was lost on me when I first read it on my Kindle version. It wasn't until I had the paperback that it was called to my attention. I talk a lot about the various bits that make up this book, but at 352 pages you're bound to find plenty I don't mention. Well, I've probably said too much. [Is this supposed to be a retroactive spoiler alert? please advise —ed.]

Higgs has also done us the favor of including other Mooney papers which evidently were not written for inclusion, like Mooney's "Letter To The Person Who Keeps Putting Pornographic Magazine Cutouts In My Faculty Mailbox," which led to his dismissal from an unnamed university (219-220), and a "Confession written by Marvin K. Mooney [date omitted] found on the back lid of a shoe box" (291-?). Non-Mooney-penned material also appears throughout the text. In addition to quoted excerpts from Wittgenstein, Gertrude Stein, Nietzsche, and Derrida, we find reviews of the book printed prior to the start of the first chapter: "Only the most dedicated masochists would subject themselves to this travesty of tangents Mooney calls a novel," says Rory O'Flanagan, Guggenheim Fellow (32). Independent Scholar Twyla Faye Robinson disagrees: "I believe it is a triumph. I predict it will one day be considered a defining text for the generation that followed postmodernism," (34). Several critics mention that this is all so much pretentious nonsense.

Later in the book we read heart-warming, sometimes disturbing memories related in interviews Higgs conducted with old neighbors of Mooney: "I took writing classes with Marvin K. Mooney...He loved telling us to marinate on things...During that period of my life I did a lot of marinating" reports Ernie Sheffield (281). Ernie's mother called Mooney a godsend: "All because of Mr. Mooney, our son is a published writer on his way to a master's degree" (281). "I thought he was pretty mean. He screamed a lot. He was really angry" recalls Zed Hurlbert (284). [This may be the best point in the review to mention that Mooney's writings include some explicit language and a few adult themes scattered throughout. Consider adding "scare quotes" and censored s***. ]  

This might have been better to mention more clearly at this review's outset, but the novel can be thought of as "experimental fiction." Supposedly this is a somewhat contestable genre according to what I've gathered from reading Higgs's own blog posts on the subject. Most works of fiction, he says, are directed toward a "closed reading" despite the fact that readers can interpret them differently.1 Authors lead readers to particular conclusions using devices like setting, character, plot, point of view, conflict, epiphany. Higgs (and Mooney) evidently dislike Aristotle, as they blame his Poetics for helping spread these perniciously common devices (213).2 They opt instead for "open readings" through which the reader must work towards, not receive, information. Readers are asked, even required, to co-create throughout this book—most times implicitly but sometimes explicitly. It can be confusing. I'm not convinced I would have given this book a chance had a friend not recommended it and given me an idea of what to expect. (Granted, his warning—in and of itself—gave my reading of Mooney a different hue altogether to begin with. So thanks and no thanks.) This book is a collection of work by an imaginary writer who has disappeared.

As I said earlier, I read a lot of books which require a critical eye, whereas this book demanded attention of an entirely different sort. This is probably why I enjoyed it so much. It called my attention to the strange negotiations we make as readers and writers. After directing a series of rhetorical questions to the reader, Mooney quotes Gertrude Stein: "Writing is not conversation." He continues:

Why are you reading this? Why don't you give up? Quit reading. I had a professor once who told me never to bully the reader...The New Critics want to do away with the author. I am not to be done away with. I am a transmission....What about you? Like me, do you ever [END TRANSMISSION] (65-66). 

Higgs and Mooney seem to think of reading as being a "phenomenological experience" in which we, the readers, must engage, which is why Mooney "challenges the reader to participate." One of the block quotes elsewhere in the book comes from Charles Bernstein's "Writing and Method" essay: "The text calls upon the reader to be actively involved in the process of constituting its meaning... The text formally involves the process of response/interpretation and in so doing makes the reader aware of herself or himself as producer as well as consumer of meaning" (222). Higgs or Mooney refer to the text's "opacity," a lack of solidity which some readers will have a low tolerance for. This explains why "the wayside fills with shipjumpers, readers who haven't the patients [sic] for shenanigans, exercises, games" (121).

I stayed aboard the ship, but I can understand why some readers wouldn't. You might not like this book. You might agree with Dr. Wilson Parnell, Professor Emeritus (who, incidentally, coined the phrase "takes one to know one"), who said "No sane person would waste time reading Mooney's rubbish....It's a royal shame that some fringe academia literati find it necessary to vindicate such tripe" (31). But maybe you shouldn't rely on my review of the book anyway. As Mooney is said to have said, "In order to dissect something, you must kill it first" (82). Granted, Mooney and Higgs sometimes interrupt the opacity of the text, they sometimes provide the surgical instruments required for dissection. This occurs when they include excerpts from actual conference papers on the topic of experimental literature, for instance (213-217). But they are only providing me with the tool, or the weapon, so I may be committing murder here in this review, bibliocide. But it seems to me that by thinking about the book even now, as I did when I was reading, I'm really bringing the book to life in my own experience, from my own perspective, with my own imagination, for myself, which is precisely what any reader can do—though we will potentially reach radically different conclusions. Like this one:

Interestingly enough, as the book calls plot itself into question it actually helps reaffirm the utility of plot; it  recognizes and somewhat fulfills our drive for plot, though it requires our assistance. As soon as you start getting a feel for the arc of the book they pull the rug out from under you. (This is a phenomenon I recognized even prior to page 99 where Mooney writes "You see? Right when you think you might know where you're headed you get the rug pulled, you end elsewhere. This is new. You got comfortable and that is the kiss of death.") At times the rug-pull doesn't matter anyway because when gravity and center are lacking altogether you don't notice as much. Like when Mooney (or Higgs) is simply stringing interesting words together.

Count footsteps front door carefully. Do it twice if you must be the number code to keypad opens the grey latch the blue barn the Montana forest. Busted sits electrical inside guitars strewn living room (129).

At one point I discovered I could read a paragraph top to bottom in one-word columns rather than left to right and it nearly made as much sense, but I looked for clues in vain. These instances of "documenting patters of consciousness" (46) provide interesting contrast. They help lead into and out of the more organized prose. Imagine spinning around and around in one place, then stopping. The world feels like it's still turning, it's hard to walk straight for a moment. It feels floaty and dreamlike. This is the precise effect I felt at moments of this book, it was amazing really. At one point it literally felt to me as though I was in a dream myself, which was quite honestly bizarre, unique, and invigorating. Like a simulated dream without the use of sleep or drugs or a knock on the head:

Afterwards you will be on your front porch, drinking a cold beer, and out of nowhere you will hear the ghost cough. This is your signal. You will know it is the ghost coughing because the cough will be loud and there won't be any people around. Finish your beer in a timely manner; throw the bottle into the recycling bin; go down to the basement and light the fire you have prepared under the stairs. The flame should burn green. If the flame is not green, if it is blue or orange or any other color than green you are in a world of trouble: you will need to immediately put the fire out and call 911—with any luck the ambulance will arrive in time to resuscitate you. That is the worst case scenario. What is more likely to happen is that the flame will be green, which is the color it needs to be in order to initiate the second phase (91).3   

A subplot (if it's fair to call it one) to the collection of Mooney's writings is the mystery of Mooney's disappearance. As editor, Higgs occasionally provides information about Mooney's disappearance. I should point out that the excerpt above ("Why are you reading this? Why don't you give up? Quit reading...") is taken from Mooney's last-known written words. This final piece of writing (included by Higgs early in the book, perhaps reflecting the ambiguity of calling this the "Complete Works") was "saved under the title 'Grand Unified Theory'" on June 26, 2002, "three days before he went missing" (63). There is a sense of pathos at the loss. But it seems to me Mooney wanted to disappear, he had been wrestling with his identity for years:

At this moment you could be anywhere on the globe and you have no idea where I am, which is how I am invisible. You don't know me. You've never met me. If you are my wife, my mother, my sister, I am sorry to break it to you like this but you don't know me. You only know a version of me I have given to you over the years, a side of the real me I have decided to show you, not the whole me (302). 

The very question of authorship is quite puzzling throughout this book, as the voice switches from Mooney to Higgs to characters to thoughts to dialogue to fiction to history to rambling. Sometimes they all get to arguing: "Editor's Note...this is the biography of an imaginary character. I am real but he is not. How could it be? I am not a creation. He is. Wait...who is 'he'? Him or me? Which one is this typing here? Is Chris Higgs involved? Who is Chris Higgs?" (221).  Whoever it was, Mooney is said to be missing. "'It's raining.' —the last known words spoken by Marvin K. Mooney before his disappearance" (144). So he's gone now, though we have the literary leavings of his life dutifully compiled by Higgs for our consideration. Throughout the book Higgs himself formulates several hypotheses concerning Mooney's disappearance:

There are many good reasons to want to disappear from society,
just as there are many bad reasons. There are also many good ways to
disappear from society and there are many bad ways, too (287). 

To conclude this review I have created a simple but helpful chart to assist future readers who are formulating their own theories about Mooney's disappearance. The various ways and reasons may be mapped accordingly (click to enlarge):

"I have." is a good sentence because it is very
brief and tells us very little. Remember: clarity
is not always the name of the game; it is just
one choice, one decision. 

—(Marvin K. Mooney, p. 97)


I almost forgot to tie this review into Mormonism or religion, which people might have expected given that this  blog regularly focuses on those things. There are certainly some interesting connections to be made, but I wanted simply to review the book aside from that framework. Fortunately for me, a relevant reference to these themes is found in one of Mooney's more self-absorbed ramblings, titled "Lonely So Very Much Was I." I trust my including it will help justify my reviewing this book to those who might think it strange of me:

Apologize, the postman sees underwear everywhere strewn on the couch. Invite him inside to drink and chip taste. Watch a little telly? Talk about the weather? How every morning I pray for proselytizing Mormons at the door. Or Jehovah's Witnesses (123-124).


1. See Christopher Higgs, "What is Experimental Literature? {pt. 1},HTMLGIANT, 18 November 2010.

2. Higgs, "What is Experimental Literature? {pt. 2}," HTMLGIANT, 15 December 2010. Higgs quotes Brian Evanson, a contributor to a collection of LDS short fiction edited by Angela Hallstrom, Dispensation: Latter-Day Fiction (Provo: Zarahemla Books, 2010).

3. In one of Higgs's blog post comments he mentioned a book called The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard. I picked up a copy and this morning was struck by this observation: "To read poetry is essentially to daydream" (17). I think Higgs somehow channeled that into his prose here, found a way to make this type of reading more obvious, at least to my own experience. Pretty cool.

Post Script: Hi, Mr. Mooney, if you happen to be reading this!

May 9, 2011

Review: Terry Eagleton, "On Evil"

Title: On Evil
Author: Terry Eagleton
Publisher: Yale University Press
Genre: Philosophy/Literature
Year: 2011
Pages: 176
ISBN13: 978-0-300-17125-9
Binding: Paperback
Price: $16.00 (also available in cloth for $35.00)

Terry Eagleton believes the term "evil" is either misused or disregarded by most people today. By misdiagnosing or disregarding evil we run the risk of not being able to properly deal with real evil when we encounter it. To prevent such a catastrophe, Eagleton has put together an extended meditation on the existence and nature of evil.

Eagleton apparently hopes to give readers the option of forgetting about the religious implications of evil. He cites a recent poll showing that Denmark has the lowest amount of believers in sin is cited. Eagleton notes that such people nevertheless believe in the reality of things like "child pornography, police violence, and the barefaced lies of pharmaceutical companies." But to call such things "sin" would imply an "offence against God rather than an offense against other people. It is not a distinction that the New Testament has much time for" (15). In other words, whether the reader places sin in a context of God or man, they can still take part in the discussion. There are several arguments based on the nature of God and eternity, however, which tend to break out of the bracket he initially set up. (It's somewhat beside the point of this review, but I have some substantial disagreements with Eagleton's conception of God.)

This excerpt highlights some of the strengths and weaknesses of Eagleton's prose. It can be witty and song-like, but it can also be snarky and self-assured. I liked his comment about the New Testament, but it obviously cries out for explanation which Eagleton never gives, not a single biblical reference is given supporting that claim. This is why I call the book a "meditation" as opposed to a philosophical explication or analysis. He picks and chooses his sources, doesn't set up a conceptual framework, and mashes different Western thinkers together throughout the work. As for the snarky and self-assured, his jab at pharmaceutical companies likewise receives no further comment, it's a given, as is his repeated use of works by Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. Eagleton is a Christian himself, so his reliance on these thinkers will likely surprise readers. Continued critiques of capitalism are to be expected from the man who also wrote a book called Why Marx Was Right.

Eagleton is quite adept at taking a unique approach to a common idea, which can really induce the reader to think and keep the reader on her toes. For instance, he sees the modern age as having largely shifted attention from the "soul to the psyche" or from "theology to psychoanalysis" (17). This shift helps account for all the fuzzy, feel-good self-help, prosperity gospel stuff which he despises. Freud and Jesus, he says, are both presenting "narratives of human desire," describing a "science of human discontent" (17). He seems to delight in overturning conventional phrases, too. "Idle hands are the devil's playground" sounds nice, but often times  the "trouble with the wicked" is that "they are far too busy, rather than not busy enough" (13). Elsewhere he challenges Sartre's claim that "Hell is other people" while analyzing William Golding's book Pincher Martin. Without the requisite spoiler alert notification he shows how Golding's book argues that hell is "exactly the opposite" of other people. "It is being stuck for all eternity with the most dreary, unspeakably monotonous company of all: oneself" (22).

Eagleton's evil is intensely connected to his understanding of personal identity, responsibility, cause and effect, and the proper understanding of justice. He refers to the brutal torturing and murder of a child by two ten-year-old boys in England in 1993. A police spokesman chalked it up to their being pure evil. This, argues Eagleton, seemed a way of forfeiting understanding. "Evil" in this view is unintelligible, so we attribute it to bad blood and genes, insanity, demon possession, etc. If we believe punishment should apply to people who commit evil acts of their own free will then chalking their actions up to "evil" seems to call into question the sort of punishments we mete out, prison sentences and even the death penalty. On the other hand, if we try to understand the circumstances which led to the tragedy we might have room for change or mercy. This leads to one of the most interesting parts of Eagleton's book: his discussion of "original sin." The Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which holds that Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin, is absurd, Eagleton holds:

"It regards original sin as a kind of genetic stain which you might be fortunate enough to be born without, rather as you might be unfortunate enough to be born without a liver. Original sin, however, is not about being born either saintly or wicked. It is about the fact of being born in the first place...[because] we enter into a preexistent web of needs, interests, and desires--an inextricable tangle to which the mere brute fact of our existence will contribute, and which will shape our identity to the core" (35).

Thus we may be born innocent, in the sense that a tortoise is innocent, incapable of doing better or worse, but we are not born without incurring the stains of the blood and sins of this generation, in Mormon parlance. He argues against Rousseau and others who view radical individual liberty as the foundation of freedom and responsibility (36). Rather, we enter an already-existing game, and we implicitly start playing it as we grow up. "Who can say for sure, in the great skein of human action and reaction, who really has ownership of a particular deed?" (37). He argues in behalf of a "radical materialism" which does not see evil or wicked acts as existing independent of the social structures in which they occur, or apart from their material contexts (15). Evil=you+me+society+action depending on how we affect the whole. This isn't an entirely new conception, of course. I was reminded of C.S. Lewis's argument about sin in Mere Christianity where he criticizes the idea that we can sin so long as it only affects ourselves. He compares humanity to a fleet of ships, and individual ships who go off course, so to speak, can indeed have dire consequences even if they are unintended based on the very nature of our world.

The trouble with seeing bad acts as being either evil or explicable is that these views tend to stop conversation, tend to stop personal reflection, too (8). Conservatives who might blame evil on the individual and liberals who emphasize only the societal causes are both missing it, and in something of a Hegelian synthesis he sees better potential in looking at individual and societal contributions to evil acts in the world.  In order to make the world better should we change the person or their surroundings? Both, he argues (148).

This is different than a grim view of the fallen nature of man requiring a retributive punishment approach, as well as a mealy-mouthed or overconfident faith in progressivism--that the world just keeps getting better. (This is, incidentally, is main beef with the so-called "New Atheist" movement.) He recognizes that some will simply not agree with his approach to evil:

"For some commentators, trying to grasp what motivates Islamic suicide bombers by, say, pointing to the despair and devastation of the Gaza Strip, is to absolve them of their guilt. But you can condemn those who blow up little children in the name of Allah without assuming that there is no explanation for their outrageous behaviour--that they pulverise people simply for kicks. You do not have to believe that the explanation in question is sufficient reason to justify what they do" (7).   

Clearly Eagleton is not only talking in the abstract about evil. It becomes more and more apparent that he is speaking to actual world events, not archaic religious distinctions of behavior. This is why Eagleton is almost sure to bother every reader about something they believe in, whether it be his criticism of capitalism or US foreign policy--criticisms which he usually states without fully explaining or justifying. (For this reason, it almost feels like his audience is supposed to be those who want to believe in evil and progressivism simultaneously but don’t know how to reconcile the two competing things.) At the same time, he is right to point out that the stakes are high, especially considering global terrorism and ongoing war. If you're uncomfortable with what looks like his defense of Islamic extremists above, his conclusion might help balance things out. There he points to Islam again in order to decry a certain strain of overconfident triumphalism. He sees the "No Apologies!" approach as a dangerous participant in, rather than solution to, our current problems in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. If we could seek to understand what they are doing we might better be able to bring a resolution. However:

"This is not to claim that Islamic fundamentalism is eminently rational. On the contrary, it is ridden with the most virulent strains of prejudice and bigotry, as its torn and butchered victims have good reason to know. But those lethal fantasies are mixed in with some specific political grievances, however illusory or unjustified its enemies may consider them to be" (158). 

Disregarding extremists out of hand "is an irrational prejudice to rival their own, and one which can only make the situation worse" by meeting violence with violence, leading to more terror, more violence, and so forth (158-159). This, I believe, is Eagleton's most pressed point of the book. But there are plenty of additional side-roads which readers might enjoy on subjects like egotism, death and despair. It has plenty of darkness, but somehow these ideas are explored in an upbeat manner. As one example of such a side-road, consider Eagleton's comments about "Debunkery." This is the tendency some have to correct incorrect or false ideas about history or whatever else. In a sense, Eagleton himself is acting the debunker in much of this book. Debunkery, he says, can be a "positive kind of foolery" because it can puncture "the pompous delusions of the self-deceived. But it can also sail perilously close to the nihilism of those like [Shakespeare's] Iago, who can win a vicarious kind of identity for themselves only by deriding and destroying...The problem, then, is that a healthy iconoclasm can sail very close to a pathological cynicism" (87). This sounded familiar enough for me.

Eagleton's prose can be a bit pedantic, he uses limited footnotes but cites a pretty large variety of western thinkers. Literary analysis of interesting fiction on the topic of evil shows his strengths as a professor of literature, a profession which at the same time helps account for some of his weaknesses in philosophy or theology. The feel of the prose was very similar to his book Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, which originated as a series of lectures. Evidently his conversational style is not only found in his lecturing. His extended discussion on Freud and the "death drive" seemed a bit lengthy and peripheral to me. At the same time, his description and rejection of several theodicies on the grounds that they help excuse God at the expense of encouraging us to alleviate suffering in the now was quite fruitful, I think.

Ultimately, Eagleton leaves the reader hanging regarding the fundamental nature of evil, if there is such a nature, and offers no concrete suggestions to help alleviate its effects in the world. He distinguishes between wicked acts and outright evil, the former being acts which are explicable the latter being less explicable? In fact, the latter being pointless. But isn't that sort of judgment in the eye of the beholder? If he intended to answer more questions than he raised then I'd say he was not very successful. He isn't giving answers as much as provoking questions, it seems to me. This is another reason I refer to the book as being a meditation rather than an explication or treatise. (The lack of a jargon-laced subtitle gives this impression as well. He went straight for the simple: "On Evil.") The hope, then, is that it can spur further reflection and discussion on the part of its readers. It is on these grounds especially that I recommend On Evil.


Other interesting reviews/responses to On Evil

-Humanist philosopher A.C. Grayling

-Richard Coles, vicar of St Paul's Church, Kensington