If you fear, fear not. If you fear not, fear.
---J. Reuben Clark
Before we get started, let me quote again Levi Peterson, the gentleman we met back in Part I: "There is health in treating the broad range of experience . . . in viewing clearly the full spectrum of human act and emotion . . . ."
I'm taking that as a truth as we get started in this week's look at a bit of fiction that runs head-on into sex without, in my estimation, becoming unholy or untrue.
I don't think I'm the first person to draw an analogy between what Mormons think of sex and what we think of the temple: they're not secret, per se, but sacred. Which looks a lot the same on the outside, but we know the difference, right? We just haven't found a good way to express that difference yet. Someone get on that.
So, while looking at "the full spectrum of human act and emotion" during this sequence of posts, we're specifically considering the sacred erotic in literature. Today's test case, Todd Robert Petersen's "Family History" (available in his excellent collection Long After Dark--my review here).
It's an interesting choice for a test case because it starts with what reads like a shameless and far-from-sacred sexual encounter. The encounter ends before any actual sex starts, but that doesn't mean it could not qualify as one of Jorgensen's "porn events" (see Part II). If that opening scene was all I knew of Petersen (not Peterson, keep 'em straight) was this one scene, I might well have a different opinion of him. But! That scene starts a novella that followed fifteen short stories, some of which were among the best I have ever read. I felt like I knew this author enough to trust he knew what he was doing. Remember this definition of porn from Publishers Weekly: "It is one of the tropes of pure pornography that events are without consequence. No babies, no STDs, no trauma, no memories best left unexamined." This is exactly true---porn is sex without consequences. Not so in "Family History."
"Family History" belongs to the long heritage of conversion stories, so popular in Mormon literature. But I need to keep in mind that when Larry and Mona do it like bonobos in a Vegas hotel room, they don't share my moral code.
FoxyJ was telling me the other night that she's noticed many Mormon consumers of art do this: judge characters by the viewer/reader's moral code. She's against this. How can someone (fictional or not) be held to a standard they don't know? A great thing about fiction is that, yes, we can judge them, but shouldn't we judge them according to the light and knowledge they have received?
(Note: Judging characters is different from judging texts. Larry and Mona have hot sex. Okay. But if Larry and Mona have hot consequence-free sex, that ceases to be okay and now the text becomes a lie. Not okay.)
(Note: And judging the author becomes something anew. Judging an author by his characters might be impossible. But judging an author by a text becomes inevitable. Although we should be careful to remember that we can mistake and misinterpret. And an author, after all, is a genuine human being. Judge not that ye be not judged.)
To me, these are the questions with which we should judge "Family History" as a text:
- 1. Was the text written for the sole purpose of titillating the reader?
(My answer: no. But if the early sex scenes do titillate the reader, that only increases the power of the entire work. Which gives us a gray area. And people hate gray areas. Phooey.)
2. Does the text show that sexual behavior has consequences?
(Yes. Although I want to rush and point out that sexual behavior can have different consequences for different people at different times. A reader who wants ever fornicator to die of AIDS will be disappointed not only in fiction but in real life.)
"He was right--my father's account of that weekend in Las Vegas was horrible, but I couldn't get past the idea--once I was over the shock--that as my parents were in Vegas, God might have also been there. If we believe in the gospel, then we have to accept the fact that bad people or selfish people can always come around."
But, as his mother tells him, "These stories don't get told much in our church, David. We want stories of success without having to hear about the struggles of sin. . . . There has to be an opposition in all things, otherwise we could not be redeemed. And the opposition is part of the whole. . . . Please consider that as you write our history. Please record all of us. Let our lives be of use."
WARNING! I'm not suggesting that sex scenes in literature are necessarily depictions of sinful behavior. In fact, I would (in general) much rather stumble across what I've been terming "holy sex." But, back to Peterson (note the o), "There is health in treating the broad range of experience . . . in viewing clearly the full spectrum of human act and emotion . . . ."
The erotic experiences of life are part of that. And, regardless of what the sexual actions of characters are, are the consequences of those actions true? I suggest we use that as a guide, and in this story, the answer is yes. And the result is a beautiful, artful, holy story.
Next week, The Erotic in LDS Lit Part III: The Sex Talk.
(FREE BONUS!!! Tomorrow, only on Thmusings, part III.V, which partially discusses the sex in another LDS book! Be there! Er, here!)