The Deep Subjects of the Book of Mormon, Plato, Zhuangzi, and So On . . .

My friend and co-blogger Rosalynde presents a fascinating argument about Book of Mormon historicity in her recent review of Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon. Based on my experience with various other ancient texts, I respectfully disagree.

Rosalynde suggests that Grant Hardy’s literary analysis of the Book of Mormon is harder to separate from a discussion of its historical origins than he thinks. He shows us the complexity, coherence, and development of its various narrative voices, and in the process shows how much their distinctive, personal perspectives and interests shape the text. Hardy invites readers of the Book of Mormon to set aside questions of historicity, at least for the moment, and explore literary features like these which are interesting in their own right. Yet in Rosalynde’s view the literary character that Hardy finds ironically indicates something itself about the book’s historicity. If we attend to “the history of the narrative genre,” we see that even at the time of a relatively modern work such as Don Quixote, “the romance had not yet become the novel, the author had not yet entirely separated from the narrator, and indeed the human being had not yet become the modern subject comfortably at home in its fully-furnished mental interior.”

Hence in Rosalynde’s view, the very complexity of the narrator’s personalities, and the degree to which their voices are visible in the text, mark it as a distinctively modern book, much more modern even than Don Quixote, at least in this respect. In the comments she suggests that the Book of Mormon still need not be entirely modern in its origins; perhaps these modern characteristics enter the text through a process of interpretation as (modern) Joseph Smith tries to convey authentically ancient content. However, one must “recognize a modern context at some level,” and presumably one whose influence on the text is roughly as deep and pervasive as the influence of these complex, developed narrative voices that Hardy describes.

First I want to thank Rosalynde for such an interesting, creative, and unexpected angle on the question of Book of Mormon historicity. This is an exciting question to explore, if only because it calls out such interesting questions about the literary character of the Book of Mormon and indeed the entire history of writing. I am quite interested in both the historicity and the literary character of the Book of Mormon myself, and find it very exciting to think about how they might be related. Further, if Rosalynde’s view of the history of literature were accurate, her point would seem to carry great weight.

That said, I disagree rather thoroughly. I think Rosalynde greatly overestimates how far the sort of subjectivity and personal voice displayed in the Book of Mormon is distinctively modern. I am inclined to agree that the Pentateuch takes a very different tone than most of the Book of Mormon, as do many other portions of the Bible, and there may be a trend across history for books to be less personal in the ancient world. My impression is that the history of literature is simply less linear than Rosalynde suggests. However, if there is a trend corresponding to the emergence of modernity, it is a trend in how many books have this personal tone, not in whether there are books with a highly developed narrative subject such as we see in the Book of Mormon.

Several examples spring to mind of ancient writings in which the complexity and pathos of the author’s subjective experience come through quite vividly: Augustine’s Confessions, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and many of the Psalms, for example. Julie Smith similarly calls our attention to the rather existential Ezekiel.

Plato’s writings also develop some really stunning portraits of characters and narrators, explicitly and implicitly, especially of Socrates. The Phaedo is one of the most illustrative. In it, Socrates offers a sustained, elaborate defense of his view that the soul is eternal, but interrupts it with disarmingly frank comments on his relationships with his interlocutors, on how they may feel about what he is saying and vice versa, and about his own feelings on the subject he is discussing. The conversation itself clearly arises in response to the emotionally loaded situation in which Socrates and his friends and family find themselves. More than once Socrates directly calls into question his own motives for presenting such an argument when he is about to be executed. As author of the dialogue, Plato clearly shows a rich appreciation for human subjectivity, including the way our perceptions and judgments are often shaped by our interests and emotions, both overtly and covertly. In fact, there are times when the quintessentially modern Kierkegaard, a contemporary of Joseph Smith, is clearly and self-consciously channelling Plato.

Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, though it was written a few centuries after Moroni, is also interesting to consider on this point, as are some of the Buddhist scriptural texts and the Chinese Zhuangzi, which date from a similar period. The Buddhist texts I have read (from the Pali Canon) do not necessarily display the inner depths of an individual author as such, but they display an incredibly rich appreciation for the complexities and quirks of human subjective experience. Even in some of the more historically oriented books of the Bible, now and then we get surprisingly personal glimpses into the struggles of heroes like Gideon, Saul, Elijah, and Abraham. The writings of Paul in the New Testament were presumably written before the time of Mormon and Moroni, but display deep, sustained, and poignant introspection.

I think it is fascinating to consider how well developed the personal voices of the Book of Mormon narrators are, and what this might indicate about both the meaning and origins of the text. Rosalynde suggests, though, that the “fully-furnished mental interior[s]” of the Book of Mormon’s narrators are the sort of thing that only turns up in modern texts. It would not surprise me if something like her view of the history of literature is true within certain periods and regions. However, based on my own reading of ancient texts, especially those I’ve mentioned, at the scale relevant for evaluating the Book of Mormon, her view of history does not hold up. Some of the most complex, cohesive, subtle, and moving explorations and expressions of the individual person as subject come from the ancient world, in and around the time of the Book of Mormon.

13 comments for “The Deep Subjects of the Book of Mormon, Plato, Zhuangzi, and So On . . .

  1. I posted it on the previous thread about her modern insight into the type of narrative and narrator. But it fits better here.

    If you read that link carefully while focusing on the individual and subjects involved I think you can get a pretty clear sense of the writings of Enheduana, someone who we’d perhaps describe in our modern LDS tongue as a female temple ordinance worker.

    I think that single, 4000+ year-old, “scriptural narrative” (to the Akkadians) written by Enheduana stands pretty well in contrast to many of the writings of the BoM.

    Consider if Enheduana’s writings of losing her temple recommend, to again use modern LDS symbolism as it were, “set the stage” for future descendants of hers continuing the writing tradition about their own exile. She would be the initial voice, and each subsequent author/descendant would add their own personalized voice to it.

    So it’s no surprise, that in a book that begins “I, Nephi…” pretty much ends with ‘I, Moroni…’ Nephi injected his own voice and set the pattern for subsequent authors.

    There are many instances of injection of personal narrative in ancient writing as stated here and elsewhere. Herodotus is another example.

  2. I think this is a fair response. Part of the problem is that this discussion is happening entirely in the abstract, with loose-goosey words like “modern,” “subjectivity,” etc. I’d be interested if either blogger or someone else could refer us to specific textual examples, in the BoM or Hardy’s book, to make their point.

  3. BTW – google has about 40 pages of text from the book available for reading. Including the section about Nephi and Laban.

    I just read that, and it’s pretty interesting, except for some reason Hardy doesn’t make it clear that Nephi himself was torn over the killing of Laban but instead just sums up the reasons why Nephi justifies the killing. I’m really interesting in reading the commentary, but I think this oversight is more than unfortunate. Not once (that I have seen at least) is the inner struggle of Nephi presented, but it’s instead that Nephi is rationalizing away and trying to gloss over the deed.

  4. except for some reason Hardy doesn’t make it clear that Nephi himself was torn over the killing of Laban but instead just sums up the reasons why Nephi justifies the killing.

    It’s worth noting that Hardy’s purpose in recounting Nephi’s killing Laban isn’t to analyze what Nephi felt; instead, he’s demonstrating how Nephi constructed his history in order to present a particular image of himself. That is, he’s using a gap in the text to illustrate what we can get from a close reading. There’s no gap in Nephi’s explanation of his feeling torn about it, and thus, that detail is irrelevant to Hardy’s analysis.

  5. Sam – think about that for a second….

    “instead, he’s demonstrating how Nephi constructed his history”
    If you are writing about how he constructed the history, and you focus a lot of effort, which seems to be fruitful I might add, to write about things left unsaid — then it’s strange you’d leave out what is explicitly said.

    You definitely leave something out of the analysis if you say that Nephi feels torn about doing it, but does it anyway. That’s a huge oversight in this case when you’re dealing with a weighty topic like murder and robbery.

    The case could just as easily be presented by saying, “Even though Nephi tells us he is torn about killing Laban, we can see….blah blah blah…” In fact, it could even improve Hardy’s case in this respect if Hardy were to discount Nephi’s statement as being inserted merely as an attempt to win the reader over.

    I think it’s a pretty valid and specific criticism of what Hardy presents. If the explicit said statements such as the above are ignored in favor of deep analysis of the unsaid, rather than a combination of the two, then Hardy’s work would be flawed at best or deeply biased in favor of manipulating the reader to his preferred conclusions at worst.

    I’m assuming that’s not the case, because the rest of what I read in the excerpt looks really good.

  6. “You definitely leave something out of the analysis if you say that Nephi ”

    should be

    “You definitely leave something out of the analysis if you DON’T say that Nephi “

  7. chris,
    Hardy’s using the story of Laban to illustrate a specific mode of analysis—looking at gaps. There are certainly other fruitful ways of approaching the text, including looking at what Nephi does say. But Hardy isn’t trying to present a comprehensive picture of every detail in the Book of Mormon. Instead, he’s giving a careful reading of a number of different sections and styles. But his leaving out certain details certainly did not, in my reading, diminish his argumentation. In the end, though, I suppose that YMMV.

  8. Ben, it’s a important point you bring up – just what kind of interior life and subjectivity do pre-modern narrators have? And you’re correct that “pre-modern” covers up a huge diversity according to time and place. (Another place to look for strong characters rather than flat types is in medieval Icelandic literature, by the way.)

    I’m not sure that you’re completely doing justice to Rosalynde’s argument, though, and she does know a thing or two about early modern subjectivity, so I hope she’ll respond at some point.

  9. I think it’s a bit of a stretch to say that Nephi really struggled with killing Laban (at least, from what we get from the text). Sure he balked, but he didn’t put up much of a fight. If anything, he wanted to emphasize his willingness to follow the Spirit and not admit that, yeah, hearing an inner voice tell you to kill someone is pretty weird.

  10. Could Montaigne be part of the problem? What I mean by that is that, from my recollection, Montaigne is often held up as the emergent “modern” voice that contrasts with something…for lack of a better term…”pre-modern.” If someone wants to prize the subjectivity and interiority evident in the writings of someone like Montaigne as modern and unique, and then “uniquely modern,” then that move may get in the way of recognizing the subjective qualities of those writing before Montaigne. Understanding this may help clarify Montaigne a common touchstone for what has rightly been called the “loose-goosey” term “modern.”

  11. Just to add to the list of pre-modern books with robust subjectivity, from the Japanese tradition– The Tale of Genji 1000 AD (Proust-like, often cited as the world’s first novel, hence modern, thanks to complex narrative techniques representing subjective interiorities). The Confessions of Lady Nijo 1307 AD could also be added as well.

    In the interest of further discussion, it might be well to clarify what we mean by subjectivity.

  12. Dlewis now we really are just making stuff up…
    Have you read and considered the verse?

    First he says he was constrained. That is his will was one thing and the Lords will was something else. Nephis will was repressed, compelled or even forced (well as we see in subsequent verses he spends time talking about how he was persuaded by the spirit). This strongly implies he desired something else. Then if considering the meaning of constrained and the opposing forces implied wasn’t clear enough he says he has different feelings in his heart and he shrunk from the task. Another place we have the word shrink is directly from the savior referring to the bitter cup he would have preferred not to take. You can certainly say otherwise but then you are inventing meaning completely outside and opposite what the text says. It’s one thing to analyze what was said in light of what was not said but another thing to ignore and gloss over what was said and invent something else without even acknowledging what was explicitly said that was contrary in the text.

    For what appears to be so thoroughly detailed in refencing stated dialogues and inner monologues within the text it seems sloppy to leave this verse out. At the very least according to the angle this story is presented you could argue Nephi just wanted to bolster the readers perception of his righteousness by pointing out how much he was opposed but listened to God anyway so he is righteous on both accounts.

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