The Scholar of Moab: Interviduality

How many am I?

Am I Siamese?  How many conjoin me? How many compose me? How many do I host? How many have I colonized? How wide does my cheesecloth interviduality spread?

It’s pretty clear, I think, that my “individual” self is largely a story I’m selling myself. Jesus wants me to lose this self and get on with life, but it’s hard. I find that I love this story more than life. At least, I choose the one over the other again and again.

My “self” is a shadow that my multitude casts. The shadow is simple, clean, flat, and black. That simplicity is a fiction. Given where my multitude stands, the cant of the sun, the shape I’m bodying, my shadow may give an accurate adumbration – but the adumbration hides more than it shows.

There’s nothing wrong with shadows. Shadows are real shadows. The trouble starts when, instead of just casting a shadow, I try to identify with it. (O’ that I were my shadow!) The trouble starts when I try to bottle its simplicity, its clean-cut individuality, as the truth about what I really am. Sin is this compulsive attempt to forget the unruly multitudes that compose me and to finally, successfully sync with my shadow. Hell is succeeding.

The main characters in Steven Peck‘s novel, The Scholar of Moab, all display this kind of messy irreducibility. (Read BHodges excellent BCC review here). Here’s the book’s official synopsis:

What happens when a two-headed cowboy, a high school dropout who longs to be a scholar, and a poet who claims to have been abducted by aliens come together in 1970’s Moab, Utah? The Scholar of Moab, a dark-comedy perambulating murder, affairs, and cowboy mysteries in the shadow of the La Sal Mountains.

Young Hyrum Thane, unrefined geological surveyor, steals a massive dictionary out of the Grand County library in a midnight raid, startling the people of Moab into believing a nefarious band of Book of Mormon assassins, the Gadianton Robbers, has arisen again.

Making matters worse, Hyrum’s illicit affair with Dora Tanner, a local poet thought to be mad, ends in the delivery of a premature baby boy who vanishes the night of its birth. Righteous Moabites accuse Dora of its murder, but who really killed their child? Did a coyote dingo the baby? Was it an alien abduction as Dora claims? Was it Hyrum? Or could it have been the only witness to the crime, one of a pair of Oxford-educated conjoined twins who cowboy in the La Sals on sabbatical?

How many is a two-headed cowboy? Riding under the open sun, the cowboy and his horse cast just one (three-headed) shadow.

At one point, early in the novel, the Oxford-educated conjoined twins are in Paris attending a lecture given by the brilliant French obscurantist Gilles Deleuze. Deleuze, working to explain what he calls the Virtual, spots the twins and seizes the illustration:

Suddenly, Delueze pointed at us with his long-nailed finger and said, “There! There is repetition caught in the moment between virtuality and actuality, between possibility and the unification of multiplicity, between the qualitative and the quantitative. There! There is ‘différance’ screaming towards existence, existence sluicing through potentiality, and potential itself skating unforgivingly toward emergent unity.” Thom called us a topological manifold of singularity, a “projection” resisting reduction in complementary planes of asymmetry. (32-33)

Conjoined twins are an easy target if you’re talking about “a topological manifold of singularity” or a “projection resisting reduction in complementary planes of asymmetry,” but Peck’s novel presses the point that the twins are not unique in this respect. Rather, they dramatize for us a general truth about the human condition. To be a human being is to exist simultaneously on complementary but asymmetrical planes. Who doesn’t feel like a repetition caught between virtuality and actuality?

The human way of being is split, composite, spread, distributed, and open-ended. The human way of being is to be of two minds, to depend on bodies we can influence but not control, to think thoughts we don’t understand, to repeat words that are not our own, and to pursue goals we’re not sure we want.

For the conjoined twins, things are even more complex than Deleuze imagined. Doctors discover that the twins have a “third mind” – affectionately referred to by the twins as Marcel – a “neural mass” that is at once a hub, a relay, and something independent of either of its heads. An abstract of the doctor’s report indicates that

at times, the neural mass acts according to the desires of neither twin – e.g., to run from ambiguous danger (one, say, that neither twin has noticed) or to seek out sexual activity. Some activities require coordination of both the neural mass and the twins. For example, bathroom functions require the integration of all three personalities with the neural mass alone detecting, for instance, the need of urination. . . . However, the mass can make decisions independent of either. What this implies about the nature of consciousness is discussed, including whether this neural mass is an independent and separate consciousness. Thoughts on what this means for personhood are explored. (58-59)

What have you named your neural mass? Your third mind? Your fourth one? What New Year’s resolutions have you made to better integrate the assemblage that you are? What rogue parts of you probably need more compassion rather than more discipline?

Hyrum Thane, the novel’s main character, suffers a more subtle version of interviduality than the conjoined twins. Fresh from the trailer park, he works as a hired-hand for geology PhDs surveying desert strata and he feels pretty keenly his “ignorance” in relation to them. One day, the butt of a joke, one of them says to Hyrum: “Man! What a Dickensian life you lead” (19). Hyrum, however, doesn’t know what this means and, as a result, it drives him crazy. This comment, Hyrum says, “got under my skin & started Itching so bad it wouldn’t go away until I got it Scratched” (25).

Here, rather than having two heads, Hyrum gets something stuck in his head, a unknown word, a foreign phrase, that lodges itself there, takes root, colonizes his mind, and hacks his attention. It shapes him and compels him. He can’t stop repeating it back to himself and ends up with a big pile of rocks. That first day, he says,

I started counting & every time I thought it I threw a rock at a tree. When it was time to head down I just walked over to the tree & counted up the rocks. That is exactly how many times I thought it between the time I ate my lunch & the time we packed up to go back to the base camp. I wanted to let you get a feel for my afternoon ruminations. (19)

To give you a feel for the force of it’s self-replication, Peck then fills five pages with “Man! What a Dickensian life you lead. Man! What a Dickensian life you lead. Man! What a Dickensian life you lead,” to the exact number of rocks (118!) Hyrum counted himself as having thrown that first afternoon.

I am Hyrum, except that rather than a foreign phrase colonizing my mind, I’ve got a whole book. The Book of Mormon, lodged like an eccentric body between my ears, spools in an endless loop. Like Hyrum, I didn’t ask for it,  suspect it may be an insult, and don’t know what it means.

Still, it composes me, conjoins me, compels me, and overwrites me as literally as any third-wheel neural mass could. The Book of Mormon is a life-sized brain hack spanning my years, itching under my skin, interrupting my story, deforming my shadow. The Book of Mormon exists in a complementary but asymmetrical plane. It’s an irrational number, a tangent reorienting my bundle of divergent lines.

What the Book of Mormon is meant to do or mean, I am not sure. But to what it does do, I can attest: it keeps me up at night, it wakes me early in the morning, it keeps me from folding in on myself, from coinciding with the shadow I work to project, from imploding into a vacuum-packed hell where my “self” and my life become one and the same.

This is a little bit crazy, but it saves me from being completely sane.

24 comments for “The Scholar of Moab: Interviduality

  1. I’ve never thought of the Book of Mormon as a neural mass, exerting control over my actions, but having been raised on it, I fully acknowledge that it has permanently shaped the way I experience the world. Unlike Marcel’s relationship with Babcock twins (if twins is the right word), I don’t see the Book of Mormon as getting any benefit out of controlling my actions; I don’t see it as a sentient entity.

    Note: I bought two copies of the book.

  2. The god I look to is both one and many. The way I see it, growing up in his image isn’t as simple as completely and permanently opting out of selfhood. Rather it requires me to maintain and develop two seemingly contradictory modes of being: individual and communal. Christ has a plural existence in and through all things, yet his name is “I Am.” I think exaltation is about transcending self and magnifying\multiplying identity, but not by dissolving into the great cosmic ocean once and for all. Who among us can bear selfhood without being swallowed by it?

  3. Great piece, Adam. What a great question: “Who doesn’t feel like a repetition caught between virtuality and actuality?” What then becomes a curious phenomenon to unpack with Steve’s book is how something so absurd can be simultaneously so philosophically interesting as a kind of rhetorical question and yet gut-splittingly hilarious. I cried my way through the Delueze passage (with laughter) and then found the twins haunting my mind for days, not only as flesh and bone potentialities but as philosophical riddles about my own consciousness. That that should be so funny is the real mystery and pleasure of the book.

  4. Fascinating stuff.

    I don’t think I would say that Christ has a plural existence. He is singular, and his unity with others is a matter his means of sharing, not mutual infiltration. This is the Mormon insight, is it not? In seminary language, the unity is a matter of perfectly shared perspective and orientation, not being. “One in purpose”, as we used to say it. “Am an in the Father and the Father in me” is important, life giving stuff, but is also figurative. ‘The idea that the Father and Son dwell in your heart is an old sectarian notion, and is false’- Joseph.

    I see the gospel as basically a matter of psychic integration, and that sin can be seen as a matter of imposing ourselves on and into others in such a way that we hinder their own – that we wittingly or unwittingly multiply them. “Unrighteous dominion” fits into this.


  5. Great thoughts on a wonderful book. You expressed many of the sentiments I had while reading through Steve’s masterpiece, though you articulate them much better than I ever could. Thanks!

  6. Hold on–did TP just defer to seminary-speak??

    I don’t think it’s figurative, TP. I think all of creation is animated by Christ whether or not we choose to share ourselves, although the degree to which we’re purposeful in that connection has a proportional effect on its strength. I love your take on sin and I think it clarifies a crucial aspect of the plurality I’m talking about: the consciousness of Christ permeates all things but his operative will does not. He is perfectly aware of me yet can’t make me do anything. Becoming like him includes opening my awareness to the already existing relationship between me and everything/everyone else by virtue of Christ, although boundaries of identity and accountability will always remain. In short, “Ye have done it unto me” is not a metaphor, but an actual instance of his plurality maintained simultaneously with subject/object separateness.

    I see this duality of “me” and “we” as the greatest mystery, challenge, and promise of our existence. One more reason why I gotta get me a copy of SteveP’s latest, stat.


  7. Excellent work playing around and finding possibilities in Steve’s fascinating mental playground Adam. In response to Thomas, That Christ desires to become one with all of humanity–even all of creation–speaks of how thoroughly multiple and plural his existence is. But becoming one is not the same as having multiple identities or losing one’s individuality or infiltrating others’ existences, but of freely attaching oneself to others. That seems to make sense as an interpretation of divine plurality. I think KLS is right, that Christ is both one and multiple in precisely the ways we must become one and multiple.

  8. For my part, I think that individuality is real – but entirely composed of all kinds of foreign things that are never entirely subsumed. This is just a way of saying that individuality (both with respect to the flesh and the spirit) is emphatically material. Which is a very Mormon thing to say.

    All the boundaries are porous and everything is constantly on the move. There are no silos. This interviduality isn’t a threat to individual agency, but it’s condition of possibility.

    And, for what it’s worth, I don’t take this simply as a philosophical position (though it is one), but an approach based on the closest, most careful, first-person observation of experience that I’ve been able to muster. Steven’s book really resonated with me in this respect. (Especially, George, the pee-my-pants-funny cameo by Deleuze :)

  9. So, 1. “The human way of being is split, composite, spread, distributed, and open-ended;” and 2. “Sin is this compulsive attempt to forget the unruly multitudes that compose me and to finally, successfully sync with my shadow. Hell is succeeding.” This would certainly seem to imply that acknowledging and even valuing my interviduality is a virtue. Right? Regardless, I’m on board here 100%. The pendulum (scientific, social and otherwise) is certainly now swinging away from the licentious glorifications of individuality that have dominated our modern scene for some time now. You seem here, however, to be at least acknowledging and perhaps endorsing the pendulum making its way to the other side: that it’s a virtue to function in an inconsistent manner, to glory in our irrationality, to thumb our noses at all narratives and attempts at unity, to spurn identity coherence. Am I reading to much into your statement? Regardless, I certainly hope the pendulum doesn’t swing that far.

    As for me, I value the irruption of the Book of Mormon not for the irruption itself, not as a maniacal endorsement of fragmentation for its own sake, but as an instrument of malcontentment, as a means of further waking me from my various dogmatic slumbers, and so facilitating my agency and progression.

    Great post Adam.

  10. Alright – I just read the comments. #s 3, 4 & 10 lead me to believe we’re on the same page. Should’ve read them before commenting…

  11. Yeah, I think we’re on the same page James.

    Using psychoanalytic terms, the post isn’t a sermon intended for “psychotics” who are always in danger of breaking up but for “neurotics” (like the majority of us) who are typically in danger of freezing up.

    And, of course, there’s nothing (necessarily) wrong with the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. We can’t get rid of them and we can’t get by without them. We can’t get rid of our shadows. But this doesn’t mean I am my shadow. We’re not our shadows and we’re not our stories about ourselves. Life is too big for that and life needs room to move.

    Practicing fidelity to God seems to me to be mostly about practicing fidelity to life rather than to my stories (made up or borrowed or both) about that life. The only way to be faithful to our stories is to be faithful to the fact that they are stories – even when they’re factual. They’re a just another part of life. They can’t compass life, but they can often strangle life when we try to substitute them for it.

  12. Hey KLS,

    “the consciousness of Christ permeates all things”

    I simply do not believe this. I do not believe that Christ, the man, is simultaneously conscious of you, me, everybody, every sparrow, every tree, every hair on our heads, every grain of sand on an endless list of worlds. I simply do not believe that any such God exists. I think this is central to what, when I was younger and less kind, I called the religious neurosis – the kind of compulsion to return to the fetal position that moves us to desire ‘oceanic feelings of unity with the infinite.’ It always seems to run and hand in hand with an urge to mystify, a willingness to establish ‘mystery’ as an essential attribute of God, and to remain the plaything of mystical experiences. (Whereas actual experience with the divine is always for clarification, however many new questions it raises. It always brings us forward into individual integration – a large part of which is the withdrawal of our personal projections into the universe.) The process of development that is the gospel ultimately brings us out of such miasma, in my opinion. The love of God is for the entity outside itself to itself, and unity is a matter of common apprehension not any kind of interpenetration. “Oneness” is possible not by means of any kind of shared substance or even simultaneous vision, but is only possible between being that are themselves approaching a state of individualization.

    I actually don’t think that the desire for interpenetration is a matter of love. Real love only becomes possible as we disentangle and begin to see both ourselves and others more clearly. We do not love what we do not see and know.

    I am expressly not a religious man. I don’t think Joseph Smith was, either. I don’t think Jesus was, either.

  13. “We can’t get rid of our shadows.”

    (I think I’ve thrown enough gauntlets down on people I like and admire for one morning.) Of course we lose our shadows – it’s possibly the main theme. What is said about Christ is that ‘in Him is no darkness, at all.’ That seems to me the thing to be moving towards – but it is done bit by bit. No one we know is, naturally, free of shadows.

  14. Interesting, Thomas. A couple of thoughts:

    1. I don’t see redemption as involving my dissolution in that mystical, pre-natal oceanic feeling. I also don’t see it as an attempt to achieve some kind of interpenetration. But I do think it essentially involves my acknowledging and working with the fact that things are interpenetrating. I am composed of, depend on, and am filled with other things that are not reducible to me.

    2. I super-doubt that all “actual experiences” with the divine further clarification. Though also I don’t see any point in valorizing “mystery/ignorance” either. I just see the need to begin by acknowledging the fact of the matter: that people, ideas, words, things, dogs, etc. exceed my ability to know them. I don’t believe that this is an accidental or temporary feature of things.

    3. I think we can unconditionally love what we can only conditionally know.

    4. I don’t think we (or God, or Christ) ever lose our shadows. Even what’s good always has a price and produces loss and friction. That price may be worth it, but there is still a price.

    But you and I are probably (at least in part) just metaphorical trains passing in the night here :)

  15. Dave: “French obscurantist?”

    As a specialist in contemporary French philosophy, there are, in my assessment, two kinds of French philosophers: (1) brilliant French obscurantists (like Deleuze), and (2) non-brilliant French obscurantists (I won’t name names).

  16. KLS,

    Of course!


    We may be passing in the night, but we are at least more likely to want to talk in these ways than talk about Romney’s taxes. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

    Your response got me thinking some.

    1. Everything that passes through our transit may not be reducible to ourselves, but it can become part of ourselves. When I have a truly good friend, all kinds of interactions with that person will become a part of me. Growth, augmentation. Other things pass through me and seem to pass on. Since we are not, and possibly cannot be, fully conscious of ourselves, it is not possible to know everything that we have or may subsume. But with reflection we find that we are ‘added upon.’ So that you become part of me, and I you. If it is the word of Christ that is passing through our transit, then Christ might be said to dwell in us, but this is purely figurative.

    2. Brandon Russell said on BCC one time something to this effect: ‘Revelation comes to me with both a feeling of the Spirit and a thought. If it lacks either one, I mistrust it.’ This is one kind of minimum standard for me, as well. In judging whether or not I am receiving revelation, I do not want to be mistaken. We say we feel the Spirit – this is, to me, more like saying I feel the wind than I feel sad. But whatever it is that we feel, any number of feelings are closely related to it. I am easily moved by beauty, especially beauty in nature. But those feelings rarely are accompanied by information, except, ‘wow, that sure is lovely.’ Similarly, I frequently have thoughts come to me, ideas on this subject or that, that turn me on. That turned on-ness hasn’t necessarily anything to do with revelation, though. On those times where I feel most sure that I’ve received something ‘from the divine’, there has always been information communicated to me. Sometimes something I’d asked for, sometimes information that had previously been just over my horizon. When Joseph says, ‘if a man has the Holy Ghost he will receive revelations because the Holy Ghost is a revelator’, I think this is what he means. Even if that revelation is nothing more than the idea ‘be comforted’, it is still an idea, and not a ‘feeling’ experience only. What would be the point of anything else? If the information fails to clarify, it at least draws me to better questions, I think. Or, possibly, I fail the information granted, in some way.

    3. I think that real information proceeds real love. And what we might call love that has not seen truly is not love, but something better called by some other name.

    4. Here I follow you, I think. In using the term ‘shadow’ here I am following Jung very closely. Shadow being those contents of our unconscious that are, or that we feel are, unacceptable by some standard and hence part of us, unacknowledged by us. I do not believe that God is unaware of his motivations, or contains areas of darkness that he is either not conscious of or not capable of becoming conscious of. But as to other kinds of things that might be called shadow – ‘loss and friction’, por ejemplo – then I believe that God’s existence is marked by a total acceptance of the fact that when one takes up one end of the metaphysical dualities, one also takes up the other end. That when one loves one accepts the potential of loss. That death is contained in light, etc. else, as the BoM has it, there is no existence. Coming to this possibility and acceptance is the end point of goodness, I think. Evil, on the other hand, is negation.


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