Strangers and Pilgrims

Season 1 – Death of the Prophet Joseph Smith

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T.S. Eliot and a passage from Dante

Section 3 of T.S. Eliot's poem Ash-Wednesday was originally published as a stand-alone poem in Autumn 1928.  When it was published by itself, it was given the title "SOM DE L'ESCALINA".  This translates to, roughly, "Summit of the Stairs."

The narrative of the poem is about someone walking up a set of stairs.  The title of the poem comes from a line in Dante's Divine Comedy:

Ara vos prec per aquella valor
'que vos guida al som de l'escalina,
'sovegna vos a temps de ma dolor.'
Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina.

This passage translates to:

"Now I petition you, by that kind Power
Escorting you to the summit of the staircase,
At the appropriate time, recall my pain.”
Then he hid himself in the refining fire.

That last line of that poem, Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina, is found untranslated in the last stanza of T.S. Eliot's poem The Wasteland -- line 427.

Eliot referenced that last line in a critical essay he wrote titled Dante.  Regarding that last line he says:

. . .the errors of Arnaut are corrected - Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina.

He led up to this quote by saying:

A variety of passages might illustrate the assertion that no emotion is contemplated by Dante purely in and for itself. The emotion of the person, or the emotion with which our attitude appropriately invests the person, is never lost or diminished, is always preserved entire, but is modified by the position assigned to the person in the eternal scheme, is coloured by the atmosphere of that person’s residence in one of the three worlds. About none of Dante’s character is there that ambiguity which affects Milton’s Lucifer. The damned preserve any degree of beauty or grandeur that ever rightly pertained to them, and this intensifies and also justifies their damnation.

This commentary on the completeness of Dante's characters in his Divine Comedy reminds me of Shakespeare's success with characters -- that he created whole men and women. Independent of themselves.  Whose emotions are 'preserved entire'.



Writing a Film

Season 2 of the Strangers and Pilgrims podcast will be out this Summer -- Summer 2018  Hopefully in June.  Or, in July at the latest.  It's pretty close to being realized.

Before I finish Season 2, however, I'm going to finish a movie script I was writing.  The movie script tells a story from the first 14 years of LDS Church History.  I was writing it last year, in 2017, and stopped writing it to do Season 1 of the podcast.

Now, I want to finish writing the script before I do Season 2.  About 70% of the first draft is done.  But, I haven't really blocked out the last parts.  But, It's already gone through a lot of revisions.  So, I'm hoping that I won't have to do too many drafts after the first.


The Tragedy of Korihor

I make collages as social media advertisements for the podcast.

One of the books I cut out of is Mormon Arts: Volume One, Brigham Young University Press, 1972.

It is a pretty cool little book.  It actually came with a record in the back that has BYU Orchestra and Choir recordings on it.

In the book there is a section on Mormon Drama, and a little write-up on a play called "The Tragedy of Korihor."  The play was written by Louise G. Hanson -- a student at Brigham Young University. 

The play was performed in 1971 by BYU's Touring Repertory Theatre Company and was directed by Dr. Harold I. Hansen.

Here is the write-up in my book:


Dr. Hansen directed the popular Hill Cumorah Pageant that is put on by the Mormon church every year. The Hill Cumorah Pageant is an outdoor pageant that tells the story of the Book of Mormon, and of Joseph Smith finding golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was written.


Context in LDS Church History Stories

In his 1954 essay "The Writer and the Audience," Saul Bellow says that the writer wants the audience to, "assume what he and his. . .characters assume."

He goes on to explain that this must be done so that, "When a character is wounded the reader [feels] pain," and so that, "when a character makes a promise the reader [feels] the underlying obligation."

I think this is just a nice way of saying that a writer has to give his readers context -- because without context you can't fully understand character actions and their emotional effects. Especially important is context for historical stories.

Most LDS church history stories take place between 1820 and 1850 in America -- almost 200 years ago.  In order for people to fully understand a story, they have to fully understand the time and place in which it is set.  A lot of the anecdotes or facts shared in LDS church history stories to provide context are the same ones told over and over again.  I don't know if this is due to laziness, or due to the fact that the stories have had 200 to find their most efficient way to be told -- and have reached the point of being canonized themselves.

Often, I find the context provided in these stories not interesting because a) I have already been explained this context 100 times in other LDS church history stories, and b) the context is not told narratively.

The first bit of context that gets used constantly, and of which I often get tired, is the context given to Joseph Smth's first vision.

And, don't get me wrong.  It's good context.  It's important context.  It should be told in advance of telling the story of Joseph Smith's first vision.  In fact, Joseph Smith himself establishes this context being used narratively in 1838, when he sets the scene up the story of his first vision with the context itself.  He says:

Some time in the second year after our removal to Manchester, there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country. Indeed, the whole district of country seemed affected by it, and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division amongst the people, some crying, “Lo, here!” and others, “Lo, there!” Some were contending for the Methodist faith, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist.

This feeling of religious interest in Joseph's area help explains why a 15 year old boy would go to the woods to pray about what church he should join.  It helps explain the persecution that would follow him when he claims to have received a revelation from God on the question in which God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to him.

But, are there other ways to set context without just repeating what Joseph said about it already?  And, about which everyone else has quoted him saying it?  Or, do we just use that bit of context because it's the context Joseph used and it's good enough for us?

Another important aspect of context, I believe, in LDS Church History Stories is setting doctrinal context.

For example, in Season 1 Episode 3 of the podcast, we talk a lot about Joseph being charged with treason.  Understanding these charges against Joseph, I believe, requires understanding the Kingdom of Daniel -- why it was considered treasonous by government and officials, and a righteous goal by church members.

Understanding the motivations for Joseph establishing the Kingdom of Daniel better help us understand how much it must have hurt him -- or not hurt him -- when he was thrown in jail for it.

These Fragments I Have Shored Against My Ruins

I almost titled Episode 9 of my podcast series, "These Fragments I have Shored Against My Ruins."  This is a reference to the end of Eliot's wasteland.

But, I didn't.  The entire time I was writing my podcast I was constantly putting in bits and references and allusions to literature, and pop culture, and I was always taking them out.  Trying to pare the podcast down so it was just history.  I tried to limit any tangential-editorializing of the story.

But, I still borrowed two ideas from T.S. Eliot in Episode 9 of my podcast.

The first idea comes from this line -- these fragments I have shored against my ruins.

Instead of having Episode 9 be in the 3 Act structure, like all my other episodes are, I decided to just put in a lot of loose fragments that relate to one another.  You can see relics of this idea in the script I wrote for the last episode in which I actually call each vignette 'fragment one, fragment two, fragment three', etc.

George Steiner said that modern literature is incomplete.  that it adopts a "poetics of the fragmentary, of fragments shored against the ruins."  And, that a fragmentary ending is a 'convention of noncompletion."

I didn't think about all that when I was writing the podcast.  I just liked the idea of ending the podcast with fragments.

The other idea I borrowed from T.S. Eliot's poem Little Gidding.  this is the last of the Four Quartets.

That idea came from these lines of poetry:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

I figured that I might as well do what T.S. Eliot said,  and since I started Episode 1 with Porter Rockwell in jail in Independence, Missouri -- I might as well end Episode 9 with Porter Rockwell in jail in Independence, Missouri.


Saul Bellow Visits Nauvoo

In 1957 Saul Bellow wrote an essay called "Illinois Journey".  In the essay he talks about the city of Nauvoo.  He says:

On the Mississippi a few hours south of Galena, the Mormons built a city at Nauvoo in 1819 and erected a temple.

I'll stop quoting here to point out that he is wrong -- Nauvoo as we know it was founded in 1840.  But, not everyone is right about everything.  In fact, as I've researched for this podcast, it has been interesting to see how many books and articles disagree with one another about history, and say completely opposite things -- even when it comes to the objective parts of their stories.

Anyway, Saul Bellow continues:

After the murder of the prophet Smith and his brother in neighboring Carthage, the Mormons emigrated under the leadership of Brigham Young, leaving many empty buildings. . .

Now, unobtrusively but with steady purpose, the Mormons have been coming back to Nauvoo.  They have reopened some of the old brick and stone houses in the lower town, near the Mississippi; they have trimmed the lawns and cleaned the windows and set out historical markets. . .

Nauvoo today is filled, it seemed to me, with Mormon missionaries who double as tourist guides.  When I came for information, I was embraced, literally, by an elderly man; he was extremely brotherly, hearty and familiar.  His gray eyes were sharp, though his skin was brown and wrinkled.  His gestures were ample, virile, and western, and he clapped me on the back as we sat talking, and gripped me by the leg.  As any man in his right mind naturally wants to be saved, I listened attentively, but less to his doctrines perhaps than to his western tones, wondering how different he could really be from other Americans of the same type.  I went to lie afterward beside the river and look at Iowa on the other bank, which shone like smoke over the pungent muddy water that poured into the southern horizon.  Here the Mormons had crossed. . .

I just found this quote today in a book I got from the library called "There Is Simply Too Much To Think About."  It's selections of Saul Bellow's non-fiction writings.

I am glad I didn't find the quote sooner -- I would have been tempted to put it in Episode 9 of the podcast.

I found the quote because I was in the book's index looking for "Eliot, T.S.", because I was trying to find a quote from the book I remembered reading that I wanted to make a blog post out of.

When I was in the C's, working my way to the E's, in the index, however, I noticed "Cabet, Etienne" and had to stop because I knew he was the founder of the Icarian movement that bought up land in Nauvoo after the Mormons left.  I went and read the entry in which Cabet was mentioned and was surprised to find that Saul Bellow, Nobel Prize in Literature holding Saul Bellow, had described a Mormon Senior Missionary in Nauvoo.  And, I had to write it down in a blog post because I think Saul Bellow is one of the great writers, and I am tickled that he wrote about a senior missionary in Nauvoo.

The Tomb of Joseph

At the end of Episode 1 of Season 1 of the podcast, I quote Joseph Smith as saying that Porter Rockwell was " a fellow-wanderer with myself— an exile from his home." 

That quote can be found here in the Book of the Law of the Lord

The Book of the Law of the Lord was a book of revelations, and journal entries, and notes, kept by Joseph Smith and his scribes for a year -- at least the Book that I have linked to was kept for a year, from December 1841 to December 1842.

In the Book of the Law of the Lord, Joseph Smith makes a request -- or expresses his desire -- that after he is dead he and all of his family members -- parents, siblings, wife, children, will be buried in a tomb he was currently building.  He asked that the tomb have written on it " the Tomb of Joseph, a descendant of Jacob."

A really great resource on this tomb of Joseph's can be found in this essay by Joseph D. Johnstun.

As we know, Joseph was never buried in the tomb.  In Episode 8 of the podcast we talk about how he was buried in an unmarked tomb to prevent his body being stolen by mobs trying to collect a bounty on his head.

The exact location of the tomb is unknown.  Though, the above article references a few possible locations.  It has also architectural drawings of the tomb.  Sketches of its possible location.  And, stories about it.

Hopefully, the Tomb of Joseph will make a brief appearance in Season 1 Episode 2 of the Strangers and Pilgrims podcast.



The Return of W.W. Phelps

In Episode 2 of the podcast, which you can listen to here on itunes and here on stitcher, i talk about how William Law -- the publisher of the Nauvoo Expositor -- was the latest in a long line of leaders of the early Mormon religion who left the church and started to fight against its founder, Joseph Smith.

In Episode 2 I talk about two of those men who left and how they both came back to the church after leaving it, and fighting against Joseph.  Those men were two members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles when they left -- Orson Hyde and Thomas Marsh.  Orson Hyde came back in 6 months and Thomas Marsh came back -- I think 18 years later.

Another leader of the religion that left and fought against Joseph was W.W. Phelps. 

In late 1837 Joseph Smith received a revelation telling him that W.W. Phelps had "done things which are not pleasing" in the sight of the Lord.  And, that if he didn't repent he would be "removed out of his place."

W.W. Phelps refused to be held accountable by the religion for whatever it was he did that was "not pleasing" to the Lord, and would be excommunicated from the religion in March 1838.

After being separated from the Mormon religion for a space of time W.W Phelps would write a letter to Joseph asking for forgiveness.

In return, Joseph would send a letter back to Phelps telling him he had forgiveness.

Phelps would be rebaptized late June 1840.

After being rebaptized W.W. Phelps would write the hymn Praise to the Man in honor of Joseph Smith the Prophet.

The early years of the Mormon religion is full of great stories like this.

Choosing a Subject Matter

Sitting on my desk right now I have a copy of Milton's Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.

Paradise Lost is a blank-verse poem about the fall of Adam and Eve.  It is a story that had been told thousands of times before Milton wrote his poem, and a thousand times after Milton wrote his poem.

A guy I went to film school with did a post-modern adaptation of the story as a little web/television series. 

Similarly, it has been painted a million times.  The famous one that immediately pops into my mind is Expulsion from the Garden by Masaccio.

And, I think about what is a popular story to re-tell now-a-days?  What is a popular story to tell now-a-days?

And, I immediately think of all the fan-fiction.  People writing their own Harry Potter stories.  People writing their own Twilight stories.  People painting their own pictures of their favorite video game characters or favorite superheroes.

Instead of looking at history to tell stories, and to pattern our lives after, a lot of amateur artists, today, look at fiction.

And, this isn't new.   Don Quixote was written in the late 1500s.  If you read Don Quixote, you'll find out that the story is, on one level, an anti-fan-fiction story.  It's an anti-cosplay story.  Don Quixote patterns his life after the knight errant stories that he loves.  Fiction stories of princesses, and dragons, and what not.  And, for this, Don Quixote, is made fun of.  He is called stupid.  It is said he has an illness.

But, in our modern time we look at Don Quixote as a romantic hero.  We coined the word quixotic from his name, and it is now a synonym with romantic and idealistic.  Don Quixote, at least as a symbol in the world of pop culture, has been re-interpreted.  I don't think anything is wrong with that, though.  If we want to take Don Quixote and Sancho Panza and remix their meaning that's fine.  I don't think it hurts anything.

As I've looked at all the source materials, and genres, out of which I could tell a story in a podcast, I have decided that the one genre, and the one source material, that interests me the most is the life of Joseph Smith.

And, so, that's why this podcast is about the death of Joseph Smith.  Stories from and out of his life are the ones that are the most interesting to me -- at least at this point in my own life.