Friday, October 5, 2012

Joseph Smith by Harold Bloom

If one decides that Joseph Smith was no prophet, let alone king of the Kingdom of God (which he was anointed just before his death), then one’s dominant emotion towards him must be wonder. There is no other figure remotely like him in our national history, and it is unlikely that anyone like him ever can come again. Most Americans have never heard of him, and most of those who have remember him a a fascinating scamp or charlatan who invented the story of the Angel Moroni and the gold plates, and then forged The Book of Mormon as a follow-up. Since the Book of Mormon, more even than the King James Bible, exists in more unread copies than any other work, that is poor fame indeed for a charismatic unmatched in our history. I myself can think of not another American, except for Emerson and Whitman, who so moves and alters my imagination.

For someone who is not a Morman, what matters most about Joseph Smith is how American both the man and his religion have proved to be. So self-created was he that he transcends Emerson and Whitman in my imaginative response, and takes his place with the great figures of our fiction, since at moments he appears far larger than life, in the mode of a Shakespearean character. So rich and varied a personality, so vital a spark of divinity, is almost beyond the limits of the human, as normally we construe those limits. To one who does not believe in him, but who has studied him intensely, Smith becomes almost a mythology in himself.

In the midst of writing this, I paused to reread Morton Smith’s remarkable Jesus the Magician (1978), and found myself rewriting the book as I went along, substituting Joseph Smith for Jesus, and Joseph Smith’s circumstances and associates for those of Jesus. No Mormon (presumably) would sanction such an impiety, but it is strikingly instructive. Joseph Smith the Magician is no more or less arbitrary a figure than Morton Smith’s persuasive myth-maker.

I end as I began, with wonder. We do not know Joseph Smith, as he prophesied that even his own could never hope to know him:

. . . You don’t know me, you never knew my heart. No man knows my history. I cannot tell it. I don’t blame anyone for not believing my history; if I had not experienced what I have, I could not believe it myself.

[Funeral sermon for Elder King Follett, April, 1844]

He requires strong poets, major novelists, accomplished dramatists to tell his history, and they have not yet come to him. He is as enigmatic as Abraham Lincoln, his contemporary, but even if we did not know Lincoln, we at least keep learning what it is that we cannot quite understand. But with Joseph Smith, we cannot be certain what baffles us most. As an unbeliever, I marvel at his intuitive understanding of the permanent religious dilemmas of our country. Traditional Christianity suits the United States about as well as European culture does, which means scarcely at all. Our deep need for originality gave us Joseph Smith even as it gave us Emerson and Emily Dickinson, Whitman and Melville, Henry and William James, even as it gave us Lincoln, who founded our all-but-all-powerful Presidency.

There is something of Joseph Smith’s spirit in every manifestation of the American Religion. Joseph knew that he was no part of creation, knew that what was best and oldest in him already was God. And he knew also, more humanly, that despite his prophetic vocation and communal vision, he was essentially alone, and could experience his own spiritual freedom only in prophetic solitude.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The early history of the Mormons is manifestly a catalog and exodus, and its contour shape a peculiar and self-reliant people, whose characteristics are not altogether different one hundred and fifty years later, despite the determined march by Mormons into the American Establishment in the last century. R. Laurence Moore, in his Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans (1986), makes a remarkable attempt to handle all the paradoxes of Mormonism in one dialectical summary:

We come back to Tolstoy. He knew what he was talking about. Mormons taught the American Religion, or at least a vital aspect of it, but not because their doctrines somehow sprouted naturally out of the American frontier and provided a domestic alternative to faiths imported from Europe. Mormons followed a lesson, already by their time established in the American experience, the one way of becoming American was to invent oneself out of a sense of opposition. This was perhaps the most useful consequence of America’s voluntary system of church formation. The American mainstream, certainly its religious mainstream, never mean anything except what competing parties chose to make of it. It was not anything fixed. It was an area of conflict. In defining themselves as being apart from the mainstream, Mormons were in fact laying their claim to it. By declaring themselves outsiders, they were moving to the center.

This cannot be wholly persuasive, or perhaps Moore’s dialectic held until a generation ago, but is now outworn by the authentic consolidation of an American mainstream, particularly a religious mainstream. It is weirdly true, in 1991, that the Mormons are as mainstream as you are, whoever you are, at least in terms of the religion of politics and the politics of religion (that is: Gnostic).

Pragmatically, however, the Mormons are allied in warlike patriotism, opposition to abortion, and refusal to seek economic and social justice with their so-called doctrinal enemies: Southern Baptist Fundamentalists, Assemblies of God Pentecostals, Evangelicals of every denomination. And the current Mormon rhetoric in invoking Jesus Christ (though no cross ever appears in their temples) does serve as perhaps a deliberate veil behind which a post-Christian religion continues its complex development. . . .

One gets the impression that the present Mormon leadership is very patient; they believe that much of the future is theirs, particularly in America. We have not yet had a Mormon President of the United States, and perhaps never will, but our Presidents are increasingly responsive to Mormon sensibilities, rather more that might be expected for a religious movement representing in its formal membership just two percent of our population. But all that concerns a religious critic ought to be the spiritual question of what it is that the Mormons might mean by the Kingdom of God, whether in the United States or elsewhere. Certainly, by 1843, Joseph Smith meant becoming a god, by the assumption of kingly powers, and thus presiding over the angels.

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