Monday, April 20, 2015

The Sublime Spirituality of Literature

While writing to her eight-year correspondent T.W. Higginson, Emily Dickinson wrote "If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?

Recently, I have extensively studied eighteenth-century aesthetic theory. Theorists such as Edmund Burke and Joseph Addison explored multiple aesthetic concepts such as beauty, sublime, taste, imagination among others. Specifically analyzing the sublime, Joseph Addison argued that a sublime experience was a type of elevation, heightening or intensification. Shawn Irlam describes the sublime as an "encounter with infinity or what mimics it; that which exceeds the capacities of the senses, massive or minute" (Irlam 515). As I studied the descriptions of sublime encounters of poets and theorists, I realized that this concept is not new to me.
Courtesy of Wikipedia
Growing up as a Latter-Day Saint, I am quite familiar with the belief that one can be connected with "the infinite" or God, in more religious terms. I have had these moments of elevation as I attempt to grasp something larger and grander than myself. As I think of eternity or the Plan of Salvation, my mind can barely comprehend the meaning. Enlightenment theorists described such experiences as sublime; I describe them as a witness from God. To be honest, I don't find my description and the theorists description much different. 
 I have often had these moments reading the words of the church such as General Conference talks or the Book of Mormon, moments where I am struck with a new feeling or a new understanding. Multiple eighteenth-century theorists and their modern day scholars believed that through the written word a reader could be instantly connected with a divine power; many of those theorists recognized that power as the Creator or God. However, I do not only receive these moments of awe and inspiration when reading Mormon literature. I have had these moments when reading William Wordsworth's "We are Seven" or even Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein". Literature, to me, is inherently spiritual. Literature presents different truths and different understandings and at unexpected moments though truths surpass common thought.

As Emily Dickinson described, when I read a verse of scripture from the Book of Mormon, a line of poetry or a section of a novel, when I feel something deep within or when tears are brought to my eyes or even a "burning in my bosom", I know that is truth. I think Mormonism can illuminate the religious, spiritual dimension of literature because it teaches that there are higher truths and higher powers that we cannot even imagine or comprehend yet they exist all the same. From that perspective, readers can find and experience moments of great awe-filled inspiration through any medium of literature. The Book of Mormon can be the sublime the Enlightenment theorists studied and the classics can be and provide religious inspiration if we open our minds to a higher way of thinking. In God's own words "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts" (King James Version, Isaiah 55: 8-9).

Irlam, Shaun. "The Sublime." A Companion to Eighteenth-Century Poetry. Ed. Christine 
Gerrard. Oxford: John Wiley &Sons, 2014. 515-33. Print.

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