Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Joseph Smith: Outsider Artist

Although it might be true, it is too boring to think that Mormonism was founded by a con man.

Here's what happened, on the surface of reported events:

As a young fellow in New York state during the 1820s, Smith was led by an angel named Moroni to a hill near his home. There he uncovered a buried book of golden plates, with an accessory set of silver spectacles (lenses made of seer stones that he called "Urim and Thummim"). In 1830, Smith published a translation of the plates -- the Book of Mormon. He said the characters on the plates were etched in "reformed Egyptian" around the year AD 400.

When he later invented his church, he established the reigning order -- Melchizedek Priesthood -- with him on top as sole prophet. The empirical whereabouts of those originating golden plates is no problem: the angel took them back from Smith (you'll just have to trust Smith on this).

Here's what Wikipedia says about the Book of Mormon:

The Book of Mormon has been called the longest and most complex of Smith's revelations. The Book of Mormon is organized as a compilation of smaller books, each named after its main named narrator or a prominent leader. It tells the story of the rise and fall of a religious civilization beginning around 600 BC and ending in 421 AD. The story begins with a family that leaves Jerusalem, just before the Babylonian captivity. They eventually construct a ship and sail to a "promised land" in the Western Hemisphere. There, they are divided into two factions: Nephites and Lamanites. The Nephites become a righteous people who build a temple and live the law of Moses, though their prophets teach a gospel that is explicitly Christian. The Lamanites battle the Nephites year after year, and after a thousand years, succeed in destroying the Nephites. The book explains itself to be largely the work of Mormon, a Nephite prophet and military figure who leads his people in the twilight of their existence, and whose son, Moroni, buries the records written on golden plates.

Hmm...and in this "history," Native Americans are the descendants of the winning wicked Lamanites. As far as theology and cosmology go, the gist is this: God was a man who became, well, a god. Anyone can do it and win himself a planet, if he does what Smith says to do.


But maybe there was something going on beneath the surface of ostensible revelation and apparent tomfoolery. Something afoot that had more to do with wounded consciousness leading to visionary construction. It's just too easy to stand back and laugh at all the nonsense of this stuff. The sheer imaginative scale and audacity demands another look.

Something about it all reminds me of Outsider Art. Something about it reminds me of Henry Darger (1892 -- 1973) and his In the Realms of the Unreal.

In both cases -- Smith and Darger -- a unique visionary world was created out of mental whole cloth.

Smith grew up in a family of eccentric scoundrels and religious hysterics. That was a form of unintentional child abuse. It was bound to affect the boy, screw with his brain. Darger was placed in a boy's home, where he was miserable and where he was thought to be not quite right in the head.

My hypothesis is that a similar tension toward catharsis and apotheosis led both fellows down a road of artistic dynamism and surreal boldness.

Smith's visions and wild invention of a parallel world expressed an emotional sublimation of familial weirdness and existential paranoia. Darger's complex and illustrated environment sought, via transference, to gain the upper hand against a conspiracy of reality.

Smith, it seems to me, became so enamored of and convinced by his artistic delusion, that he began to believe it was actual experience and history. That it was efficacious enough to attract and control congregants.

Joseph Smith (1805 -- 1844)

Here's a link to a website with artworks by Henry Darger: Artsy

1 comment:

  1. Excellent point. One could extend the metaphor and apply the description to all sorts of poetries that have evolved into religions.