Tree of Codes, Tree of Life

15 Feb

While Amanda is plowing through her prelims list and Becca is planning an excursion to the other side of the globe, I am engaged in huswifery and searching for jobs. I have time to read whatever I want and pursue a book art project I have cooking in my brain and sizzling in my fingertips (if I can only get up the courage to work on it). Something has given me courage, however, and it is discovering Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes.

The book is a die-cut version of Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles. Square holes on each printed page allow the reader to peer into the future of the book (Jonathan Gibbs at Tiny Camels gives a great description of what reading the book is like; it’s exactly how I felt). Completing books has never been my strong suit, and with this book it seems as though completion is a false expectation. It could never be completed. Like a poem or scripture, it is a text that can be revisited time after time to discover new combinations of words, new meanings, new emotional resonances. It is a book whose form is instantaneously capable of expressing its essential multifariousness. It draws attention to the creative, participative act of reading.

Bits of poetry culled from several different pages: “The sad origin of these eccentricities was ready to scatter into fragments. My father would walk along he always featherless empty days and nights.” This exercise in reading reminds me of writing poetry in high school (and now), with efforts at combination and recombination sometimes shameful, sometimes emotionally or verbally superfluous, but precious just the same for all their striving. Another: “All I wanted was to experience full,” and another: “Time filled the room, spread[ing] the silent the bright silence rising.”

I had already drawn the analogy to scripture when I discovered the afterward, which makes the analogy explicit. Foer combines a brief biographical note on Schulz–his murder at the hands of a Gestapo officer and his work’s caesura and subsequent disappearance–with a brief history of the Wailing Wall. Foer describes his desire to “create a die-cut book by erasure,” and The Street of Crocodiles presented itself because he felt that it “must have, itself, been the product of a similar act of exhumation. . . . There must have existed some yet larger book from which The Street of Crocodiles was taken.” And then the theological point: “It is from this imagined larger book, this ultimate book, that every word ever written, spoken or thought is exhumed. The Book of Life is the Temple that our lives strive to enter, but instead only conjure. The Street of Crocodiles is not that book–not the Book–but is is one level of exhumation closer than any other book I know of.”[1]

Happily synchronous with my consideration of Tree of Codes was my reading of Eugene England’s “Why Nephi Killed Laban: Reflections on the Truth of the Book of Mormon.” In this essay, England discusses biblical and Book of Mormon typology. Pattern alone is insufficient for humans, he argues.

“We seem to yearn not only for pattern but for meaningful, saving patterns, ones that involve . . . living agents, mortals and gods. . . . But there is one particularly deep-set pattern, the source and goal of all our searching for order, what Northrop Frye in his book of the same title calls ‘The Great Code.’ It is the great scriptural pattern which, beyond what the universe is and has been, also images for us what life can be at its most satisfying, fulfilling, and enduring. That is the pattern unique to the Bible. He traces the way patterns ultimately shape our mythology, our metaphors, and our rhetoric itself–in a word, all our literature, not just what directly alludes to the Bible.”[3]

For England, the Book of Mormon is perhaps even more open than the Bible to Frye’s kind of analysis. Along with the Bible, “the Book of Mormon also preserves the full power of metaphorical language, typological structure, and Christ-centered moral and eschatological meaning for our secular, literalistic world. . . . It witnesses that Christ is the one who used language, both as God and as a man, in ways that provide the most important clues to our nature and potential as his children, and it reminds us that we are inheritors of that same crucial gift of language.”[4] England looks to Jacob 1:8 for the “possibility for language–to access the meaning and the experience of Christ’s atoning sacrifice.”[5] The essay proceeds to show that “the Book of Mormon is consistent . . . with Girard’s helpful focus on the Atonement as achieved through love rather than through traditional sacrifice, through reconciliation rather than through payment.”[6]

These two authors cannot seem to separate literature from theology. Both acknowledge that literature has the potential to encode and reveal the deep meaning present in that great other text, the Bible, and in the Mormon context, the Book of Mormon. I seem unable to separate the two, too. My greatest desire is to write the Bible of women’s experience, which is what I tried to do to an extent with “A Shaker Sister’s Hymnal.” It is by giving women a theological voice, even if only literary, that I hope to revive women’s theological presence in Mormonism. Each project I undertake is inevitably the working out of  my own faith as a woman in that culture.

The love of God, symbolized by that living tree in the book of Nephi, is, in this provisional world, a tree of codes. The tree of life is words and books and language and sign systems–gapping and gripping at the same time–through which God communicates this love. The gaps are the signs of the world’s brokenness, but in that brokenness is great beauty, the poetry of reconciliation.

[1] Tree of Codes (London: Visual Editions, 2010), 139.

[2] Making Peace: Personal Essays (Signature Books: Salt Lake City, 1995), 149.

[3] Making Peace: Personal Essays, 133-34.

[4] Making Peace: Personal Essays, 136.

[5] Making Peace: Personal Essays, 138.

[6] Making Peace: Personal Essays, 149.


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