Monday, July 7, 2008

Dante and the Book of Mormon

by Joyce DiPastena

I recently reviewed a book as part of my LDS Fiction Summer Book Trek 2008 reading challenge. The book I reviewed was Dante’s Daughter, by LDS author Kimberley Heuston. If you’d like to read my review, you can do so on my JDP NEWS blog. There was one comment I deliberately left out of that review, however, as I was trying to review it for a “mixed”, rather than an “LDS”, reader audience, and I wasn’t quite sure how to phrase it so that a non-LDS reader of my review would understand my complaint. Or perhaps my concern was that bringing up this complaint would ruin a scene for a non-LDS reader who would have no basis for seeing what I saw in it, and hence, might be moved by the scene, rather than finding themselves rolling their eyes, as I did. But since the scene is the type that does, indeed, bother me as an LDS reader—or perhaps, “annoy” would be a better term than “bother”—I wanted to share my reaction somewhere among other LDS readers and see what they (or in this case, you, my lucky ANWA sisters!) think.

To place the book in context: Dante’s Daughter is a fictionalized account of the life of the medieval poet Dante Alighieri’s only daughter. (Yes, the Dante who authored The Inferno, and the rest of the Divine Comedy.) So here was my problem. I was reading along, swept away by Kimberley Heuston’s extraordinary lyrical writing style, thoroughly enjoying in particular every scene that Dante appeared in. Yes, there are spiritual elements of the novel throughout, but they don’t feel at all contrived because the Middle Ages was a deeply spiritual age, and hence fit naturally into the story. Then, towards the end of the book as Dante approaches old age, he relates to his daughter a dream he had many, many years before. Now, I have not read enough about Dante to know whether he did, indeed, have a dream that inspired him to write the Divine Comedy, but great artists do, indeed, sometimes have such inspirational dreams, so I was ready to buy into the possibility that this might be a true event. However, then Dante went on to describe the dream to his daughter, at which point the scene lost such credibility with me, that I admit, I had difficulty recovering for the remainder of the book.

My problem, as I say, was not in Dante having a dream, but in Dante having this particular dream. Now tell me, does this sound familiar to anybody besides me? (Okay, this is edited for the sake of space. In the spirit of full disclosure, the author did throw in a few elements to vary the scene a bit from the original source, but there was no misunderstanding that source of these particular lines, at least to me!)

Dante: “I looked for the laurel tree and the meadow with the fountain, but I could not find them. A dark mist arose, and a noise, lots of noises—groans and whispers and creakings—but no words. Nothing you could hold on to. I felt the earth falling away from me, and in the moment when I was sure I would be swallowed up by a chaos that was so profound that I could not see or hear or touch or name it, I called out to God…. [T]he tentacles of darkness that seemed to be growing over me fell away like dried husks from the vine, and I found myself on a mountain with a woman dressed in white. She asked me what I wanted, and I said to see the tree of my mother’s dream. She pointed, and there it was, and I ate of the fruit , and drank of the fountain, and I was filled…. My companion asked me if I knew what I was feasting on. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It is the love of God, shedding itself abroad in the heats of men.’ Then she asked me again what I desired, and I told her I wanted to share the sweetness of the fruit with the people I loved. When I said it, I meant you and your mother and your brothers, but then she said, ‘Look!’ and I saw crowds of people, all looking for the tree, and I realized I loved them all. I called to them, but a mist of darkness arose and a Babel of voices, and I could be neither heard nor seen. Then she said again, ‘Look!’ and I looked, and I saw angels writing the book of heaven and earth, and prophets writing the book of God…”

Okay, I think that’s enough to give you the idea. Let’s be honest now. Am I the only one who recognized Lehi’s dream/Nephi’s vision from the Book of Mormon in this? I fully expected the “great and spacious building” to pop up any moment, and although it never did, I’m pretty sure that’s where those “Babel of voices” were coming from.

Now, as I said, I was perfectly willing to buy that Dante may have had a dream…but that he had Lehi’s dream? That turned into a complete non-starter for me, and so jerked me out of the narration of the story that I had serious difficulty ever climbing comfortably back in.

Is it just me? What do you think about authors who…let us be kind here, and say “borrow” so directly from Book of Mormon scriptures when writing a book aimed at a non-LDS audience? Particularly when the vision (or dream) “borrowed” is portrayed as originating elsewhere (in this case, with Dante), rather than with Lehi and Nephi, as we know it did. Perhaps one might argue that the Lord sent a similar dream to Dante to inspire him. But even if that were the case, is it likely that Dante would use nearly the exact words to describe his dream? (Right down to the angel repeatedly saying, “Look!”)

I’m just curious to know how other LDS readers (i.e., you!) feel. Would such a scene as the one I’ve quoted above have bothered you, or would you have enjoyed the LDS “touch”? And what of a non-LDS reader who read this passage, then later read the “original” version in the Book of Mormon? Might they feel, in retrospect, that the author was trying to manipulate them with her religion by inserting a Book of Mormon scene into her novel about medieval Italy?

I’m open to all opinions here. Please let me know what you think!

19 comments:

  1. Well this is standing on the fence a bit. But in reading The Work and The Glory series or The Tennis SHoes Among the Nephites, I found lots of shall we say poetic license. So I would be open that Dante could "see" the same vision as Lehi or that the vision was described in the same way. As a technical write, I find we often use the same wording for common uses. So I guess I'm saying it wouldn't bother me so much. It is fiction right?

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  2. Yes, but not LDS fiction, which I think is what bothered me so much. It completely threw me out of the "medieval" mindset. But that was just my personal reaction.

    Thanks for your comments, Terri!

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  3. I can see the simmilarities and there were also elements of Joseph Smith's dream when he was fighting off the darkness. On the other hand, the tree of life allegory is based on the story of the original fall so it is a definite possibility that it could have been original thought- but it does make you wonder.

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  4. Hi Joyce,

    It doesn't bother me so much. I can definitely see your point though, (particularly in how a person might react to reading the original should they one day read the BofM.)

    However, I think anything that puts truth into the hands of non-LDS readers is a good thing.

    I'm surely biased: I write non-LDS fiction and I do use elements of truth in my writing. When it happens it doesn't feel contrived or anything, it feels like, well, like I mentioned above, like a chance to share a bit of truth.

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  5. I think this retelling of Nephi's vision is too close to the account in the Book of Mormon. I worry that some nonmembers might read the scriptural account later and think that it isn't true because they had read it somewhere else. We often don't remember exactly where we read something, so it is likely that some wouldn't recall that it was in a novel published long after the Book of Mormon.
    I generally do not like it when church leaders or other historical figures are given words, emotions or actions that are not recorded. In The Work and the Glory, I was impressed with the care that was taken to stay true to what historical figures really said and did with very little poetic license. In the Nephites in Tennis Shoes books, I was bothered by some of what was attributed to Book of Mormon characters. I think we need to be careful to portray historical figures, especially prophets, in a way that is consistent with scripture and historical accounts.

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  6. OK, for me, this is perhaps a little too much like Lehi's dream. I have read Dante, and the mindset and the way they understood God and the way He did things was really different than the way we see it. I could probably buy into the tree of life situation, but this is too over the top. Saying that, I haven't read the book, so maybe if I did I would find it easier to accept, but I was doing some eye rolling of my own when I read this bit.

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  7. I'm with you, Joyce. Just reading that little part bothered me...a lot.

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  8. Personally I don't see a problem. do you find it offensive because it is simular to the Book of Mormon? or is it because of plagiarism? If it is the latter, then I am partly with you, but it is not simular enough for there to be a problem. if it's because of the fact it is simular to a sacred record then you must ban a good portion of classic and other literature throughout the ages. You might even persecute Nephi and Jacob for quoting Isaiah in the book of mormon.
    My point is if it's not derogatory then, it's not worth our rath.

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  9. This is tough. Orson Scott Card wrote the homecoming series for a general audience and I loved how he retold the entire first part of the Book of Mormon. It is a great story after all.
    That being said, it was science fiction and not based on any real history. I have not read Dante's Daughter, but the scene as you presented it made me roll my eyes too. It would have been nice to have Dante who wrote so brilliantly about spiritual things having his own dream. IMO.

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  10. I agree with Donna, but for the non-LDS reader I'm sure it works fine. I also don't think it really matters unless its dissing the Mormons.

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  11. I don't like it. It's beautifully written, of course, but I think it could have been done with some elements of Lehi's dream, but not so much that it's this obvious. It's too much. There are lots of wonderful stories in the scriptures, what's to stop us from copying them with just a change here or there...except that we should be listening to our own creativity and not copying. We can state the same truth a particular story teaches, but in our own way.

    And did I ever tell you, Joyce, that your book Loyalty's Web is amazing? I loved it.

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  12. Thank you, Valerie! I'm so glad you enjoyed Loyalty's Web! :-)

    And I appreciate all the comments that all of you have taken the time to leave here. I'm not saying there's a "right" or "wrong" answer to the question I posed...everyone on both sides has legitimate points. I just find it a bit "mind-stretching" from time to time to throw out a question like this, and see what other people think.

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  13. Joyce, I agree that it was a bit heavy on the details, and that makes me uncomfortable. However, I could very easily buy that Dante had that type of dream. My ex-husband, who never joined the Church when I did, had that same dream. He saw himself in the great and spacious building. The water was rising, and people were trying to jump from the windows to escape drowning. He did jump from it. He interpreted it as being the Air Force Academy building. I think people see what they want to see. Later, when he learned the Gospel, he refused to consider it might have another meaning.

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  14. Good and interesting blog, Joyce ~ you stirred up lots of commentary!! I guess the bottom line is that the Lord's work will go forth and I don't think this book would be able to stop it. And it might even help it, as sometimes the negative (and untrue) press the church gets makes people curious to find out more. Who knows? Anyway, good job.

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  15. Not only does this smack of plagerism, but it cheapens the original dream by copying it too closely. It also really bothered me that she referred to the darkness that preceeded Joseph Smith's first vision, which might make it sound as if Joseph Smith's account was borrowed from Dante instead of being an original, true account. If she had been more vague, and had only used a few elements of the dream, it would have been fine.
    Donna Hatch

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  16. Good question, Joyce! I think the thing that bothers me most is that the selection your gave us is SO MUCH like Lehi's dream. In writing about some of my patient's, I have to disguise, blend, combine so as to deconstruct the actual person, - make them unrecognizable but tell the story. I think there was a superficial attempt to disguise here, but I think mostly it failed and yes, it bothered me. I would expect more of myself as a writer. I suspect you would, too.

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  17. Thanks for sparking such an interesting dialogue, Joyce. Sorry to be such a latecomer.

    I think that over the ages, the Lord has inspired artists--composers, painters, writers, etc.--to portray truths in a way that would make them accessible to people for whom they would otherwise not be. So I think it's not unreasonable to think someone like Dante could have a dream similar to Lehi's tree of life dream.

    However, I disagree with portraying the possibilty by lifting the story from the Book of Mormon and putting it into the fictional work. I had trouble with Orson Scott Card's book which paralleled the Book of Mormon so closely too.

    Since tree of life images appear even in other cultures, I think she could have used the idea, just not so blatantly.

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  18. Whether it bothered us or not, it is already published, and there's not much we can do about it. You mentioned she is an LDS author. Who published it? I suppose I could look it up, if I wanted to take the time. Right now, if I stop for anything, it will be to get dressed.

    I doubt that anybody will still read this, but for what it's worth, it really did not bother me. Indeed, I enjoyed making the parallel connection. God is no respector of persons, and His wisdom and visions and dreams are not excluded from anybody who searches for them and is found worthy. And the speech patterns are very "Early Modern" English, as found in the King James Bible. Anybody could have come up with it. That this is an LDS author speaking out of context is what appears to be the biggest problem. It may be important, but for me worrying about it simply makes a mountain out of a molehill. (Maybe in my age I've lost some of my intensity.)

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  19. Joyce, I'm also late to the debate, but I wanted to express what I thought about your question.

    Me, personally. I'm really bugged by this. It's one thing to get an account inspired from what so and so did, or in this case, what was in the BOM. It's another to be so closely worded. Yes, it may be for an LDS audience, but still. This is a writer and the best she could do was to relay this closely worded dream from what was in the book of mormon? Did she run out of ideas? I'd be scratching my head and wondering if I want to throw the book across the room!

    I for one would feel cheated. I mean, it sounds like the whole rest of the book was great. But the fact that a more original thought wasn't put into this account, I'd feel a little bit like there was a cop out on the author's part. I'd probably end up skimming through the whole part, wishing something more inspiring would have been written in its place. It may in fact, bother me so much, I may avoid reading another of her books for a time until I could get over feeling so cheated. But that is just me. I like something unique and original. To read something regurgitated so closely to the BOM, and not have more of my own take on a larger part of it... that wouldn't cut it for me.

    I'd be feeling exactly how you are right now.

    I guess this is one of those instances where you see what someone else has done and you say to yourself, if it were me "what would I do if placed in the same position and why?" And then create your personal code of ethics on what you'd never do. I for one would slap myself silly if I'd done something like that because I personally believe myself capable of coming up with something original and more in MY voice then the voice of some one or some thing else.

    Sure Orson Scott Card did his take with his series of books, (which admittedly I haven't read, but it is on my list of "to reads." However; I've had a good friend explain much of the story line so I'm familiar with it.) but the difference is he was inspired and took it to a different level. What was done in this instance, well, in some circles, could be plagiarism. Again, I just really think that if I were in her shoes, I'd try to rely on my abilities to come up with something new and unique rather than rely SOO heavily on something so well known to LDS readers. I mean, what kind of example are we setting for the possible younger readers who may read that? That it is okay to copy? Again, this is a question of ethics.

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