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“Stretching the Heavens”

“Stretching the Heavens” November 7, 2021

 

Eugene England (1933-2001)

 

***

 

I’m looking forward to this, and I’ve marked Friday, 12 November 2021, on my calendar for it — at 2 PM, Utah time:

 

“Catholic and Latter-day Saints Dialogue Event”

 

Thanks to Cody Quirk for calling it to my attention.

 

***

 

As the weather grows ever colder, nighttimes of sipping hot chocolate beckon.  Amid all of the current pandemic and supply-chain issues, though, we shouldn’t complacently assume that marshmallows, a popular accompaniment to hot cocoa, will always be available just for the asking.  The marshmallow crop was nearly lost back in 2012 and, what with global warming and pollution, we could be headed that way yet again.  See this gripping news report, which is now nearly a decade old:

 

“Marshmallow Farming”

 

***

 

When I was courting my future wife, I sometimes recited or read poetry to her.

 

Really.  Honest.  I did.

 

Some of it had been written by the respected Cambridge University classical scholar and textual critic A. E. Housman (d. 1936), an agnostic as regards religious belief, who was also well-known for a cycle of pessimistic, death-obsessed poems entitled A Shropshire Lad.  I like these poems very much, and I’ve even paid my respects at Housman’s tomb in St. Lawrence’s Church, Ludlow, Shropshire.

 

Here, though, is another of my favorites.  I think I found it in a collection of Housman’s letters to his brother, or some such place.  It, um, often fails to be included in anthologies of his serious verse:

 

When Adam day by day
Woke up in paradise,
He always used to say
“Oh, this is very nice.”

But Eve from scenes of bliss
Transported him for life.
The more I think of this
The more I beat my wife.

 

My enthusiastic recitation of those lines has remained in my wife’s memory all these many years.  I can’t imagine why.  (She still married me, though — which, come to think of it, is far more mysterious.)

 

The trouble is, of course, that, in our day, spousal abuse is far too public an issue for any decent male to feel very comfortable making a joke about it.  And that’s good, obviously.  (But what, I wonder, is this entry saying about me?  And what possible relevance can the concept of “decent male” have to a person of my ilk?)  Real wife-beating is a serious matter, and a crime before God as well as under the law.  Which means that I’m running something of a risk by publicly failing to be solemnly indignant about A. E. Housman’s doggerel.  But I hate to see a funny little poem forgotten, all the same.  I’m not inclined to grant abusive husbands even that little triumph.

 

An analogous problem taints a hilarious tale by the Edwardian satirist Saki (aka H. H. Munro, killed in 1916, near Beaumont-Hamel, France, by a German sniper), whose short stories I admire greatly.  This particular one is called “The Unrest Cure.”  Hitler’s Holocaust has made enjoyment of the story a bit awkward, I’m afraid.  (Which is putting things mildly.)  But I still heartily recommend it.  Don’t let Hitler win a victory.  Just don’t take the story seriously.  It was never meant to be taken seriously.

 

***

 

We had a virtual meeting this evening of our monthly reading group.  Tonight’s discussion focused on the prolific Terryl Givens’s latest new book, Stretching the Heavens: The Life of Eugene England and the Crisis of Modern Mormonism.  (At least, I think it’s the latest.  It was published in August, though, so another might have appeared since.)  Many of us knew Gene England, either as a BYU colleague or from elsewhere.  Several in the group knew him considerably better than I did, they being roughly of his generation.  We were joined tonight by Gene’s widow, Charlotte, and by one of his former department chairs, Neal Lambert.  One of his — and my — former deans is an actual long-time member of our group.

 

It’s something of a tragic book, frankly.  Both admiring of Eugene England and critical of him (as, come to think of it, I also am), Givens tells the story of an idealistic, brilliant, energetic absolutely faithful Latter-day Saint scholar, one of our tradition’s very best writers, who managed to alienate both Church and University leaders and, deeply upset by that, never quite understood why.  I hope, and I trust, that he is happy and at peace now.

 

I didn’t know Gene England very well, and we had relatively few interactions.  One was a clash, in which, without really knowing the facts, he delivered a negative public judgment on something in which I was involved (and he wasn’t).  I wasn’t pleased, and I told him so.  He apologized to me, but the public statement stood — and still stands, out there in the public record somewhere.

 

I disagreed with Gene on many issues; our politics were quite out of alignment.  But I still liked him, and I regret what happened to him.  I liked his expansive view of the Restoration and I share his somewhat universalist inclinations.  Terryl Givens seems to think that Gene England was unique in this regard but, on the subject of other religions and the potential salvation of all or almost all of humankind — and on the question of postmortal progression through the various kingdoms of glory — my inclinations have long been very similar to his.  I guess I just haven’t published or publicly said much on the subject.

 

Anyway, it was a good discussion.  Much of it involved stories that we ourselves lived through and people that we know.  Several in the group actually figure in the biography.  Jim Toronto, my Arabist friend and BYU department colleague, was Gene England’s stake president at the time that Gene died in late 2001 — at 68, far too young — of brain cancer.  Several of them, like me, knew aspects of stories in the book that the book doesn’t seem to know.  In one case, though, Neal Lambert was scratching his head, wondering how Terryl Givens could possibly have learned about one little incident recounted in Stretching the Heavens:

 

During a particularly difficult period in a very difficult, politically turbulent, and stressful time in the history of the BYU English Department, while he was serving as the department’s embattled chairman, Dr. Lambert was standing by a third-floor window in the Jesse Knight Building, gazing absentmindedly out.  Ed Geary, a well-respected English professor, passed by.  “Don’t jump, Neal,” Dr. Geary advised Professor Lambert.  “It’s not high enough to kill you.”

 

 

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