Monday, September 19, 2005


wood s lot points us to Jeremy Ravi Mumford's "The Inca Priest on the Mormon Stage", an interesting essay on Mormonism, nineteenth-century indigenism, and images of Inca society. Mumford shows how the early Mormon leader Brigham Young acted out his religion's claims to respectability through a performance of Incaism.

This in the context not merely of familiar elegies for the vanished noble savage, but a more particular construction of Inca society befitting US (and Mormon) self-imagination:
An Enlightenment revival of Hispanic scholarship had made English-speaking readers familiar with the Inca Empire as a profoundly alien society, yet one that was in many ways admirable. The Inca, according to much of this literature, were authoritarian in their politics but that authoritarianism produced admirable order and happiness. The success of Sheridan’s Pizarro in 1799 created a new wave of interest in the Incas among English speakers. The next year saw the publication of a children’s dialogue about the Incas, with lines such as: "Excellent people! Who can avoid respecting them?"
Of course, it should come as no great surprise that the Incas have also been eulogized, not least by the great early twentieth-century Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui, as incarnating a form of primitive Communism. Indeed, of all pre-Columbian societies, the Inca Empire offers most ideological malleability: I don't think that quite the same range of claims has been made for the Aztecs, for instance.

What struck me about Mumford's essay, however, is that there really is something to the comparison between Incas and Mormons, in this if no other regard: both are groups upon which social parables are played out with remarkable frequency.

Take Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven, a book for which a murder in American Fork, Utah, provides the canvas on which to assay quasi-philosophical conjectures about "violent faith" and, indeed, the nature of life itself:
If I remain in the dark about our purpose here, and the meaning of eternity, I have nevertheless arrived at an understanding of a few more modest truths: Most of us fear death. Most of us yearn to comprehend how we got here, and why--which is to say, most of us ache to know the love of our creator. And we will no doubt feel that ache, most of us, for as long as we happen to live. (341)
As befits a writer on mountaineering, Krakauer has long "yearned" to say something about death, violence, and sublimity, and it's in Mormonism that he feels he's found a suitable subject, whereas for instance the autobiographical reflections framing Into the Wild were rather forced onto a tale of Boy's Own anomie gone wrong.

Gary GilmoreBut Krakauer's book pales beside the granddaddy of them all, Norman Mailer's epic The Executioner's Song, which tracks the movement from petty thievery to careless murder to the point at which judicial execution became once again enshrined as apex of the American way of life (and death). Mailer shows how, despite the best efforts of liberal organizations such as the ACLU, Gary Gilmore summoned forth the new authoritarianism, a new "admirable order."

The thousand and more pages of Mailer's door-stopper cast this drama of, first, robbery and killing and, then, lawyering and killing, as "Eastern voices" responding to "Western voices."

And the West to which the East responds, the West that shapes the neo-conservative constitution of order through firing squad, electric chair, and lethal injection, is the West of Provo, Spanish Fork, and Salt Lake City, the West of Mormonism, the West to which Brigham Young led his people in transcontinental Exodus.

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