TALKING WITH GENE
By Robert A. Rees
“In the beginning was the dialogue.”
—Hugh Nibley’s translation of John 1:1
Gene England loved nothing better than to have a good dialogue—to talk with and listen to others, to engage in interesting conversations, even with strangers. As with many who were fortunate enough to call him friend, he and I had hundreds of talks over the course of our friendship. His talk was never idle or lazy but always informed by his good mind and good heart, his insatiable curiosity, his universal interest in people and ideas, and his boundless enthusiasm. As perhaps the most influential Mormon intellectual of his generation, he was never bored or boring, was well informed on many subjects, and was always willing like Melville to be a deep intellectual and spiritual diver. As he said in the essay that introduced him to the wider Mormon community, “The Possibility of Dialogue: A Personal View” (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 1966), “My faith encourages my curiosity and awe; it thrusts me out into relationship with all the creation.” The word “thrusts” says it all.
Our first talk probably took place sometime in 1967 or 1968, not long after I started teaching literature at UCLA. I had written to Gene expressing my interest in helping with Dialogue. He asked me (along with Karl Keller) to edit a special issue of the journal devoted to Mormon Literature (1969). It was during this time that I went to Stanford to meet Gene for the first time. There is a photo of Gene, Wes Johnson, Paul Salisbury, Ed Geary, and me taken during that visit. Not long after this, Gene headed off to teach at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, and he asked me to be Issue Editor of Dialogue.
When I think of Gene, I think of the cover of that inaugural issue of Dialogue—a drawing of two people conversing under a tree. I see that tree standing for both the archetypal tree at the center of Eden and Lehi’s moon-fruited tree of salvation. The conversation taking place under it symbolizes what I came to value most in Gene—a man eagerly engaged in dialogue—with others (living and dead), with himself, with God—with anyone who has honest questions or something interesting to talk about. What was gratifying for me is that I felt there was nothing that we couldn’t talk about with one another. He was a wonderful conversationalist not only because he had a lot to say but because he was such a good listener. I never felt with Gene, as I have with others and as I have observed in my own conversational style, a half-listening while preparing a response. And I never found him negative about any new idea. As I said in the Introduction to the Festschrift I edited in his honor, “He loved nothing more than to participate what the Anglo Saxons called umbesitendas, a group of friends sitting around a fire or mead table sharing stories and telling tales into the night.”
Recently, in listening to recordings of Gene and re-reading his articles, essays, and poems, many of our conversations come flowing and sometimes flooding back to my memory. In re-reading “Enduring,” I was reminded of a particular conversation we had. I don’t remember exactly when or where it took place, but, as often happened, it was a free-ranging conversation involving lots of ideas and issues. Somehow, it turned to deeper matters and to a subject I had spoken about only once or twice in my life—that at times, usually in the middle of the night, I find myself caught between two equally intolerable ideas—that life will end with absolute finality—and, also frightening, that it will never end, an idea that at first seems enticing but which, on deeper reflection, defies comprehension. I recounted a conversation I had had many years previously with my youngest son, Maddox, when he was five or six. He had come into my bedroom long after he should have been asleep and in a frightened voice said, “Dad. I’ve been thinking: we go to sleep and we wake up and we go to sleep and we wake up and we do it over and over and over; it goes on and on forever and it never ends!” I pulled him into bed and held him tightly and said, “I know what you mean. I have thoughts like that myself sometimes and they are really scary.” After telling this story to Gene, he was quiet for a moment and then he said, “I didn’t realize anyone but me had such thoughts. At times when I think about these things, I feel as if I am approaching the edge of madness and I have to quickly do something to distract myself.” Which was exactly what I feel in such moments.
I had forgotten this conversation until re-reading the following passage in Gene’s essay “Enduring” in which he recounts such recurring feelings dating from his childhood in Southern Idaho’s Marsh Valley:
How is it that sometimes in those years I first felt my own deepest, most hopeless, fear, the fear of being itself? It is a fear I have never been able to write about until now nor imagined anyone else knew about or could understand, a fear so fundamental and overwhelming that I feel I must literally shake myself from it when it comes or go mad.
Gene speaks of first being aware of this realization on a particular summer night when he and his friend Bert Wilson were sleeping under the stars. He describes looking at “those friendly fires that formed patterns in the night and stretched away beyond [his] comprehension”:
But one evening there began to come moments when I could feel moving into my mind, like a physical presence, the conviction that all was quite absurd. It made no sense at all that anything should exist. Something like nausea, but deeper and frightening, would grow in my stomach and chest but also at the core of my spirit, progressing like vertigo until in desperation I must jump up or talk suddenly of trivial things to break the spell and regain balance. And since that time I am always aware that that feeling, that extreme awareness of the better claim of nothingness, lies just beyond the barriers of my busy mind and will intrude when I let it in.
Such darkness of soul is captured is Robert Frost’s “Desert Places,” where the poet faces an inner and outer world of stark, absolute existential aloneness. He says,
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
What rescued Gene (and me and others) from such desert places is the realization that he could make meaning and beauty even in a world that sometimes seems absurd and meaningless, that words to express such dark thoughts were themselves a counter testament, especially when they were used to explore and describe the world that lies beneath and beyond the blackness. Thus, in the same essay we find such dark-defying language as the following:
I could sometimes stop and hide for a time under the sagebrush out of the wind. I could crush the small gray-green, velvet leaves from the strangely dead-looking branches until the air was sharp with sage or hold my fingers close until the smell went back into my throat. . . . And by late May a few wild honeysuckles, the blossoms washing pink and detachable, made to be plucked off delicately and delicately set between the lips so the tube under the blossom could be sucked for the smallest, most delicate taste, deep on the tongue.
Finding delight in the aroma of crushed sagebrush leaves, sucking the nectar from a honeysuckle blossom while writing an essay about the deepest darkness of spirit says a lot about the kind of man Gene England was—but it doesn’t say all. He was also a Christian humanist, a man astraddle (and that’s the right word) the rational and the spiritual, the secular and the sacred, the human and the divine. That’s why, in the same essay, he also speaks of finding both dependence and identity in God, of having “felt confirmed in my own separate, necessary, and unquenchable being,” of finding in the restored gospel the “best answers—the most adventuresome and joyful—to the basic questions about how I came to be here and about my present and future possibilities.”
That was one of Gene’s many dialogues with himself. Dialogues with self, others, and God was what Gene’s life was about. As he said in that introductory essay in Dialogue, he was guided by his commitment to Christ and His gospel and rooted in his Mormonness: “But my very grasp on this specific direction, this ‘iron rod,’ turns me out to all people and their experience in desire for dialogue with them.” That turning out to (and toward) all people, that desire for dialogue with them, was what attracted so many people to Gene. He was always willing to talk, and to listen, to engage, and the range of his intellect, his compassion, his curiosity, his commitment was large.
I remember many such engaged dialogues with Gene—sitting on his and Charlotte’s bed at his parent’s home in Salt Lake, at their cabin up Provo Canyon, in his office at BYU, on the beach at La Jolla, after seeing A Winter’s Tale at Stratford, walking along the Thames after seeing The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat at the National Theater in London, over Indian food at South Kensington, on hikes in the Wasatch mountains, fishing in the Uinta Mountains, on the UCLA campus, in my bishop’s office at the Los Angeles First Ward, and over many dinners and other get-togethers with friends and family in dozen of locations here and abroad.
I remember one particular conversation that Gene and I had with President Hugh B. Brown. President Brown was a hero to both of us because he was that rare general authority who was politically and socially liberal while being a deeply spiritual loyal leader, and a man of great intellect, courage, and eloquence. I was in Salt Lake for some reason and Gene said, “Let’s go see President Brown,” something that I would never have conceived of doing on my own. President Brown was in the hospital suffering through the last stages of Parkinson’s disease. It was obvious that he knew Gene and warmly greeted us both. The subject that was most on our minds those days (the mid-seventies) was the question of ordination of blacks to the priesthood. President Brown joked about his illness, was generous with his time, and, during our discussion of the civil unrest taking place over the war in Vietnam and racial issues, said something I remember clearly, something that Gene and I continued talking about after we left the hospital: “Remember, at the root of every revolution is an important truth.”
Even after he passed away at the end of summer in 2001, I kept having the impulse to call Gene—to talk about what had happened on September 11th (how I longed for his incisive commentary and compassionate insights), about the “War on Terror,” the increasing polarization of our society, what was happening in the Congo and Darfur, the passings of Mother Teresa and President Hinckley, the growing divide between progressives and conservatives in the Church, the latest example of ecclesiastical abuse, a new insight I had in reading the Book of Mormon, how much I enjoyed one of his essays or poems, the reception of our Reader’s Book of Mormon, the hurt and pain as well as the praise and joy I experience as a committed liberal Mormon. Most of all, I missed being able to talk with Gene about the incredible presidential campaign we just passed through with all its ups and downs and ins and outs, its crazy and clownish moments, and the eventual triumphant election of Barack Obama. Gene would have relished every moment of it and had many wise and insightful comments on both the process and the ultimate outcome. He would have loved living in an Obama America.
My last talks with Gene were during the months of his enigmatic illness. Who knows how the tumor that was encroaching on his brain affected his thinking and feeling during those confusing months? What was clear was that he couldn’t figure out what was happening to him. Some of those same dark thoughts that first invaded his consciousness as an Idaho farm boy came back with a vengeance. At times they must have been similar to feelings he had described earlier in “Enduring”:
Sometimes I look up from a book or the typewriter and the world is only whirling quanta of energy, reflecting all its seductive impressions of color from a palsied and blank universe. If I let it in (sometimes I invite it), the horror deepens, because neither that atomized, inertial, spinning chaos nor my strange ability to sense and order and anguish over it have any real reason to exist.
He then asks a typical Eugene England question: “Is it more difficult or easier to take my problems to a God who has problems?” His answer, “Reality is too demanding for me to feel very safe any more in the appalling luxury of my moments of utter skepticism. God’s tears in the book of Moses, at which the prophet Enoch wondered, tell me that God has not resolved the mystery of being. But he endures in love.”
I have dreamed about Gene often since his passing, including two vivid dreams during the past few days as I have been writing these words. In those dreams, he is always Gene—engaged, engaging, compassionate, passionate. Not long ago, a day or two after my last dream of Gene, I read Jack Harrell’s short story, “Calling and Election” (Irreantum, fall 2007). I don’t know whether Harrell was thinking of Gene when he wrote the story, but I suspect he may have since the protagonist, Jerry Sangood, a Mormon seminary teacher, has just discovered he has a brain tumor, the malady that took Gene’s life. As with Gene, Jerry’s illness leaves him confused, conflicted, and even a little erratic in his thinking and behavior, but it also, as with Gene, leads to spiritual clarity and searing insights. Like Gene in his last months, Jerry questions the value of his life and the rightness of his decisions, questions his standing before God. Also, similar to Gene, Jerry is outcast from his Church (although Gene’s was more spiritual than actual).
This is the kind of story Gene liked and inspired others to write—beautifully crafted, skillful in its use of imagery and symbolism, freighted with irony, and completely Mormon. While the ultimate meaning of the story is (perhaps deliberately) ambiguous, I read it as a tale of a man’s ultimate commitment to Christ, and the price such commitment exacts. Sangood is given an opportunity to achieve sanctification, to purify his life by being willing to sacrifice everything on the altar, to have, in Mormon terms, his calling and election made sure. Being a faithful Mormon and a good man, he makes this choice without weighing the cost—although he is warned that it could be high. Needless to say, he isn’t prepared for how high, since the bargain (it couldn’t be called “Faustian” since he seeks no personal knowledge or gain, but it might as well be since the price he must pay for his pure desire for ultimate holiness is everything he and his Mormon culture value). Thus, he is falsely accused of heinous transgressions and even crimes, is disgraced in front of his students and colleagues, is excommunicated and loses all of the symbols of societal and religious status, including the approval of friends and Church authorities, and is reduced to cleaning the chapel and picking up welfare orders for the bishop. The story ends with the promise that Jerry and his wife Camille will eventually be in the temple, doing ordinance work and serving in the temple cafeteria: “He could already feel himself in the temple, dressed in white, wearing a hairnet and a paper apron, dishing potatoes and feeling the Spirit of God.” “Dishing potatoes and feeling the Spirit of God”—that ending would have delighted Gene, and he would have understood it completely.
A paper Gene read at a Sunstone symposium in Washington, D.C. was titled, “Building the Kingdom with Dialogue.” Engaging in dialogue was one of the chief ways in which he endeavored to build the Kingdom. He took seriously the Lord’s invitation, “Come, let us reason together.” Gene would have argued that such dialogue was not only in the beginning with God; it is at the heart of Christ’s gospel and will be with us in all our eternal relationships. Ultimately, in its various manifestations, it is at the core of being itself and, as such, defeats the “palsied and blank universe” that occasionally invades our individual desert places.
Gene’s passing has left not only a giant absence on the Mormon landscape, but on the interior landscape of many hearts, including my own. At the conclusion of my essay “Gene England Enters Heaven” I wrote, “I imagine him there somewhere in the celestial spheres sitting with a group of friends, teaching, reading, writing poetry, watching a little celestial basketball, organizing theater trips to Kolob, and, as Lowell Bennion expressed it, working along side Jesus. It is pleasant to think of joining him there.” It still is.