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More on negation of negation

April 17, 2009

I discussed Robert McKee’s principle of “negation of negation” in this post. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and it occurred to me that it’s really hard to take an LDS fiction plot through this kind of value change. Why? Because if you do it, someone in the book has to be very bad. Deliberately evil, even. For example, Sarah’s abusive student filled that role in Waiting for the Light to Change. Not only does someone need to be evil, but the protagonist must feel the full weight of that evil intent. That can be hard to take.

So, for example, if your governing value was faith, you could have a protagonist who is 1- full of faith (positive value), who dealt with an antagonist who 2-became indifferent to faith (contrary value), 3-Doubted (contradictory value) and finally 4- posed as faithful while really working against faith (negation of the negative value).

But you see what problems that particular value scheme would cause if the protagonist and antagonist were both LDS. You wouldn’t be dealing with just an annoying member of the Church (a contrary value), or a doubting member who needed to be helped back to the fold (contradictory). Instead, you’d be dealing with a hypocrite, someone who pretended to believe but was really working against the cause of faith. If the protagonist overcame such forces of antagonism, it would be a brilliant work. But it would be hard to read, I think: we’d have to accept a villain, who was really a villain, who was also a member. And we’d have to let the protagonist feel the weight of the villainy.

Or maybe not villainy… take Chaim Potok’s The Chosen (he’s often brought up when Mormons speak of what LDS literature could become; see this Red Brick Store post). Say the governing values of that book is “good parenting.” Danny’s father raises him as his chosen one, his successor, but he is silent and cruel to him. The positive value here is good parenting, and Reuben’s father is more what you’d typically think of as a good parent. The contrary value is indifferent parenting, and that’s what Danny’s father seems to be: cold, indifferent, uncaring. At times Danny’s father seems to be not just indifferent, but mean, thus leading us to the contradictory: he is a bad parent. But at the novel’s climax, we realize that Danny’s father’s method of good parenting is silence and harshness. So the negation of the negative is the perception is cruelty inflicted in the name of good parenting. I need to articulate it better, but I hope you get the idea. Danny’s father is not a villain, per se, but he does act in ways that seem cruel, extreme. And it makes for a great story, but only because Potok allows the story to have someone be unrepentantly difficult. Yes, we understand Danny’s father, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t harsh.

I am pretty ignorant when it comes to LDS literature; for all my babbling about it, I’ve really not read a whole lot more than this year’s Whitney finalists and The Giant Joshua. So I’m interested in recommendations. Who does negation of negation well?

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