29 A Mormon in the Cheap Seats: David Foster Wallace, Cement Mixers, and Mormonism

In 2009, the New Yorker published All That, a short story by David Foster Wallace. It starts out in the first person: “Once when I was a little boy I received as a gift a toy cement mixer.” It’s a cement truck, the kind with a drum that mixes the cement, and it’s made out of a single piece of wood. There are no movable parts, with the exception of the wheels. This boys’ parents, for some reason, tell the boy that the toy is magical. Although the toy is made out of a solid piece of wood, including the drum, they tell him that the drum rotates, but only when he is pulling the toy, and only when he isn’t looking at it. They emphasize that the magic is not just that the drum rotates, but that it only does so when he isn’t observing it. “I never, even for a moment,” says the boy, “doubted what they’d told me.” The boy, speaking from the perspective of the adult he has become, continues: “This is why it is that adults and even parents can, unwittingly, be cruel: they cannot imagine doubt’s complete absence. They have forgotten.”

For months the boy in the story tries to catch a glimpse of the truck’s rotating drum. At first he relies on furtive glances and peripheral vision, but soon progresses to peering through key holes and around corners using strategically places mirrors. After each increasingly elaborate effort to catch the rotation of the drum, the boy remembers experiencing a “mix of crushing disappointment and ecstatic reverence.” Instead of doubting—he never doubts—he is awed by the fact that the magic of the toy cannot be circumvented or outsmarted. “That was the year,” explains the boy, that I learned the meaning of ‘reverence,’ which as I understand it, is the natural attitude to take toward a magical, unverifiable phenomena.” The boy doesn’t tell us how old he was when he realized that the truck’s drum didn’t rotate. He tells us, though, that he believes the feelings of awe and reverence for the toy’s inscrutable magic was the origin of the religious feelings he has carried into adulthood.

For the boy, failure to catch the drum rotating was evidence of its magic. As the narrator tells us, “I realize that the reason I spent so much time trying to ‘catch’ the drum rotating was that I wanted to verify that I could not. If I had ever been successful in outsmarting the magic, I would have been crushed. I know this now.” In the boy’s case, failure to observe the rotating drum reinforced his respect for the toy’s magic—it elevated it, made it inscrutable, and turned it into something that demanded reverence.

For most Mormons, things work differently.

Other religions may be content with inscrutability. For Mormons, faith is a layover, a weigh station. It is scenery along the path to spiritual certainty. Once a month Mormons gather for “fast and testimony” meeting. They take turns “bearing witness” to each other of their knowledge of spiritual truths. They use phrases like “I know beyond a shadow of a doubt” and “I know as sure as I’m standing here.” Mormons are raised to believe that their religion is magic, and that if they’re sincere enough, and obedient enough, for long enough, they’ll be able to see the drum turn on their cement mixer. Mormonism is the equivalent of a chair-lift to spiritual certainty—and if for some reason one doesn’t make it to the top, then the deficiency lies with the individual.

It’s about assumptions and expectations—and attributions. For the boy in the story, his failed efforts at circumvention increased his reverence for the truck’s magic. At some point, he stopped believing in it, but the gift of reverence for the unknowable was his to keep. It’s not the same for Mormons that can’t see the drum turn. We don’t get to keep a sense of reverence as a consolation prize. We get to grapple with our own spiritual ineptness, sling it over our shoulders, cart it home, and store it under our beds. Even though we may eventually make peace with our faith, quite a few of us end up with an almost instinctual need to compensate for our imagined spiritual deficiency. For those of us raised to believe in the inevitable arc of spiritual progression that leads to religious certainty, accepting that faith may be the last stop on the subway line can be a difficult process—in all sorts of ways.

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