Years ago, when studying everything I could that would help me to become a novelist, I ran across a magnificent work by a famed literary critic and writer: John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction. As a lover of Tolstoy who demonstrated in his work the process of working toward a Christlike character and society, I was much interested in Gardner’s comparison of the nihilist Sartre (author of Nausea) and Tolstoy, whose greatest works were Anna Karenina and War and Peace.
Before Gardner’s comparison of these two contemporaries of the late nineteenth century, he has this to say about art: “. . . art builds; it never stands pat, it destroys only evil. If art destroys good, mistaking it for evil, then that art is false, an error; it requires denunciation.
“Most art these days [Gardner wrote this in 1978] is either trivial or false. There has always been bad art, but only when a culture’s general world view and aesthetic theory have gone awry is bad art what most artists strive for, mistaking bad for good . . . For the most part our artists do not struggle- as artists have traditionally struggled—toward a vision of how things ought to be or what has gone wrong; they do not provide us with the flicker of lightning that shows us where we are. Either they pointlessly waste our time, saying and doing nothing, or they celebrate ugliness and futility, scoffing at good.” (Gardner, John, On Moral Fiction, Basic Books: New York, pp. 15-16)
I love this quote. It remained before me constantly as I wrote The Last Waltz, striving to record the demise of a society, as its artists either dropped out, or turned to bad art.
While I attempt to write another novel of that stamp, and prepare to release Pieces of Paris in October, my mind is always drawn to Tolstoy and Gardner, as I try to build faith with my art.
Of the contrast between Tolstoy and Sartre (often thought to be the father of existential angst), Gardner says the following: “Sartre is a handy symbol of what has gone wrong in modern thinking. Cut off from objective assessment of . . . notions of God and rational goodness—cut off mainly, it seems to me, because both were unfashionable in his time and place—Sartre asserted, after some stylish but no doubt sincere angst, a universe of whim, confusion, and nausea . . .
“Leo Tolstoy knew about the universe of despair and endured perhaps similar spiritual crisis, a crisis certainly profound and all-transforming. He came out of it not with a theory that every man should make up his own rules, asserting value for all men for all time, but with a theory of submission, a theory which equally emphasized freedom but argued that what a man ought to do with his freedom is be quiet, look and listen, try to feel out in his heart and bones what God requires of him —as Levin does in Anna Karenina, or Pierre in War and Peace.” (Ibid.)
No doubt, you hear echoes of King Benjamin (Mosiah 3:19) here: “For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, huble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.”
It is only today, as I was studying Gardner and some words of Tolstoy that I will quote further on, that the struggle of my “Crazy Ladies of Oakwood” in the novel I am presently writing, is the same: they wish to know what good they can do on the earth, they wish to submit, to create, to become the best within themselves. They are struggling in a secular world to find their true identities.
Is this not the struggle of all of us? To strive to be Christlike? Another quote from Gardner, ” . . .he [Tolstoy] envisioned a world ruled not by policemen but by moral choice, a world where every man’s chief ambition was to be Christlike.” (Ibid., p. 26)
Is this not a “call to arms” for the LDS artist? Tolstoy believed that the purpose of art was to move man in this sublime direction.
Whether we are mothers in the home, raising small children (the greatest art), men or women in the marketplace demonstrating the morals of a Christlike person, or an artist in the more traditional sense, are we building Tolstoy’s and Gardner’s world of hope for a Christlike utopia? Or do we mimic the world’s values, Elder Hafen puts it, “keep[ing] one hand on the wall of the temple while touching the world’s “unclean things” with the other hand.”? (Bruce C. Hafen, “The Atonement: All for All,” Ensign, May 2004, 97)
So what value do you think Tolstoy would have placed on the church which contains the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ? I will close with a quote from Elder David B. Haight in the Ensign, May, 1980, where he reports a conversation between Tolstoy and Andrew White, the foreign ambassador of the United States to Russia: “[The Mormons’] principles teach the people not only of heaven and its attendant glories, but how to live so that their social and economic relations with each other are placed on a sound basis. If the people follow the teaching of this church, nothing can stop their progress—it will be limitless.
“There have been many great movements started in the past but they have died or been modified before they reach maturity. If Mormonism is able to endure, unmodified, until it reaches the third and fourth generation, it is destined to become the greatest power the world has ever known.”
I treasure the picture of my writing mentor, dressed in a serf’s loose smock, engaging everyone he meets in Paradise in enthusiastic praise of the truths he sought for so long and with so much anguish while he was here on the earth.
How can we not go forth in so great a cause?
G.G. Vandagriff is a novelist, author of The Last Waltz: A Novel of Love and War, which received the Whitney Award for Best Historical Novel of 2009, and can be reached through her website, http://ggvandagriff.com or her blog http://ggvandagriffblog.com.