The Best of All Possible Worlds

My first introduction to this phrase was the comedic deconstruction offered by Voltaire in his novel Candide. Dr. Pangloss excused every narrow escape from harm with the tonic that successful escape proved that this was, indeed, the best of all possible worlds—never mind that no problem was actually solved.

The question of suffering in the world has been at the core of literary consideration nearly since the beginning. How can a loving God allow such suffering, and what is our responsibility as humans in relation to it?

In my limited literary experience it seems that authors have tended to take three major approaches to the question. I trust that the academically trained among us will correct my errors of intuition where I have oversimplified.

The first suggests that suffering is inevitable, that God is either absent or malevolent, and the best we can do is take power so we can turn suffering away from ourselves. The sum total of suffering remains essentially constant; the strong merely turn it outward against the weak. In other words, protagonists don’t so much combat suffering as redirect it away from the people they value and toward the people they don’t. This seems to be the current direction of much new fiction.

The second suggests that suffering is inevitable, that God has given us tools to overcome the evil forces that produce it (before exiting the stage and watching from the balcony), and that our best answer is to directly address and destroy those who generate non-productive suffering. The only way to reduce the sum total of suffering is to progressively destroy its sources (and producers) in the name of humanity so we can return to our former, bucolic peace. This seemed a dominant approach to fiction over the past several hundred years.

The third suggests that while some suffering is inevitable it’s not in and of itself useful, that God actively seeks to minimize suffering both directly and through agents, and that our best hope is to focus on building up contentment with the inevitable result that suffering naturally ceases except in the smallest possible ways. This is the rare utopia story offered with some apology and little fanfare once a century or so, and often relegated to a separatist religious group or short-lived social movement.

This seems like a shame to me. The suggestion of utopias seems like a necessary foil for ongoing argument, and it’s been somewhat over a century since we’ve had a good, constructive vision offered as anything but a foil for why it will fail in the face of massive human apathy or greed—in other words, utopia as strawman rather than utopia as possibility. It seems like at least Nephi Anderson since someone really even tried.

That’s been a feature of Asian storytelling for quite some time—the inevitable fall toward chaos, destruction, and eventual rebirth. But in the West we seem to have eliminated that rebirth stage; we rise to corruption, temporarily displace it with something marginally less corrupt that immediately embraces the flaws of its predecessor, as so on into a gloriously increasing failure of hope that can only be solved by massive apocalypse, regression, and rediscovery.

This led to an interesting moment in priesthood meeting yesterday. We were discussing the second coming and one class member suggested that since we’re all wicked, every single human on earth would burn at the second coming with one or two minor exceptions. In effect, everyone would burn, and the Lord would sort the corpses for the least wicked to raise in the first resurrection.

Except that’s not the vision I understand from the gospel. There will most certainly be great sin, and there will most certainly be great calamity—such as the world has never known. But there will also be hope, the building of Zion, the gathering of first the Jews and then all of Israel. Gospel to the nations. Restoration of all things.

Great good along side of great suffering. Not just a couple of pockets here and there; not just small moral victories against overwhelming odds; not merely bearing suffering well—but actual, visible works of great power and effect.

So why are so many stories written by so many Mormons focused entirely on suffering, and social breakdown, and dystopian (near)futures? Why do so many stories written by Mormon authors focus on the destruction of evil rather than the construction of good?

I love destroy-the-icky stories and the victory of the small against overwhelming odds. I enjoy indulging my revenge fantasies against evil people who have visited pain on the innocent merely for the purpose of gaining power for a select (and brutal) few. I want to see more and better stories of this type written, because it’s really nice to see the good guys kick butt now and again.

But aren’t there other kinds of stories that involve making evil irrelevant by (constructively) eliminating sources of suffering? I can’t seem to find that other type of story—one that I think Mormons would have a certain affinity for telling. Instead, we seem to have joined the gloom-and-doom set and bought into the idea that it all ends in pain for everyone, everywhere.

Or have I gotten that completely wrong? I’d love to be corrected, especially with author names and titles.

(Next time: Folk/fairy tales recast/retold for adult audiences…)

 

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11 Responses to The Best of All Possible Worlds

  1. D. Michael Martindale says:

    Write one!

    The solution to all the defects of LDS literature: write what’s missing. There are plenty of story types that are missing from LDS storytelling, isn’t there?

    • Scott Parkin says:

      Just to be clear, I don’t think LDS litterateurs are remiss in any way, nor do I consider the presence or lack of any particular story type to be a defect in the LDS corpus. It just seems like there’s been an awful lot of dystopia recently from our best-selling LDS authors, with a paucity of utopian—or at least constructive conflict—stories. That surprises me because I would think LDS were inclined toward “build Zion” stories as much as “destroy evil” stories.

      On writing one…I’ll have to sadly defer on that. It’s been well proven that there is no significant market for the stories I like to write. I love to tell stories (I even have a Mormon-utopia novel in mind that I plan to write—or at least start—for NaNoWriMo next month); I just can’t seem to sell them.

      So I comment as a somewhat educated reader and hope to cheer-lead someone with demonstrated talent into giving it a shot.

  2. I think you might like Letters in the Jade Dragon Box by Gale Sears.

  3. Not by an LDS author, but to me, Patricia McKillip’s Riddle of Stars trilogy examines and answers the question of suffering being allowed by a loving and powerful (and involved) Creator. And her answer seems truly LDS: through suffering, you grow into your potential for godhood; if you avoid suffering, you stagnate.

    • C. M. Malm says:

      That was also my reaction to Riddle of Stars. I was really quite amazed that it was ultimately such a “Mormon” book.

  4. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    A quick thought this morning: Making evil “irrelevant” seems to me to be contrary to the restored gospel we are called to live today. The LDS, I think, are expected to make evil purposeful, not irrelevant. Its the opposition we are supposed to use as life’s backboard to score a bucket or two. So I don’t really see this as something LDS writers would gravitate toward writing. Maybe some will to satisfy the readership, now that you’ve called attention to it.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      This isn’t really the place for theological discussion, but I disagree with the idea of embracing evil as part of the plan. Evil certainly exists, but that doesn’t suggest that we embrace, encourage, or excuse it just so we have something to struggle against. We should gain useful experience from our struggle, but our ultimate goal remains to destroy evil not merely by force of arms (fallback option), but by conversion (preferred option).

      Opposition and evil are quite different things to my mind. Parched soil and arid climate are opposition without being evil. Dealing with the death of a loved one is struggle without evil. Even turning oneself away from sin is battle against impulse and the challenge of self-definition, but I would hesitate to call all who sin evil.

      It seems to me that the BofM is replete with stories of making evil vanish by good works (that often require extraordinary hardship, struggle, and sacrifice—think anti-Nephi-Lehis or Abinadi) rather than violent overthrow. In other words, evil is made irrelevant in the face of great good—which is to say that evil loses its draw and power over the hearts of men, such that they turn away from it by their own choice.

      That doesn’t seem contrary to the gospel to me. If anything, that seems like preferred behavior—plowshares instead of swords, pruning hooks instead of spears. Facing opposition (wherever it comes from) with grace and making that experience useful is a primary purpose of our lives here on Earth.

      But in my mind the gospel of peace does not require that we view evil as a thing to be destroyed by force of arms. Though we should not shrink from that fight when it’s forced upon us, we should fall back to that position as a last resort after more constructive efforts (and forbearance and long-suffering) have failed.

      We cannot expunge evil in our lives—it can exist outside ourselves and come upon us through no fault of our own. But we can make it an irrelevant influence by building the good such that evil is revealed as the pointless pursuit that it is. That doesn’t seem contrary to the gospel to me.

  5. Moriah Jovan says:

    Writing romance is about as Utopian as I get, because there’s a guaranteed HEA at the end. It’s how you get to that HEA that counts. I don’t particularly want to read a novel lacking conflict. Even the most Utopian book I’ve ever read (The Gate to Women’s Country) wasn’t all that Utopian.

    The fact is that good is boring. Striving day in and day out is boring. We all do that. We know what the struggle is and how hard, lonely, and exhausting. Who wants to read ordinary people doing ordinary things on ordinary days?

    As for not wanting to write it because there’s no market for it, well… I just don’t know what to say to that. Does everything one writes have to be marketable for it to be worthy of being written?

    • Scott Parkin says:

      A couple of thoughts–

      First, I’ve clearly overstated the case. There are plenty of constructive stories being told, though the bent over the past several decades has tended toward fallen societies and functional dystopia rather than strong societies resisting an oppressor. One of the nice things about romance is that you deal with (mostly) equal opponents that are independently empowered. I like that, and think it makes for a more interesting story than tiny/weak good against vast/powerful evil.

      It just seems like the last half-dozen novels I’ve seen from national market LDS writers have all followed the latter structure (tiny good/huge evil), which carries an inherent pessimism about the nature of humanity.

      On Utopias…I’m not really that keen on a true utopia; they tend to be boring, pedantic, and designed to illustrate a particular view of the ideal. As story they’re definitely weak-sauce, but they’re useful for starting arguments within the literature itself (Candide, for example, was a far more interesting novel than Utopia, and was written as a functional counter-argument to essays by Leibniz).

      While dystopias may have more conflict, they seem little better than utopias in terms of actual philosophical depth—and yet they seem to dominate the shelves, at least in YA and science fiction (two areas that I read quite a bit in). It feels like self-indulgent wallowing and excuse-making to postulate worlds with little or no organized resistance to well- (and long-) established oppression, and to suggest that hope must be writ small rather than large.

      I believe in human potential and power more than that. I don’t believe we are all wicked, stupid, or weak, and that our best days were in the past.

      On writing stories…I write a great many things, including more than 200 short stories to date, essays, articles, white papers, etc. Lack of available market for my fiction hasn’t stopped me from writing it, but it does demonstrate that my fiction writing has little effect (though some of my other writing exercises command more than a dollar a word in payment).

      So…no, marketability is not required for something to be written (it certainly hasn’t stopped me from writing things), but it’s absolutely necessary for the writing to have impact. Writing for oneself may be personally theraputic, but writing for audiences is more generally useful (and a lot more fun).

      As I said, I’m already working on a Mormon pseudo-utopic novel (An Alien in Mormon Country). But my novel is unlikely to have impact if it’s no more marketable than my other fiction has been to date—and thus I’ll have to defer to another author to write that impactful novel since I can’t seem to sell the fiction that I write.

      If you write a novel in a forest and no one reads it, does it make a noise? Not in my book, it doesn’t.

  6. Moriah Jovan says:

    “If you write a novel in a forest and no one reads it, does it make a noise?”

    That’s where I thought you were going with your marketability statement, which is exactly where I wanted you to go. :D

    Publish it yourself. You can always walk out of the forest.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      I thought you might be looking for that, and I trimmed a comment on it off of my already overly long response so we could get to it now. ;)

      While I have nothing against self-publication, as an individual author some sort of external, juried acceptance is very important to me. Maybe that’s proof of limited vision or an atrophied ego, but having a third party validate the value of my work is very important to me.

      Which says nothing about the size of the publisher or the medium of publication, only that it be someone outside myself who judges the manuscript as worth publishing (though larger publishers do increase the likelihood of wider distribution and accessibility).

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