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…)