Strangers and Pilgrims

Season 1 – Death of the Prophet Joseph Smith

Home of the Strangers and Pilgrims Podcast

Revelation and Spirituality in Stories

In Part 3, Chapter 3 of War and Peace, Princess Marya Bolkonsky is getting made up to go meet a suitor — a potential husband — Anatole Vassily. Marya is, according to the book, quite ugly, however. And, so her getting made up and dressed up in fancy / smart styles only accentuates her being unattractive, instead of hiding it. Everyone involved in the process realizes this, and feels bad, or like they made a mistake. But, Princess Marya is so upset by the reality of it all, that she refuses to be “undone” or have her dress and hair less fancy. Instead of putting on drab clothing to match her “drab” face she just wants to sit in her clothing and hair and jewelry, and just be ugly. Just accept it.

After she makes all the women helping her get dressed up leave, she starts to daydream of being a mother with a family, before deciding:

“But no, it can never be, I am too ugly.”

Then, the story is written as follows;

And before going downstairs she went into the oratory, and fixing her eyes on the black outline of the great image of the Saviour, she stood for several minutes before it with clasped hands. Princess Marya’s soul was full of an agonising doubt. Could the joy of love, of earthly love for a man, be for her? In her reveries of marriage, Princess Marya dreamed of happiness in a home and children of her own, but her chief, her strongest and most secret dream was of earthly love. The feeling became the stronger the more she tried to conceal it from others, and even from herself.

Marya then begins to pray:

“My God,” she said, “how am I to subdue in my heart these temptings of the devil? How am I to renounce for ever all evil thoughts, so as in peace to fulfill Thy will?”

The story then relates:

And scarcely had she put this question than God’s answer came to her in her own heart. “Desire nothing for thyself, be not covetous, anxious, envious. The future of men and thy destiny too must be unknown for thee; but live that thou mayest be ready for all. If it shall be God’s will to prove thee in the duties of marriage, be ready to obey His will.”

So, we have in the story, a sad woman. She goes to a prayer room. She prays before a statue of Jesus. She receives a revelation, or an answer to her prayer. She is comforted. And, then — back to the story. She goes downstairs. She meets Anatole, and his father Prince Vassily. The story just keeps going.

It’s a nice, beautiful, spiritual moment. But, the whole story isn’t like that. The whole story isn’t pious. It isn’t all about revelation. There is just a nice moment of revelation - in everyday life. The way revelation happens. It happens before you get in the car to go to the grocery store. It happens after you brushed your teeth.

It’s very naturally written.

However, people don’t read War and Peace for the spiritual moments — I’m assuming. It just so happens to have spiritual moments in it. It’s page 199. The first prayer and subsequent revelation received in the whole story. You can’t say War and Peace is about receiving revelation and comfort from God — but it happens in the story. It’s not ignored. But it’s not the main subject.

This is in stark contrast to the other forms of stories we get in the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” genre of books and literature — devotionals, inspiring stories, quotes, one after another.

Everything has its place. Nothing is bad or wrong. Chicken Soup for the Soul isn’t inherently any better than War and Peace — nor are their respective genres. They’re just different.

It’s important to realize what you’re writing. What is your genre. What is your medium. In what historical framework and context are you placing your story. And, in what historical framework and context is your audience interpreting your story — probably more importantly. What does your audience think they’re getting? And, what are they actually getting?

Are you giving people War and Peace, but selling it as “Chicken Soup for the Soul” — because getting 1 revelation or spiritual moment 200 pages into the book (however good the book is) is going to make people upset. Are you giving people “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” but selling it as War and Peace? Again — you’re going to have a very upset audience. Because audiences and critics judge work and pieces of art with different criteria, and from different perspectives, based on what they’re being told they’re getting.

Short Chapters - Tolstoy, Melville, & Proust

I’m reading the Constance Garnett translation of War and Peace — because that’s the translation my library had.

I’ve finished the first 2 parts. Part 1 had 25 chapters. Part 2 had 21 chapters. That’s 46 chapters over 180 pages. That’s an average of 4 pages (3.9 rounded) per chapter — 4 pages.

That’s average. So, some chapter are 6 pages. Some chapters are 1 1/2 pages — it averages out at 4 pages a chapter. That’s short. That’s a fast pace.

Moby Dick is 135 chapters over 645 pages (not including the epilogue) — which averages out to 4.7 pages per chapter (round up to 5).

I love these novels with short chapters because they allow you to go back and re-read chapters as stories unto themselves. Each chapter isn’t structured like a short story. But, each chapter is structured like a short vignette. Each chapter stands alone by itself.

I’m probably not going to go back and re-read War and Peace or Moby-Dick regularly. But I definitely will go back and re-read 1 or 2 of my favorite 3 page chapters again. And take that small section out as a part of the whole, and as a whole unto itself.

One of the things that would’ve made Proust better, I think, is if he had written in shorter chapters, too. This lovely vignette, about the death of Bergotte, is one of my favorite pieces of writing — and it comes from In Search of Lost Time. But, it’s too hard to find in the book by itself. Too hard to easily reference.

The circumstances of his death were as follows. A fairly mild attack of uraemia had led to his being ordered to rest. But, an art critic having written somewhere that in Vermeer's View of Delft (lent by the Gallery at The Hague for an exhibition of Dutch painting), a picture which he adored and imagined that he knew by heart, a little patch of yellow wall (which he could not remember) was so well painted that it was, if one looked at it by itself, like some priceless specimen of Chinese art, of a beauty that was sufficient in itself, Bergotte ate a few potatoes, left the house, and went to the exhibition. At the first few steps he had to climb, he was overcome by an attack of dizziness. He walked past several pictures and was struck by the aridity and pointlessness of such an artificial kind of art, which was greatly inferior to the sunshine of a windswept Venetian palazzo, or of an ordinary house by the sea. At last he came to the Vermeer which he remembered as more striking, more different from anything else he knew, but in which, thanks to the critic's article, he noticed for the first time some small figures in blue, that the sand was pink, and, finally, the precious substance of the tiny patch of yellow wall. His dizziness increased; he fixed his gaze, like a child upon a yellow butterfly that it wants to catch, on the precious patch of wall. "That's how I ought to have written," he said. "My last books are too dry, I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of colour, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall." Meanwhile he was not unconscious of the gravity of his condition. In a celestial pair of scales there appeared to him, weighing down one of the pans, his own life, while the other contained the little patch of wall so beautifully painted in yellow. He felt that he had rashly sacrificed the former for the latter. "All the same," he said to himself, "I shouldn't like to be the headline news of this exhibition for the evening papers."

He repeated to himself: "Little patch of yellow wall, with a sloping roof, little patch of yellow wall." Meanwhile he sank down on to a circular settee whereupon he suddenly ceased to think that his life was in jeopardy and, reverting to his natural optimism, told himself: "It's nothing, merely a touch of indigestion from those potatoes, which were undercooked." A fresh attack struck him down; he rolled from the settee to the floor, as visitors and attendants came hurrying to his assistance. He was dead. Dead for ever? Who can say? Certainly, experiments in spiritualism offer us no more proof than the dogmas of religion that the soul survives death. All that we can say is that everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even to be polite, nor for an atheist artist [or scientist] to consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his worm-eaten body, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement by the artist destined to be for ever unknown and barely identified under the name Vermeer. All these obligations, which have no sanction in our present life, seem to belong to a different world, a world based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before perhaps returning there to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, not knowing whose hand had traced them there - those laws to which every profound work of the intellect brings us nearer and which are invisible only - if then! - to fools. So that the idea that Bergotte was not dead for ever is by no means improbable.

If only Proust had written his book in tiny little paragraphs like Melville and Tolstoy — then we could easily revisit our favorite scenes.

I think about this a lot, especially now a days, as it relates to YouTube videos and social media videos. Is the next big movie that comes out — the next big television series. Going to come in small, 3 minute videos. 2 minute videos. That ultimately, lead up to make a 2 hour movie? That can also, however, be fully appreciated by plucking out vignettes 1 at a time?

Flowing Over a Bridge

Looking on the bridge he saw the living waves of the soldiers, all alike as they streamed by: shakoes with covers on them, knapsacks, bayonets, long rifles, and under the shakoes broad-jawed faces, sunken cheeks, and looks of listless weariness, and legs moving over the boards of the bridge, that were coated with sticky mud.

- War and Peace, Part Two, Chapter 7

In the darkness they flowed on like an unseen, gloomy river always in the same direction, with a buzz of whisper and talk and the thud of hoofs and rumble of wheels. Above all other sounds, in the confused uproar, rose the moans and cries of the wounded, more distinct than anything in the darkness of the night.

- War and Peace, Part Two, Chapter 21

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,

To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours

With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

- The Wasteland, 1. The Burial of the Dead

Tolstoy, Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Joseph Smith -- Perspective

An observation, so far, about Tolstoy and as he relates to Shakespeare (since I read a lot of Shakespeare).  The observation is on perspective.

Chapters 6 and 7 in part 2 of War and Peace cover the retreat of the Russian and German army from a battle in which General Mack was defeated by the French.

Now, interestingly, the battle is not shown. It's only referenced. What the reader gets is the fallout from the battle. This seems to be a characteristic of Tolstoy. Already, we've seen a lot of important moments and events in the story not explicitly told to the reader first hand -- but the fallout is shown / talked about.  This is pretty common with Shakespeare, too. He has characters talk a lot about the fallout from events, without actually showing them. I feel like Shakespeare is especially egregious with this in The Winter's Tale -- but I don't remember off the top of my head what he did in it. Whatever it was, it almost seemed lazy to me.

However -- the differences.  If Shakespeare were writing about this battle, it would be included in a play titled "The Tragedy of Napoleon Bonaparte". We would see how this victory feed Napoleon's ego, or ambition, or driver, until the battle at Waterloo. Shakespeare tells stories of High Drama. Kings. Queens. Castles. Royalty. Tragedy.

 

Tolstoy is telling stories of aristocrats -- who are a privileged class. But, they're not Kings. They're princes and princesses -- they're not military leaders, they're not Napoleon, or the Emperor of Russia. But, they're constantly influenced by them. Almost in every chapter of War and Peace Napoleon is talked of and spoken of like a force of nature that affects the lives of these people.

If Shakespeare were telling this story it would by Napoleon in every chapter. Making decisions. Moving people. Being tragic. Not the people affected by Napoleon.

A great example of this perspective from which Tolstoy writes is found in Part 2, Chapter 7, where Prince Nesvitsky, an officer in the Russian military, goes down to a bridge and oversees the retreating Russian and German army.

Tolstoy writes:

Looking on the bridge he saw the living waves of the soldiers, all alike as they streamed by: shakoes with covers on them, knapsacks, bayonets, long rifles, and under the shakoes broad-jawed faces, sunken cheeks, and looks of listless weariness, and legs moving over the boards of the bridge, that were coated with sticky mud. Sometimes among the monotonous streams of soldiers, like a crest of white foam on the waves of the Enns, an officer forced his way through, in a cloak, with a face of a different type from the soldiers. Sometimes, like a chip whirling on the river, there passed over the bridge among the waves of infantry a dismounted hussar, an orderly, or an inhabitant of the town. Sometimes, like a log floating down the river, there moved over the bridge, hemmed in on all sides, a baggage-waggon, piled up high and covered with leather covers.

This is not a Shakespearean passage. Shakespeare is not concerned with a mass wave of soldiers. He is not even concerned with the Prince Nesvitsky-types, who are officers on the bridge. He writes of Coriolanus, and Troillus & Cressida, and of Antony & Cleopatra. He shows the drama of their personal life as wars happen around them. Here, in Tolstoy, we're right in the middle of it all.   Interestingly, not as low as the foot soldiers. But, not as high as the decision makers. This is the upper middle class -- very upper middle class.

In T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", the narrator of the poem makes the following observation about his own life.

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;

Am an attendant lord, one that will do

To swell a progress, start a scene or two,

Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,

Deferential, glad to be of use,

Politic, cautious, and meticulous;

Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—

Almost, at times, the Fool.

An attendant lord -- An attendant lord in Shakespeare shows up, progresses a scene, and has one or two lines. And, Hamlet is the main character. In Tolstoy, attendant lords are the main characters. Prince Bolkonsky is an adjutant, and attendant lord, to the Russian general. Anna Mihalovna is trying desperately to get her son, Boris, a position as an attendant lord, or as an adjutant, to the general as well.

When it comes to writing stories about Joseph Smith and the founding of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I believe you have to tell them from a Shakespearean perspective. It is high drama. It is Kings and Priests and Prophets and revelations, and a man talking with God trying to get the masses to follow. This seems Shakespearean to me.

I think, yes, you can tell Tolstoyan types of stories about the founding of the Church -- that would be like Work and the Glory, I'm guessing? Though I've never read those books.  But, they seem to be a story about a family that is, like the foot soldiers retreating on the badge, part of the wave of people swept up in the church.  But, I don't think they're actually ABOUT Joseph Smith.

But, I think you have to pick a perspective. I don't think you can tell a story part Shakespearean and part Tolstoyan. Thematically and tonally, I think the perspectives might be too different -- but who knows.

But, a lot of different perspectives and angles with which to tell stories. Bertolt Brecht wrote "Mother Courage and Her Children" from another perspective. But, perspective and structure and form are going to be determined by the characters, and the characters by the events told.  I don't think you pick the structure or tone or theme of a story first. You pick the events first. Then decide the characters based on the events. Then choose the perspective / structure / form based on those 2 things. And, that makes the story.

Reading War and Peace - Chapter XXII (22)

In Chapter 7 we learned of Pierre and his friends tying the police officer to the back of the bear, and all the trouble it caused.

Now, in Chapter 22 we learn about an important moment from Pierre’s life — again secondhand.

All through a letter that Julie Karagin has written her friend, Princess Marya Bolkonsky. Through the letter we learn how M. Pierre has inherited Count Bezuhov’s fortunes, and become Count Bezuhov after his father’s death. We learn Prince Vassily has gotten nothing. The sisters very little.

Two moments in Pierre’s life, that seem very important to the story, neither of which are experienced first hand by the audience. We see the events leading up to them — but not the events themselves. I’m interested in seeing if this pattern / style / technique in writing about Pierre continues on forward in the book.

Also of interest to me in this chapter is this little mystical book that Julie has sent to Marya. It’s alluded to three times. But, it’s never mentioned what the book is.

When Marya’s father, Prince Bolkonsky, gives her the letter from Julie, he also hands her a book that came with it:

“Here’s a book, too, your Heloise sends you some sort of Key to the Mystery. Religious. But I don’t interfere with any one’s belief. . . . I have looked at it. Take it. Come, run along, gun along.”

Then, when Marya is reading the letter, Julie refers to the book:

Read the mystical book which I send you, and which is the rage here. Though there are things in this book, difficult for our human conceptions to attain to, it is an admirable book, and reading it calms and elevates the soul.

Princess Marya responds to Julie, but never, it seems, opens the book. She says:

A thousands thanks, dear friend, for the work you send me, and which is all the rage where you are. As, however, you tell me that amid many good things there are others to which our weak human understanding cannot attain, it seems to me rather useless to busy oneself in reading an unintelligible book, since for that very reason it cannot yield any profit. I have never been able to comprehend the passion which some people have for confusing their minds by giving themselves to the study of mystical books which only awaken their doubts, inflaming their imagination, and giving them a disposition to exaggeration altogether contrary to Christian simplicity. Let us read the Apostles and the Gospel. . . .

I would’ve loved for there to be a book name, and had it be a real book I could look into.

Also, from some things I’ve read about the book, Christian simplicity will be a theme that returns.

Reading War and Peace - Chapters XVIII & XIX (18 & 19)

The first two sentences in Chapter 18 are an amazingly efficient transition from the previous chapters — a transition of setting and tone. Very nice.

While in the Rostov’s hall they were dancing the sixth anglaise, while the weary orchestra played wrong notes, and the tired footmen and cooks were getting the supper, Count Bezuhov had just had his sixth stroke. The doctors declared that there was no hope of recovery; the sick man received absolution and the sacrament while unconscious.

The sentence transitions between a great, swinging party, and a man’s death bed. It’s a transition from a party that was swinging hard in Chapter 17 — where they’re dancing to the “Daniel Cooper” — they’re slamming it, to a death bed scene. Very different tone.

And, so that’s done by starting at the party that’s been going on too long. You don’t go from a wild dance party, to a death bed scene. You step the party down first. All of a sudden, at the top of Chapter 18, they’re on the sixth dance at the party. Musicians are tired. Footmen and cooks are ending the day. They party seems to be dying out. Like, Count Bezuhov. The count is dying. This sentence is a great melting from the party into the death bed scene. And, it’s two sentences. Very efficient.

The underlying rule here, if you were to draw one out, seems to be that you don’t transition tone and setting at the same time. Perhaps — unless that hard juxtaposition is important to you — doing 2 transitions at once is too much. You do one first, then the other. You change the tone at the party, to match the tone at the death bed scene — and then you change the setting.

This transition / cut scene is echoed, a little bit, in the first sentence of Chapter 19, too.

At the time that these conversations were taking place in the reception-room and the princess’s room, a carriage with Pierre (who had been sent for) and Anna Milahovna (who had thought fit to come with him) in it was driving into the court of Count Bezuhov’s mansion.

The first sentence of Chapter 18 shifts the setting of the story from Natasha’s birthday party to Count Bezuhov’s death. And, it also has to shift the tone. The first sentence of Chapter 19, however, doesn’t have to shift tone — it just shifts setting / character focus. Still, there is not a lot of shifting in between locations from a narrator’s perspective in the book so far. Most chapter’s stay in the same location. One room. Or, if it’s more than one room, we’re following characters out of the rooms and into the others. It’s not narrator-led cuts or movements.

It seems that, just now, we are starting to switch back and forth between outside / inside the mansion or, from party to party, within chapters. And, so, these sentences, for that reason, too, are pretty striking in the story. Surprisingly different from what has been written about before.

Reading War and Peace - Chapter VII (7)

Chapter VII (Chapter 7) of War and Peace has an interesting way of telling the story of Pierre, Kuragin, and Dolohov throwing a police officer into a river.

Prior to this story telling, in Chapter 6 we’re introduced to Kuragin and Dolohov at a party that Pierre Bezuhov attends at Kuragin’s house. At the party, when Pierre enters, he sees dirty rooms, laughing men breaking out a window, and a bunch of drunks. He’s showed up late to the party. After 1 o’clock in the morning. He also sees three other men “busy with a young bear, one of them dragging at its chain and frightening the others with it.” The end of the chapter brings the bear back in. Here is the last paragraph:

“Yes, come along,” shouted Pierre, “come along. . . . And take Mishka with us.” . . . And he caught hold of the bear, and embracing it and lifting it up, began waltzing around the room with it.

The next chapter, Chapter 7, we’re in a drawing room, with Countess Rostov and a visitor. And, the visitor begins to tell Countess Rostov the story of Count Bezuhov’s distress which she had heard “fifteen times already.” Count Bezuhov’s distress is that his son, Pierre, has been banished to Moscow. Pierre’s friend Dolohov, also being punished, has been “degraded to the rank of a common soldier,.” Only Kuragin’s father was able to make his misbehavior go away by “hush[ing] it up somehow.”

It is then explained that the boys tied a police officer to the back of their bear, Mishka, and dropped the bear into the Moika River. And watched as the bear swam to the shore with the policeman on his back.

The people talking laugh about the scene they are retelling, and then condemn the act and the actor, but still think it’s funny, so laugh about it a bit more.

The thing that is interesting about the telling of this story is that it’s not shown first hand, first person. We’re shown the boys at the party the night before — we’re shown that party first person — the boys drinking, and breaking out a window, and shouting and yelling, and taking bets. The author takes us into the room.

But, then, Chapter 6 ends with the boys leaving, and Chapter 7 starts us off in a drawing room — we can assume at least many days later, if not more. And, some characters talking about what happened after the party. 2nd person. Second hand.

We see their reaction to it. We learn about the fall out. But, the author doesn’t take us there to the scene.

It reminds me of a lot of Shakespeare. Where you don’t see the action. You don’t see the battles. You hear about them. They occur off stage, and you see the results. You see the fall out. The reactions are the story. The reactions are what is important. But, because War and Peace is a book, and it all takes place in our head, as opposed to on a stage, the reader still plays out the story in their mind, as if they were reading a first hand account of it anyway. So, unlike in Shakespeare, Tolstoy still lets you see the event first hand in your mind, even though it’s told second hand.

This reaction to the riotous living — the importance of the reaction to the bad behavior — is paralleled in what happens to Pierre before the party, when his friend Prince Andrey, tells him not to go to Kuragin’s party.

In Chapter 6, before the party, Pierre is hanging out with his friend, Prince Andrey. He hangs out at his house until 1 a.m. — just talking. Before Pierre leaves, Prince Andrey makes him promise not to go to Kuragin’s parties anymore. He says, “Give me your word of honour that you will give up going.”

Then, a few lines down, there is this thought, followed by a great piece of narration:

“It would be Jolly to go to Kuragin’s,” [Pierre] thought. But he immediately recalled his promise to Prince Andrey not to go there again.

But, as so often happens with people of weak character, as it is called, he was at once overcome with such a passionate desire to enjoy once more this sort of dissipation which had become so familiar to him, that he determined to go. And the idea at once occurred to him that his promise was of no consequence, since he had already promised Prince Anatole to go before making the promise to Andrey. Finally he reflected that all such promises were merely relative matters, having no sort of precise significance, especially if one considered that to-morrow one might be dead or something so extraordinary might happen that the distinction between honourable and dishonourable would have ceased to exist. Such reflections often occurred to Pierre, completely nullifying all his resolutions and intentions. He went to Kuragin’s.

It’ll be interesting to see, as I keep reading, if this keeps happening in the book — if people have reactions to important events that take place “offstage”. I feel like it might — as already Napoleon is an important figure in the book, and has yet to actually appear in the book. He is the center of conversations. The center of actions that are affecting these people — but not a character himself. I feel like this might be a common theme that keeps popping up. We’ll see.

The Plains of Olaha Shinehah

In Doctrine & Covenants 117:6, the Lord is quoted as saying:

Is there not room enough on the mountains of Adam-ondi-Ahman, and on the plains of Olaha Shinehah, or the land where Adam dwelt, that you should covet that which is but the drop, and neglect the more weighty matters?

This verse explains that Olaha Shinehah is where Adam, the first man, lived. It was written in 1838. 39 years later — in 1877 — Orson F. Whitney wrote a poem called “The Land of Shinehah”.

In the poem, Orson refers to Kirtland, Ohio — stretching out to Lake Eerie, as Shinehah. And, that once the saints left it for Far West and then Nauvoo, that Kirtland became fallen, deserted.

Whitney refers to Kirtland as “the cradle of a nation” and, as a place that has seen “the rise of Zion’s glory,” and later, “a people’s banishment.”

He ends the first stanza of his poem with these lines:

Awake, my muse! let soaring numbers flow

Leave poorer themes of story far below,

Let exiled Israel’s cause my soul inspire

To write with burning zeal and pen of fire.

The word Shinehah is also found in Abraham 3:13, where the Lord tells Abraham:

And he said unto me: This is Shinehah, which is the sun. And he said unto me: Kokob, which is star. And he said unto me: Olea, which is the moon.