Are Artists Selfish?

“How good life is when one does something right and just!” The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky

I read somewhere that Dostoevsky originally intended for The Brothers Karamazov to be three times as long as it actually turned out to be. If it had been, I definitely would have followed his characters along. Despite being a huge book with questions worth pondering for a lifetime, I was left aching to know, when I finished, how each of the brothers fared after the decisive events following the murder of their dissipated and malicious father .

IMG_1569As a novelist I have to force myself to be alone to write. It’s not that I hate the idea of being alone. I love it. But … as artists we have to say no a lot. No to the people who love us and wish we’d call more. No to the husbands who wish we’d acknowledge them first thing in the morning instead of rushing past them to get in some writing before the kids and dogs wake.

If we are not making a handsome living at our artistic vocation it can appear to be a fool’s errand we are on. Isn’t it more saintly to serve others with our presence and maybe some fresh cooked pancakes? I used to hate the idea of serving God above all else — as if God was a selfish and egotistical slave master. I realized the reason I hated this was because I wanted people to elevate me in God’s place. It was not because I felt such loyalty to humanity that I wanted to serve them above God —  though that’s what I told myself.

Making art is a strange thing. It can feel  self-indulgent at times. It seems to serve only the artist, especially when the calling takes the artist into a private world for hours and days. Years go by and the artist may be preoccupied with the call, the words, the ideas, the images that God is pressing into his soul.

But making art and saying yes to the call is like entering a sort of priesthood of beauty and truth.  All vocations are like this.

“The particular vocation of individual artists decides the arena in which they serve and points as well to the tasks they must assume, the hard work they must endure and the responsibility they must accept. Artists who are conscious of all this know too that they must labor without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity, and still less by the calculation of some possible profit for themselves. There is therefore an ethic, even a ‘spirituality’ of artistic service, which contributes in its way to the life and renewal of a people. It is precisely this to which Cyprian Norwid seems to allude in declaring that ‘beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up.'” Letter to Artists, Pope John Paul II

Alyosha Karamazov takes his calling literally and seriously. It is not enough for him to “give two roubles instead of ‘all,’ and only go to mass instead of ‘following Him.'”

In Alyosha, Dostoevsky gives us the beautiful and ideal. He tells us that Alyosha is for him the hero of the story. He is the fulfillment of everything good that his mentor Father Zossima talks about and all of the other more troubled characters are drawn to him.

I wonder if the artist’s most important job is to document beauty, not only the easy beauty of a sunrise, but also the beauty that so often arises after great suffering. Alyosha is the sunrise and sunset. His brothers are all of those in-between moments of recklessness and inner spiritual turmoil we experience in life.

Some people simply accept the gentle nudges of the Savior, some resist all the way to the end, but those in-between people are the ones it’s so interesting to read and write about. Dimitri Karamazov lets his sensuous desires run amok in search of love and happiness, while Ivan, the intellectual middle brother avoids intimacy and despairs at the suffering of innocent children under a “just” God. Both men suffer, but their suffering offers enlightenment and beauty if they will accept it (as Alyosha does). Smerdyakov, the illegitimate half-brother, refuses God’s grace evidenced by his suicide.

The beauty of the story is not that we are given the answers to all mysteries, but that we are given the ‘beauty to enthuse us for work, and work to raise us up.’

There are some people who say being a Christian is as simple as doing what Jesus says. The What Would Jesus Do? crowd. As artists we are given the task of peeling the onion, of suffering dark nights and loneliness of the soul. Sure, we are also given sunrises and sunsets and these need to be captured enthusiastically as salves for humanity’s suffering. Jesus is all-knowing, all-loving goodness, truth and beauty — we mortals struggle.

I like to think that most people love children and puppies and sunsets. But some people go afar off track following an idea — a lesser idea that puts God in the passenger seat (or the trunk). I understand the impulse. Human theories are applauded and celebrated for being progressive paths to happiness and enlightenment, yet they so often fall flat — many lead to great evil — like communism. I struggle to think of a single human achievement that has not come with an entire host of unintended consequences.

The celebration of something beyond us, bigger than us, more beautiful than us has brought us cathedrals. The celebration of us has brought us Walmart box stores. The Brothers Karamazov brings us before God with big human questions while so many other books talk about self-help and the sensual pleasures of this life and this life only.

True artists are not selfish for locking themselves away for hours (there is a time and place for family gatherings and playing with puppies of course) but we need art like we need God to help us remember our mission as humans to seek out truth, beauty and goodness in the midst of suffering.

This week on the farm there has been a lot of miraculous, “simple” beauty. I hope your week had its share of beauty too. Let me know if you are a “selfish” artist in the comments! 🙂 How do you manage your time?

8 THINGS JOHN PAUL II WANTED ALL ARTISTS TO KNOW

AN ARTISTIC REFLECTION ON JOHN PAUL II’s LETTER TO ARTISTS

 

Top 5 Favorite Romantic Partners in Classic Literature

Hi everyone! After spending quite some time pondering the suffering of soldiers wounded at Gettysburg I thought I needed a quick pick-me-up. 🙂 Maybe you do too.

I feel we need some love right now so I’m calling all readers to share the ladies and gentlemen they adore. I mean, who doesn’t like romance done right? Even tragic romance has it’s place.

So here are my romantic favorites:

1.Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Natasha Rostova in War and Peace

When your husband avoids coming into the bedroom because he hears you sobbing (and he knows he hasn’t done anything wrong), the book must be good. And War and Peace is THAT good. As some of you know I’m weirdly obsessed with military matters and men in uniform (even though I hate war). I’ll admit that a few times I was so caught up in the romances that I took little peeks ahead while the men talked strategy — but for the most part this book had the perfect mix. Prince Andrei and Natasha live on in my life through my two favorite pet sheep. Honestly I could have picked a few of the other couples — even the bad ones because they were great characters, but they didn’t make me cry — for days.

 2. Dorothea and Edward Casaubon in Middlemarch

I was just reading about this doomed couple. It seems some men feel that George Eliot was too hard on Casaubon, the sour, old intellectual  Dorothea foolishly marries.

“What did the world lose, when Dorothea destroyed Casaubon? The novel gives only slanted, derisive glimpses. But we know that the provisional title of his book was The Key to All Mythologies. He intended to show ‘that all the mythical systems or erratic mythical fragments in the world were corruptions of a tradition originally revealed’.” A Great Intellect Destroyed

I’m going to have to disagree. Casaubon was awful. I loved seeing how the two crippled each other in the mismatch but was obviously glad when Casaubon died (that sounds horrible, doesn’t it?). Don’t get me wrong. I felt sympathy for Casaubon because he lived so long in his head that he became worthless in relationships, but … maybe I just wouldn’t want to be in relationship with a genius. Super-driven, self-involved men may do great things, but they’re not  much fun to be around and frankly Casaubon’s ego and insecurity were more unattractive than Eliot’s description of his looks. Part of me may have disliked him because I see tendencies in myself of obsession and crankiness but I won’t tell my husband that!

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3. Susan Burling Ward and Oliver Ward in Angle of Repose

I’m sensing a pattern here. Not the happy list I was hoping for. Wallace Stegner wrote such great stories about marriage and this one is particularly bittersweet. What happens when a bright and hardworking engineer marries a cultured Eastern girl and they move West to further his career in the late nineteenth century? There are so many poignant scenes of these two people who truly want what’s best for the other yet are unable to bridge their differences.

I personally felt more sympathy for Oliver who worries throughout about making enough money and a name for himself so that his lonely wife will be able to have the cultured life she misses. When I read it I was younger and didn’t see that so often I expected men to think like women. I also tended to think men who weren’t into reading Jane Austen were primitive apes. Yep. I was dumb.

This book opened my mind to the ways men express love and concern. Susan realized a tad too late. Sigh.

The White Cockade by Edward Martin

The White Cockade by Edward Martin

 

4. Fred and Mary in Middlemarch

Okay, so two romantic couples from the same book. Oh, well. It’s my list and finally I have a happy couple to talk about. This romance was adorable. Am I right? Fred is just your average, silly, young guy. He gets into horse and gambling troubles and makes a hash of most things but he’s sweet and in love with Mary, a girl who’s plain and poor. She’s also a moral giant but strangely likeable (even though I tend to dislike giant moral people).

Middlemarch is a pretty big book so we get plenty of time to see how this little story progresses and how Mary holds her ground against Fred’s flirtations only to be rewarded in the end. If only all romances could end this way.

5. Laura and Almanzo Wilder in The Little House Series

Please don’t roll your eyes if you think the little house books are only for children. You need to read the last few books of the series again so you can feel the wistful memories Laura is sharing about her family seep into your soul. What I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE about Almanzo  is that he only appears for moments in a few of the books but we know his appearances foreshadow a real-life marriage that lasted for years and years. In one of the books Laura is lost and spots Almanzo and his brother Royal. Laura notes the sparkle in Almanzo’s eyes as he looks at her. In another place Almanzo and Royal feed Pa when he’s starving during a winter of shortage and blizzard.

Whenever Almanzo is written about he is brave and good and quiet and pretty much perfect. Through these fictionalized accounts of Laura’s life we get to feel her deep love for her husband. Knowing that she couldn’t actually finish her final book after Almanzo died gives the written and published portion such power. Laura’s writing is deceptively simple and pulls on every heart-string for me — so much so that in writing my own novels I tucked in little bits of Laura here and there — like adding Morgan horses (Almanzo’s favorite breed) and marrying off an ill-fated character to a man named Royal Wilder). 🙂

So now it’s your turn. Who do you love and why? Tells us in the comments below.

 

Adrienne Morris is the author of

The Tenafly Road Series

“Characters so deep you follow them into the abyss, hoping to come out unscathed, but never returning the same. They will haunt me forever.”

***Do you love reading the classics? Join the club! THE CLASSICS CLUB

Classics Club Review: War and Peace

The day after taking doxicyclene for Lyme disease and anaplasmosis this is the text conversation between my daughter and me:

Me: I was feverish with a bizarre and pounding headache. Not normal. Felt really weird. Sweating profusely. And UNABLE TO STOP GOING OVER SCENES FROM WAR AND PEACE in my head.

Daughter: Okay. That’s terrible but the War and Peace thing you obviously know is hilarious. “unable to stop” 🙂 🙂

Me: Even as I was almost dying I was like: this is ridiculous.

Daughter: LOLOL. It’s so you though. Are you okay now?

Me: Called the doctor. My reaction was rare but serious so she prescribed a new drug.

Daughter: Oh, God. Did you tell her about the War and Peace hallucinations? Is that part a common reaction?

 

For most of August my daughter received texts like this:

Me: Prince Andrei may forgive Natasha but I never will. NEVER.

I’m in such a state of despair. Prince Andrei is finally dead. So terrible I’m sobbing.

Daughter: Oh my God, but didn’t we know it was coming?

Me: Yes but when it finally came it was terrible. There’s little reason to live now. My life is a desert.

Daughter: I wish we lived closer 😦

Me: Tolstoy has ruined my life. Okay. I need to calm down.

Daughter: Yes. You do. But it’s cute. . . . Mom…

Me: Yes?

Daughter: Ugh. Life has been cruel (here’s where my daughter talks about her real-life break up with a cad. I’ll keep it private).

 

But what is real life? Great fiction certainly blurs the lines (it doesn’t help that my nervous system has been under attack from the dreaded Lyme disease). For some there is the summer of rage, for others the summer of love, but for me this was the summer of War and Peace. My heightened sense of awareness as I feverishly followed the lives of Pierre, Natasha, Marya and Andrei made each new revelation more glorious and painful (or the book is just that glorious and painful?).

I’ll start at the end because new life begins at the end of something and that end in this case is the slow, heartbreaking death of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. Andrei, in fact, dies many deaths before the final one which I’ll get to, but here at the end we glimpse Andrei’s son, with the same nervous and thoughtful temperament as his father, living a rather neglected life with his aunt and uncle. He is the echo of Andrei. In his brief appearance as he sits listening in rapt awe to Pierre (Andrei’s best friend), we get a picture of Andrei. Tolstoy doesn’t say much about Andrei’s absent mother but we see the lonely, shy eagerness in his son’s eyes in the presence of the only real connection he has to his deceased father. Poor Nikolenka unexpressed neediness comes out in his accidental destruction of a pen set. We hope that Pierre and Natasha will see past themselves to give the orphan boy what Prince Andrei only allowed himself to experience briefly—love.

At the start of the story we meet Andrei in a loveless, dull marriage to an annoyingly good, decidedly silly girl. Andrei’s father suffers his pregnant daughter-in-law’s silliness with barely hidden contempt. Andrei himself has trouble hiding his own contempt and confesses to Pierre on the eve of going off to war that he considers marriage a mistake.

Andrei’s father, the count, hides his great love for his children behind a self-protective wall of hostility. Andrei’s sister Marya takes the brunt of her father’s abuse but is armed with her great devotion to God. Marya begs Andrei to take a religious icon to war. Andrei is dismissive at first but we see his heart for his sister when he accepts her gift even as he doubts her faith.

“Andre, I am going to bless you with an icon, and you promise me never to take it off . . . Do you promise?”

“Of course, if it doesn’t weigh a hundred pounds and pull my neck down . . .To give you pleasure . . .” said Prince Andrei, but that same second, noticing the distressed look that came to his sister’s face at this joke, he instantly repented. “I’m very glad, truly, very glad, my friend,” he added.

“Against your will He will save you and have mercy on you and turn you to Him, because in Him alone there is truth and peace,” she said in a voice trembling with emotion, with a solemn gesture holding up in both hands before her brother an old oval icon of the Savior with a blackened face, in a silver setting, on a finely wrought silver chain.

She crossed herself, kissed the icon, and gave it to Andrei.

“Please, Andre, for me . . .”

From her big eyes shone rays of a kindly and timid light. These eyes lit up her whole, thin, sickly face and made it beautiful. Her brother wanted to take the icon, but she stopped him. Andrei understood, made the sign of the cross, and kissed the icon. His face was at the same time tender (he was touched) and mocking.

Marya’s words are prophetic. God does save Andrei but not in the way we mortals like. Andrei, without a mother and only a father unable to show love, seeks glory (not love which he doesn’t understand) as the highest good. He thinks to himself as the Russian army retreats that for glory he would give up family, friends and life. As the throng of frightened men all around race to the rear Andrei takes up the standard and moves forward.

Andrei falls and is captured but not before noting the expanse of sky above him—the emotionless, unperturbed sky which is neither impressed nor ashamed of the tiny glory a young man seeks. Andrei meets his hero Napoleon briefly at the hospital but no longer worships him and sees him for the small, mean man he is. He sees glory as small and mean as well.

What is the epitome of manhood? Andrei’s best friend, Pierre, a hulking, fumbling decent sort of fellow and bastard son to a man with a large fortune lives a life of debauchery. While Andrei is tightly wound and spiritually deep, Pierre is led by his feelings and appetite which he has trouble controlling.  Andrei sees Pierre’s integrity hidden deep within his hefty frame and frivolous living. Pierre sees Andrei’s soft and pained heart beneath his creeping cynicism, hostility and irritation so similar to his father’s.

Both men search for goodness but as Christ said no one is good but God and here lies the tragedy and hope. Even in this friendship they fail each other. Pierre visits his recovered friend just returned from the war eager to tell him all about the truths he’s discovered about social justice. Andrei covers his love with contempt, belittling Pierre’s naïve ideas even as he himself is at the forefront of the movement to improve the lives of his serfs. He refuses to let Pierre have his victories. He refuses to show his weakness in agreeing with anything his friend says. How sad. How distancing. How lonely.

Yet God has other plans. Andrei travels through a forest of dead trees that mirror his mood. He meets a girl in the bloom of life and falls in love. He tries to do right to please his father and this young girl, Natasha Rostov fails the test he gives her when he asks her to wait for him as he travels to warmer climates to recuperate from his still unhealed war wounds.

Natasha and her mother fear something in Andrei. Is it the integrity and depth they are so unaccustomed to in the Rostov men? The Rostovs are foolish spendthrifts and emotionally volatile. Always at the brink of ruin, they are saved in the end by Andrei and Marya Bolkonsky.

War and Peace is large and sweeping but it’s the little moments that are so poignant and true. Andrei, with broken heart after Natasha’s affair with an awful man, goes back to war ready to die until the moment he’s injured by shrapnel.  He sees the man who tricked Natasha into loving him at the hospital suffering an amputation and forgives him–forgives humanity and feels the depths of his ability to love—a love bigger than self and a love only possible as a gift from God.

Andrei dies a slow death but not before reuniting with Natasha. Yet again, humans fall so short. After Andrei dies Natasha remembers with great regret a conversation between herself and Prince Andrei. A conversation that exposes his true soul, his search and need for unconditional love:

“One thing is terrible,” he had said, “it is to bind yourself to a suffering man. That is eternal torment.” And he had looked at her—Natasha could see it now—with a searching gaze. Natasha, as always, had answered then before she had time to think of what answer she would give: “It cannot go on like this, it won’t be, you’ll get well—completely.”

She now saw him anew and lived through all she had felt then. She remembered his prolonged, sad, stern gaze at those words, and understood the meaning of the reproach and despair in that prolonged gaze.

“I agreed,” Natasha now said to herself, “that it would be terrible if he was left suffering always. I said it then only because it would be terrible for him, but he understood it differently. He thought it would be terrible for me. He still wanted to live then—he was afraid of death. And I said it to him so crudely, so stupidly then. I didn’t think that. I thought quite differently. If I had said what I thought, I would have said: let him be dying, dying all the time before my eyes, I would still be happy compared to what I am now. Now . . .There’s nothing, nobody. Did he know that? No. he didn’t know, and he’ll never know. And now it will never, never be possible to put it right.”

And again he was saying the same words to her, but now, in her imagination, Natasha answered differently. She stopped him and said: “Terrible for you, but not for me. You know that for me there is nothing in life without you, and to suffer with you is the best happiness for me.” . . . and in her imagination she said other tender, loving things to him, which she might have said then, and which she was saying now: “I love you, I love . . .”

 

And this love is all there really is. It’s all we seek. Tolstoy’s view of history leaves little room for free will (especially in leadership). Events happen. Deaths happen with no escape for any of us. The war is within each of us. The battle moves forward to its final conclusion, and we are carried along with great throngs of fearful masses. The sky, God, is not devoid of feeling as Prince Andrei once thought.

I quote the apostle Paul: I pray that he would give you, according to his glorious riches, strength in your inner being and power through his Spirit, and that the Messiah would make his home in your hearts through faith. Then, having been rooted and grounded in love, you will be able to understand, along with all the saints, what is wide, long, high, and deep—that is, you will know the love of the Messiah — which transcends knowledge, and will be filled with all the fullness of God.

Our world today is full of people hiding behind irritability, anxiety and fear. Every last person feels the pain of separation from others—and from God. But love is right here. We do it badly but it is here.

Tolstoy does not tell us what becomes of Andrei’s son but I hope Pierre and Natasha recognize the need he has—that echo of his father’s need. Let them love him.

***As one might imagine in a book so rich there are many themes and ideas I couldn’t possibly cover such as:

The nature of beauty

Sibling love

Military strategy and military life

Fate and free will (in general)

The nature of God

Love and forgiveness

The slavery of great men thought of as leaders to their fate

I’ve included links but have not read them since my desire with this endeavor is to come at these works using my own heart and brain. 🙂

WAR AND PEACE:THE 10 THINGS TO KNOW IF YOU HAVEN’T ACTUALLY READ IT

THE DEATH OF PRINCE ANDREI