There is a scene in the wonderful Chinese film, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, that has stayed with me for years (click here and start at 4:32). In this scene, the hero—a young Chinese violinist who has been sent to a rural mountain village for “re-education” during the early days of the Cultural Revolution—is about to lose his violin unless he plays something that the village party boss finds acceptable. His friend (also being re-educated) suggests that he play a favorite Mozart sonata, and the boss demands to know the name of the song.
The right answer, which Luo cannot give, is that the song is called “Divertimento No. 17 in D major K334,” a piece of music named simply by a genre, a key signature, and a number in a catalog. Luo tries to explain this to the mountain boss, who keeps demanding a name that he can understand. Finally, Luo’s friend says that the name of the song is “Mozart Is Thinking of Chairman Mao.” “Yes,” the boss nods knowingly, “Mozart is always thinking of Chairman Mao.”
A lot is going on in this scene. For one thing, it is a substantial critique of the Marxist world view. The party boss could not process a work of art that did not correspond to an ideology because, for orthodox Marxism, there can be no such thing. Art, music, and literature exist in the superstructure of a society; they cannot, therefore, fail to respond somehow to the economic base. Music has to be about something. Art has to reflect ideology. Literature has to mean stuff.
But it’s not just Marxists who think like this. Human beings are narrative animals. We think in stories, which means that we think in plots. “Art for art’s sake” is a nice motto, but it is difficult to get one’s mind around the kind of ideology-free aesthetic that Oscar Wilde articulates in the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, when he says that “all art is quite useless.” This is especially true because The Picture of Dorian Gray seems to be anything but a book that doesn’t mean anything.
If we pull Wilde back just a little bit from the brink of nihilism and assume that he wasn’t quite saying that all books are random collections of meaningless letters, we arrive at something like the literary version of “Mozart Is Thinking of Chairman Mao”: a rejection of the idea that a work of literature must always have an ideological position towards the events it describes or the characters who inhabit it’s pages. This notion insists that there must always be a point, always a judgment. Moby Dick, when all is said and done, has got to be for or against whales.
I think that something like this will-to-ideology infects a lot of discussions about Mormon literature, through the vehicle of questions like, “Is it ‘pro-Mormon’ or ‘anti-Mormon’?” or “Why would anyone consider this ‘Mormon literature?’” or maybe even, “Is Stephenie Meyer thinking of President Monson?” Like Caliban, we want to see our own face in every glass. And (also like Caliban), we usually get upset with the picture.
We see this on display most clearly when authors, Mormon or otherwise, write about Mormon issues and Mormon characters. When Mormon readers read such books, we often try to maneuver the author into some definite ideological relationship to Mormon religion and culture. At the very least, we ask questions like, “what is X trying to say about the Mormons,” which, when viewed from an external perspective, is roughly the same question as “what is Cervantes trying to say about windmills?”
Cervantes, of course, was saying a lot of things, but nothing about windmills. The windmills were simply the thing that drove the plot. But they had to be windmills or the particular scene wouldn’t have worked. I have argued elsewhere (in a forthcoming essay) that we should read the Mormons in the Broadway hit The Book of Mormon the same way. It is important that Elder Price and Elder Cunningham be Mormon missionaries. But the authors aren’t really using Mormon characters to say things about Mormons any more than Cervantes was using windmills to say things about windmills. They just happen to be what is needed for the plot to succeed.
Great literature, and even pretty good literature, succeeds because it is able to infuse ordinary events with universal ideas, most of which are invoked in the reader more than they are placed there by the author like candy eggs on Easter. The problem that most of us have when reading literature is that we ask fairly simple questions—questions that demand quick and compact morals, obvious positions, and, above all, ideological clarity. With very few exceptions, the answers to such questions—be they about Mormon literature or anything else—will usually sound a lot like “Mozart Is Thinking of Chairman Mao.”