The question we failed to answer at last night’s colloquium: “Z*/Tolstoy: Do we have a choice?” continues to bug me.
I hope everyone felt that the topic was asking not only the flippant surface question, “What should we choose to read?” but also challenging us as creators: “Do we have control over our own creative output?”
This is a question with some girth. Clearly, the works of Z and Tolstoy are at opposite ends of the scale, and without a doubt our works are somewhere in between. It would hard indeed to create something beyond Z’s work, even deliberately; that is his special gift. But where do our works fall and how much control do we have over that?
I don’t think I’m talking here about posterity’s evaluation of our works. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that there is at base a level of quality that I will dare to call objective. In other words, I think we can posit that each work has a base line of quality from which posterity will not stray very far in its assessment.
Our two goalposts can illustrate that point. No one is ever going to proclaim Z’s two novels as anything other than what they are, which is one human being’s noble attempt to fulfill that inborn urge to create. Likewise, Tolstoy’s War & Peace is not likely to fall very far from its current heavyweight status. The fact that there cannot be any serious argument about placing these works at opposite ends of any scale you want to devise is further evidence for my argument.
My not so secret fear then is that the stuff I produce will fall into Z’s range. I know the songs I’m writing for Moonlight, for example, are not really going to be that bad, but I am afraid that they will be at best insipid and at worst banal. And I am wounded by the knowledge that they will never approach the other end of the scale, either.
And here’s our question again: Do we have a choice? I know enough to keep my stuff from being bad, but is my inability to create a work of genius dependent on my knowledge? Was Tolstoy’s work a direct result of his artistic control, or is there something else going on?
This is getting into Tolstoy’s “man of destiny” territory, and it would be ironic indeed if his creative output is as great as it is simply because of the dictates of his own will. For those of us stranded below, it makes more sense, and is certainly more comforting to think, that there was some happenstance, some inborn-genius-thing that he could not control, and which we do not possess, that made War & Peace the staggering work of art that it is.
So, do we have a choice?
We’ve mentioned before the idea that a creative work is “abandoned not completed,” and nowhere is this more true than in the last five or six chapters of Z’s latest novel. There were misspellings, typos, repeated paragraphs/sentences, and an overall sloppiness that was actually distracting instead of just being a part of the delightful mise en scene. I don’t understand that. It cannot have been the case that his publishers were breathing down his neck like J. K. Rowling’s were for Goblet of Fire, causing her to slip up in the crucial graveyard duel scene. I cannot imagine that he was being rushed in any way to complete the thing.
At any rate, I finally put my finger on what is wrong with much of the dialog in this book. Almost all of it consists of the characters stating what they’re doing, have done, or are going to do. It is pretty much the way 8-11-year-olds play: “Come on, we have to fight the Balrog.” “You can’t defeat us, Balrog, we have Gandalf on our side.” “Oh no, Gandalf has joined forces with the Balrog.” “We have to run away.”
The rest of the dialog is made up of flat descriptions of the characters’ emotional status: “I’m so happy/scared/worried/in love.” Or agreements: “You are so right.”
It’s entertaining something awful.
*Names changed to shelter the innocent