John Gardner (19331982) was a bestselling novelist and one of the most popular and respected writing teachers of his generation. His books On Moral Fiction, The Art of Fiction, and On Becoming a Novelist are consulted by thousands of aspiring writers every year. His novels include the classic Grendel and the bestsellers October Light, The Sunlight Dialogues, and Nickel Mountain.
"<>A genuine classic of literary criticism, On Moral Fiction argues that ”true art is by its nature moral.”<>"
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On Moral Fiction
By John Gardner
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1978 John C. Gardner
All rights reserved.
A book as wide-ranging as this one needs a governing metaphor to give it at least an illusion that all is well:
It was said in the old days that every year Thor made a circle around Middle-earth, beating back the enemies of order. Thor got older every year, and the circle occupied by gods and men grew smaller. The wisdom god, Woden, went out to the king of the trolls, got him in an armlock, and demanded to know of him how order might triumph over chaos.
"Give me your left eye," said the king of the trolls, "and I'll tell you."
Without hesitation, Woden gave up his left eye. "Now tell me."
The troll said, "The secret is, Watch with both eyes!"
Woden's left eye was the last sure hope of gods and men in their kingdom of light surrounded on all sides by darkness. All we have left is Thor's hammer, which represents not brute force but art, or, counting both hammerheads, art and criticism. Thor is no help. Like other gods, he has withdrawn from our immediate view. We have only his weapon, abandoned beside a fencepost in high weeds, if we can figure out how to use it. This book is an attempt to develop a set of instructions, an analysis of what has gone wrong in recent years with the various arts—especially fiction, since that is the art on which I'm best informed—and what has gone wrong with criticism.
The language of critics, and of artists of the kind who pay attention to critics, has become exceedingly odd: not talk about feelings or intellectual affirmations—not talk about moving and surprising twists of plot or wonderful characters and ideas—but sentences full of large words like hermaneutic, heuristic, structuralism, formalism, or opaque language, and full of fine distinctions—for instance those between modernist and post-modernist—that would make even an intelligent cow suspicious. Though more difficult than ever before to read, criticism has become trivial.
The trivial has its place, its entertainment value. I can think of no good reason that some people should not specialize in the behavior of the left-side hairs on an elephant's trunk. Even at its best, its most deadly serious, criticism, like art, is partly a game, as all good critics know. My objection is not to the game but to the fact that contemporary critics have for the most part lost track of the point of their game, just as artists, by and large, have lost track of the point of theirs. Fiddling with the hairs on an elephant's nose is indecent when the elephant happens to be standing on the baby.
At least in America art is not thought capable, these days, of tromping on babies. Yet it does so all the time, and what is worse, it does so with a bland smile. I've watched writers, composers, and painters knocking off their "works" with their left hands. Nice people, most of them. Artists are generally pleasant people, childlike both in love and hate, intending no harm when they turn out bad paintings, compositions, or books. Indeed, their ambition guarantees that they will do the best they know how to do or think they ought to do. The error is less in their objects than in their objectives. "Art is play, or partly play," they'll tell you with an engaging smile, serving up their non-nutritious fare with the murderous indifference of a fat girl serving up hamburgers. What they say is true enough, as far as it goes, and nothing is more tiresome than the man who keeps hollering, "Hey, let's be serious!" but that is what we must holler.
In a world where nearly everything that passes for art is tinny and commercial and often, in addition, hollow and academic, I argue—by reason and by banging the table—for an old-fashioned view of what art is and does and what the fundamental business of critics ought therefore to be. Not that I want joy taken out of the arts; but even frothy entertainment is not harmed by a touch of moral responsibility, at least an evasion of too fashionable simplifications. My basic message throughout this book is as old as the hills, drawn from Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Dante, and the rest, and standard in Western civilization down through the eighteenth century; one would think all critics and artists should be thoroughly familiar with it, and perhaps many are. But my experience is that in university lecture halls, or in kitchens at midnight, after parties, the traditional view of art strikes most people as strange news.
The traditional view is that true art is moral: it seeks to improve life, not debase it. It seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us. I do not deny that art, like criticism, may legitimately celebrate the trifling. It may joke, or mock, or while away the time. But trivial art has no meaning or value except in the shadow of more serious art, the kind of art that beats back the monsters and, if you will, makes the world safe for triviality. That art which tends toward destruction, the art of nihilists, cynics, and merdistes, is not properly art at all. Art is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy. It is a tragic game, for those who have the wit to take it seriously, because our side must lose; a comic game—or so a troll might say—because only a clown with sawdust brains would take our side and eagerly join in.
Like legitimate art, legitimate criticism is a tragicomic holding action against entropy. Life is all conjunctions, one damn thing after another, cows and wars and chewing gum and mountains; art—the best, most important art—is all subordination: guilt because of sin because of pain. (All the arts treat subordination; literature is merely the most explicit about what leads to what.) Art builds temporary walls against life's leveling force, the ruin of what is splendidly unnatural in us, consciousness, the state in which not all atoms are equal. In corpses, entropy has won; the brain and the toenails have equal say. Art asserts and reasserts those values which hold off dissolution, struggling to keep the mind intact and preserve the city, the mind's safe preserve. Art rediscovers, generation by generation, what is necessary to humanness. Criticism restates and clarifies, reenforces the wall. Neither the artist nor the critic believes, when he stands back from his work, that he will hold off the death of consciousness forever; and to the extent that each laughs at his feeble construction he knows that he's involved in a game. As long as he keeps the whole picture in mind—the virtues and hairline cracks in the wall, the enormous power of the turbulence outside—the artist and after him the critic can do what he does with reasonable efficiency. The moment the artistic or critical mind loses sight of the whole, focusing all attention on, say, the flexibility of the trowel, the project begins to fail, the wall begins to crack with undue rapidity (we expected all along that the wall would crack, but not like this! not there and there too and even there!) and the builder becomes panicky, ferocious, increasingly inefficient.
No one is more cranky, more irascible, more quick to pontificate on the virtues of his effort than the artist who knows, however dimly, that he's gotten off the track, that his work has nothing to do with what Shakespeare did, or Brahms, or Rembrandt. Having gotten into art for love of it, and finding himself unable to support, in his own art, what true art has supported since time began, he turns defensively on everything around him. He becomes rabid, often rabidly cynical, insisting on the importance of his trivia. He sends to his fellow artists sharply worded notes: "Literature is exhausted", "Painting has no base of reference but itself." Critics do the same, some of them lashing out at real or imagined enemies, others focusing increasing intellectual energy on trifles. Some labor to determine, for instance, exactly what the term post-modern ought to mean, distracted from the possibility that it ought to mean nothing, or nothing significant, that the critic's interest in the idea rises from a mistaken assumption comparable to the assumption which led to the medieval category "Animals Which Exist in Fire." In this case, the notion is that art is progressive, like science, so that Hemingway somehow leads logically to Bellow, and Bellow to Barthelme, the same notion that makes Turner an important painter when he's viewed as an early impressionist, a minor one when he's viewed as the last neoclassicist. When the critical game turns humorless in this way, taking dire positions and defending them with force, the critic's mistakes become serious matters. In art as in politics, well-meant, noble-sounding errors can devalue the world.
Part of the problem is that, even at its best, criticism—including the criticism set down by poets and novelists, composers, painters, sculptors, dancers, and photographers—is easier than authentic art to grasp and treat as immutable doctrine. Depending as it does on logic and scheme, on arguments well argued, criticism uses parts of the mind more readily available to us than are the faculties required for art. And since the tests of criticism are completeness and coherence, whereas art's validity can only be tested by an imaginative act on the reader's part, criticism is easier to read; that is, it does not require the involvement of as many faculties of the mind.
The critic's proper business is explanation and evaluation, which means he must make use of his analytic powers to translate the concrete to the abstract. He knows art loses in the translation but also gains: people who couldn't respond to the work can now go back to it with some idea of what to look for, and even if all they see is what the critic has told them to see, at least they've seen something. To understand a critic, one needs a clear head and a sensitive heart, but not great powers of imagination. To understand a complex work of art, one must be something of an artist oneself. Thus criticism and art, like theology and religion, are basically companions but not always friends. At times they may be enemies.
By its nature, criticism makes art sound more intellectual than it is—more calculated and systematic. Analytic intelligence is not intelligence of the kind that leads us through imitated concrete experience to profound intellectual and emotional understanding, but a cooler, more abstract kind that isolates complicated patterns and notes the subtleties or wider implications of what the artist has said. The best critical intelligence, capable of making connections the artist himself may be blind to, is a noble thing in its place; but applied to the making of art, cool intellect is likely to produce superficial work, either art which is all sensation or art which is all thought. We see this wherever we find art too obviously constructed to fit a theory, as in the music of John Cage or in the recent fiction of William Gass. The elaboration of texture for its own sake is as much an intellectual, even academic exercise as is the reduction of plot to pure argument or of fictional characters and relationships to bloodless embodiments of ideas. True art is a conduit between body and soul, between feeling unabstracted and abstraction unfelt.
Philosophy is more concerned with coherence than with what William James called life's "buzzing, blooming confusion." And what philosophy does for actuality, critics do for art. Art gropes. It stalks like a hunter lost in the woods, listening to itself and to everything around it, unsure of itself, waiting to pounce. This is not to deny that art and philosophy are related. When a metaphysical system breaks down, or seems to have broken down, the forms of art which supported that system no longer feel true or adequate. Thus Hart Crane, when he found the sky "ungoded," fractured poetry, and thus Crane's friend Jean Toomer, when old forms betrayed his mystical, kaleidoscopic intuition—a religious intuition, quite the opposite of Crane's—abandoned traditional forms of fiction. But neither smashing of tradition was philosophical. Crane and Toomer were hunting, not stating. When modes of art change, the change need not imply philosophical progress; it usually means only that the hunter has exhausted one part of the woods and has moved to a new part, or to a part exhausted earlier, to which the prey may have doubled back. Art is not philosophy but, as R. G. Collingwood said, "the cutting edge of philosophy."
To put all this in the form of another traditional metaphor, aesthetic styles—patterns for communicating feeling and thought—become dull with use, like carving knives, and since dullness is the chief enemy of art, each generation of artists must find new ways of slicing the fat off reality. Sometimes this happens as artists trace into strange new territory the implications in the work of some genius, as Brahms, Debussey, Wagner, and the rest followed out suggestions in Beethoven, or as Dos Passos, Hemingway, Faulkner, and others developed ideas of James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. Sometimes the new comes in reaction against the old. Thus the social realism of O'Hara's day gives way to the vogue of "fabulism," and fabulism will no doubt in turn give way to surrealism, or realism, or something else. Some critics hail the change as insightful, the expression of a new apprehension of reality. The decline of the closely plotted novel or the structured play, for instance, or the abnegation of melody in music, or of the identifiable image in photography and cinematography, is hailed as an appropriate artistic reflection of our discovery that the universe is not orderly. But this is, as I've said, misleading.
It's misleading for two main reasons. One is that its assertion about reality is naive. Despite the aha's of some modern philosophers, metaphysical systems do not, generally speaking, break down, shattered by later, keener insight; they are simply abandoned—sometimes after endless tinkering and clumsy renovation—like drafty old castles. This is of course part of Kafka's joke in The Castle and elsewhere; and Kafka is often cited as one of the artists who "show us" the failure of traditional thought, how the castle of metaphysics has proved a ghastly mistake though expanded, patched, and toggled, century on century, by people working in increasing desperation and despair. But Kafka's art is more subtle, more comic and ironic, than such a reading admits. Much of the power of Kafka's work comes from our sense as we read that real secrets have been forgotten, real clues are being missed, a wholeness of vision that was once adequate has been lost and is now tragicomically unrecoverable. Melville says much the same in The Confidence Man and, though his tone is in this case very different, at the end of Israel Potter. The Yankee Christian virtues Israel Potter represents have not been disqualified or proved inadequate; they have simply lost currency, which is to say they are no longer clearly understood and have fallen out of style.
With their intuitive philosophies, thinkers like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard overwhelmed such schools as the Oxford idealists, though nowhere in all their writings do they refute or for that matter show that they clearly understand the idealist position on even so basic a matter as whether or not there can be rational goodness. Thus the tradition which runs from Bradley and Collingwood to George Sidgewick and Brand Blanchard, not to mention contemporary phenomenologists, is not in fact outmoded but merely unpopular—believed to be outmoded, like sonata form or the novel with fully shaped characters and plot—and the victorious positions of existentialists, absurdists, positivists, and the rest are not demonstrably more valid but only, for the moment, more hip. There are already signs that the moment of these, too, is over. The truth is certainly that the universe is partly structured, partly unstructured; otherwise entropy would be total, there would be no one to resist. (This has now been proved mathematically. It was, you recall, the problem Einstein worked at on his deathbed.) As long as philosophers focus on parts of the universe that are unstructured, and argue by analogy that good and evil, even love of one's children, may be equally inchoate, and as long as most people continue to believe them, the playwright or novelist, sculptor or composer, who reflects such notions in his work may seem "adequate" or "interesting." The moment philosophers and the direct or indirect suivants of philosophers shift their main focus to the part of the universe that is patently structured, and make achieved order the basis of their analogies, the artistic fascination with universal chaos and death begins to sound inadequate and boring.
Excerpted from On Moral Fiction by John Gardner. Copyright © 1978 John C. Gardner. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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