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Good Grief!

In Aldous Huxley’s Antic Hay there is a painter named Casimir Lypiatt much given to denouncing the pusillanimity of modern art. Evoking the passionate titans of the past, seeing himself as a suffering, latter-day Michelangelo surrounded by trifling artists and petty critics, he endlessly proclaims the nobility of his own vision and writes about it at length in a preface to the catalogue of his latest show. The problem, of course, is that Lypiatt is a pathetic figure, a painter of singular ineptitude.

John Gardner, luckily, is a much better novelist than Lypiatt was a painter. But there are occasions in On Moral Fiction when I was irresistibly reminded of poor Lypiatt—occasions when Gardner’s tone becomes not merely hortatory but rhetorically inflated and full of grievance. As most interested readers must know by now, Gardner claims that “art is essentially and primarily moral—that is, life-giving—moral in its process of creation and moral in what it says.” By morality he means “nothing more than doing what is unselfish, helpful, kind, and noble-hearted…. Moral action is action which affirms life.” These are indeed large claims, worthy of close scrutiny, definition, and discussion. Unfortunately, the evangelistic voice is not conducive to disinterested questioning.

The fact remains that our serious fiction is quite bad. The emphasis, among younger artists, on surface and novelty of effect is merely symptomatic. The sickness goes deeper, to an almost total loss of faith in—or perhaps understanding of—how true art works. True art, by specific technical means now commonly forgotten, clarifies life, establishes models of human action, casts nets toward the future, carefully judges our right and wrong directions, celebrates and mourns. It does not rant. It does not sneer or giggle in the face of death, it invents prayers and weapons…. It does not whimper or cower or throw up its hands and bat its lashes.

Here Gardner not only sounds like Lypiatt on the subject of art but St. Paul on the subject of charity. In the sweep and inclusiveness of his rhetoric he flows right over several obdurate stones in his course. True art never rants? Is there no considerable proportion of rant in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? True art never sneers or giggles in the face of death? Troilus and Cressida?… Vile Bodies? It is the essentially Protestant and sometimes scolding quality of Gardner’s approach that is likely to put off readers of On Moral Fiction. A similarly intrusive moralism has, I think, weakened Gardner’s fiction (always excepting the magical Grendel); even in the often admirable October Light the thematic concern tends to show as distractingly as a bra strap.

We have some reason to be suspicious of evangelists of whatever stamp: the Billy Grahams too frequently consort with the Richard Nixons; the hypnotically persuasive TV bishop may be interested primarily in the conversion of the Very Rich; the austere and charismatic figure in the pulpit may at any moment abandon his wife, children, and household pets to run off with a worshiping groupie. But we should not be misled by Gardner’s tone to a perfunctory dismissal of what he has to say. Surely Gardner is right (if a bit obvious) in maintaining—at least where literary art is concerned—that “moral art tests values and rouses trustworthy feelings about the better and the worse in human action.” We can applaud as Gardner effectively reduces to nonsense the notion that chaotic, random, or fragmentary effects in art are valuable—and philosophically justified—because they reflect the “meaninglessness” of the universe. And one can agree, too, with his insistence that much contemporary art is made trivial by an excessive concern with innovation for its own sake and by a decadent overemphasis on texture without structure.

Renewing the battle—more than a century old—between the aesthetes, on the one hand, who advocate la poésie pure and the desirable approximation of language to the condition of music, and, on the other, the hearties who glory in the inescapably mimetic and referential nature of literature, Gardner sets up William Gass as the present incarnation of Mallarmé (or perhaps Wilde) and then proceeds to pummel him with Chestertonian gusto. Gass indeed invites such an attack. In an essay entitled “Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses” from his latest collection,* Gass states that “Part of the art of art consists in persuading reality to give up its mimetic demands,” and, later, “The poet struggles to keep his words from saying something, and as artists we all struggle to be poets.” He can be even more provocative: “The ambitions of fiction are greater, if not purer, than poetry’s. But the function of both is the detachment of language from the fort. From, that is, the main body. One ought to hear the bones snap.”

As an ardent champion of Gertrude Stein, Gass is inclined to be playful, sometimes much too cute, in his palpating of words, but he holds his views seriously and they are fashionable. He is also skilled in the art of marshaling philosophical and linguistic arguments to support his particular taste in fiction. Gass’s canon includes, predictably enough, such writers as Nabokov (more especially the author of Ada and Transparent Things), Borges, Beckett, Barth, Broch, Gaddis, Calvino, and would exclude, I presume, on the grounds of insufficient ontological transformation, the works of such humanistically inclined oafs as Bellow, Lampedusa, Powell, Lessing, Malamud, and Welty. As one who naïvely derives a deeper and more complex pleasure from reading Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant or The Optimist’s Daughter than Giles Goat-Boy, I am inclined to cheer Gardner on when he denounces—as an obstacle to moral fiction—the influence of Gass and those contemporary writers who “concentrate…on language for its own sake, more in love, on principle, with the sound of words—or with newfangledness—than with creating fictional worlds.” Of all the literary goals that have ever been set, that of linguistic opacity is perhaps the most self-defeating.

Gardner is effective in isolating other inducements to triviality. One of these—related to the excessive preoccupation with texture at the expense of larger structures—is the demand for continual agitation, the frantic effort to make sure there’s never a dull moment. While Gardner is chiefly concerned with such agitation as a currently dominant style in theatrical direction and acting, its operation may also be observed in fiction. Sometimes it is chiefly verbal, as in the case of a gifted writer like Stanley Elkin, who overwhelms and ultimately flattens his reader with the piling-on of colorful excess. Just as often it involves the multiplication of incident, so that there is a new thrill per paragraph, a new blood-letting or freaky event; the hyperkinetic fiction of Barry Hannah comes to mind. In either case, larger structures and shaping visions are sacrificed to continuous dazzlement.

I find it easy to agree with Gardner that the best fiction is in some sense moral, that it is serious, and that it is concerned with actions of substance and magnitude. In an age of showy side effects it is no doubt well to be reminded of the Aristotelian verities. Gardner is useful, too, in his emphasis upon fiction as a process of discovery, as a means of understanding the world (and of embodying that understanding) that deserves to rank with the ways of the philosopher and the scientist. He is not afraid to write, unfashionably enough, of the Platonic verities as well: the Good, the True, and the Beautiful—and his use of these terms is far more sophisticated and careful in its qualifications than that of the usual academic humanist. While one may doubt that art is—or ever has been—civilizations’s main weapon against chaos and entropy, it is salutary to come across a writer who is genuinely ambitious for art.

The only trouble…well, there are many troubles. One of them, as I have already suggested, is tonal: the Lypiatt voice, the Bible-thumping repetition of the old, resounding call to holiness. It is a voice hardly calculated to win the confidence of the writers and would-be writers, the literary critics, academicians, and conscientious readers for whom On Moral Fiction is intended. He flings about the words “moral” and “immoral” shamelessly, evoking salvation and hell-fire. How much more effectively “moral” is brought into critical discourse by writers like Leavis and Trilling—for whom it means roughly a serious exploration of the possibilities and consequences of human behavior—than by Gardner, who broadens the term to mean anything of which he approves, from the love of children and dogs to (in the case of music) a “faithfulness to the immutable [!] laws of musical gravity (the laws by which melody tends to fall and progressions sink to resolution and rest) and faithfulness to the particular work’s emotional energy….” The puritanical strain underlying Gardner’s exhortations reveals itself more harshly when he lectures his fellow writers on their moral shortcomings. While his comments on Bellow, Updike, Cheever, Heller, Vonnegut, and others are often shrewd enough, he can also be peevish—as with his dismissal of Philip Roth (in the company of Warhol!) as “creepy” or his condemnation of Coover’s attack on Nixon as not only an aesthetic mistake but “an example of immoral fiction” as well.

Gardner too often sounds as though the production of what he considers moral art were chiefly a matter of “correctness of vision” and the proper exercise of will power. He seriously underestimates, I think, the cultural obstacles to “wholeness” in our time. A generation ago Mary McCarthy, as I recall, wrote of the wish of most novelists to write “straight”—like Tolstoy—and lamented the fact that they were forced into irony, parody, and other such modes of indirection. Presumably it is still possible to write “straight” and no doubt more novelists should try; but how hard it is for a novelist to scramble to a firm footing in our deliquescent culture, much less demarcate an area of shared values which his art can either challenge or reinforce. It just won’t do to cite the things (children, dogs, etc.) that “happy human beings have found good for centuries” and then berate artists for failing to celebrate them.

Gardner writes that “civilization has lost control of serious art”—but surely a reversal of that statement is equally true. With the process of sublimation so widely undone, with the demand for instant gratification so insistent, our culture has reached an impasse of sorts: we are bored with pornography, with sadism, with the continuous assault of novelty; yet we find it increasingly hard to contemplate serious, complex (and highly sublimated) structures. Even very bright students are less and less able to summon the energy for a closely attentive reading of Proust or Joyce—or Shakespeare or Milton or even such relatively accessible but verbally profuse writers as Dickens or Balzac; how much easier, if we are unable to defer gratification, to turn to the cartoon strips of Vonnegut. Even a saving remnant of thoughtful, attentive, and life-affirming readers may find themselves bored by the subject matter of a particular novelist, no matter how moral or craftsmanlike he may be.

Although Gardner allows for the unconscious and preconscious activities involved in artistic creation, he places far too much emphasis, it seems to me, on matters of conscious control and “secondary elaboration.” It is no accident that his references to Freud are nearly always reductive or misleading. He accuses psychologists of oversimplifying the nature of the artist’s “wound” but then proceeds to give as examples of psychic wounding such things as political reversals, conflicts of class loyalty, loss of property, etc.—all aspects of adult, conscious experience; never is there a hint of the vicissitudes of childhood conflict and trauma, of the “double-binds” inherent in every familial situation, of the repressed and its disguised return—in short, of any of those matters which an investigator of the dynamics of artistic creation would need to explore.

While he gives a perfunctory nod of approval to Bettelheim’s claim for the liberating and educational value of fairy tales for children, Gardner seems unaware that giants, ogres, witches, child-devouring mothers, castrating or castrated fathers, swarms of hungry siblings—that these, in their varying guises, play just as important a role in literature for adults; nor does he seem cognizant of the pleasure that both the writer and the reader derive from the acceptable gratification of forbidden impulses (voyeurism, exhibiting, the angry smearing of feces, death-wishes against parents and sexual feelings for them) and the awakening—followed by the mastery—of old fears. He has nothing really to say about what we call talent or “gift” and its mysterious connection to what psychoanalysts refer to as the primary process—that ability to fuse opposites, to make occult or irrational connections, to pun, to endow certain combinations of words, movements, sounds, or pigments with an unusually high voltage of psychic energy. These failures of knowledge and insight are especially damaging to the chapter called “Art and Insanity” with which the book ends.

In writing On Moral Fiction John Gardner has joined cause with Joseph Epstein and others in the accelerating warfare against the epigones of literary modernism. His book is the heaviest piece of ordnance yet fired in the campaign. But it is something of a blunderbuss, sacrificing much accuracy of aim for the sake of a big noise and a wide scattering of its slugs. The impact of On Modern Fiction would have been far more deadly if Gardner had not so recklessly extended the terms of his argument and if he had shown a humble awareness that true art, in some part of its being, always escapes confinement by the Protestant ethic.

  1. *

    The World Within the Word (Knopf, 1978).

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