Friday, August 15, 2008

John Gardner, On Moral Fiction

John Gardner, On Moral Fiction, Basic Books, New York 1977

Even at its best, its most deadly serious, criticism, like art, is partly a game, as all good critics know. 4

That art which tends towards 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. 6

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. 6

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. 8

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… 9

…nor 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 position of existentialists, absurdists, positivists, and the rest are not demonstrably more valid but only, for the moment, more hip…The truth is certainly that the universe is partly structured, partly unstructured… 11

Criticism, when most interesting and vital, tends toward art, that is, bad science, making up fictions about fictions. To make the concrete abstract is inescapably to distort. It turns emotional development into logical progression, artistic vision into thesis. 14

A really good book or painting concerning blacks or women is as hard to sell now as it ever was. True art is too complex to reflect the party line. 15

I have claimed that art is essentially and primarily moral—that is, life-giving…If people all over Europe killed themselves after reading Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, then either Goethe’s book was false art or his readers misunderstood. 15

True criticism praises true art for what it does—praises as plainly and comprehensively as possible—and denounces false art for its failure to do art’s proper work. 16

…since the days of the New Critics (not all of them were bad) we’ve been hearing about technique, how part must fit with part, no matter to what purpose. Not only can such an approach tell us nothing about great works of art that are clumsily put together, like Paradise Lost or Piers Plowman… 16-17

…television—or any other more or less artistic medium—is good (as opposed to pernicious or vacuous) only when it has a clear positive moral effect, presenting valid models for imitation, eternal verities worth keeping in mind, and a benevolent vision of the possible which can inspire and incite human being towards virtue, towards life affirmation as opposed to destruction or indifference. 18

…nothing guarantees that didacticism will be moral. Think of Mein Kampf. True art is by its nature moral…It is not didactic because, instead of teaching by authority and force, it explores, open-mindedly, to learn what it should teach. 19

Plato got it wrong in the Republic. To Plato it seemed that if a poet showed a good man performing a bad act, the poet’s effect was corruption of the audience’s morals. Aristotle…went on to correct Plato’s error. It’s the total effect of an action that’s moral or immoral…23

…the objection that the universe has no moral laws—a false objection because it takes “universe “ here to mean planets and stars, and not what we know the word does mean here—humanity grandiosely conceived. 24

The annoying thing about discredited gospels is that they continue, though dead as doornails, to exert their effect. This is as true of philosophical mistakes as of bad theology. Except for the early books and the general thesis on human imperfectability, most of Freud’s thought has proved inadequate, yet we’re all, to some extent, Freudians. 24

Either there are real and inherent values, “eternal verities,” as Faulkner said, which are prior to our individual existence, or there are not…If there are real values, and if those real values help sustain human life, then literature ought sometimes to mention them. 24

Homer, Dante, and Tolstoy derive art’s morality from divine goodness. But morality as a principle of art need not be abandoned when the sky comes to be “ungoded.” An alternative to the religious interpretation of the notion we’ve been treating—that ideals expressed in art can have an effect on people’s behavior—is what we may describe as the Romantic and post-Romantic interpretation. 35

…the moral position is still popular with writers, however loudly they may claim it’s not so: art instructs. 39

If we agree, at least tentatively, that art does instruct…then our quarrel with the moralist position on art comes down to this: we cannot wholeheartedly accept the religious version of the theory because we are uncomfortable with its first premise: God; and we cannot wholeheartedly accept the secular version of the theory because we’re unconvinced that one man’s intuition of truth can be proved better than another’s…In the name of democracy, justice, and compassion, we abandon our right to believe, to debate, and to hunt down truth…Part of the problem may lie, then, in an excessively timid idea of democracy. 41-42

…we admire more a poem which boldly faces and celebrates thoughts of suicide than we do a poem which makes up some convincing, life-supporting fiction—civilization has lost control of serious art. 43

Few would deny that our humanness is enriched by our increasingly sophisticated notions of guilt and of society’s part in the guilt of individuals; but if the moral artist is to function at all, he must guard against taking on more guilt than he deserves, treating himself and his society as guilty on principle. If everyone everywhere is guilty—and that seems to be our persuasion—then no models of goodness, for life or art, exist; moral art is a lie. 44

This new kind of guilt, more terrible than the other, springs from the fact that, though one has done nothing particularly wrong, one cannot, by one’s very nature, do anything of particular worth. 46

The true artist is the one who—directly assisted by the techniques of his art, his art’s mechanisms for helping him see clearly—can distinguish between conventional morality and that morality which tends to work for all people throughout the ages. 50

A proper balance of detail and generality, the particular and the universal, is as crucial for the critic as for the artist, since critics go wrong in the same way artists do. Some get caught up in the nonessential, creating useless categories, avoiding the real and important questions… 53

The true critic knows that badness in art has to do not with the artist’s interest or lack of interest in “truth”, but with his lack of truthfulness, the degree to which, for him, working at art is a morally indifferent act. 56

Motion, glitter—texture for its own sake—has come to be the central value in the arts. Western civilization has been through this before, in the early Middle Ages, when the message of a work of art was fixed (love charity, shun carnality) and the orthodox poet had only the surface of his work to manipulate, decorating message with the colors of rhetoric, hunting out new tricks of texture, gauding, enameling, gilding. The problem today is not that the meaning of our works is fixed…but that we tend to feel we have nothing to say—or nothing to offer but well-intentioned propaganda—so we keep ourselves occupied with surfaces. 60

…infinite as music’s devices may be, its failures are all alike: even after we have listened carefully again and again, we do not like—that is, believe—the music. The emotion generating the music is fake, or secondhand, or feeble. 62

The sonata is not an imitation of some actual gorilla or day lily but a creation parallel, in its principles of vitality and growth, to the animal or plant, hence a new object under the sun. (This does not make the sonata—as William Gass might maintain—no more significant than a natural object. The sonata is, after all, man-made.)…In texture alone there is no process; there is only effect. 65

In literature, structure is the evolving sequence of dramatized events tending towards understanding and assertion; that is, toward some meticulously qualified belief. What we see around us is, for the most part, dramatization without belief or else opinion untested by honest drama. 65

On the whole, our serious novelists, like our painters and composers, are short on significant belief. Though quick to preach causes of one sort or another, and quick to believe slogans, including literary slogans, they’re short on moral fiber… 66

They will not hold up, surely, if their works lack conviction, and conviction is a quality many contemporary writers avoid on principle. 66

With each book he writes, persistently urging his philosophical dogma—the assertion that fish means, simply, “fish,” not the smells, shapes, cultures, with their emotional attachments, in which fish occur… 68

He presents, when he likes, magnificently vivid characters and scenes, the kinds of materials that engage both the reader’s emotion and intellect; that is, revitalize the reader’s consciousness, reminding him of how it feels to stand in an orchard or, say, a large old house. Then, indifferent to the miracle he’s wrought and determined to prove that the energy is the same, Gass shifts to mere language—puns, rhymes, tortuously constructed barrages of verbiage with the words so crushed together that they do indeed become opaque as stones, not windows that allow us to see thoughts or events but walls where windows ought to be, richly textured impediments to light. In Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife, he creates a character, then tells us, in the character’s voice, that the character is only words, she does not exist. One indication that his theory is faulty is our annoyance at the betrayal. 68-69

He begins his philosophical-poetic essay On Being Blue as follows…No one will deny that the writing is beautiful; we ask only that we not get much more of the same. You must take my word for it that Gass does not move from this to translucency; on the contrary, he continues in the same way for pages and pages. 69-70

The more time one spends piling up words, the less often one needs to move from point to point, argument to argument, or event to event’ that is, the less need one has of structure. 71

Why is it that even those of our writers who insist that they care about argument are for the most part incapable of constructing an argument that will hold?...Insofar as we’re unable to care about the characters, we can work up no interest in the issues… 73

Where injustice governs—where those who might reason have no faith in fair-mindedness or intelligence—propaganda replaces thought and art becomes impossible. 76

To fail to be concerned about social justice at a time when, even in the arena of international politics, the civilized impulse is involved with it as never before, would be a mark of artistic—almost criminal—frigidity, such limited perception as to make that person no writer at all…But in comparison with the true artist’s celebration of the permanently moral…are nevertheless secondary and can only produce art which, with the passing of its age, must lose force. 78

…the writer is not deeply involved in his characters’ lives. Things do not happen in the world as Doctorow claims they do. Even in the hands of young and highly excited men, penises do not behave as Doctorow maintains. Doctorow’s mind is elsewhere. He’s after a flashy chapter ending…what truth the writer might have discovered if he’d carefully followed how things really do happen we will never know. 79

Barthelme…The world would be a duller place without him, as it would be without F.A.O. Schwartz. But no one would accuse him of creating what Tolstory called “religious art.” 80

The modern Narcissus dreams up no large goals for all humanity because he’s chiefly interested in his own kinks, pathetic or otherwise; and ironically, what a careful study of freaks reveals is that they’re all alike. 81

…logical and linguistic cautiousness of Wittgenstein, which, misunderstood, claims that truth does not exist—instead of saying, as Wittgenstein did, that certain forms of truth which do exist are philosophically inexpressible. 82

Ultimately, in fact, plot exists only to give the characters means of finding and revealing themselves, and setting only to give them a place to stand. 84

The artist who has no strong feeling about his characters—the artist who can feel passionate only about his words and ideas—has no urgent reason to think hard about the characters’ problem… 84

The morality of art is, as I’ve said, far less a matter of doctrine than of process. 91

…if the reader knows in his bones that the attack is Bellow’s own, that Bellow cares more about his political opinion than he does about maintaining the artistic illusion of a coherent, self-sustained fictional world, then the reader has good reason for throwing out the book. 92

Sot-Weed Factor…We read this book, in other words, because Barth’s mostly sunny personality comes through, and to sunny people we are willing to allow almost anything. 95

…it is one thing to struggle by laborious art for the voice of straightforward, sober-minded thought, the voice that announces in no uncertain terms that the enterprise is serious even when amusing (as in Fielding’s Tom Jones), the entirely trustworthy, authoritative voice that leads us through Pride and Prejudice, or The Sleepwalkers, or The Golden Bowl…Conviction is what counts. 97

Since the irony—the presumably satiric purpose—is nowhere available on the surface, since the novel can easily be read as a piece of neo-orthodox Presbyterian heresy (Christ has redeemed us in advance, so let’s fornicate), one cannot help feeling misgivings about Updike’s intent. 98

To maintain that true art is moral one need not call up theory; one need only think of the fictions that have lasted… 105

…our appreciation of the arts is not wholly instinctive. If it were, our stock of bad books, paintings, and compositions would be somewhat less abundant. 106

A brilliantly imagined novel about a rapist or murderer can be more enlightening than a thousand psycho-sociological studies…Work of this kind has obvious value and may even be beautiful in its execution, but it is only in a marginal sense art. 106-107

Thus at its best fiction is, as I’ve said, a way of thinking, a philosophical method. / It must be granted at once that some good and “serious” fiction is merely first-class propaganda—fiction in which the writer knows before he starts what it is that he means to say and does not allow his mind to be changed by the process of telling the story. A good deal of medieval literature works in this way…Such fiction may be—and usually is—moralistic, and the writer, in creating it, may be morally careful—that is, may work hard at telling nothing but the truth; but in what I am describing as true moral fiction, the “art” is not merely ornamental: it controls the argument and gives it its rigor, forces the writer to intense yet dispassionate and unprejudiced watchfulness, drives him—in way abstract logic cannot match—to unexpected discoveries and, frequently, a change of mind. 107-108

The writing of a fiction is not a mode of thought when a good character and a bad one are pitted against each other. There is nothing inherently wrong with such fiction…but it can contain only cleverness and preachments, not the struggle of thought. When fiction becomes thought—a kind of thought less restricted than logic or mere common sense (but also impossible to verify)—the writer makes discoveries…109

Neither can the honest writer make the reader accept what he says took place if the writer moves from a to b by verbal sleight of hand… 110

It’s because an arbitrary plot is likely to be boring in the end that Aristotle objected to a plot solution by divine machinery. 111

If it is true that words are the writer’s only material, then the only kind of richness or interest available to the writer is linguistic, and—given equal linguistic dazzle—there should be no difference between the emotional effect of a story about a lifelike character with some urgent problem (Gass, or course, would disapprove of the word lifelike) and a character who insists that she has no existence except as words on a page. To think of a fictional character as a person—to weep for little Nell or shudder at the effrontery of Captain Ahab—is, in this view, childishly naïve. 111-112

To say that we shouldn’t react to fictional characters as “real people” is exactly equivalent to saying that we shouldn’t be frightened by the things we meet in nightmares. 113

In fiction we stand back, weigh things as we do not have time to do in life; and the effect of great fiction is to temper real experience , modify prejudice, humanize. 114

…even the most lofty and respectable theories of human motivation—from psychiatrists, biologists, theologians, and philosophers—must always be treated by the serious writer as suspect…When the writer accepts unquestioningly someone else’s formulation of how and why people behave, he is not thinking but dramatizing some other man’s theory… 115

…then it is safe to hazard that he has not made a serious effort to sympathize and understand, that he has not tried to guess what special circumstances would make him behave, himself, as his enemies behave. 116-117

…he is not using fiction as a mode of thought but merely as a means of preaching his peculiar doctrine…Probably none but his family and closest friends would deny that Richard Nixon is a chump and a grotesque. Nonetheless, Robert Coover’s novelistic attack on him—whatever its linguistic and dramatic value, and whatever its value as a warning to democracy—is an aesthetic mistake, an example of immoral fiction. 117

I do not mean that a character ought to be discovered in the setting that best reveals him. A man of the mountains may be found in an automat; but if the man’s nature is to be clear to the reader, the mountains must somehow be implied. 119

…draft is complete. Many writers—perhaps including some great ones—stop here, but it’s a mistake. If the writer looks over his story carefully…he will begin, inevitably, to discover odd connections, strange and seemingly inexplicable repetitions. 121

…the ideas the artist gets, to put it another way, when he thinks with the help of the full artistic method, are absolutely valid, true not only for himself but for everyone, or at least for all human beings. 123

It is here that fake art hopelessly break down. One does not achieve the dense symbolic structure of Death in Venice or The Sound and the Fury by planning it all out on butcher paper, though one does make careful plans. 123

It isn’t true that, as New Critics used to say with great confidence, “Form is content.” The relationship between the two is complex almost beyond description. It is true, as Wallace Stevens said, that “a change of style is a change of subject.”

Critics would be useful people to have around if they would simply do their work, carefully and thoughtfully assessing works of art, calling our attention to those worth noticing, and explaining clearly, sensibly, and justly why others need not take up our time. 127

New Criticism…That school of course served as an invaluable corrective to the almost universal nineteenth-century evasion, which avoided talking about the work by talking, instead, about the man who created it…129

Judging technique, analyzing the artist’s manipulation of such categories as unity, consistency, and appropriateness or decorum, is a good deal easier than judging art, but the technical judgement is sometimes relevant, sometimes not...Insofar as technique is relevant to the purpose of the artist at a given time, insofar as asking about technical perfection is not out-and-out frigidity (as it often is in the case of Moby Dick or Malory’s Morte D’Arthur)… 132

A good book is one that, for its time, is wise, sane, and magical, one that clarifies life and tends to improve it. The qualification for its time is important: at certain historical moments, wisdom is rage and sanity is madness. At times when reasonableness and goodness are live options, an artist ought to be reasonable and good, speaking calmly, as if from the mountaintop; at other times, as in Jacobean England and some parts of the world at the present time, it may be that one cannot support those same lofty ideals except with dynamite. Either way, true art treats ideals, affirming and clarifying the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. 132-133

…and since the possible number of actions in the universe is unlimited—as is the number of possible situations from which actions may proceed and take their tone—morality is infinitely complex, too complex to be knowable and far too complex to be reduced to any code, which is why it is suitable matter for fiction, which deals in understanding, not knowledge. 134-135

Frost was right in claiming that the choice of each image in a poem is a moral choice, but only because it is the poet’s obligation to make no bad choice if he can help it. The immorality of an inept poet is like that of a sleeping guard or a drunken bus driver. 144

Critical standards built on the premise that art is primarily technique rather than correctness of vision—built on the premise that every artist has his own private notion of reality and all notions are equal—cannot deal with important but clumsy artists (Dostoevski, Poe, Lawrence, Dreiser, Faulkner) except by emphasizing what is minor in their work; and they cannot deal with limited men who are masters of technique (Pound, Roethke) except by bloating their reputations… 145

The trouble with the kind of criticism I recommend is that it’s difficult. Anyone can talk about tensions, paradoxes, or unique vision. Anyone can impose magic words like “unmediated vision” (Geoffrey Hartman) or “interpretive choice” (Stanley Fish) and rewrite the poems into magic. Not everyone is capable of judging the moral maturity or emotional honesty of Gunther Grass or Robert Creeley. 146

Only the true artist can know for sure, by the test of his emotions, whether some new, surprising venture that declares itself art is in fact art…that is what the artist is: the one who knows art when he sees it. / Unfortunately, one can expect no precision—not even much agreement—in these matters, since the man who really knows cannot prove he knows. William Blake swore Joshua Reynolds was in the service of the devil, and it was true, though Reynolds got all the commissions. 148

Bad art is always basically creepy; that is its first and most obvious identifying sign. Warhol. Philip Roth. 152


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