On Moral Fiction
John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction begins by asserting that something has gone wrong with contemporary art and criticism. Despite the plethora of fiction and the busy, increasingly sophisticated activity of critical minds, he declares that serious art and criticism are nowadays very rare. And, he concludes, the result is not mere annoyance but significant danger, for moral artistry (or “serious” artistry as he calls it) is man’s hold against chaos. Since we “live or die by the artist’s vision,” our indulgence of trivial fiction, aleatoric music, and vacuous theater is at once a step toward oblivion.
Gardner’s argument is, of course, an old one, and probably at some level most artists and critics would agree with it. True, we no longer wax Shelleyan in proclaiming poets the unacknowledged legislators of the world, the redeemers of man’s fading divinity, but there is enough Romanticism in us all to realize that art and artists provide the best hope for resisting a world of programmed living, behaviorist manipulation, and biological meddling. Additionally, many readers will sympathize with Gardner’s feeling that today’s artists are hopelessly inadequate to the task. They say nothing, do nothing to proclaim the strength of man’s Promethean spirit. They inform us instead that literature is exhausted; that the random collision of random sounds has its own kind of “meaning”; that nihilism, cynicism, and despair are the only sensible angles of vision. According to Gardner, critics are even further off the mark. Humorless, spiteful, and above all trivial, they continue to avoid those matters that are central to art. They refuse to discuss what is good or bad, meaningful or worthless in the arts and seek instead systems, theories, definitional labels, or examples of mere artistic inquiry. So structure-conscious has criticism become that it is positively embarrassing, says Gardner, to admit in a public gathering that one thinks art ought to have some essential, inherent value.
Doubtless many readers will regard On Moral Fiction as extreme and dogmatic when in truth it is neither of these things. It is largely a cranky book, ill-natured in spots, cryptic and overpersonal, but its thesis is much less a party line than it is a kind of polemical reverence. Art improves life and seeks to affirm it, says Gardner. Thus it is moral (serious). That is not to say it champions some fierce ethic or elevates “habitual prejudices . . . to the status of ethical imperatives.” Love, rather than ethical self-interest, is its philosophical center. It does not aim to debase or destroy nor does it demean the essentially heroic, enduring spirit of mankind. “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. . . .” Similarly, the end of criticism is not only to explain and evaluate but also to remain human. Criticism cannot rest content with superfices, with merely pointing out how art “works” or what its textures and structures happen to be. It must push through to the center of art, to what Gardner calls “the humanistic questions.”
The first half of the book (“Premises On Art and Morality”) is devoted to expanding this position and providing illustrations. His argument stated (as above) in the first chapter, Gardner next defines morality, then seeks in Homer, Dante, and Tolstoy a pattern which clarifies the definition. Moral action affirms life and promotes human happiness, he argues, by carrying out those ideals or inherent values or eternal verities which are universal moral laws: in the language of another age, the Good and True and the Beautiful. We can approach this idea from either a religious or a Romantic perspective. In Homeric writing one sees how the gods set ideals, heroes enact them, and artists preserve them for man’s guidance. Allowing for a different understanding of the Deity and His divine goodness, the pattern holds true in Tolstoy and Dante as well. The Romantic perspective illustrates that a concern for essential moral artistry need not be abandoned “when the sky comes to be ’un-goded.’” The establishing, enacting, and preserving of eternal values coalesce in the figure of the artist himself and in his symbolic status as the divinely human Everyman.
In less dense terms: whatever its specific cultural and religious settings, art endeavors to dramatize heroic idealism. This is the thrust of Gardner’s argument, along with the concomitant position that art, whether we like it or not, has a profound effect on human actions. He seems to suggest, then, that modern art’s failure is at once a sin against the very nature of things, for it makes morally neutral the one human activity which ought to be morally committed. Gardner’s examples are numerous: frothy theater (Sly Fox) and pseudo-intellectual claptrap (Equus); gimmicky novels (Chimera) and morally empty fables of our time (Catch-22). As he reviews the arts in chapters four and five, Gardner illustrates how predictably fiction and theater have come to celebrate form over content, surface (texture) over substance; and while certain of his examples are unconvincing evidence, his point is indisputably correct. Instead of models of conduct, art now most often sports flash and glitter: bombast, rant, sophomoric profundity (or mere obscurity), bizarre writing styles, everything from mirror-image printing to pouring paint over a nude girl to urinating on the stage. We have come to worship at the altar of the “innovative,” the “new,” the “experimental”—which is to say the shallow and the superficial.
The problems in the first half of On Moral Fiction lie less in the argument than they do in the examples. One feels uneasy about two of Gardner’s three villains—Barth and Heller—if only because he approaches their writings with...
(The entire section is 2432 words.)