Always swimming against the current, John Gardner nowhere flaunted the literary fashions more than in his much reviled On Moral Fiction. Practically no one living and prominent in contemporary literature comes away untouched by Gardner’s scythe. From Homer through Dante, you’re on safe ground; beyond that, caveat lector! There could be deconstructionists, feminists, ironists, even Christian fundamentalists out there waiting to transform your fictional dream into a didactic skeleton picked clean by the vultures of our age’s addiction to theory. At one point in an attempt to demonstrate that some things are better left unsaid, he commits blasphemy and suggests that Sylvia Plath’s on-the-page agonies may have led Ann Sexton to her tragic end. I applaud his courage in even discussing it.
But there are too many moments in On Moral Fiction when Gardner sets himself up on a pedestal. The man calls Kurt Vonnegut a writer of “first-class comic books” and even derides Walker Percy–Mr. Moral Stance–for caving to the old Jesuit itch to preach in Lancelot. In sum: all fall short of the glory of Dante!
Nonetheless, Gardner offers a voice that speaks to our deepest moral concerns. For one thing, he uses the word “moral”! Mr. Gardner, however, employs the word in several ways; some conform to Christian values, some do not.
In the main Gardner is speaking directly to Christians when he asserts “ideals expressed in art can affect behavior in the world.” Here, Homer, Dante and Tolstoy are his guides; divine goodness–he understands pagan worship was heartfelt–is the source of the morality in each of these three authors. Each offers a critique of the age in which they lived, but that critique is given moral vigor by a knowledge of how things should be, a knowledge that can only come from a divine guide. Gardner illustrates the point by pointing to the difference between Dante and Sartre. Both men had an experience of alienation, of “nausea”; both turned to his own history. But what a difference in outcomes! Sartre denied the reality of any eternal value outside of himself; Dante turned to a divine guide, a personal memory of Beatrice which so transformed him that he discovered a way to think that was so new he named it his “new life.”
So far so good. But as we read on in On Moral Fiction, we realize that for Gardner there are writers whom he labels as “moral” who get along fine without mentioning God or operating from a Christian perspective. The romantics, for example, managed without bringing God into the picture; yet they measure up to Gardner’s exacting standards. He defends them with the disclaimer that they “swallowed” God or concluded He had grown “remote.” They continued to believe in A Divine Being, but were reluctant to confess even that much openly. This Divine Being spoke to Wordsworth through the lakes or to Arnold through human love, but neither man acknowledged as much.
For contemporary Christians interested in literature and in finding fellow spirits from the past who had the courage to speak up about their faith, this is pretty thin stuff. We’re living in a battle zone here in America and the romantic poets are talking about A Divine Being! As Walker Percy puts it in “Love in the Ruins”, “wolves have been seen in Cleveland…” The Romantics enchanted Gardner so much he refuses to acknowledge a simple truth about them: they didn’t want to be labelled fundamentalists. Sound familiar? Do you think today’s media game about who’s a fundamentalist and who isn’t is new? Calling anyone who openly espouses his or her Christian faith fundamentalist is as old as Donne’s ink well. It began in the seventeenth century when well-intentioned philosophers dumped metaphysics for science with the spin-off that theology was also cast into doubt. Serious intellectuals followed the critiques of Kant, and the English were mesmerized by the German language (Coleridge, Beddoes, George Eliot) and the criticism of the Christian gospels that came spewing out of the Teutonic volcano by men like Wrede, Strauss, and Wellhausen. There’s nothing new about a serious writer who won’t acknowledge his Creator because he’s afraid his readership will doubt his intelligence. Unfortunately, that is precisely the impression one receives from reading John Gardner.