Posted: July 8, 2014
IN MEMORIAM: JOHN GARDNER, 1933-1982
By J. Jackson Barlow
American literature is poorer for the loss of John Gardner, who died last September at the age of 49. This is not because he was a great writer, though he may have been, or because he brought forth so much in his brief lifetime. Nor is it because his books sold well, the almost inevitable precursor to modern literary celebrity. We are all impoverished by his loss because Gardner attempted to illuminate, through his fiction and criticism, the essential character of literature, its attempt to understand human nature.
Gardner's most systematic contribution to the study and criticism of literature is his On Moral Fiction (1978). There, he criticizes modern literature for its degeneration into mere technique. The concentration on technique, he charges, turns literature inward and removes it from its direct relation to life. Literature comes to see life only dimly, reflected in the mirror of literature itself. It abandons any quest for an understanding of life, and concentrates instead on its own forms. But this self-reflective process makes each successive image smaller than the last; modern art (and Gardner means all the arts, especially fiction) has become trivial. This triviality is a sharp contrast to the deadly seriousness of criticism, with its premium on distinctions narrowly drawn and finely polished. Though more attentive than ever before to form, art and criticism have lost their understanding of substance: like Gertrude Stein's Oakland, "there is no there there."
Against modern trends, Gardner argues for the traditional view of art, the view which until recently was the controlling one: "True art is by its nature moral" (his emphasis). True art teaches us what and who we are by appealing to what is best in us: art is good "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 beings toward virtue, toward life affirmation as opposed to destruction or indifference" (p. 18). Literature, that is, good literature, is our teacher and guide.
The idea of "eternal verities" is one which has come under the sustained and relentless attack of scientists, philosophers, and theologians in the past century, and the fruits of that attack are visible in modern literature: The common belief among the educated now is that there are no permanent or timeless truths. This, it is held, has been demonstrated finally by the progress in human thought. Truth is no longer thought timeless; it is a product of history. There is no human nature; there are only individuals. What is true for one person at one time has no bearing on what may or may not be true for another individual at any time. Truth is relative (except for the truth that all truth is relative); the past has no truths to offer us. It certainly has nothing to teach us about virtue, for virtue is the most relative of ideas. The historical approach to the study of human life which now dominates both literature and philosophy undermines virtue at the same time as, and precisely because, it makes it impossible to speak of "eternal verities."
Modern literature no longer finds it necessary to try to discover what is eternal in human beings. It claims that there is no eternal order in which men take part or which they can understand. The traditional view, which maintained that is possible to find order, has collapsed in exhaustion; the attempt to find order proved futile. Modern literature is then free to celebrate the transitory and the ephemeral. The modern writer or critic "looks into his heart and sees chaos there, and denies, forever after, that one mode of action is better than another for senseless, purposeless humanity" (p. 24). Men are rushed along, willy-nilly, by events over which they have no control and of which they cannot make sense. They have an illusion of understanding: they have technique or art. But the most thoughtful of them know that it is merely an illusion, and that no objective understanding is possible. The essence of Gardner's view of art is that true art does have an understanding of morality and of truthfulness, and that understanding is objective because it is related to an unchanging human nature. On the basis of its understanding, art sets standards for men of good and bad, and right and wrong. These standards are, in the best art, absolute: "it is true that art is in one sense fascistic: it claims, on good authority, that some things are healthy for individuals and society and some things are not" (p. 101).
Was Gardner then a reactionary? Did he merely defend an outworn and decrepit tradition now disproved by centuries of progress? After all, when he speaks of the Good his language is almost that of Aristotle or Plato:
To say that by the Good a human being can mean only the human good - the only good he has any hope of understanding, that is, any hope of intuitively grasping - is not to say that the Good is a matter of opinion. To deduce from personal and cultural experience that the idea is there to be discovered, whether or not any man will ever have the wit to discover it, is to claim for the idea of the Good the same verifiable efficacy, and in that sense "reality," that we claim for the structure of a properly functioning molecule. [p. 137]
If, then, the Good is in principle knowable by all men at all times, Gardner's defense of true art is possible. By his defense, Gardner shows us that the tradition is indeed not exhausted, much less disproved. True art has the same meaning and possibility now it has always had. We have forgotten that, and in doing so have forgotten ourselves: we are made strangers-aliens, though possibly conquerors-in the world.
Gardner presents us with the complete or perfect stranger in his novel Grendel (1971). In this retelling of the Beowulf legend we see what it means to be human through the inhuman eyes of the monster Grendel, there is something human about Grendel-for he is a descendant of Cain-but Gardner stresses his inhumanity or monstrousness. He feeds on human flesh, on death: he is the very opposite of "life affirmation." This not simply Gardner's vision of our darker, concealed, "natural" selves. Grendel is a monster; he cannot share any human concerns. He hates men and their order, and tries to destroy them and it. From the first he is a complete nihilist:
I understood that the world was nothing: a mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears. I understood that, finally and absolutely, I alone exist. All the rest, I saw, is merely what pushes me, or what I push against, blindly-as blindly as all that is not myself pushes back. I create the whole universe, blink by blink. - an ugly god pitifully dying in a tree! [p. 16]
Grendel's world is a world of chaos, of random facts, bits and pieces of experience which have no connection with one another-the world of modern philosophy. It is no accident that Grendel's language recalls Nietzsche's. Grendel's world stands in diametric contrast with the world of the men of Hrothgar's hall. Their world is one of orderliness, an orderliness which is not a product of their creation. The poets know this; they in fact know it better than the priests. Poetry expresses the orderliness of the world in a way that makes the order apparent to Hrothgar and his men. Grendel's world is chaotic, ugly and hateful: there can be no poetry in it.
The order nourished by poetry destroys Grendel in the end: perhaps a modern critic would find in this an affirmation of poetry's power over nature. He might even find Grendel a compelling, even tragic, figure. But that would be to mistake Gardner's intention. The power of poetry is not its creative willing of order, not its imposition of order on chaos. Gardner maintains that the order is there, and poetry discovers it. Grendel is the opposite of what is human: the human stands for order, not chaos. Those who would celebrate (or mourn: it comes to the same thing) the chaos in the human soul celebrate the unpoetic and the monstrous.
Human beings, of course, can never be monsters, but they can be monstrous. Gardner shows us such a man in The Sunlight Dialogues (1972). Grendel opposed men from outside the human race, of which he could never be part. Taggert Hodge, the Sunlight Man, opposes it from within. Hodge holds the human race up to scrutiny and finds it wanting; he objects to it because it is not all it should be. Men talk of justice and perpetuate injustice. They speak of the truth and tell lies. Hodge believes that he has seen the truth: he has left the darkness of Plato's cave and emerged into the light of the sun. (Allusions to caves are common in Gardner's work. Grendel, of course, lived in a cave.) He, and he alone, can see reality for what it is.
Hodge's truth reveals itself as anarchism: all human beings are unique and self-legislating individuals. Their natural state is one of radical separation from one another; none has the understanding or the right to judge another:
I mean your laws are irrelevant, stupid, inhuman. I mean you support civilization by a kind of averaging. All crimes are equal, because you define the crime, not the criminal. It's effective, I admit it. But it has nothing to do with reality. There is good and evil in the world, but they have nothing to do with your courts, [pp 327-8]
Police Chief Clumly, the novel's protagonist, knows better. Hodge's truth, far from leading men to perfect justice, leads only to injustice and misery, the "war of all against all." Human nature sets limits to what men can know and to their ability to realize justice. If man has no nature, if the human species is capable of infinite progress, perfect justice is possible, some time in the future. Like Gardner, Police Chief Clumly knows that men do have a nature, and that it sets limits on what men can achieve.
Hodge is not blind to this problem. He is an anarchist, instead of, say, a communist or a fascist, because he thinks men can only be just in cases that touch them. The rest he would leave alone. (It goes without saying that this is a contradiction of the classical view of justice, which holds that men are naturally bad judges in their own causes.) Hodge objects to what he sees as the lie about justice-that any rule can cover all the cases. Because men's understanding is imperfect, he believes, rules are always imperfect. But the Police Chief knows better. Men's understandings are imperfect, and so they must have laws. The rule of law is the only way imperfect human beings can approach justice.
Perfect justice or perfect truth proves to be as destructive of what is human as Grendel's chaos. The Sunlight Man destroys those who are most like him: his own family. His justice is reserved for the cases that touch him, and the end of his justice is their destruction. Like Grendel, who destroyed those who were most unlike him, the Sunlight Man is killed justly. Because human beings are limited, civilization is inescapably "a kind of averaging." The striving for perfection is unquestionably a noble endeavor. But Gardner warns us that the quest for perfection is limited by human nature. That men cannot be perfect is no reason for despair, for lapsing into hopelessness and the praise of chaos. True poetry recognizes the human tragedy: man's imperfect striving for a perfect order.
Gardner's protest against the shallowness and triviality of modern literature was no mere exercise, but something he carried forward in his work. We may question the extent to which he presented us with models for imitation, for even his heroes are not entirely admirable. But no less than his criticism, Gardner's fiction shows the modern problem for what it is. The modern problem is the Sunlight Man's: the forgetfulness of human limits and the despair of the human condition. It is also Grendel's: the celebration of chaos and decay, the will to destruction. Modernity holds that the human possibilities are exhausted; literature, like politics, becomes mere technique.
Great literature has always offered models for imitation, and contrasts between good men and bad, which lift us beyond our ordinary experience and toward an understanding of the nature of man. That nature has, until recently, been assumed to be a moral one. Gardner proposes that we retrace our steps, and recover an understanding and appreciation of the task of true art. In so doing, we may also recover reason from the shackles of modern philosophy:
For most modern philosophers, that grand old image of logos, the sun, has degenerated to a light bulb in a roomful of men born blind. [On Moral Fiction, p. 154]
More important than any teaching-however valuable-his novels might contain, Gardner's On Moral Fiction should make us think about how we read books, and what we must look for from the best of them. Human nature is moral as well as rational, and through reason and speech we are capable of learning what it means to be a human being, or what the human possibilities are. Literature explores those possibilities, by putting human (or nonhuman) characters in situations which the artist can control. Art tests human nature experimentally, as it were. It does not do this simply for the sake of the exercise, for the exploration of this or that technique. That would be futile. Literature explores the human possibilities to discover what the human character is: Gardner spoke well when he compared the process of writing fiction to philosophy.
Gardner urges those who read books, and those who write them, to recover an understanding of what is vital in literature. Certainly On Moral Fiction is an important work in the recovery of the traditional view of art. Gardner reminds us there of what good literature always has been. One may perhaps disagree with Gardner's premises or his conclusions. Such disagreement is the incentive for the search for the true standards, in fiction as in life. Final knowledge of those standards may not be available to us: Gardner never claimed to have such knowledge, and remained skeptical of the prospects for such knowledge. But the lack of final knowledge is no reason to abandon the attempt, to see only the chaos and pronounce it the final truth about us. We will all miss John Gardner, because he never abandoned the attempt to understand the truth about human nature.