Muddled Morals

On Moral Fiction by John Gardner Basic Books, 214 pp., $8.95

WESTERN CIVILIZATION is burning, and its artists are fiddling away. They must put down their bows and start fighting anew the good fight, for morality, and for truth, lest darkness engulf mankind.

This is John Gardner's argument in his essay On Moral Fiction. It sounds simplistic, and--of course--it is. Gardner poses as the Gabriel for a new artistic responsibility, sternly blasting forth on the trumpet, calling on the forces of "Beauty, Truth and Goodness" to regroup.

The amazing thing about On Moral Fiction is that, despite the naivete of its fundamental tenet, it is filled with acute, valuable observations on contemporary art. Gardner's ideas make a lot more sense when he applies them to contemporary culture than when he states them in the abstract.

It takes guts today to write about the old virtues; Gardner obviously knows this himself. Every time he introduces one of the hallowed concepts he cherishes, he selfconsciously mentions how embarassed he is to be talking about "love," or "morality." Yet talk about them he does, and usually without giving us concrete definitions of what he means by them.

Gardner tries hard; he struggles every now and then to pin down exactly what he means by one of these terms--"love," for example:

"Love" is of course another of those embarrassing words, perhaps a word more embarrassing even than "morality"... It has, nonetheless, a firm, hard-headed sense that names the single quality without which true art cannot exist... We read or listen to or look at works of art in the hope of experiencing our highest, most selfless emotion, either to reach a sublime communication with the maker of the work, sharing his affirmations as common lovers do, or to find, in works of literature, characters we love as we do real people.

Admirable, but not convincing. Here Gardner side-steps the logical problem, defining love in terms of art and then repeating the same thing backwards. More often he resorts to metaphor. His metaphors are quirky, personal, often drawn from the Northeastern countryside of his youth or the Greek and Anglo-Saxon myths of his beloved Homer and Beowulf. They're catchy, too; but usually in On Moral Fiction Gardner presents us with a serious question, flings a captivating metaphor at us, and hurries away to some other problem before we have time to ask for answers.

THE METAPHOR which Gardner places like a frame around his book acts in this way. On the first page he tells a story from Norse myth: Thor, Woden and the gods must fight off the trolls, the forces of chaos, but the only weapon remaining to them is Thor's hammer. For us, Gardner says, that hammer is art. Writers must take it up and strike, before the Gotterdammerung. The tale acts as a light, disarming way to begin a book with such a solemn title. But from the first pages forward Gardner relies on the logical force of this tale and his other metaphors while we clamor for him to enter the trenches of carefully planned argument.

Gardner poses the questions well enough. Though he uses the word sparingly, he diagones the contemporary sickness of the arts as decadence. Authors strive for texture, not content; they create characters to be tinkered with, not to be understood; their books foster self-hatred. Gardner's criticism of his colleagues is the most valuable part of On Moral Fiction. He deftly shows what authors like Vonnegut and Heller lack, entertaining as they are. We may be unable to swallow in the abstract the statement that the missing quality is "love," or "morality"; but leaving aside these culturally ambiguous, exhausted words floating like smoke-screens between us and Gardner's criticisms, he makes sense.

On Moral Fiction is packed with observations, with judgements that make sense. Yet we leave it dissatisfied, because Gardner's whole ethical approach raises questions he knows about but shyly avoids. He assumes from the very start that artists must save civilization, and that they can save civilization. The tired old critical dilemma of whether society shapes the artist or vice versa is central to Gardner's argument, and though he may be trying to spare his readers the boredom of another rehashing, Gardner's failure to take a consistent stand on the question dooms his position from the start.

He does, at times, commit himself. For example:

I am convinced that, once the alarm has been sounded, good art easily beats out bad, and that the present scarcity of first-rate art does not follow from a sickness of society but the other way around--unless, possibly, the two chase each other's tails.

If we ignore the equivocation at the end, Gardner has taken a definite position here. But it stands unsupported, vulnerable to attacks from every angle. Can "moral art" solve economic problems? Can it solve international problems? Can it counteract the sickness in society that derives not from sick art but from sick institutions? The answers are not necessarily "no," but Gardner never bothers to give us arguments otherwise.

THROUGH WHAT he says in these essays Gardner is identifying himself with a long tradition of critics like Matthew Arnold who tried to diagnose the ills of their societies. And Gardner's calls for "Beauty, Truth and Goodness" are not far removed from Arnold's famous celebration of "sweetness and light." But Gardner lacks the formal power, the rhetorical skill which Arnold employed to make the abstract palatable and comprehensible. Gardner's book is structureless. The divisions between chapters are arbitrary, and just about the only overall element of the book that seems planned is the appearance of Thor's hammer at start and finish.

If Gardner's organization is baffling, at least his style is endearing. The sense of mythic wonder that fills his books Grendel and Jason and Medea is present here in the form of vignettes and metaphors; and even when he rattles on about the good and the true, Gardner never pontificates, never becomes self-righteous. Even when what he says sounds like it would suit a preacher among the unbaptized, his manner remains that of the elderly raconteur, sitting by the fire with a mug of ale and a pipe.

Indeed, Gardner is at his best when he's telling a story. At one point in On Moral Fictionhe leaves the aesthetic debate for a moment and begins a simple fable, to illustrate a point. The effect startles; we suddenly realize what Gardner could be doing all this time--telling stories, like Grendel.

On Moral Fiction is worth reading, if only to learn what one of the finest contemporary novelists has to say about his colleagues. One can take from it these insights, a few anecdotes, and perhaps a sense of Gardner himself. But, as Gardner repeats, only art--not criticism--can embody the eternal verities, those elusive ideas of "Beauty, Truth and Goodness." On Moral Fictionfails because Gardner valiantly tries to write non-fiction about abstract concepts. But, he himself agrees, fiction alone can do justice to them.