My last column on the virtue of professional and moral excellence spoke of the role narrative stories play in our lives. What I wrote was “Literature is an act of telling ourselves stories about ourselves. If our stories are one of woe and pain and the injustice of the universe, is it any wonder one finds life not worth living?”
I confess to being attracted to stories about loneliness and the dark side of life as a youth. With my first memory literally being that of my father dying, I saw the world as a scary and uncaring place. As a result, I was attracted to the philosophy of existentialism with its themes of death and alienation.
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But is that any way to live?
Nonetheless, my literary tendencies attracted me to writers like Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and Fyodor Dostoevsky. I also was enamored of the writing of the American novelist John C. Gardner, not to be confused with the British writer who took over the James Bond 007 series.
Gardner’s novels were immersed in themes of death, guilt, and loneliness, with an occasional glimpse of redemption. Learning more about his life, I came to realize why he emphasized such dark themes in his work.
He opened one of his short stories titled “Redemption” with the line: “One day in April – a clear, blue day when there were crocuses in bloom – Jack Hawthorne ran over and killed his brother David.”
In actuality, this was a real event in John Gardner’s life. As a 12-year-old boy his father asked him to use the family tractor to take a wagon to a neighboring farm and bring back a cultipacker, which is a huge roller.
His younger brother, Gilbert, wanted to come along. John agreed, with Gilbert riding along in the wagon. What he didn’t figure, however, was where Gilbert would ride on the way back. Gilbert tried to balance himself as best he could on space he could find.
For reasons unknown, Gilbert fell off and was rolled over by the cultipacker. He died, and John was left with the guilt of that death for the rest of his life, as is echoed throughout his fiction.
Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist who has done extensive work on the psychological dynamics of surviving a traumatic event, lists five characteristics of a survivor: a death imprint, a survivor guilt, a psychic numbing, conflicts of nurture and contamination, and the need for a conceptual schema to make sense of it all.
Each of these themes can be seen in “Redemption” as the protagonist seeks to find his way with his family and in the larger world while wallowing in guilt and dread.
It can be argued that that fifth theme, seeking a conceptual schema, is what motivated Gardner in his fiction. Writing was, for him, a kind of bibliotherapy as he constantly was testing various models of living to see what might be best.
He reached some conclusions, which turned out to be quite controversial at the time.
After moderate success with novels like The Resurrection and The Wreckage of Agathon, Gardner found fame with the immensely popular Grendel, a telling of the Beowulf saga from the monster’s point of view, and The Sunlight Dialogues, in which a hippie-like character conveying Mesopotamian myths disrupts the lives of various townspeople much as was happening in the urban tumult of the late 1960s.
Then he wrote a book that changed his trajectory. On Moral Fiction, a 1978 work of literary criticism, was a call to arms for fiction writers to avoid the empty themes of alienation and cynicism, and instead write fiction that impacts the moral character of readers.
“True art,” Gardner writes, in contrast to what he considered insipid literary pseudo art, “clarifies life, establishes models of human action, casts nets toward the future, carefully judges our right and wrong directions, celebrates and mourns.
“It does not rant. It does not sneer or giggle in the face of death, it invents prayers and weapons. It designs visions worth trying to make fact.”
What really got him in trouble, though, was that he named names of those writers – some of whom were seen as literary giants – he thought failed as writers because of their lack of moral and professional excellence, or virtue.
He went after writers like John Updike, John Barth, Bernard Malamud, Robert Coover, and Thomas Pynchon. The blowback was devastating to Gardner’s future writing career. Never again would he get unmitigated praise from literary critics as he did with Grendel and The Sunlight Dialogues.
One could reasonably argue Gardner was one of the first victims of cancellation culture.
When looking at narrative fiction, there are four elements of which one should note: character, plot, atmosphere, and tone. A writer will tend to emphasize one or two over the others, and that affects how a reader comes to experience the story.
If one emphasizes tone, for example, the narrator of the story is in the forefront judging the actions of the characters, as well as their attitudes and values.
For his part, Gardner is clear that it is character and plot that should be emphasized. It is a recognizable and orderly flow of events that increase a reader’s interest by moving characters toward situations of conflict and crisis.
A weakness of contemporary fiction, according to Gardner, is that writers now emphasize tone and, in effect, mockingly smirk at the situations in which characters – indeed readers themselves – find themselves. Hence the cynical and serio-comic tone struck by many authors in “serious” fiction today.
Gardner believed more traditional elements of character and plot would have a writer explain what is happening to a character, why it is happening, how the character either allowed it to happen or could not avoid it happening, and what the character intends to do in response to what is happening, for good or ill.
As such, fiction can delve into some of the mysteries that are endemic to the human condition.
Narratives in which character dominates address questions having to do with the moral and spiritual condition of men and women, questions of what the good life is and how to live it, questions of the seeming intractability of evil.
A good example is his novel October Light, his “Bicentennial novel.” The main character, James Page, an elderly Vermont farmer, is like most of Gardner’s characters, a common man seeking, in his own sometimes blundering way, to come to terms with the life that has been granted him.
His is a Yankee individualism forged in the harsh realities of living off the land and enduring the radical changes of the seasons, a niggardly life forcing one to work desperately hard to support one’s family.
His wife recently died while one of his sons died in a farm accident and a second son committed suicide. A sister, not altogether welcome, has come to live with him and brought her TV with her, which James sees as a tool of corruption.
As the plot unfolds, James expresses his strong sense of what is of value by taking his shotgun and shooting the television set, blowing it back to a hell from which he believes it to have originated.
This sends the sister to her room, locking the door, and refusing to come out.
For James, what is most foul is that which evokes a false image of freedom and ascent. That is what bothers James most about the television: it gives viewers the illusion of freedom, thus leaving men and women unprepared for the real challenges of life.
In Gardner’s understanding, that is what all “immoral” fiction does.
In time, the dispute between James and his sister becomes common knowledge in the community. Since his sister is an outsider, the community tends towards James’ side in the matter.
While locked in her room, the sister begins reading a pulp paperback novel she finds on the floor. Titled The Smugglers of Lost Soul’s Rock, it has blurbs on its cover saying: “… a sick book, as sick and evil as life in America…” and “deeply disturbing!” and “Hilarious!”
This novel within a novel is Gardner’s way of contrasting fiction that is uplifting with fiction that is immoral. The great irony of it all is that critics at the time thought the pulp fiction story was more engaging than Gardner’s main story, which I suppose makes Gardner’s point for him about the sorry state of American fictional art.
In a nutshell, Smuggers concerns a hip group of drug-smuggling revolutionaries, headed by a Faustian ship captain named Fist, who accidentally save the life of a man, Peter, who had attempted suicide by jumping off a bridge.
Other characters in this novel within a novel include a competing group of drug smugglers headed by the amoral Santisillia, a wide-eyed young co-ed named Jane who gives her all for the revolutionary cause while being used sexually by the less altruistic men around her, and an 83-year-old paraplegic ex-brain surgeon named Alkahest trying to track them all down.
Ideas, with innumerable quotes from several modern philosophers as ballast, are bandied about like shuttlecocks.
All but three characters – good guys Peter and Jane, and bad guy Santasillia – are killed in an orgy of violence near the end of the story. The three are left stranded on Lost Soul’s Rock with B-52 bombers about to attack them when, suddenly, part of the rock on which Santisillia is standing falls inextricably into the sea killing him.
Simultaneously, a flying saucer appears in the sky – a contemporary deus ex machina – to save Peter and Jane. And thus ends The Smugglers of Lost Soul’s Rock.
It is a silly story, but not unlike the sorts of stories put out by Robert Stone, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, and John Barth, each of whom is a highly regarded writer in modern literary circles.
As for the main story, the community acts to bring James’ sister out of her room by having a party at James’ farmhouse, thinking the revelry will attract her to join in. It doesn’t work.
The group, though, begin talking about barn-fire parties, in which the community would gather when a farmer’s barn was destroyed to help put the fire out and save the stored goods and livestock. Eventually, it would just turn into a party.
One of the partiers explains: “It’s a fragile life. One moment we’re happy and wonderfully healthy, and our children are all well, and it seems as if nothing can possibly go wrong, and the next some horrible accident has happened, and suddenly we see how things really are and we cling to each other for dear life.
“ ‘Hear, hear!’ Dr. Phelps said merrily, … They all laughed, understanding his intent. Yet after the moment of laughter the room was unnaturally quiet as old and insubstantial as the yellowed lace curtains, infirm as the shadows on the fireplace bricks, the whole house still as a grave.”
It is a shimmering truth, a truth with which they are all familiar. Those hopes we have of protecting our families may be old and insubstantial and infirm as the shadows, but when some horrible accident brings life’s tragedies to our doorstep there is the community, to which one can cling for dear life.
Yankee individualism gets you only so far.
The group then begins reciting poetry to each other, including Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” and Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” Think of the contrast between what the community used as a literary model of life, and what James’ sister is being immersed in with Smugglers.
The sister at one point considers just submitting, but rejects it. She concludes, “if submission was wrong …” and doesn’t know how to end the sentence. She looks at her pulp novel, and the words she sees is “… life evil.”
She is setting up a hypothetical syllogism with the antecedent being “if submission was wrong,” and the consequent being “[then] life [is] evil.” Importantly, she takes a bite of an apple among a crate of apples when she says this. It is a symbol of her fall.
Apples in Gardner’s novel are constantly being associated with anger, violence, and death. The sister has a coleus plant in her room which is dying. When James learns this, he acknowledges the coleus will die because of the apples. Plants can’t live around apples.
Gardner is creating a metaphoric correlation here. Just as coleus plants cannot live around apples and thrive, so too men and women cannot live around immoral fiction.
One of the clear requisites for living in community is an acceptance of the shortcomings of others, but also an ability to come to terms with one’s own faults.
James’ sister, influenced by Smugglers, refuses to accept any responsibility for her actions, just as her pulp fiction characters refused any accountability in their actions.
For James, though, seeing the consequences of his actions, the harm he has caused, he feels guilt. And it is in coming to terms with one’s guilt, for Gardner’s heroes, that one engages in perhaps the most important, humanly significant event of their lives.
It is a step toward moral excellence.
By the end of the novel James has learned he cannot dominate every situation by simply imposing his rock-hard sense of New England propriety. He must be accepting of aspects of life that are not to his liking. In doing so he transcends the limitations of his New England ethos to accept forgiveness for the tragic errors of his past, including his actions surrounding the suicide death of his son.
Gardner’s is essentially a religious vision, but not of the treacly kind. Gardner’s vision is passionate, visceral, and sheds tears. When all is said and done, despite the death of a younger brother, soured love affairs, barn-fires, or ending his life smeared along a curving Pennsylvania road under a motorcycle – which Gardner did in 1982 – life is good. And life goes on.
Fictional narratives are stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. What we are after reading these stories depends on the professional and moral excellence, the virtue, of the artists who write these stories.
By Ron Nutter
Ron Nutter is a regular contributor to The Blue State Conservative, and retired college professor of Philosophy and Religion living in a cabin on a mountain in Western North Carolina with his retired physician wife, and he still reads voraciously.