opinions & ViewsnA Timid Call to ArmsnJohn Gardner: On Moral Fiction;nBasic Books; New York.nby Thomas MolnarnJLet me say right at the beginning:nJohn Gardner’s book is, as the formulangoes, a refreshingly sane approach tonliterature. It cuts through the fat ofnliterary criticism’s accumulated cliches,nand it condemns these cliches not merelynas boring manifestations of an ossifiednintellectual/artistic orthodoxy but—thisnis even more truly refreshing—as inadmissiblenin civilized speech and conduct,nthat is for literary use.nLet me go farther in praise. Gardnernacknowledges a hierarchy in the literarynart, putting on the top Homer, Dante,nShakespeare, Tolstoy, and others, ofncourse, too, including contemporarynwriters, for example James Joyce. Thenway he concludes the existence of thisnhierarchy, that is the existence of veryngreat writers, then, in descending order,nmediocre, unimportant, frivolous ones,nbusinessman-writers and immoralnwriters—is to grasp what one might callnthe “artist’s morality.” While this doesnnot contradict “ordinary” morality, it isndirected, and by the nature of the artist’snpublic function, heightened, to the levelnof true idea-images which transcribenreality, not more, not less. But of coursenthis transcription is not the cassette’snmechanical recording. Since reality includesninnumerable layers, also the moralnlayer, for the writer to encounter, andnthen serve the real, he must be a moralnman: humble and universal, an honestninquirer into what is, yet genuinely surprisednwhen his own characters inventnthemselves freely. (The trouble here isnthat Sartre validly criticized Mauriac fornplanning his characters’ every step—“fornplaying God in their regard”—yetnMauriac is an incomparably greater lit-nDr. Molnar is a distinguished scholar ofnliterature and criticism.n6nChronicles of Colturenerary artist than Sartre who grants themntheir “existential” freedom.)nFor Gardner, the literary craft is similarnto the philosopher’s according to Aristotle:nboth marvel &t reality as it is and asnit comes into existence. Agreement alsonwith Socrates: the poet and the novelistnare midwives to the birth and rebirth ofncreated things. In further praise of JohnnGardner, he is perhaps the only Americannnovelist-critic today willing to put hisnname to this sentence: “The writing ofnfiction is a mode of thought because bynimitating we come to understand thenthing we imitate. Fiction is thus a convincingnand honest but unverifiablenscience (in the old sense, knowledge):nunverifiable because it depends on thenreader’s sensitivity and clear sense of hownthings are, a sense for which we havenno tests.”nGardner’s mind and critical acumennestablish a world where artists are beyondnthe frivolities of the up-to-date and of annempty technical smartness. He seemsnsincerely to loathe the artists’jet-set, morendespicable certainly than the one thatnused to surround Jackie and Ari on (thenwell-named) Scorpio Island. Last springnlistening to lonesco’s lecture on the artist’sncraft I had the same impression asnwhile reading certain chapters in Gardner’snbook: the conviction that only thenbare minimum counts, that the real artistnoperates at the rockbottom. There is nonother way of describing this approachnexcept God-fearing honesty. In art, cheatingnand its myriad tricks, including thensmart-alecky skills, the frivolities sonplaced as to pretend at depth, the psychicnconvolutions, the playing of variationsnon the Freudian piano, etc.—is (almost.’^)nas blasphemous as the torture of an innocentnchild, Dostoyevski’s obsessivelynrecurring theme.nWell, neither lonesco, nor Gardnerntolerate cheating, and the latter’s booknas, in another register, lonesco’s lecture,ndetails the ways of circumventing such antemptation. In great literature, then.nnnreality is ever present, under many disguises,nincluding the writer’s recognitionnthat the hero’s destiny is intertwined withnthe idea-image, Beatrice for Dante ornthe gods for Achilles and Hector. Thisnpassage in Gardner’s book serves also asnan explanation why today, under thendesiccating stare of Freud, Sartre, andnWittgenstein (and other false idols onnGardner’s list, and mine) the novelist isnparalyzed, his vital source, belief innreality, having been taken away from him.n”On the whole, our serious novelists,nlike our painters and composers, are shortnon significant belief. Though quick tonpreach causes . . . and to believe slogansn. . . they are short on moral fiber, thenspecial moral fiber, part character, partnknowledge, of the artist.” The result maynbe an amorous devotion to surface, tontexture, to technique, and naturally tonthe best-seller status with “deep” reviewsnwhere it “counts”; but in no case a worknof art. In a word, Gardner denounces asnconnected symptoms the Americannwriters’ immorality and superficiality,ntwin products of their scorn for reality,nmoral and ontological.nWhat Gardner reveals on his pagesnis not just the sad story of an entire generationnof writers going wrong—thanksnto creative writing classes, psychologicalntricks, and commercialization, but primarilynthe flawed vision of a nation whosenwriters first struggle for a grasp of reality,nthen most often and tragically, give up.nGranted, Freud etal. have reduced realitynto how the subject feels about it, so thatnthe writer dare not look reality in thenface for fear of finding it out; but is thisnreality not a hundred times camouflagedntoo—even without Freud—by layers ofnthe public myth.’ Let us keep in mindnOliver Alden in Santayana’s The LastnPuritan, lamenting that he is “ready fornevery sacrifice but has nothing to pin hisnallegiance to.” The same Santayana notesn(in a letter to Logan Piersall Smith) thatn”American arts and sciences are in then