George W. Hunt: John Cheever: The Hobgoblin Comapny of Love; Wm. B. Eerdmans; Grand Rapids, MI.
The Rev. George W. Hunt, S J., literary editor of America, has written a valuable study of the fiction of John Cheever, one that will remain a source of lasting value for future critics and scholars to consult. However, I have reservations about Hunt’s study, all having to do with his methodology. For example, the technique of comparison is applied in too many instances without profit. Any literary work can be compared to any other, and any literary work can be criticized by placing any philosophical system as a grid over it. I do not mean, of course, that comparison is not vital. Analysis and comparison are the basic tools of any critical method. The value of comparison depends, however, upon a kind of tact, the ability to determine when it fits and when it is essential. Hunt writes of a relationship between Kierkegaard’s philosophy and Cheever’s fiction, which seems accurate, but which is without real substance.
The principal virtue of Hunt’s study is its general thesis: Cheever’s religious faith is central to an understanding of his work. Hunt makes it quite clear that Cheever was a traditional believing Christian who described himself as a “liturgical churchgoer.” There was nothing exotic or individualistic in his beliefs, except, of course, that there is nothing more exotic than Christianity itself. At the center of Cheever’s description of the profane world is the great mystery of original sin, a comforting doctrine, I have come to believe, judging by the consequences of accepting other options to explain the meaning of the wound in creation. His fables are complex–rich and full of tension–precisely because of his knowledge of this mystery. One profound result of this knowledge is Cheever’s willingness to accept life’s otherwise unexplainable contradictions, his poise.
Hunt emphasizes Cheever’s vigorous acceptance of the first article of the Creed, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” Hunt points out that the Maker and His makings “are the recurring theme in his work.” It is from this profound conviction that his second central belief, “trusting in the Lord,” emerges. Being pilgrims, we have no choice but to trust in Him while we weave our way between Eros and Thanatos, doing our filial best to steadfastly honor tradition, sacrifice, duty, and ceremony. Saul Bellow, his friend, might well have been thinking of Cheever and some others like him when, in his Nobel Prize Address, he rejected the assertion of our nothingness, insisting instead that “we are Something.” What John Updike, another friend and admirer, had so firmly embedded in his memory of Cheever’s work was the idea that our lives at every moment are littered ”with clues to the supernatural.” While some critics, after the appearance of Falconer; recognized that faith was central to Cheever’s work, most continued to write about Cheever as if irony (or even scorn) was the key to his view of things. Identifying Cheever as the light-mannered and light-styled chronicler of exurbia unfortunately characterized him in such a way as to blind readers to the vision upon which the narratives rested. Those critics who suggested that moral concerns were at the center of his vision were closer to the truth. A complete understanding of his moral view, however, was hindered by their failure to perceive the religious base on which it rested. Hunt rightly insists that the theological base upon which the moral code depends is essential. His determination to “trace some moral chain of being” would have been a failure had he not had a solid Christian base. He would have merely recapitulated the work of so many American writers who have tried to separate man’s good from God’s superintending providence. Cheever wrote,
The religious experience is very much my concern, as it seems to me it is the legitimate concern of any adult who has experienced love.
”Who will sound the alarm?” is one of his great questions, and the answer is that he himself will. He liked the German sound of ‘Ich habe etwas zu sagen.” What he had to say is succinctly stated by one of his most memorable characters:
Stand up straight. Admire the world. Relish the love of a gentle woman. Trust in the Lord.
The complex ontology implied in these few sentences is comprehensive.
Hunt alerts us to the rhetorical problem that Cheever faced, the same one that other believing writers (Walker Percy, Saul Bellow, John Updike) face in a culture saturated with a mixture of defensive skepticism and its natural opposite, silly beliefs in frivolities. Consider this passage from Falconer, a book which Cheever pointed to as the key to his artistic efforts:
as croyants, I’m sure we share the knowledge that to profess exalted religious experience outside the ecclesiastical paradigm is to make of oneself an outcast….I truly believe in One God the Father Almighty but I know that to say so loudly, and at any distance from the chancel–any distance at all–would dangerously jeopardize my ability to ingratiate those men and women with whom I wish to live. I am trying to say–and I’m sure you will agree with me–that while we are available to transcendent experience, we can state this only at the suitable and ordained place. I could not live without this knowledge; no more could I live without the thrilling possibility of suddenly encountering the fragrance of skepticism.
Hunt comments, “Cheever knows well that we live in a world that seldom admits to [his] basic beliefs.”
One might argue that Cheever’s strategy was wrong; that Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, for example, is superior to Falconer precisely because Waugh discovered that direct rhetoric is more effective. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Cheever was not describing a unique situation. He was referring precisely to the rhetorical problem faced, for instance, by T. S. Eliot in writing The Waste Land or The Cocktail Party. 1n the poem and in the play Eliot had to devise a rhetorical strategy which would startle (or shame or shock) his readers into taking a fresh look at the obvious truths of the penny catechism. Such a strategy takes the risk of making the glass so dark that it cannot be seen through at all. By putting the passage quoted above in a late work, Falconer, Cheever, however, may have been signaling a change in his rhetorical strategy, evidental so, I think, in Oh What a Paradise It Seems. It is paradoxically a passage which speaks with a directness that the passage itself asserts should not be used in fiction.
The rhetorical strategy of hiding the message is most evident in the short stories, even to a fault perhaps. There are few friends of the reader in them to direct him to the ultimate religious base on which the wry observations rest. The stories are based upon a Christian assumption about the nature of things which many readers and critics have unfortunately missed. It would now appear that his often-noted melancholy was the result of the contrast between what is and what might be, a sign of a standard at work, not merely the result of sadness and nostalgia.
Several other truths in the canon of Cheever’s beliefs are also likely to be missed in his work. There is man and his original sin. But that is not the whole story. There is also “Valor! Love! Virtue! Splendor! Kindness! Wisdom! Beauty!” Further this is a writer who is not ashamed to admire decency and whose mark of maturity is his knowledge that the piper must always be paid, so that the whining that passes for wisdom in the work of others is put in its place. Just as F. Scott Fitzgerald used the stars, jewelry, and all glittering objects as images of wonder, so Cheever uses and loves light: “It seems to me almost that one’s total experience is the drive toward light.” Ultimately, this light is the Holy Spirit, just as it was for Eliot. “The constants that I look for are a love of light and a determination to trace some moral chain of being.” He is a writer who sees that freedom is “for” not “from,” and that we are essentially free precisely “for” rejoicing. When Farruget in Falconer walks away from prison he exclaims, “Rejoice”–one of “the strongest words in the English language.” Put “Rejoice” alongside “Life is a perilous moral journey” and you have the essentials of Cheever.
His work contains an implied political philosophy that puts many formal models to shame. He salutes the flag of the world: “To scorn one’s world is despicable.” Without that fundamental condition, all attempts at philosophizing are pointless. At the minimum he expects decency which can lead the way toward love. In between are our human failures and our good-hearted attempts to correct them. And Tiresias is always around to advise us. As a thoughtless shopper in the supermarket pushes her loaded cart through the aisle restricted to “Nine Items or Less,” an old man objects:
I just can’t stand to see someone take advantage of other people’s kindness. It’s like fascism. It isn’t that she’s breaking the law. It’s just that most of us are too nice to do anything about it. Why do you suppose they put up a sign that says nine items? It’s to make the store more efficient for everyone. You’re just like a shoplifter only you’re not stealing groceries, you’re stealing time, you’re not stealing from the management, you’re stealing from us. People like you cause wars.
The final sentence speaks a political wisdom that reverberates through our soul. Politics is at base the total complex of relations between men. It is not an abstraction which dehumanizes our community. If we understand what Cheever’s Tiresias is saying in this instance, we have come a long way toward understanding what makes the body politic work. The single passage above contains more wisdom about politics and on a deeper level than all of the pathetic attempts of Norman Mailer put together.