Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Lit Matters: John Gardner on monsters and men

September 4, 2015 by

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American novelist, essayist, poet, and critic John Gardner is perhaps best known for his novel Grendel, in which he constructs the world of Beowulf from the perspective of a sensitive, curious monster. Grendel, who has a love/hate relationship with his terrible mother and hangs out with a philosophizing dragon, gives us a unique chance to see so-called heroic humans from the other side.

Much of his fiction explores the inner worlds (and all their attendant contradictions) of his characters without shying away from the darker aspects of human nature. Gardner himself carried darkness about for much of his own life: when he was eleven years old his younger brother was crushed under a tractor that Gardner was driving. He blamed himself for the accident, and themes of accidents and guilt show up throughout his writings.

“Art,” said Gardner, “is a way of thinking, a way of mining reality.” The artistic minerals that we mine, he argued, ought to deal primarily with morality. By morality he didn’t mean a narrow religious morality, but rather a human morality that allows us to learn how to better get along with one another.

“We need to stop excusing mediocre and downright pernicious art,” he wrote. “We would not put up with a debauched king, but in a democracy all of us are kings, and we praise debauchery as pluralism.” What good fiction should show us, says Gardner, is that society can have room for diversity while at the same time maintaining certain standards of behaviour.

“Art,” he once said, “is in one sense fascistic: it claims, on good authority, that some things are healthy for individuals and society and some things are not.”

John Gardner must-read:
Grendel
(UVIC library code PS3557 A73G74)

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