Tenderness and Terror

I have been thinking lately about a book I read years ago, John Gardner's On Moral Fiction. I dug it out recently and reread it. This book caused quite a literary stir when it came out because Gardner was critical about some very popular writers: Bartheleme, Vonnegut, Pynchon, Bellow, Heller, and others. Essentially, he called them out for writing fiction that refused to affirm any vision of life as preferable to any other. This affirmation, Gardner argued, was the most important thing art had to offer us. In calling for moral fiction, he didn't mean that art should be didactic or preachy. Rather, it should-- through the agency of fully-drawn and humanely depicted characters--compel us to feel more intensely the beauty, tragedy, wonder, and fragility of life.

So the class wrestles through to the grim end of Oedipus today. Many of my students are not having an easy time with the play. It's not surprising. Who at 18 wants to go where Sophocles takes them? Teenagers don't do recognition scenes. Instead, they set out from Corinth confident in their future, sons and daughters of fortune all. Oedipus just isn't a play for young people. Teaching it sometimes makes me feel a little like Tiresias, who at first tells Oedipus that he really doesn't want to know the truth. "Just send me home," he says. "You bear your burdens, I'll bear mine. It's better that way, please believe me."

But Oedipus doggedly keeps driving toward his recognition scene. If he is heroic it's only because he has the courage and endurance to face his crimes fully, not to shirk, not to look way. Sophocles is not shirking or looking away either. He's showing us just how fragile human goodness and intelligence really are in a seemingly heartless universe, which is also a way of affirming their preciousness and necessity. I’m reminded of something the British novelist Graham Greene once wrote. He noted that it’s not especially surprising that evil and ignorance always seem on the verge of extinguishing the last drop of love and goodness from the universe. What’s surprising is that they never have.


TXC said…
Hold on there! Bartheleme, Vonnegut, Pynchon--those are my favorite authors! (I'm speaking of Don Barthelme, not his brother Fred.) And Heller's "Catch-22" is one of my favorites as well. I'll have to investigate the book of which you write.

In other news, I see the Cubbies fell to the Dodgers last night.

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