restricted access Two Letters from John Gardner
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Two Letters from John Gardner

While I was a graduate student at Southern Illinois University, I received two remarkable letters from John Gardner. They arrived in the same week. The first was written on paper from the Athens Hilton and the second on paper from Olympic Airways. I kept the letters in a signed copy of Grendel, but I have lost the envelopes. John Howell has dated them from July or August, 1972, and I believe that is an accurate dating. Gardner was, as he puts it, "seeing the world." I have edited out the personal materials, and what follows are his impressions of Greek and Roman art and what that had to do with his own writing. The edited parts occur before and after these sections, so that what appears here are cohesive units from those letters. They are undated, but the second one begins, as indicated, with "A day later." They are produced here as they appear in his own hand.

Dear Bob,

Have you been writing? (Of course.) Good. So have I. Mostly to no great effect, in my case. I'm still coming down from Jason & Medeia. I know it's good because Joan can't stand to read it—too ugly & painful. Which is not because it's personal (it's not) but because it's all about betrayal & waste and—the part she never got to—the alternatives.

We've been seeing the world. It's curious. In a way it's not worth doing. I knew intuitively two years ago that the finest thing I would ever see was the Winged Victory, at the Louvre. Now I have checked out the rest of Western Civilization, & I know I was right. Florence, for instance, has good medieval art but is famous for its Renaissance art, which you would hate, because it's hateful. (Pride, Pomp, Tyranny, & Stupidity.) Rome is much worse. Milton was right when, entering St. Peter's, at the Vatican, he said: "Exactly, this is Hell." The strongest things in Rome express shameless power—the Colliseum, the Forums, [End Page 237] the difference between the bigness Roman emperors loved & the bigness adored by Michelangelo is that the emperors were clear-headed. They say "Fuck the whippersnapper." Michelangelo had an insane idea that bigness was godly. His dome (St. Peter's) is copied from—& enlarged from—the Pantheon. But the Pantheon—stolid & sullen, as is fitting for the murder of Oxen—is true (though evil). St. Peter's is merely grandiose. Michelangelo is great, I don't deny it. But he was absolutely wrong. So were the brilliant early Christians with their drooping-flower heads & pained, pained Christs. The truth begins with the painters of girls in beds, men selling fish, that is, objects seen the way you see them as a child. What's thrilling to me is that that truth was always there. From the earliest art (in Greece, in India—where I haven't been) to the latest, the power that survives is the accurately seen box, the knuckles of fingers. Nor am I knocking the Christian message—which I believe. But the past is summoned up in the castle of the Malatestas (Bad Heads)—with their fine machines of torture, surprise deaths of unthinkable horrificness. By coming to the grand old sites, I've learned to admire modern art. It's true that one must be precise—like the wonderful Bible illustrators in the Vatican library (on a book cover 9" × 9" a crowd of faces, each exactly observed), or that one may work grandly—huge columns statues, churches. But both the precision & the grandeur must celebrate humanness, not contrast with it. Because even if one believes in heaven, as I occasionally do, we don't know Heaven & it's none of our business. (Earth is the right place for love, etc.) So that for me, anyway, the value of seeing Greece & Rome is not that I come to feel deeply the power of our tradition but that I come to understand intuitively how much I hate the past. It's useful for writing. In Rome there's this church, Santa Maria Maggiore. It's very...


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