On Moral Fiction…

…is a book by John Gardner. It includes this line: “Art begins in a wound, an imperfection — a wound inherent in the nature of life itself – and is an attempt either to learn to live with the wound or to heal it. It is the pain of the wound which impels the artist to do his work, and itis the universality of woundedness in the human condition which makes the work of art significant as medicine or distraction.”

I mention it because of this profile of Maurice Sendak in the Times:

“That Mr. Sendak fears that his work is inadequate, that he is racked with insecurity and anxiety, is no surprise. For more than 50 years that has been the hallmark of his art. The extermination of most of his relatives and millions of other Jews by the Nazis; the intrusive, unemployed immigrants who survived and crowded his parents’ small apartment; his sickly childhood; his mother’s dark moods; his own ever-present depression — all lurk below the surface of his work, frequently breaking through in meticulously drawn, fantastical ways.

“He is not, as children’s book writers are often supposed, an everyman’s grandpapa. His hatreds are fierce and grand, as if produced by Cecil B. DeMille. He hates his uncle (who made a cruel comment about him when he was a boy); he hates anything to do with God or religion, and Judaism in particular (‘We were the “chosen people,” chosen to be killed?’); he hates Salman Rushdie (for writing an excoriating review of one of his books); he hates syrupy animation, which is why he is thrilled with Mr. Jonze’s coming film of his book ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ despite rumors of studio discontent.

“’I hate people,’ he said at one point, extolling the superior company of dogs, like his sweet-tempered German shepherd, Herman (after Melville).”


  1. cubeland Mystic says

    Big week for Melville here at Godsbody.

    I totally get both Gardner and Sendak.

  2. Michel Houellebecq also prefers dogs to people, though that may be the wrong way of putting it. He loves dogs because they can love him back unconditionally, and because dogs are structurally capable of natural happiness (whereas we aren’t, according to Houellebecq). He says he will not survive the death of his dog.

  3. Cubeland Mystic says

    This is good from the article. About awards.

    “Mr. Sendak is pleased with the coming birthday celebration, just as he is about his awards and honors, but in the end, he maintained, they don’t add up to much. They “never penetrated,” he said. “They were like rubber bullets.”

    It’s not that he isn’t grateful. “They made me happy, but at a certain point in your life, you see through them,” he said. “You don’t mock them, you don’t hate them, you feel sorry for them” — tiny, inert emblems that just aren’t up to the task of answering pressing questions about meaning, soul-touching greatness and durability.”

  4. That’s so sad, and a little creepy. It makes me see Sendak’s Little Bear cartoons in a different light. It’s as if the Bear family were the family he wished he had. But I don’t know if I buy that all art comes from wounds. Was Bach wounded? Maybe the point is we’re all wounded, or fallen, and the artist, by gift of God, knows how to bring art through the wound. That I might buy.

  5. This is sickly endearing. I, of course, mean save the God stuff (that should be in caps.)

    he sounds like a loveable, crotchety uncle….I love Where the Wild things are, especially where max is lonely and wants to be where someone loves him “best of all.”

  6. cubeland Mystic says

    Sendak did the illustrations in the books. A woman actually wrote the book. I am not sure he had much to do with cartoon series. I like the cartoon series.

    Bach wasn’t wounded but the God he worshiped and who inspired him was. So I think there is cause for partial buy-in. I don’t totally buy it either. I get it though.

    I think the wound is very valid though. Another person I imagine is not wounded is Thomas Kinkade. I really like Thomas Kinkade. That should be controversial here. I don’t know why. I just love his work. It is platonic space for me. Also, the guy on PBS who paints pictures on PBS usually on Saturday morning. The dude with the fro, and the pocket squirrel. He’s fairly unwounded. I get a big kick when slaps the brush against the easel. He makes me happy.

    I often think I can die any painful death for my children. If they would not suffer, I could volunteer for the wood chipper, on slow, feet first. Sure no brainer. So one could say that it is true that art begins in a wound. Christ’s wounds.

  7. Ernesto,

    I would only add this. Dr. Shields once said that all lyric poetry can be traced back to the Psalms. This says nothing about Gardner’s assertion as such (unless of course you consider lyric the bare bones of fiction), but it says a lot about the fact that even God – if we take thanksgiving, lamentation and petition three forms of that same sense of the wounded. While it’s true we still needed God in Eden, David makes it clear that we need him in a different way East of Eden. This is a long way about of saying that without original sin, the original wound, we have no real drama (which is why Jesus’ story never makes good copy in fiction). Now as far as lyric is concerned, the undergoing not the doing is the object, so we can more successfully sing about Christ (e.g. David’s songs) than we can tell his “story.”

    That all said, I think Gardner’s right, but I’m not sure Sendak is quite on the same page consciously. Still, he knows in his heart of hearts that hate as he will, there is a God.

    Unless he’s a fool who saith…etc.


  8. Footnote==

    A friend last night was telling me of her encounter with Sendak. She had heard he was a bit stand-offish with kids and her son was really excited about the signing.

    He asked the boy his name. When the boy responded, “Becket,” Sendak declared it to be a beautiful and meaningful name.


  9. “It is the pain of the wound which impels the artist to do his work, and it is the universality of woundedness in the human condition which makes the work of art significant as medicine or distraction.”

    This is so far, far away from art for the sake of raising awareness, or transgressing, or even art for its own sake…or whatever it is that artist people say they’re doing.

    I like this. No, actually I need this. Let’s save the world through creative acts of woundedness. I believe that when Christ said you will do even greater things than these, he meant putting oil to canvas as much as he meant putting food in the mouths of the hungry.

    I’m not sure if that includes Thomas Kinkade though.

  10. Cubeland Mystic says

    Little Becket encountered more wound. Standoffish. But then the acknowledgement of the name gives him away. I don’t believe that Sendak hates people. I think he hates the bad deeds of people. I think actually loves people. Haters bring pain not joy.

    I understand that the reason Andy Warhol painted Campbell Soup cans was because he was poor as a kid, and having enough food was something comforting. He represented this feeling of comfort as a Campbell soup can. I have no idea if this is true, I picked it up somewhere along the journey. I don’t feel like researching right now.

    Regardless, I grew in the exact polar opposite place than a Kinkade painting. When I see one it has the Warhol effect on me. I stumbled into a Kinkade gallery once, sat in front of a gynormous purple sunset cottage scene. The sales person did the thing with the lights, and the mystic went to his happy place.

    I am aware that there is a Kinkade machine, and perhaps even Chinese slave labor is turning out hand painted prints by the truck loads as I write. And when the demand for Kinkade decreases the excess slave laborers’ body parts are harvested. I realize that.

    Maybe his “art” gives hope that there is a candy colored flower lined path that leads to a little glowing cottage backlit by a purple sunset with wisps of cloud for me. A place where everything is organic, moist, and without wires. Where you start a wood fire to keep warm and smoke a pipe to pass the time. Perhaps Mr. and Mrs JOB stroll by to sit on the porch and watch the purple sunset and talk about pipe weed, unimportant minutia, while having a drink of good bourbon. Perhaps some cake. Send Mrs JOB home with an arm full of candy colored flowers and neatly tied bundles of herbs, and the Mr. with an extra bottle of good bourbon, and a tin of mac baren. Nevertheless, I do understand the difficulty of accepting his work as art.

    Have to go. Difficult to type from the happy place.

  11. Melissa Wiley says

    As a young editorial assistant at HarperCollins, I shared a cubicle with the even younger editorial assistant who worked for Mr. Sendak’s editor. Whenever Mr. Sendak came to town, it was this recent college grad’s task to book his hotel room. Among many details she was required to attend to was the procuring of precisely twelve feather pillows for his bed. I kind of love the idea of this crotchety misanthrope sinking with a sigh of comfort into a mountain of goose down.

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