Sunday, May 24, 2009


"Everywhere I go I'm asked if the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them."

Flannery O'Connor

Brad Gooch's economical biography of Flannery O'Connor (reviewed here by Christopher Benfey) suits its subject's concise literary style and externally uneventful life. It was a life dominated by her writing, her Catholic faith, and by the devastating lupus erythematosus that killed her at age 39 in 1964. By sheer temperament, she was a great original: contrary, self-contained, and highly creative from early childhood.

As Benfey suggests, with respect to her literary legacy, O'Connor's death may have been perfectly timed, perpetuating the tradition of genius tragically cut short. However, by her late 30's her short stories already weren't coming to her as quickly or as naturally, and she had become very much the literary sage, besieged constantly by curious well-wishers and by academic lecture series. Given that O'Connor's stories were variations on a theme to begin with, one wonder if she hadn't already conveyed the heart of her vision--what would thirty or forty more years have brought, really?

I went back and reread "A Good Man is Hard to Find," partly because it may be the single most famous of her stories, and also because it is available online. All of the O'Connor essentials are here in potent form: the tacky white-trash "protagonists" (if one can call them that); the heady brew of heat, squalor, and nostalgia that is the South; the mordant wit that makes reading her such a deceptively effortless experience; the preoccupation with evil and faith; and the eruption of death into the quaintly quotidian family adventure. Only the open brutality of the story's violence, usually more veiled in O'Connor's work, prevents it from being exemplary. The story is worth reading for the hilarious southern caricature of Red Sammy Butts alone (before reading the biography I didn't realize O'Connor had been a cartoonist in college, although it makes sense to me now).

One danger in reading O'Connor is that one so easily feels superior to her characters, who are typically an odious combination of gross ignorance, smug complacency, and breathtaking entitlement. The endlessly chattering and infinitely annoying grandmother of this story fits the profile. It is hard to avoid a certain schadenfreude when fools like these get their crushing comeuppance, as they usually do, and yet it may be that in provoking this wicked feeling, O'Connor is in effect making the reader complicit in the (original) evil that is inseparable from human nature.

The Misfit is as good a depiction of the psychopath as one can find--he seems genuinely perplexed by the moral categories that he seems unable or unwilling to fathom or to conform to: "I found out the crime don't matter. You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you're going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it." And yet his predicament is also the universal human one: "I call myself The Misfit," he said, "because I can't make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment." Indeed, the basic problem of the moral life--the problem of theodicy too--is that it ultimately isn't fair. And yet the Misfit makes the error of the fundamentalist, the purist, and the fanatic--if morality is not absolute, then it must be meaningless.

In her essay "Some Aspect of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction," O'Connor allied herself with Nathaniel Hawthorne as a writer more of "romances" than of conventional fiction. She wrote, "All novelists are fundamentally seekers and describers of the real, but the realism of each novelist will depend on his view of the ultimate reaches of reality." This seems crucial, as it is the nature of reality--physical, emotional, moral, spiritual--that is at issue in the arts. In an amusing anecdote, O'Connor objects to the notion of the writer as a supporter of social agendas or as an uplifter of public morale--she likens the writer to a porter who, "when he is given the function of domestic, he is going to set the public's luggage down in puddle after puddle."

The following seems a pretty complete statement of O'Connor's mission, and it explains to me why I find her work so compelling even though our theologies differ so completely:

On the other hand, if the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious, if he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself. His kind of fiction will always be pushing its own limits outward toward the limits of mystery, because for this kind of writer, the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where the adequate motivation and the adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted. Such a writer will be interested in what we don't understand rather than in what we do. He will be interested in possibility rather than in probability. He will be interested in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves--whether they know very clearly what it is they act upon or not. To the modern mind, this kind of character, and his creator, are typical Don Quixotes, tilting at what is not there.

That pretty much sums it up for me: the artist does not reflect reality--she furthers, deepens, and recasts reality, and this makes sense only in the context of Mystery. And O'Connor, along with Kafka, was one of the great moral and metaphysical comedians of the last century.


Anonymous said...

She seems to be saying that art starts where reality (which can only be experienced superficially) fails to explain - the language of the inexplicable. A bit like religion, really. The limits of unreason that can still be conceptualised/thought, but not reasoned into the context of reality, so they find their expression in art as possibilities. Everything is possible, but not probable. Even inverted systems of accepted morality that don't repulse. A skewed wonderland of mutable there-ness, perpetually out of reach.

Anonymous said...

Dear Doctor

One of the unknown aspects of
Flannery O'Connor's home life is
that She and her Mother lived in
the town with the one huge State Mental Asylum of Georgia.
That in itself blends the montage of good and evil in the creative mind along with as all of us who help the "insane" the absurd deal of life's circumstances.

Retriever said...

I find Flannery O'Connor painful to read because of characters like the Misfit. Odd that fiction affects me so. I am moderately brave in real life but a fraidy cat about imaginary stories. I leave the room during the suspenseful scenes in thriller when the protagonist is about to be ambushed.

And I think the reason is just as you express it "the artist does not reflect reality--she furthers, deepens, and recasts reality...."

Some of the Mystery at the heart of the universe is Love (God for us dogged believing Christians) and some of it is Evil, malevolence, blood hatred and ignorance. I think Eliot described our squeamishness rather well:

"Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present."

Because in "real" life, we can endure all kinds of things, distract ourselves, busy ourselves, obey orders or defy them, but to dive into the mystery of an imagined world is to mine reality and find strange creatures there. There be dragons....or the edge of the universe. Scary stuff. Perhaps best not to set sail too far from shore....

Anonymous said...

Yes She and her mom lived in Milledgeville GA a State mental
hospital town
I knew the family a little and as
she raised peacocks she left them to
The Monastery of the Holy Ghost in
Conyers Georgia where I presume eventoday the Monk'still sell the large eggs that are from those original non
Christian inhabitants of the Monastery.
The Monastery (sadly) dropped the name "Ghost" perhaps from all the
Hollywood aspects of the name? and it is now known as the" Mon.of the Holy Spirit".
Only 6 photographs of O'connor are
known to have been taken.
She embodied the Souther Writers
taste and passion in the heat of a Georgia like summer the odd and
the absurd amongst us ,the odd
in the familiar like seeing in
the hospital or at a beach an old Uncle's toes for the first time.

We all know it from other writers
like Carson McCullers.Tennesee
Williams,Eudora Welty and Capote.