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everything that rises must fall down and skin its knee

03.18.2013
Reading Flannery O’Connor As an Existentialist Individualist Layperson

 

Recently, I sat down and read Flannery O’Connor’s short stories (nearly all of them: the nineteen that make up her two collections, and a few others). Mostly, this took place on the subway, but also in cafes, at the park, settling into folding chairs waiting for readings to begin—i.e., places not so conducive to quiet reading. I can’t do this with many writers, but with O’Connor, it clicked.

If you’ve read any criticism on Flannery O’Connor, you’ve surely come across bushelfuls of trite essays concerning her “loaded” language, symbolic fervor, Southern gothic grotesquerie, endless capacity for the Christian parable, and apologies for the “mystery at the heart” of her stories. I’ve put these in the category of near-useless formulaic readings of good literature—along with other narrow-minded, overzealous Freudians, Marxists, Deconstructionists, Feminists, Intellectual Judaists, pretty much anybody with a plan.

O’Connor was a hell of a writer, and, along with being overbearing, cruel, and melodramatic, one of the most ironic and funny, even, at times, subtle. Her stories cut at the heart of the “artist”—the “intellectual” of the mid-century American era—as well as of the old Southern country establishment—uneducated, Christian, and white. O’Connor’s fictional world is famously narrow: the stories all take place in the rural South, nearly all deal with the conflict between generations, and particularly child versus (single) parent. O’Connor’s protagonist of choice is the frail or sick artist—which she of course was. Infirm for her most productive years, she died at thirty-nine, having recently completed a series of short stories that are some of the best you will ever read, and which were published posthumously as Everything That Rises Must Converge, in 1965. These stories, along with those collected in A Good Man Is Hard To Find (1955) dig at the petty lives, and minds, of their characters, full of jealousy and vanity, economic worry and spiritual grievance. The stories are truer in regards to tangled familial relations, individual ambition and the desire to ‘be somebody,’ and the conniving greed and jealousy of American capitalism, than any you are likely to read in American short fiction.

For some time I have been, like many others, hesitant to begin on this particular oeuvre, due to claims of heavy religiosity pulsing through the stories. (Personally, I thought this wasn’t such a problem; I love dearly various works of religious art, and enjoy the music of at least one overtly Christian rock band). But, now having read them, I was struck not by how much I cringed at the overtly religious, but by how little explicit religiousness there was.

Of course, this is true of some stories more than others (and in general the earlier stories more than the later). Yes. O’Connor was a deep-believing Christian. Questions of spirit and God’s will and the mysteries of sin and redemption fill her pages. Yet, these things are not the exclusive purview of Christians. All serious artists deal in some fashion with the transience of the human experience and our obligation to proclaim what it means to be alive before it’s too late. To focus solely on those churchy aspects of the stories betrays the depth and beauty of the lives they portray. To claim they come not from O’Connor’s prodigious talents as a craftsman in the tradition of Mann and Kafka, but from her religious theology is a misreading. (This is a little akin to a Christian band believing their songs are inspired by and in service of the love of God, when actually they’re direct descendents of the Kinks (4/4, 3 majors and a minor?), and their “congregation” the selfsame perennial teenaged girls.)

In one of her many astute essays on O’Connor, Joyce Carol Oates writes: “Not meant to be realistic or naturalistic, her fiction should be read as a series of parables.” And later, “she is understandable only in a religious context. If the reality of the transcendental world is denied, as it is in Faulkner and West and other existential writers, her literature becomes vulgar farce and is indecipherable.”

This is something I almost completely disagree with. The primary problem with the approach of the religious-context critics (and, just to be clear, Oates is not really one of them, something we’ll discuss a bit later) is that it only allows, like the simplest religious moralities, for a black and a white, two extremes between which one must choose. These critics seem to rely on the assumption that O’Connor wrote her stories with just this type of dichotomy in mind. Yet, if one takes this approach to the stories they become nearly unbearable to both sides. O’Connor has a hefty wrath for everyone, nothing and no one is entirely, or even partially, on the right path to grace and redemption. If we read these pieces without their nuance of character, without the very real contradictions and good-and-bad-together of the society they depict, the whole thing falls horridly flat.

The fact that they can be read as parables (again, some more than others), a (deceivingly) flat form, doesn’t deflect from their concurrent realism. There are more than a handful of critics who call her stories realistic. Indeed, it seems part of the problem with O’Connor is that we have so much baggage approaching her; we feel the need almost to call our shots before we make them.

Personally, O’Connor reminds me of no two so much as Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka. In her endless ruminations on a single theme (or themes—again, rural Southern life, child-parent relations, intellectualism vs spiritualism) she reaches the level of a pure aestheticism (by which I mean not amoral aesthetics, obviously, but in the sense of her particular art for its own sake). Like Mann, she can force the reader again and again into the same landscape, the same troubled characters and fraught interactions, without sounding pedantic or tautological. Her unrelenting digs at the inner life of the intellectual are, like Mann’s, often hilarious and absolutely drenched in irony—like a comedian continuing to beat a joke long after she could have let up, to the breathless delight of the audience.

Her bitter critiques of anything and everything, to the point of putting characters in situations at once outrageous and banal, is Kafkaesque to the core. Likewise her distrust in the ability of logic and rationality to answer any of life’s real pressing questions. O’Connor’s sense of this is on both sides of the spectrum—the impossibility of scientific/intellectual reason and logic on the one hand, and country spiritual or religious-mystical understanding on the other. Both fail in the end to bring any kind of happiness or practical knowledge. Though, personally, O’Connor believed that a commitment to the universal spirit of the Christian God would solve the paradox (usually by blind and painful faith), for her often conflicted and confused characters it is never that easy or resolute.

Another gift from Kafka is her aforementioned deft use of parable. At once a simple and deeply-engaging form, this allowed her to use layers of symbol and metaphor without devolving into garish (or, frankly, Biblical) prose. O’Connor’s parables, unlike Kafka’s, do not, in the end, force us to continue to wallow in profound confusion, but instead attempt to close each one with the onset of a religious order and grace-of-God-like universe. This frequently happens abruptly and, as noted by other critics, at times feels forced, like salient addendums on otherwise smoothly polished stories. (If one is reading from the position I take, the anti-religious-context position, these endings do not always leave a great taste in the proverbial mouth.) The endings, it seems, are one of the reasons Oates’ defense takes a decidedly religious position.

Many of the stories start with such invigorating style and humor and wit that they can’t help but lose steam as they progress. The best ones don’t, of course. But this happens too often to not suspect that at least some of the impetus to end quite a few of the stories with spectacular violence was a desire to reinvigorate the themes and plots with a force equal to that of the beginnings (one could argue that this was O’Connor’s point—O’Connor does, actually—but it’s not so much the outlandishness of the deaths or the violence itself, as the way in which it suddenly comes to pass, jolting not in the context of the story—which is good—but in that of the reader reading a story—which is not so good).

My favorites, all ridiculously well and originally written: “A View of the Woods,” “The Enduring Chill,” “Greenleaf,” “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” “The Displaced Person,” “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” And coming in close behind: “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” “The River,” and “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.”

“A Temple of the Holy Ghost” was the first I read that was near-flawlessly executed. “The Enduring Chill” is another nigh-perfect story. The ambitions and pretensions of the “artist” are here in full Mannian display. Biting self-criticism of the writer at work, the paralysis that comes with unfulfilled ambition (“She had managed after he died to get the two of them through college and beyond; but she had observed that the more education they got, the less they could do”), are portrayed beautifully. One also thinks of Kafka’s “The Judgment,” which likewise describes the impossibility of escaping the tyranny of one’s parents, and in a way equally comical to O’Connor’s. Nearly all of “The Enduring Chill” is funny. Only in the end does a more somber realization come down, a typical O’Connor usage of the redemptive (and in this case nearly literal) deus ex machina. It’s almost as if, after the tirade is over, all the outward-loathing and self-loathing, O’Connor tries to will herself to accept her condition via religious awe, an awe which has always been there but is too attached to the old genteel reviled father figures to be palatable to a young intellectual such as the main character. The story ends with this, beginning with one of the best sentences I’ve ever read:

It was then that he felt the beginning of a chill, a chill so peculiar, so light, that it was like a warm ripple across a deeper sea of cold. His breath came short. The fierce bird which through the years of his childhood and the days of his illness had been poised over his head, waiting mysteriously, appeared all at once to be in motion. Asbury blanched and the last film of illusion was torn as if by a whirlwind from his eyes. He saw that for the rest of his days, frail, racked, but enduring, he would live in the face of a purifying terror.

O’Connor’s eye for the good phrase, straightforward and devoid of convolution, is always present in the stories. Even the title, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” which evidently she found on a roadside sign—as in, ‘Slow down, drive safe, buckle up: The Life You Save May Be Your Own’—is itself so good and strange it’s a pleasure to ponder. Some other good ones:

She saw Bill Hill’s long happy face, grinning at her from the eyes downward in a way he had as if his look got happier as it neared the teeth. –“A Stroke of Good Fortune”

…all at once he felt the light pouring through him, turning his spider web soul into a perfect arabesque of colors, a garden of trees and birds and beasts. –“Parker’s Back”

Protected by their ancient institution, priests could afford to be cynical, to play both ends against the middle. –“The Enduring Chill”

…her eyes on the distant low-lying clouds that looked like rows and rows of white fish washed up on a great blue beach. –“The Displaced Person”

‘She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.’ –“A Good Man Is Hard To Find”

Some of the stories, like “The Comforts of Home,” are pretty poor. “The Lame Shall Enter First” was actually painful to read. Even “Revelation,” for me, is too straightforward a story in the light of these other masterpieces. It is one of the more childish/overtly religious, and overtly pedantic (though the brilliant ending, with its dusk visions and cricket-chorus of souls, makes up for a lot).

More often than not, it’s O’Connor’s subtle, small insights that get me. Not a bull in the gut, or a child beating an old man to death. On the level of gratuitous violence, O’Connor is frightfully succinct: You can be crushed at any moment. It’s a good lesson, but shouldn’t overshadow the many other lessons in her stories.

Oates brings up an important point, referring to Wise Blood: “The choice Motes wants to make, like modern man, is not between good and evil but between the reality of both good and evil, and nothing: for an absolute nothing would seem to insure man’s freedom.” This is an engaging idea (and why I say Oates is not with the other, hard-line religious-context critics). Certainly when reading the existentialists one begins to have doubts about the easy freedom therein prescribed. “It is not the devil they wish to defeat,” writes Oates, “but grace in them that prevents them from being ‘free.’”

O’Connor was born a Catholic, in a very Catholic family. As we all become our mothers and fathers, in our looks and mannerisms and the way we treat our children, O’Connor became religious. If this sounds too simpleminded to you look at her biography. She stayed in the South almost her entire life, with brief stretches in Iowa and New York. Her infirmity (not the least motivation to turn to religion) took her back and kept her there, under the oppressively loving and stern eye of her devout mother. To break out of her tradition, in other words, was not an easy task. O’Connor was frightfully intelligent, and chose to pursue her philosophical inquiries within the framework of the theological. The choice between “good and evil” and “nothing” was for her a more strenuous and complex one than for most believers. She was an original, even iconoclastic thinker in that capacity.

O’Connor practiced what Tom Perrotta has called “Feel Bad Christianity,” a misanthrope and a Catholic both. She absolutely loathed common, ignorant country Christians. An invalid like many of her characters, she dreamed of an escape that was impossible, and all the more destructive because of her keen mental capacity to dream up what it might be like. Here was a woman who was immensely frustrated, and doing her best to both fulfill an augmented destiny and take revenge upon a wasted life. To say she was not a satirist (and some do, it’s true) is beyond me. She digs into her characters. She is merciless with those who have artistic ambitions but not the will or ability to make them a reality—i.e. people exactly like herself. There is a terrible self-loathing pervasive in these works, and the embrace of an intellectual Catholicism (half bold intelligence, half retreat into her childhood religion) is not surprising under the circumstances. As Derrida claimed: “true believers experience atheism all the time, it’s part of their belief.”

As to the grotesquerie of O’Connor’s Southern characters: if this is grotesque it is so only to the urbane culturalist, fed on photoshopped magazines and celebrity worship (as if that were any less grotesque). O’Connor grew up around people who quoted from the Bible and said their daily “Beware the Devil”’s and prayed and fell into ecstasy. These are character studies. It’s the same as people who read Isaac Babel and say, “Wow, how intensely Jewish!” as if, on the one hand, a boy who grew up in Jewish Odessa would write about anything but, and, on the other, as if this matters greatly to the reader’s appreciation of the fiction. (It doesn’t.)

Then again, I am not from the South, and I am not a believer. I read her protagonists as involved in the struggle of all intellectuals. Empty intellectualism has forever been the onerous bedfellow of profound thought. There will be times one feels ineffectual or too shallow, as O’Connor writes, “taking everything in, giving nothing out” (“Why Do The Heathen Rage?”); pondering “so many sides of every question he could not move” (“Everything that Rises Must Converge”). O’Connor’s vision of purifying Holy Spirit does not strike me as a good alternative. In which case I guess the main problem is that I identify so completely with her intellectuals that no amount of gratuitous violence or Holy Ghost will convince me of her version of the deeper mystery. I don’t need this to appreciate her stories. The human lives and their delusions can be viewed no matter which side you’re on.

Oates writes: “There is no ultimate irony in her work, no ultimate despair or pessimism or tragedy, and certainly not a paradoxical sympathy for the devil. It is only when O’Connor is judged from a secular point of view, or from a ‘rational’ point of view, that she seems unreasonable—a little mad—and must be chastely revised by the liberal imagination.”

If by “secular” Oates means anything outside the Christian faith, I again disagree. O’Connor’s sense of the mystery of the world is akin to that of the outdoorsman. John Muir has passages like O’Connor; so does (another sometimes Catholic) Jack Kerouac, or for that matter (another Catholic and Southerner) Andre Dubus. There are moments in Nature (or “God” if we can separate the idea from Christianity) when one can feel its mystery force without the ability to rationalize it. It is, in those moments, too big, too vast for science or logic to comment on. It is as similar a feeling in cathedrals of stone as of pine. Reading “The River,” the child’s death is ridiculous, pathetic, based in ignorant childish belief, and yet, if there is the grace of God behind it, he will attain salvation for that belief. It is the same for every writer.

Irving Howe points out there are no surprises in O’Connor’s stories. They all move inevitably to an appropriate end, foreshadowed deftly and with incredible wit, but still so clearly that there is no sense of suspense for the reader beside the eager anticipation of a prophecy fulfilled, of a divine justice done. In this way, the craft of her stories is magnificent. Howe speaks to this, but says he likes stories that surprise better, that they have something ungraspable, indeed, sometimes irrational. But O’Connor’s vision is so unique, swift, and profound on multiple levels that, again like Kafka and Mann, it’s the very transparency of the tale that let’s us indulge in the technique.

Just leave God out of it. For me, O’Connor is too good a writer for her professed message of religious certainty. Much of it reads like an afterthought. As if her great ability to tell a story, to paint her characters, is strong enough to overshadow everything else, the fiction is it—or, in the words she writes to describe one of her many Flannery-like lost intellectuals: “as if in the midst of his martyrdom he had lost his faith.”

Flannery O'Connor

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One Comment
  1. Grant permalink

    Well done. I agree with almost all of it. For what it’s worth, if you ask me (and you didn’t), I would not have ventured into the commentary on the physically grotesque, as it cheapens your deeper points and hurts the ethos a bit, even if the point is then made that “it is so only to the urbane culturalist, fed on ridiculous magazines and celebrity worship (as if that were any less grotesque).” No need to make that obvious and shallow point in such a rich and deep essay, would be my suggested edit. The more casual reader who may disagree may jump on that as a way to discredit or deflect, missing the larger point.

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