Saturday, June 18, 2011

Flannery O’Connor and The Necessary Dragon

St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in instructing catechumens, wrote: “The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.” No matter what form the dragon may take, it is of this mysterious passage past him, or into his jaws, that stories of any depth will always be concerned to tell, and this being the case, it requires considerable courage at any time, in any country, not to turn away from the storyteller.

— Flannery O'Connor (Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose)

Halfway into writing this little piece on Flannery O’Connor, I realized that I have a dragon to face. My anger at those who distort or fail to understand her fiction almost outruns my own deep appreciation of her work, which speaks to me with power every time I revisit it. My experience in reading any of her stories resembles the moment of revelation experienced by Mrs. Turpin in “Revelation.”

After an extremely humiliating experience in the doctor’s office, Mrs. Turpin is having a vision of all the saved marching into heaven. Ahead of her and her husband are a vast horde of “white trash, niggers, lunatics, and freaks shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and [her husband] Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they always had been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” It is this kind of shocked recognition of oneself that Flannery, who described herself as a Thomist hillbilly, delivers without apology in everything she wrote.

Dozens of sites on the internet recite the life and enumerate the works of Flannery O’Connor, the fierce and saintly little peacock-raising lady from Georgia whose stories shake the soul. In this essay, I want only to accomplish two things: to entice readers into actually reading her work, and to suggest why her stories have the effect they do. In a word, to return to the authentic purpose of literary criticism, which seeks to understand how the poetic vision achieves truth.

Writing anything about Flannery O’Connor with any other purpose is absurd. Briefly, ninety-five percent of the work of what Joyce Cary called the “literary crickets” is misleading because the critics fail to see what Flannery saw or to listen to what she said about what she saw. This is the case, despite this clear warning from the lady herself:

The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock -- to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures [emphasis added for the sake of emphasis].

Very simply, Flannery O’Connor is that bugaboo radio talk show hosts claim not to exist: the Christian terrorist, busy making bombs which will explode in your face. For this reason, her work is disliked and shunned by Catholic and Protestant sentimentalists (and relativists). At the same time, her work is praised, fawned over, and cleverly ignored through tiresome academic gobbledygook by modernists who admire the technology of her bomb making but deny the effect of the bombs. I speak as one who knows: in a previous century, I earned my doctorate in literary criticism and know these critters, as Huck Finn says, “by the back”; have lived and taught amongst them; and like Flannery O’Connor, see them as they probably are: tormented, frightened souls who need God as much as any southern sentimentalist.

Literary criticism as the art of judgment (Aristotle, Samuel Johnson) or as interpretation (the New Critics and their kin) is dead. Since western culture passed into the extermination ovens of the French nihilists (Foucault and his tribe), it has been replaced entirely in the academic world by a variety of ideological programmes for mental and spiritual destruction. Whether feminist, Marxist, post-structural, deconstructive, or multiculturalist in disposition, they are united in vitiating literature of any universalist value it has. Even law (constitutionalists, take note), medicine, and classics schools are infested with their antinomian rage against meaning. A friend of mine signed up for a course in literature only to meet a professor who described herself as a “post-Christian feminist.” Enough said.

Nevertheless, though my anger may very well point to my own deep flaws, permit me to inspect its cause. All those who find the fiction of Flannery O’Connor disturbing use the same word to describe their response: “disturbing.” Poor things, they are disturbed, which is precisely what Flannery O’Connor wanted them to be.

In addition to the literary witchdoctors, who avoid religion by avoiding religion, there are the religious naysayers. For Catholics who are no longer Catholics but say-hey glad-handers of the peace-and-justice variety who enjoy the Mass as group therapy, a plaintive note on the internet from a distraught parishioner may suffice to characterize their literary blindness. This poor soul said she wanted to donate some Flannery to her parish library but feared the “violence and the ‘n’ word” would disturb the parishioners. My goodness! A southern writer who uses the ‘n’ word! But we have left all that behind! For the other religious types who shy away from O’Connor, Peter Kreeft’s characterization of them in A Refutation of Moral Relativism is both succinct and apposite. They are members of an “American religion”—Protestant and Catholic—that “wants to make you feel good and comfortable, not to shock you or scandalize you.” In short, they are members of a religion that has become “as relativistic as society” and are, indeed, in need of being disturbed.

Finally, Flannery O’Connor’s fiction is misunderstood through a congenital cultural disability I will call Yankeeism, a sub-species of Modernism. Yankee readers (including the” New” Southerner) approach her fiction in pretty much the way anthropologists approach tribes that still have real religions, with fascination, disbelief, and a desire to exploit. When Flannery O’Connor approached Paul Engle, head of the Iowa Writers Workshop, she said, “My name is Flannery O’Connor. I am not a journalist.” She then explained that she wanted to be accepted into the Workshop. Engle’s first response was to ask her to write down what she said so he could understand her English. Well, she did write it down and continued to write it down, and the literary establishment, which adopted her as a sort of pet Southerner (but so disturbing!), has continued to miss her message until the present day.

In the museum devoted to twentieth century writers, they will have a special wing for exhibits devoted to the strange and forbidding, similar to the mummy Enoch Emery finds in the museum in O’Connor’s first novel, Wise Blood. Such displays might be: O’Connor, Flannery. 1925-1964. Primitive Catholic Christian gothic fictionist. Violent, God-obsessed. Rare, hopefully extinct. Next to the O’Connor exhibit will be one devoted to Undset, Sigrid, 1882-1949, Norwegian Catholic Medievalist, religious fanatic anti-Nazi, out-moded. And then, Waugh, Evelyn (male), 1903-1966, Crank Catholic Novelist, possibly a dangerous psychotic.

There is deep kinship here. These disturbing geniuses absolutely distrusted and rejected the modern world. Like J.R.R. Tolkien (now a pet fantasy writer profoundly misunderstood by damn near everybody) who, wounded in the first World War, rolled toward the wall by his hospital bed and turned his back on the modern world, they take us into visions of reality profoundly different from the ones the modern world pays obeisance to. All four hold in common a complete devotion to holiness as essential to human life and to the traditional Catholic Church with its sacraments as the way to obtain that holiness. In a word, they understood sin and salvation. Lacking their literary credentials, they all may very well have been clocked up in asylums.

As for Flannery O’Connor, what is most shocking to modern Catholics, Protestants, and literati alike, is constant underlying suggestion that certain grotesque southern characters may be closer to reality than the reader is, and that their opposites—with whom the modern reader might automatically feel kinship—are on the side of the devil. It’s that simple. In her very realistic portrait of the South (or stories about Original Sin, as she described them to a friend), O’Connor’s emphasis on violence is both physical and spiritual—a violent acceptance or rejection of the Word of God. The title of her final volume of stories, published posthumously, is The Violent Bear It Away, words taken from Jesus in Matthew 11:12 (Douai): “And from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence and the violent bear it away.” When asked about this, Flannery explained that “you got to press hard against the age that presses hard against you.” This is similar to the explanation given by St. John Chrysostom, who says that the violent “are those who have such an earnest desire for Christ that they let nothing stand between themselves and faith in Him” [Orthodox Study Bible].

O’Connor’s grotesques tend to divide into those who, like Francis Tarwater and Hazel Motes, struggle with that absolute desire to reject the modern world and choose God, and those who, like Hulga, Rayber, and the Misfit, violently reject God and Gospel because they fear the Truth.

The Christ-haunted figures the modernists reject as “grotesque” and “disturbing” represent everything that the modern secular humanist fears or despises. They believe in miracles; they take the Bible seriously; they believe in the reality of sin and the necessity of repentance; they absolutely distrust and reject psychology, sociology, and educationism (see note below); they consequently fear and distrust psychologizing and the manipulation of people’s minds; they are moral and metaphysical absolutists and sneer at relativism; and they are contemptuous of the materialism of modern American “culture.”

Thus far, the Protestant reader may sense a real affinity with O’Connor’s vision. But, dear descendants of Luther and Calvin, there is more. Over and over O’Connor suggests that her Christ-haunted characters evince a deep desire for the penitential way of the Cross and for the sacraments of the traditional Church. Her characters desire real baptism, real penance, and real Communion. They are like the “pole-sitters” and hermits of the desert era, as she suggests many times. Hazel Motes puts rocks in his shoes, wraps himself in barbed wire, and blinds himself as he struggles to realize the kingdom.

That is why, I believe, O’Connor deliberately chooses characters from the fringe movements in Southern Protestantism, from among the Bible-beaters, tent-revivalists, healers, and snake-handlers. In short, from the Pentecostalists of the backwoods, people who want to “get real” and are not likely to be happy amongst respectable conventuals of any denomination. They probably would not be happy amongst Novus Ordo Catholics with “nuanced” views. On a road trip in the 1990’s, I caught a Sunday broadcast in West Virginia on which I was astonished to hear a Pentecostal preacher issuing a challenge to the listener: “does your church give you the body and blood of Jesus Christ? Is your preacher saying the words that Jesus said and turning the bread and wine into His Body and Blood? Are you receiving the actual presence of Jesus like he said you needed to so you could have life within you?” He went on in this vein for many miles, making it clear that in his church, people had come to believe in the sacrament of the Eucharist as taught by the catholic churches. And as usual in Appalachia, I lost the station on a curve and could never find it again.

Like her disturbing characters, Flannery O’Connor believed and lived in the truth of Christianity. She was, as much as she could be in her illness, a daily communicant and a person much attracted to the spirituality of the desert fathers. My suggestion is, if I have piqued your interest at all, avoid the critics and the study guides which, like the devils, are legion. Instead, read “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “Good Country People,” “Everything That Rises Much Converge,” Wise Blood, and The Violent Bear It Away.

Prepare thyself to be disturbed.

[For Flannery’s acid views on modern educationism, see my article in the New Oxford Review:]


  1. "Yankeeism, a sub-species of Modernism." I laughed at this for 5 minutes! Well, I reckon I ought to read some O'Connor!

  2. Yes you most definitely should.

  3. ... wowie ah... you put nuanced in quotes that's a...that's interesting... Maybe i'm just a drug-crazed freaky moral relativist but I do actually think that nuance is important when dealing with you know supernatural decrees in the natural world. I mean just by virtue of the fact that so many serious religions exist and thrive and have roughly as much if not more evidence supporting them than catholicism; I found the tone of this essay a bit condescending and the style a bit meandering--it left me wondering if you actually understand O'Connor's works or if you have an agenda that you're using O'Connor to promote. I entirely agree with O'Connor's point about using violence and shock tactics to make things clearer and to catch the attention of the audience, but at the same time I wonder if you're not attributing more to the violent acceptance/rejection of Christ of some of her characters than there actually is. The Misfit, for example, from A Good Man is Hard to Find didn't strike me as someone who was violently rejecting Christ necessarily, but moreso someone who was confused by the possibility of relativism and subjectivity and didn't know how to have morals in the face of that relativism, given how unfairly he seemed to think he'd been treated by the universe, God, and the criminal justice system. That's not exactly a hard perspective to understand--bad things happen to people all the time whether or not they actually deserve them, just look at every 9 year old with Leukemia. So, yeah, I think you're coming down pretty hard on one side of an issue that demands nuance; there's a very good reason O'Connor's works are as interesting as they are and it's because it's not quite so cut and dry as every story boiling down to "God=good, you=bad". I would argue that A Good Man is Hard to Find is actually closer to saying something like goodness and purity is a continual practice--i mean just look at the family in the story, they're a bunch of assholes who don't really act like a family and the grandmother is the worst of them, she's a liar, she's obsessed with appearances and superficiality, she's manipulative, and she's so focused on race and social standing that she's genuinely stagnant in her views of the world. It's not like we're supposed to be rooting for her when the Misfit shoots her in the face, if anything we agree with him when he says "she would have been good if someone were to shoot her every minute of her life". I mean that right there is a very accurate assessment of her character--she didn't become a good person until she had to confront her mortality. It's like O'Connor is telling us that we can't wait to be good until we're forced to remember we're mortal, instead we need to be good all the time, we need to constantly remind ourselves of how important it is to be good, otherwise we end up like the Misfit, getting punished for something he doesn't even remember or understand, scared and confused at the first sign that maybe things aren't as objective or as black and white as they seem, maybe there's some multiplicity that we'll have to navigate. I think that's kind of what she means by including the Cyril of Jerusalem quote at the beginning--there IS a dragon on the side of the road and that dragon is our own worst selves