Sunday, December 29, 2013

Preaching to the Damned: Flannery O'Connor's Universe of Sinners

I have a framed picture of Flannery O’Connor on my wall at home. It’s a nice black and white close-up shot of Flannery smiling and looking off to the right. She’s wearing what looks to be a black dress. She has on horned-rimmed glasses and her teeth are a little crooked. She looks not unlike a middle school math teacher, the one you didn’t like. If you know anything about O’Connor’s work then the picture is a little surprising, in much the same what the yearbook photo of that same math teacher was always a little jarring: who knew she ever smiled?

Despite their humor, one might not guess from O’Connor’s stories that she ever smiled. There’s a hard edge to the humor in an O’Connor story, and how could it not be sharp when her stories deal with an unceasing parade of freaks, psychopaths, cripples, fanatics and wholly unsympathetic mother figures? Understand that I don’t mean any of this as a criticism. That geek show quality is what you should be looking for when you curl up with an O’Connor story for the night. If you like her, you’ll keep coming back to the well. If you don’t like her, one drink will probably do you for life.

I first discovered O’Connor in a creative writing class (isn’t it odd how we talk about our "discovery" of writers, as if they’re continents to be searched out, stumbled onto and explored for their riches?). The class had been assigned to read some other story, but I got the page numbers confused and read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by mistake.
How can one explain lightening striking? To paraphrase Bob Dylan’s comment on his discovery of Elvis: I read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and I knew I was never going to work a regular job again. I knew I wanted to be a writer. The discovery of certain writers sweeps away all the rational arguments against becoming a writer yourself. This was what O’Connor meant to me. “A Good Man is Hard to Find” dealt with the murder of a small family at the hands of a gang of thieves led by a religiously tormented philosopher/psychopath called the Misfit. I can’t say I understood O’Connor at the time, and, for that matter, I can’t say I understand her now. Greatness tends to inspire the desire to know and explain while robbing us of the ability. What matters, however, is not my understanding of the complex (and, sometimes, contrived) layers in O’Connor’s work. What matters is that O’Connor was the first writer I ever read whose vision of the world—religious, tormented, flawed—was skewed rather close to my own. It wasn’t the gun in the Misfit’s hand that made the story interesting for me, it was the thoughts in his head, the doubts about life and death and the haunting assertion that Jesus had achieved victory over both.

The irony, of course, is that O’Connor was a Catholic and her stories were suffused with her Catholicism. I was still a fundamentalist Southern Baptist when I discovered her, and yet it seemed to me that O’Connor was somewhat Baptist, even fundamentalist, in her worldview. She imagined a world in which an old woman can find grace as three bullets are fired into her scrawny chest. And what can I say but that this somehow appealed to me. I’m not advocating the shooting of old women, of course, not even for evangelical purposes. No, I think old women—and young women, and little girls, and males of all ages—should probably be left unshot, ungored and unbeaten, even by agents of God’s will. O’Connor would doubtless consider me weak. But what appealed to me in her work was not so much the violence unbelievers and backsliders had to endure, as much as it was the spiritual landscape they were made to transverse. In O’Connor’s world no one laughs off matters of faith for very long. Part of the virtue of her fiction is that she saw everyone as essentially corrupt. There are no paragons of virtue—no dewy eyed virgins or kind hearted old men from whom the wicked are forced to learn pious lessons. In O’Connor’s world, every man, woman and child is a sinner and the battle between the flesh and the spirit, between pride and grace, is never easy.

These reflections were inspired, at least in part, by the recent publication of A PRAYER JOURNAL, a collection of prayers and private religious reflections that O’Connor wrote between January 1946 and September 1947. She was only twenty years old when she began the journal, but in it her personality as a writer (acidic, pious, and fiercely intelligent) already seems fully formed. It’s an incredibly intimate look at her mind, a record of her most sacred meditations. We see her wrestling with her faith: “Dear Lord, please make me want you[…]There is a want but it is abstract and cold[…]” And we see her beseeching god for help: “Dear God, I am so discouraged about my work[...]Help me with this life that seems so treacherous, so disappointing.” In the best sense, the book shows her to be the Flannery O’Connor one would expect.

It’s impossible to read her prayer journal without reflecting on her fiction. The universe she created was full to bursting with preachers, fanatics and unbelievers. Unbelievers had it the worst, of course. I think of poor atheistic Sheppard in “The Lame Shall Enter First.” He takes in a boy preacher/thief as a good deed and pays dearly for his act of kindness. Didn’t that poor bastard know he was in O’Connor land? Could he possibly hope to survive the story unscathed? Not only was he an atheist, but he was a humanist, and Flannery O’Connor—at least in the godlike role of creator of her fictional universe—would not abide an optimistic belief in the human being. On some level, we were all Enoch Emery to Flannery. Enoch, the hero of “Enoch and the Gorilla,” (if "hero" is not too ironic a term for the main character in an O’Connor story), is one of her finest creations, an idiot obsessed with a man in a gorilla suit outside a movie theater. The story works as a dark comedy, but O’Connor’s critique of the theory of evolution, her critique of the idea that humanity could possibly have improved, is scathing. It’s damn near scalding. The story is one of her masterpieces (and it works even better as a segment in her novel WISE BLOOD), but it really is ripe with a contempt for humanity.

Oh, but I’m possibly making it sound as if I don’t like O’Connor, as if she’s some drag. She’s not. Few writers are as darkly funny, as quick to pop every imaginable pretension in the service of truth, and few writers are as interesting. As Harold Bloom once pointed out about her less than charitable view of the human race, you simply have to accept that O’Connor sees you as one of the damned, and then you can enjoy her. Another way to put this is that you can savor O’Connor’s talent for constantly pointing out the absurdity and hypocrisy of others as long as you’re aware that she wouldn’t cut you any slack, either.

What does it say about her that you have to make that bargain? The woman herself is lost to the fiction she created. O’Connor’s personality wasn’t nearly as large as her fiction. “There won’t be any biographies of me,” she once claimed “because lives spent between the house and the chicken yard don’t make for exciting copy.” She seems to retreat to the back of the room and stare at us over her glasses, muttering under her breath about hell and sin and God’s terrible grace. Despite the admirable biographical work that’s been published, what she was actually like remains cloaked in time, that great devourer of all but a few personalities.

What we have left are her stories, their perfect construction, their craftsmanlike prose (O’Connor wrote the cleanest sentences in the business), and their humor. And, every so often, their humanity. When you read something like “Good Country People” you can’t help but feel sorry for Hulga, the one-legged atheist. Her seduction by a Bible-selling nihilist named Manly Pointer is viewed by the author as a rightful comeuppance, but Hulga is a sad figure nevertheless.

The most striking element of the story for me is the scene where Hulga and Manly Pointer are in the barn. They’ve retreated there for a little good, old fashioned sinning. But when they kiss there’s a curious disconnect. There’s nothing erotic about it. In fact, I can’t think of a single erotic moment in any of O’Connor’s work. For that matter, I can’t think of a single moment of unfettered tenderness in O’Connor’s fiction. You read her work and it’s possible to ask yourself: did Flannery O’Connor ever kiss a boy? There’s nothing in “Good Country People” to indicate the author ever snuck out to the barn for some sweaty necking. In fact, there’s nothing in her work as a whole which would indicate O’Connor ever regarded physical interaction with anything other than suspicion. In A PRAYER JOURNAL, she writes disdainfully of sex and only a slightly less disdainfully of romance. “Man’s desire for God is bedded in his unconscious and seeks to satisfy itself in the physical possession of another human. This necessarily is a passing, fading attachment in its sensuous aspects since it is a poor substitute for what the unconscious is after.” For O’Connor, sex seemed nothing more than a temptation to be avoided. (The funniest lines in her prayer journal: “Today I have proved myself a glutton—for Scotch oatmeal cookies and erotic thought. There is nothing left to say of me.”) To judge by her fiction, her revulsion at  the natural world only grew stronger once she became ill with the lupus that would claim her life when she was thirty-nine.

When a reader engages with her fiction, one is in the company of an imagination shaped, at least in part, by religious fanaticism. That’s not a negative judgment. O’Connor possibly would not be as great a writer if not for that fanaticism. Her imagination is, after all, twisted. All I know of how she saw the world is how she wrote about it, and she wrote about it like it was a carnival of freaks.

It’s telling, perhaps, that her most overtly sexual story is a) called “The Temple of the Holy Ghost” and b) climaxes in a sad, scary scene with an intersex person used as a freak show hermaphrodite. Sex in her work always seems like a strange aberration, a disruption of the natural world rather than a part of it. Perhaps to the author it was. At one point in A PRAYER JOURNAL she records, “The desires of the flesh have been taken away from me. For how long I don’t know, but I hope forever. It is a great peace to be rid of them.” We can’t know how long her peaceful reprieve lasted, but for the remainder of her life her intellectual and emotional relationship to the desires of the flesh never seemed less than adversarial.

The publication of her prayer journal is a fascinating look inside the mind of a young writer who prayed, “I want to be the best artist it is possible for me to be, under God.” At the very least, this prayer was answered.  

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