Friday, June 7, 2024



The title of Flannery O'Connor's 1960 novel THE VIOLENT BEAR IT AWAY comes from the Gospel of Matthew (11:12), but as I reread O'Connor's book recently, I was reminded more of the Gospel of Mark.

Mark differs from the other gospels in being shorter, leaner, and less expository. It has no virgin birth. Indeed, starting out, it tells us nothing at all of Jesus's early life. In Mark, Jesus simply appears among the anonymous throng of people coming from Galilee to be baptized by John the Baptist in the wilderness. Upon being baptized by the prophet, however, Jesus is immediately driven into the wilderness by the Spirit. "And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan, and was with the wild beasts." When he returns, he begins a ministry of exorcism and faith healing that he tries, repeatedly, to keep secret. While the Jesus of Mark does some teaching (though far less than in the other Gospels), he is more a man of action. And that action tends to be confronting a world of demons (including the infamous demon collective known as Legion). At the end, Christ is crucified and dies alone uttering the final words "My god, my god, why have you forsaken me." The oldest copies of Mark didn't even have a resurrection appearance. The book ended originally at Mark 16:8, with women coming to the tomb, finding it empty, and running away. The final verse reads, "Trembling and bewildered, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid."

THE VIOLENT BEAR IT AWAY is no Christ allegory, and I don't mean to imply that its story resembles the plot of Mark's Gospel. But O'Connor's second novel (like her first, WISE BLOOD) is obsessively focused on what she once called "the action of grace in ground held largely by the devil." One need only to read Mark again to see that this also happens to be the central thrust of that evangelist's narrative. 

O'Connor's novel follows Francis Marion Tarwater, a young man running away from his calling to be a prophet. The action of the novel hinges on the death of Tarwater's great-uncle, a wild-eyed fanatic who kidnapped the boy years before and raised him in a cabin the woods, preparing him to be a prophet. When the old man dies, however, the boy tries to shrug off his calling--getting drunk and burning down the old man's house--then heads into the city to see his other uncle, an atheist schoolteacher named Rayber. But Francis finds himself fighting the urge to baptize Rayber's young son Bishop, an act that itself was prophesied by the old man before his death.   

Although WISE BLOOD and THE VILOLENT BEAR IT AWAY share many characteristics--both are about young men attempting to run away from God, both are darkly comic, and both are unmistakably the work of a Catholic author filtering her vision through the lens of Southern Protestant fundamentalism--the second book more closely resembles Mark's vision of a demonic world. If WISE BLOOD is about a man tormented by God's grace, THE VIOLENT BEAR IT AWAY is about a man tempted by Satan and his devil possessed followers. The ghostly 'stranger' who appears at Tarwater's side, whispering in his ear to forsake his calling to preach, takes a physical form in the book's penultimate chapter, when a hitchhiking Tarwater is picked up, drugged, and raped by a stranger in a lavender suit. In the dense symbolism of the novel--the stranger takes both Tarwater's prized hat and a corkscrew bottle opener given to him by the atheist schoolteacher--Tarwater is stripped of everything he has relied on and is left naked in the woods.

This last part reminded me of two of the strangest lines in Mark--indeed, two of the oddest lines in all of the Bible--verses 14:51-52. At the Garden, when Jesus is being arrested and all his disciples have abandoned him, we are told "And there followed him a certain young man having a linen cast about his naked body, and they laid hold on him. And the young man left the linen cloth, and fled from them naked." Who is this young man? Why is he the last one with Jesus, and why is he dressed only in a sheet? Why is Mark the only writer to report his existence? We're never told, but it bears repeating that Mark is a strange, cryptic book compared to the other Gospels. In this book, where secrecy is the coin of the realm, mysteries remain intact because the narrative is more about mystery than revelation.

Like the naked young man in the Garden, Tarwater flees, and he returns to the ashes of his great-uncle's burned down house. He hears a call to "GO WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCY." Smearing himself with dirt from the old man's grave, he prepares to begin his journey "toward the dark city, where the children of God lay sleeping."

In both O'Connor's novel and Mark's Gospel, the prose is pared down and spare, working in the service of a vision rich in dark symbolism and mystery. Neither author reveals all they know. Or, perhaps a better way to put it is this: for both Flannery O'Connor and Mark the Evangelist, the mystery is the revelation.    



1 comment:

patrick said...

As you probably already know, many speculate the young man is Mark himself