Saturday, December 11, 2010

`She Put Her Finger Inside the Cup'

In her 1963 essay “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South,” first delivered as a lecture at Georgetown University ten months before her death, Flannery O’Connor writes:

“My own approach to fiction, at least when I have to talk about it, is very like the one Dr. Johnson’s blind housekeeper used when she poured tea. She put her finger inside the cup. I think that if there is any value in hearing writers talk, it would be in hearing what they can witness to, and not what they can theorize about. I think it would be in hearing what some of their larger concerns are—the really important things that make details fall into place without too much sinister calculation on the writer’s part.”

Theory, beyond question, is a dreary business, and O’Connor’s plain-spoken dismissal of writers spouting off is refreshing. What interests me more, though, is her use of the Johnson anecdote about Anna Williams (I wrote about O’Connor’s affinities with Johnson here). She was the daughter of a Welsh physician, Zachariah Williams, who, as John Wain writes in his life, belonged to “Johnson’s odd collection of friends.” The elder Williams “had a vein of originality, not to say eccentricity.” His daughter was three years older than Johnson and, Wain says, “a gifted woman with literary ambitions.” Another biographer, W. Jackson Bate, tells us she “wrote poems and knew French and Italian,” and became a companion to Tetty Johnson, the lexicographer’s wife, shortly before Tetty’s death in 1752.

She remained a member of Johnson’s household for the rest of her life, except for six years in her own lodgings. Even then, Johnson was her guest for a cup of tea each evening. Johnson enabled her to have cataract surgery, which proved unsuccessful. He raised £100 in 1766 by arranging for her writings to be published, and scholars believe some of the contents were written by Johnson. By all accounts Williams was a difficult person but Johnson’s devotion remained stalwart. He wrote of her in a letter after her death:

“Her curiosity was universal, her knowledge was very extensive, and she sustained forty years of misery with steady fortitude. Thirty years and more she had been my companion, and her death has left me very desolate.”

Johnson’s reserves of compassion, of simple human love, were immense. His houses served as informal ramshackle sanctuaries for Williams, his servant Frank Barber (Bate says “Johnson regarded him as though he were a son…”) and Dr. Robert Levet, about whom he wrote one of his finest poems. O’Connor makes no further mention of Williams and her blindness in the essay but in the sixth paragraph writes:

“No one taking part in these discussions [of Catholic writers in the South] seems to remember that the eye sees what it has been given to see by concrete circumstances, and that the imagination reproduces what by some related gift it is able to make live.”

Perhaps this picks up from O’Connor’s earlier mention of writers “witnessing,” conventionally a visual act. As Anna Williams’ blindness was the “concrete circumstance” she learned to live with, so too writers adapt by putting their fingers inside the cup of tea. In the essay’s final paragraph O’Connor writes:

“The poet is traditionally a blind man. But the Christian poet, and the story-teller as well, is like the blind man Christ touched, who looked then and saw men as if they were trees—but walking. Christ touched him again, and he saw clearly. We will not see clearly until Christ touches us in death, but this first touch is the beginning of vision, and it is an invitation to deeper and stranger visions that we shall have to accept if we want to realize a Catholic literature.”


William A. Sigler said...

Those are some shockingly thoughtful quotes from O’Connor. They not only extend upon your bracing post from yesterday, but open up a whole nest of questions about the gap between writer and reader. How does a blind person witness? How can readers “hear” a writer’s visions? What details are essential to the (unspoken and personal) theme and what are too-sinister calculations?

And how is all of this tied in to the idea of a Catholic writer in the Protestant South? O’Connor correlates the insight of the blind with the relative purity and mysticism of the Catholic faith, suggesting a deeper level of faith in the dangerousness of one’s visions is required to reach the state that separates a writer of spirit from one of society (a startling insinuation in itself, given the deep-seated animosity between faiths in the South).

I suppose I’ll have to read the whole essay, but I like the ambiguity left by these implications.

Fred said...

"I have since had reason to think that I was mistaken; for I have been informed by a lady, who was long intimate with her, and likely to be a more accurate observer of such matters, that she had acquired such a niceness of touch, as to know by feeling on the outside of the cup, how near it was to being full" (Boswell).