Sunday, March 15, 2009

`It Grows Along with Knowledge'

I almost wept as I finished reading Brad Gooch’s Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor. I knew the rough outlines of her life and have loved her fiction since a high-school teacher in 1968 loaned me a college anthology of stories, including “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” That reading, late on a school night in my bedroom, is among the most memorable of my life. I know it was a school night because I couldn’t get to sleep afterwards and was groggier than usual the next morning.

O’Connor lived with lupus for the final third of her life, until it killed her at age 39. The horror of premature death looms throughout Gooch’s book. Since finishing the biography I’ve been rereading O’Connor’s stories which seem the best written by an American. Children, I’ve noticed, show up often in her stories, as innocents and monsters (more often the latter), especially in light of my own recent return to the classroom. Gooch quotes a letter O’Connor wrote her friend Betty Hester in 1960, reacting to a suggestion she write about a Georgia girl with a cancerous tumor on her face, who died at age 12:

“What interests me in it is simply the mystery, the agony that is given in strange ways to children.”

Spend enough time around sick and damaged kids and you come to share some of O’Connor’s understanding. Gooch also quotes a 1963 letter from her to the poet Alfred Corn, developing the theme of mystery”:

“Mystery isn’t something that is gradually evaporating. It grows along with knowledge.”

That confirms my recent experiences. By way of telling a joke O’Connor would have enjoyed, visit this blog, which may or may not be a parody. Either way, it’s too horrible not to laugh at.

ADDENDUM: Dave Lull passes along much excellent supplementary material:

"Your posting got me thinking about another Christian novelist. D. Keith Mano, in `Reflections of a Christian Pornographer' (Christianity and Literature, Spring 1979, v28 n3, pages 5-11) tried to explain why `[f]or any serious Christian writer the obscene, the grotesque, the violent seem almost prerequisite.'

"He quoted from an essay in Flannery O'Connor's Mystery and Manners, in which she explains what Mano calls the Christian novelist's `special alienation' in an age so unlike Dante's, i.e. in an age where, according to Mano, there is not for the Christian writer a "prodigious consensus of emotion and shared symbolism':

"`When I write a novel in which the central action is a baptism, I am very well aware that for a majority of my readers, baptism is a meaningless rite, and so in my novel I have to see that this baptism carries enough awe and mystery to jar the reader into some kind of emotional recognition of its significance. To this end I have to bend the whole novel-- its language, its structure, its action. I have to make the reader feel, in his bones if nowhere else, that something is going on here that counts. Distortion in this case is an instrument; exaggeration has a purpose, and the whole structure of the story or novel has been made what it is because of belief. This is not the kind of distortion that destroys; it is the kind that reveals, or should reveal.'

"`Our salvation is a drama played out with the devil, a devil who is not simply generalized evil, but an evil intelligence determined on its own supremacy. I think that if writers with a religious view of the world excel these days in the depiction of evil, it is because they have to make its nature unmistakable to their particular audience.'

"`The novelist and the believer, when they are not the same man, yet have many traits in common-- a distrust of the abstract, respect for boundaries, a desire to penetrate the surface of reality and to find in each thing the spirit which makes it itself and holds the world together. But I don't believe that we shall have great religious fiction until we have again that happy combination of believing artist and believing society. Until that time, the novelist will have to do the best he can in travail with the world he has. He may find in the end that instead of reflecting the image at the heart of things, he has only reflected our broken condition and, through it, the face of the devil we are possessed by. This is a modest achievement, but perhaps a necessary one.' (pages 7-8)

In particular, Mano tries to explain his artistic need to use `obscenity'; here's a sort of summary of his rationale:

"`I warn you: don't construe me too suddenly. I'm about to say that the Incarnation, to our purblind and literal human understanding, must be-- yes-- obscene. The evidence is clear: the holy, incorruptible and flawless Light did choose by a glorious whim to partake of human fraility. And, worse, flesh. What a falling off was there: I speak as a fool. To be perfect and yet unsatisfied. By comparison no mere human act could equal it for sheer plummeting depravity.'

"`For any serious Christian writer the obscene, the grotesque, the violent seem almost prerequisite.' (page 5)

"`. . . if there is anyone with whom I feel a blood brotherhood, whose purposes and tactics are mine, it is-- not a fiction writer-- but the poet John Donne.' [He quotes "Batter my heart, three person'd God" (] `In that holy sonnet I could rest my case. For only the sexual act can approach-- in its wild animal consummation-- the working of God's love in the human soul. Match that with St. John of the Cross: you know who is the greater poet. And who the greater mystic. Though their language and imagery are similar, Donne and St. John begin from different starting blocks, different premises. John has attained and needs to express. Donne needs to express so that he-- and his readers-- might hope to attain.' (page 10)

"`In a profane age, the profane must be taken unawares and in their own tongue.' (page 10)

"`You might say that the end, doubtful as it is, cannot justify the means. But the Flood was a means. Saint Paul's blindness. And the crucifixion. God does not go gently into our self-imposed night.' (page 11)"


R/T said...

It is better to read Flannery O'Connor and ignore Read Red's axe-grinding excoriation. Read Red completely misunderstands O'Connor (and for that matter so do many other people simple fail to get it); however, it would be too much to expect an avowed Communist to comprehend O'Connor's fervent Roman Catholicism, particularly as it is revealed in O'Connor's fiction and letters. I would agree with you--up to a point--about Brad Gooch's excellent biography. However, Gooch failed, I think, to give sufficient focus to O'Connor's Roman Catholicism and her faith's impact on her fiction. I think Gooch is uncomfortable with that connection, so he tends to minimize it and instead uses O'Connor's disease as the underlying catalyst for her fiction (which is, in my humble opinion, a misreading of O'Connor's work).

Anonymous said...

The only O'Connor i've read is 'Wise Blood', which was terrific. i don't recall any racism but then i'm not on the look out for it.

It's strange how the only people who seem to go on about racism are white people (i'm half-Indian). i can't remember a single non-white, in my life, who's ever complained about racism. i don't mean they don't think they have a right to complain - they just don't notice it, or if they do they dismiss it without a thought. Even my father, who as an Indian born in 1931, received a great deal of racist abuse, didn't harp on it as much as white people do. Strange.

Of course, i guess i'm being racist by using the phrase 'white people'.

TS said...

There's another review of the book here, if interested: