Friday, June 03, 2005

The Christ-haunted South and Shouting

"To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man..."

Through her writings, Flannery O'Connor is known for many things, one of which is a theological vision of man, a theological anthropology. Which is why she finishes the above sentence with "... and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological."

Yet, perhaps a more famous comment of hers is the clarification that the South is not so much Christ-centered as it is Christ-haunted:

I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn't convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God.

(Flannery O'Connor, "The Grotesque in Southern Fiction")

I was reminded of these words of hers as I read the following article by Russell Shaw in honor of the 40th anniversary of her book of stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge.

O’Connor’s Shocking Truths
06/03/05 by Russell Shaw

"She was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true."

It's hard to imagine anybody writing that sentence, with its splendid mixture of dead-pan humor and barely suppressed indignation, except Flannery O'Connor. It occurs in "Greenleaf," one of the stories in the collection of O'Connor tales called Everything That Rises Must Converge, first published in 1965, the year after her death.


Flannery O'Connor was a Southerner and a Catholic, and both of those things served her well as a writer. Catholicism provided her with a theological vision of life. The South supplied a cultural setting in which the acting-out of such a vision by people ill-equipped to grasp it was a believable, if not exactly normal, occurrence. "All of my stories," she explained in one of her remarkable letters, "are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it."

Some people find reading O'Connor an upsetting experience, and it's easy to see why. Brutal, shocking violence often is central to the stories she tells. So, in Everything That Rises, a nine-year-old girl attacks her grandfather and he kills her, an elderly farm woman is gored to death by a bull belonging to her hired man's sons, a small boy mourning his dead mother hangs himself. This isn't light entertainment for the beach.

Why did she write about such disturbing things? The answer, she once explained, lay in the peculiar problem that today confronts "the novelist with Christian concerns."

"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."

There's no comprehending O'Connor without reference to the fact that she was a committed Catholic. "I write the way I do because and only because I am a Catholic," she said. "I feel that if I were not a Catholic, I would have no reason to write, no reason to see, no reason ever to feel horrified or even to enjoy anything…. Being a Catholic has saved me a couple of thousand years in learning to write."

O'Connor was 39 when she died. It's tempting to speculate on what she might have written had she lived. As it is, her achievement was enormous. She was, quite simply, one of the very finest writers of her generation and with Walker Percy, who died in 1990, one of two world-class American Catholic fiction writers of the last half-century.

O'Connor and Percy have had no successors so far, and none is currently in sight. Literature is the product of a culture as well as individual genius, and the collapse of the American Catholic subculture that set in around the time of Flannery O'Connor's death appears to have been inimical to literature as well as to faith.


BP said...

There's a big debate going on over at Church of the Masses about the death of Catholic subculture. (Under the title "IF WE CAN'T BEAT DA VINCI, CAN WE JOIN 'EM?".)

It's a bit depressing, but maybe it'll spur some people on to change that. Certainly has returned some grip to my resolve.

Dymphna said...

Flannery O'Connor is true genius. I like to take her stories apart just to look at the skeleton, never mind all the juicy flesh of her jokes and asides.

Don't think there have been too many "Catholic" writers (who were any good) though you forgot Waugh, and Graham Greene and maybe Allan Tate and Mary Gordon.

Here's a good article on the issue, and it mentions the difference between what converts write vs. native Catholics. Also sorts out the European vs. the American.

A different discipline: The American Catholic novel

Catholics are not so ghettoized as they once were. My guess is that they still exist but are not so obviously "about" Catholicism. Rather they deal with the mystery of redemption on all its levels. As O'Connor said, it's the ability to look into the face of evil and see more than that.

I have no idea what Anne Tyler's religious beliefs are. Her novels are about redemption, though. The redemption of everyday life. The sanctity of the quotidian, maybe?

It's a good thing "Catholic" literature is hard to identify. It means it's really literature.

People seeing and reading "Lord of the Rings" have no idea, do they?

BTW, the only one who even partly succeeded in being overt was Charles Williams. Even then, it's only partial.