Monday, July 31, 2006

Flannery O'Connor: Questions and Answers from Beyond the Wood

One morning some months ago I woke suddenly, inexplicably impressed with the idea that I needed to read something by Flannery O'Connor. It seemed a strange impulse; I hadn't read or given much thought to O'Connor's work in years. I was introduced to her stories by Prof. Stanley Trachtenberg, whose Harvard Summer School course, American Short Story, I took in 1987. I could recall some vivid imagery from "Good Country People", and when I found the course text on the bookshelf in the living room, my notes confirmed I'd read that story and another in the collection, "Judgment Day", during that halcyon summer that now seems so very long ago. A week or so later, when our annual family vacation took us back to Cambridge once again, I found a Signet Classic, Three By Flannery O'Connor, in the basement of a bookstore on Mass. Ave. across from the university.

Flannery O'Connor occupies a special place, a unique place, in American literature, and her body of work, though small, seldom disappoints. One scholar, Patrick Galloway, has written that O'Connor achieves what no other Christian writer ever has, "a type of writing that stands up on both literary and the religious grounds, and succeeds in doing justice to both", with a "seamless narrative style that breathes not a word of agenda, of dogma, or of personal belief." Another, Douglas Jones, writes, "Flannery O'Connor is easily the most important and talented and self-consciously Christian short story author of the twentieth century. Nobody else is close. I've seen her stories revolutionize people's lives, and yet most Christians have never even heard her name." Yet there is more of the influence of Flannery O'Connor in American life and popular culture than many of us realize. Her first novel, Wise Blood, which she began in 1947 while working as a teaching assistant at the University of Iowa after earning her MFA in the Writers Workshop, was adapted to film by the late, great John Huston in 1979. Anyone who is familiar with O'Connor's work and who has seen The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a powerful 2005 film drama written by Guillermo Arriaga and directed by Tommy Lee Jones, who also starred in the film, may have been reminded of O'Connor's use of the grotesque. This should not surprise, as Jones wrote his senior honors thesis at Harvard on O'Connor's fiction 1. Alice Walker, who credits her with being the first great modern writer from the South, has written of O'Connor's fiction: "If it can be said to be 'about' anything, then it is 'about' prophets and prophecy, 'about' revelation, and 'about' the impact of supernatural grace on human beings who don't have a chance of spiritual growth without it." A posthumously published book of O'Connor's occasional prose, selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald and titled Mystery and Manners, includes essays, lectures, and articles that are undoubtedly among the most interesting, insightful, and compelling ever written about the art and the craft of fiction writing.

In any case, O'Connor wrote about what she knew best, and what she knew was the South, its culture and its manners, and the grace of a loving God. Her fiction, two novels and thirty one stories, reveal the grace of God at work in the lives of people caught up in sudden and surprising violence, ruthless brutality, terrible confusion, stultifying ignorance, obdurate selfishness, galling stupidity, and potentially soul-destroying sin. One of many on-line resources dedicated to O'Connor describes as "masterful" her "explorations of religious themes and southern racial issues" featuring "absurd situations and grotesque southern characters of varying psychological extremes."

On its surface, Flannery O'Connor's world is often dark, stark, and brutal, and many of her characters are ugly, grotesque, deluded, selfish, and evil, not unlike the world we see before us today and some of those who act as if they own and operate it. But O'Connor's world is not what it seems. Like Jesus, who loved even his enemies, O'Connor loves her ugly, grotesque, deluded, selfish, evil characters. If O'Connor's dark grace is relentless, and it is, if it hunts down her characters, and it does, isn't that a reflection of spiritual reality? "The fact that souls are lost only increases the interest of the heavenly Father" 2. ". . . the Father and his Son go forth to search for those who are lost, and in this search we employ all influences capable of rendering assistance in our diligent efforts to find those who are lost, those who stand in need of salvation" 3. Though "It is true that wisdom does often restrain his love, while justice conditions his rejected mercy" 4, by all means let's be clear here: God's grace is not itself violent. "God is never wrathful, vengeful, or angry" 5. Injustice, cruelty, and violence are inevitable results of God's endowment of imperfect intelligent creatures with creative free will. O'Connor's dark grace reminds us that even in the very midst of man's inhumanity to man, God's immutable love, mercy, and grace are present.

In Flannery O'Connor's world, grace is likely to visit smug, selfish Southern Christians suddenly, violently, and when they least expect it. Much of the action in "Revelation," a near-perfect gem and the last story she saw appear in print before she died at the age of 39 of lupus, O'Connor set in a doctor's waiting room. The unlikely agent of grace in "Revelation" is a fat, ugly, surly teenager, a Wellesley College freshman with a bad case of acne. Her name is Mary Grace, and we find her "scowling into a thick blue book . . . entitled Human Development." The central character, spiritually blind and in need of salvation, is Mrs. Ruby Terpin, a supremely self-satisfied Christian lady who considers herself superior by virtue of her religion, her race, and her position in the community. She and her husband Claud own a home, a few acres where they grow cotton, and raise some chickens, hogs, and white-face cattle. Sally Fitzgerald, who edited her friend Flannery's letters, described Mrs. Terpin as "a country pharisienne, a monument of complacency and self-congratulation, who observes and categorizes the others according to a system of her own that reflects all too sharply the social stratifications more widely accepted than most of us would like to think" 6. Like all who see themselves as especially and, perhaps, exclusively favored by God, Mrs. Terpin has lost sight of the fact that the heavenly Father loves all his children, without favoritism. Though she does not know it and would never guess, Mrs. Terpin is in need of a vision of living faith that recognizes every man as a brother, every woman as a sister.

Mrs. Terpin's encounter with grace explodes in violence as she speaks to Mary Grace's mother and others in the doctor's waiting room, saying, "When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, 'Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!' It could have been different!" As Ruby Terpin revels in emotion that takes the form of a prayer of thanksgiving but is in reality utterly selfish, without warning Mary Grace hurls the thick blue book at her, striking her "directly over her left eye." Suddenly the enraged girl's fingers are sinking "like clamps into the soft flesh" of the ample Mrs. Turpin's neck. When finally the girl's mother and the doctor pull the teenager off and restrain her, Mrs. Terpin leans forward until she is "looking directly into the fierce brilliant eyes. There was no doubt in her mind that the girl did know her, knew her in some intense and personal way, beyond time, place, and condition. 'What you got to say to me?' she asked hoarsely and held her breath, waiting, as for a revelation."

"The girl raised her head. Her gaze locked with Mrs. Terpin's. 'Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,' she whispered." The words strike home.

In the afternoon, back at her small prim house surrounded by flower beds, the respectable, hard-working, church-going Mrs. Terpin's rest is disturbed by the image of a razor-back hog snorting in her mind's eye. Try as she will, she cannot deny the power of Mary Grace's assault or repudiate the force of her terrible command.

Late in the day, after an unsuccessful attempt to re-inflate her opinion of herself by explaining the attack to field hands whose obsequiousness she has cultivated, Ruby Terpin squares her shoulders, marches down to the pig pen, and confronts her God. Furious, she asks the heavens, "'What do you send me a message like that for?' . . . 'How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?' . . . 'It's no trash around here, black or white, that I haven't given to. And break my back to the bone every day working. And do for the church.' . . . 'You could have made me trash. Or a nigger. If trash is what you wanted, why didn't you make me trash?' . . . 'Go on,' she yelled, 'call me a hog again. From hell. Call me a wart hog from hell. Put that bottom rail on top. There'll still be a top and bottom.' . . . A final surge of fury shook her and she roared, 'Who do you think you are?' The question carried over the pasture and across the highway and the cotton field and returned to her clearly like an answer from beyond the wood. She opened her mouth but no sound came out of it."

Finally, God gives Ruby Terpin her vision. She looks to the heavens and sees, well, you'll have to read the story to find out what she sees. Suffice it to say that Flannery O'Connor's "Revelation" illustrates the grace of God in action, "the divine searching for all who are confused, confounded, or otherwise spiritually blinded by the material cares and accumulations of life" 7. It illustrates how God's grace can deal with those who lose their way. Ruby Terpin is utterly convinced of her own righteousness, and her convictions are based firmly on her view of herself, her class, her race, and her religion as superior to others. Then the agency of grace disturbs her and disturbs her deeply. Grace penetrates the accumulated layers of self-respect that have blinded her and bursts her over-inflated opinion of herself. The vision revealed to Ruby Terpin is intended to burn away what she mistakenly thought of--and cherished--as her virtues, in order that she may be restored to the service of her God and her fellows. "Revelation" leaves Ruby Terpin's eyes "fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead." This uncertain but hopeful note--at least she is looking toward the future--leaves the reader contemplating the lineaments of human selfishness and the limits that mankind attempts to place on God's love, mercy, and grace.

As one who was born and raised in the South, I have to say I wonder if it is possible to begin to truly understand the strange, tragic--grotesque is not too strong a word--role of that peculiar strain of Southern religiosity that has become a driving force in American politics, foreign and domestic policy, and current events without reading and studying the works of Mary Flannery O'Connor. During the last several months of her life O'Connor labored over a novel that she was unable to complete. It was to be titled "Why do the Heathen Rage?" 8. One chapter or fragment was published as a story under that title. It's final sentence, "Then it came to her, with an unpleasant little jolt, that the General with the sword in his mouth, marching to do violence, was Jesus", points directly to the anger at the heart of the eruption of Christian nihilism that O'Connor's writing foreshadowed by three or four decades. It is a nihilism that rejects the core teachings of the religion of Jesus in favor of schemes of material conquest based on warped visions of apocalyptic glory and the imminent return of an avenging God of wrath. Unlike O'Connor, who wrote in 1963 that "while the South is hardly Christ-centered it is most certainly Christ-haunted", and most unlike Jesus, the authors of the global war on terror, who would spread sudden and violent social, economic, and political change 9 across the Middle East and Southwest Asia in the name of God, make the mistake of confusing schemes of material conquest with the establishment of the kingdom of Heaven on earth. Could it be that, as the predictable and indeed predicted results of the actions of our political leaders become increasingly evident, we Americans are beginning to re-discover a sense of the tragic, "the awe that the Athenians felt toward Oedipus or the Elizabethan groundlings toward Lear" 10, and, perhaps, a little humility?

This much is certain: No king, no politician, no bureaucrat, no general, no war-profiteering CEO, no media mogul, no fanatical leader of any religion can prevent our praying that we and our leaders will be graced with a new vision. May it be a vision that fixes their eyes and ours on a future made possible by those "self-imposed restraints [that] are at once the most powerful and the most tenuous of all the factors of human civilization--concepts of justice and ideals of brotherhood" 11.

1. Cash, Jean W., in Flannery O'Connor: A Life, p.320
2. The Urantia Papers, 169:1.2
3. Ibid. 169:1.4
4. Ibid. 2:6.7
5. Ibid. 2:6.7
6. Fitzgerald, Sally, in Three by Flannery O'Connor, Introduction, p. xxx
7. The Urantia Papers, 169:1.15
8. Ibid. 155:1.1
9. Ibid. 81:6.40
10. Life, Dec. 23, 1946, Editorial, p.32
11. The Urantia Papers, 118:8.10