The author of The Violent Bear It Away was a violent woman. Sitting quietly in front of a typewriter in faraway Milledgeville, Georgia, supplied with the eyesight of a bird of prey, Flannery O’Connor used her best instruments, insight and poetic expression, to force her characters right up to the edge of the artistic abyss. On the edge of the cliff, gesturing exaggeratedly to us, they are just one degree away from caricatures, often uttering words just this side of ridiculous, comic in their tragic devices and desires. They stalk their way through this visible world while the invisible one, the realm of grace, bears down on them with a mercy that often leaves them mortally wounded. O’Connor’s stories and novels shocked her readers; her essays and letters show that this gave her no small pleasure. Mortal illnesses require strong medicine, and she was delighted to apply alcohol and the knife where her contemporaries’ sickness was most malignant. Her intelligence told her that the sentimentally religious were often the sickest. If it weren’t for the Church and its sacraments, she wrote, she would have become “the stinkingest logical positivist you ever saw.”
If categories are invoked, O’Connor is readily identifiable as a Southern and Catholic writer. To consign authors to the categories of the regional and religious is usually to diminish them by convenience; fortunately O’Connor’s writing defies diminution, because she wrote of the cities of God and man with a consciousness filled by something larger than merely a religious view, or a worldview, or a tradition. Her voice sounded a particular note, her eye saw and her hands crafted tales that told particular stories of the country to which she truly belonged—in the words of a contemporary author, John Casey, “that historical glacier the Church.”
That is why it is not wholly correct to say, as the dustjacket of the otherwise excellent Flannery O’Connor: The Collected Works (Library of America, 1988) does, that O’Connor “in her short lifetime . . . became one of the most distinctive American writers of the twentieth century.” O’Connor was an American writer only in a highly qualified way. No one with a passport from the una sancta can wholeheartedly embrace the American project of liberal commercialism, or why would O’Connor have made old Hazel Motes say, “Nobody with a good car needs to be justified”? The novel wherein Motes stalks (Wise Blood) takes him from his Church Without Christ, run out of his Essex automobile, to the self–inflicted blindness that gives him real sight. This theme—the paradox of faith that requires eyes to see what can’t be seen with human eyes—took O’Connor from her first novel to her last short story, “Parker’s Back,” written shortly before she died in August 1964. (In that story, Parker’s icon of the face of the God–man, tattooed on his back, drew the rage of his furiously, stupidly religious wife, who drove the idolater from the temple of her clean–swept house.)
O’Connor was often asked not only why her stories were not “nice,” but why she did not write apologetical fiction in order to promote Catholic dogma directly. She wrote to a friend, “The best of [my religious readers] think: make it look desirable because it is desirable. And the rest of them think: make it look desirable so I won’t look like a fool for holding it. In a really Christian culture of real believers this wouldn’t come up.” O’Connor was intrigued, but not deceived, by the religiosity of Southern Protestants and of Catholics who lived in the prewar South in a kind of diaspora. The South, she remarked, was not Christ–centered; it was “Christ–haunted.” All her characters reveal the uneasy conscience of a post–Christian South contented by the consolations of religion and caste. (To Mrs. Turpin’s warbling thanksgiving to Jesus for “making everything the way it is” in the short story “Revelation,” O’Connor has a truculent young woman respond, “Go back to Hell where you came from, you old wart hog.”)
The last thing O’Connor wanted to apply to the proud, unknowing desolation of American culture was a moralizing potion. To “A,” a beloved friend whose later apostasy grieved her, she remarked, “All these moralists who condemn Lolita give me the creeps. Have you read Lolita yet? I go by the notion that a comic novel has its own criteria.”
With such first principles, she could equally have been writing of her own work, comic in the sense that the last, happy word about the tragedy of human life comes from beyond it, as it does in “The Enduring Chill” to Asbury, delirious with undulant fever and staring at the pattern of a bird on the ceiling: “A last impossible protest escaped him. But the Holy Ghost, emblazoned in ice instead of fire, continued, implacable, to descend.”
Robin Darling Young is Associate Professor of Theology at the Catholic University of America.