Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Flannery O'Connor - The Violent bear it away



The title of The Violent bear it away comes from the Rheims-Douay translation of the Bible, Matthew 11:12. The version is important because its sense is different from most translations of this text. It is an enigmatic sentence, open to widely differing interpretations, some suggesting that this violence – in and/or to Heaven – is undesirable, some that it is desirable, some that it isn’t violence at all but rather a cherished prize, and some suggesting it is passive, some active. The particular version used by O’Connor is suggestive that heaven can only be attained by force, and more than that, by violence against one’s self. What O’Connor seems to mean by it in this novel is that violence is a means of delivering spiritual awakening, of finding one’s mission in life and one’s place with God. And if that truly is O’Connor’s belief, then it is a worldview that is utterly repellent. As, indeed, is this novel, despite being brilliantly written and containing a prose so pure and perfect it is dazzling.

This is the first time I have read Flannery O’Connor, but it is clear that we are in Cormac McCarthy territory here, and that the Old Ham owes a huge debt to O’Connor, who died in 1964. The Violent bear it away is a religious allegory full of the mysticism and Biblical resonances, and of course the freaks and ghouls that haunt McCarthy’s world, although thankfully O’Connor’s prose is far superior because of its restraint.

It is a story of prophets and baptism, of the struggle that is (apparently) inside us all between the love of God and the love of man. It tells the story of three generations: a mad prophet who dies early in the novel, plus his nephew, Rayber, who has shunned his uncle’s extreme views, and his great-nephew, Tarwater, who lives alone with the old man in the wilderness and whom the old man is training to also become a prophet. There is also an important fourth character, Bishop, the slow-witted son of Rayber, but it is Tarwater who is the main character of the novel, and it is his journey, unwilling but inevitable, that forms the basis of O’Connor’s bitter message.

The story begins with the death of the old man, and his insistence, before he dies, that Tarwater must ensure he is properly buried and that there is a cross over his grave. At this point, however, Tarwater first begins to hear the voices that are initially described as those of a ‘stranger’ but which gradually through the course of the novel become the ‘friend’. Incidentally, Whitt identifies correspondence from O’Connor in which she declares she ‘certainly’ intended Tarwater’s friend to be ‘the Devil’.[1] On two occasions in the novel, these voices take physical form: first in the form of Meeks, who seeks to take advantage of Tarwater; and then, more horrifically, in the guise of the ‘lavender man’, who we will examine in more detail later.

At this early stage in the novel, suddenly freed from the influence of his great-uncle, and under the sway of his new ‘friend’, Tarwater is sceptical. He does not obey his great-uncle’s wishes that he be buried and given a cross, but instead sets fire to the house, supposing (wrongly, as it turns out) that he is thus cremating him. He then seeks out his uncle, Rayber, who has long since abandoned the old man as a madman. At this stage one might consider that reason is prevailing, but Tarwater, as his name suggests, is a boy in whom there is constant conflict. Doubts remain. Throughout the novel there is a brooding tension over whether Tarwater will obey the old man’s third stricture – that he should baptize Rayber’s dim-witted son, Bishop. This conflict remains throughout the novel a striking symbol of Tarwater’s internal struggle between the path of God and the road of man.

Given that, ultimately, it is the view of the old man that prevails, one must assume this is what O’Connor wished to promote in the novel. It’s worth looking at him in more detail, then. ‘“The world was made for the dead,”’ he tells Tarwater and us, and we are later told that: ‘He was a one-notion man. Jesus. Jesus this and Jesus that.’

His relationship with Tarwater is complex. A stylistic tic, in the early part of the novel when they are the only characters, is the use of repetition. Sometimes facts are reported first, then we are given the same events as dialogue a couple of pages later. On other occasions events are simply reported twice, in almost identical terms. This gives a sense of the claustrophobia of their situation and, as you are reading, it seems as though the message this is conveying is one of an abuse of power: this is brainwashing. Nonetheless, the old man justifies himself. He tells Tarwater: ‘“I saved you to be free, your own self!”’ But in the next breath he adds:

“and not a piece of information inside [Rayber’s] head! If you were living with him, you’d be information right now, you’d be inside his head, and what’s furthermore,” he said,”you’d be going to school.

The word ‘information’ is instructive, as is the warning of being sent to school, where he would be merely ‘one of the herd.’ The message is clear: learning is dangerous. There is only one word, the word of the prophet which is, in turn, the word of God. And it must not be questioned. Again, from reading the early stages of the novel, one’s sympathy would not be with the old man. And yet, as the novel reaches its terrible climax, the tragedy is that, ultimately, the author agrees with the old man and this preposterous notion, and she manipulates her characters to make it so.

One of the key exchanges in the novel comes between the old man and his nephew, Rayber. Rayber is symbolic, in this novel, of detached man, someone who has fallen out of love and grace with God. In O’Connor’s terms he is living a life of absurdity and pointlessness because his existence is not rooted in God’s. He is, of course, merely a cipher. As a character he is the weakest in the novel because he is not allowed by his author to develop. His one fine speech comes in an exchange with the old man which begins:

“You’re too blind to see what you did to me. A child can’t defend himself. Children are cursed with believing. You pushed me out of the real world and I stayed out of it until I didn’t know which was which. You infected me with your idiot hopes, your foolish violence.”

That is clear and impressive, but it is immediately followed by:


“I’m not always myself, I’m not al…” but he stopped. He wouldn’t admit what the old man knew. “There’s nothing wrong with me,” he said. “I’ve straightened the tangle you made. Straightened it by pure will power. I’ve made myself straight.”

“You see,” the old man said, “he admitted himself the seed was still in him.”


That seed is God, religion, the sacred word. What we are being told here is that even with Rayber, the man who has denied God, the seed remains inside him. It is his human frailty that is preventing him from allowing it to germinate. And now we come to the real symbolism of this novel. It is about God and man; Him and us; God with his prophet, and man, represented by the weak Rayber and his dim-witted offspring, a blank canvas who stands ‘dim and ancient, like a child who had been a child for centuries.’

Of course Rayber loves his son, loves humanity? Yes, O’Connor seems to grant him (and us) that. We are told: ‘[Rayber’s] pity encompassed all exploited children – himself when he was a child, Tarwater exploited by the old man, this child exploited by parents, Bishop exploited by the very fact he was alive.’ But O’Connor can’t help pointing out this poor man’s weaknesses. He is literally deaf in one ear, the result of having had it shot at close range by the old man. And just in case the reader is too slow to grasp the metaphorical meaning of that, a minor character later asks him: ‘“Are you deaf to the Lord’s Word?’

We are told that once he tried to drown his son. He explains to Tarwater that his inability to do so was ‘a failure of nerve’. But his love for his son remains absolute, and it is the love of mankind for mankind. It is a ‘terrifying love’ which he can control as long as Bishop remains with him, but if he were ever to lose him then ‘the whole world would become his idiot child.’

So, on one hand, we have mankind as mute, dim-witted, helpless bearers of love and their equally helpless, weak parents, involved in some form of dance of death, denying God even to the point of their annihilation. And on the other hand we have Tarwater, the boy marked out to be a prophet, the boy who carries the seed. It is to him we must look for the final message in the novel. For this novel is about redemption and salvation. Ironically, Tarwater thinks otherwise. He knows that the seed remains in his uncle. He tells him: ‘“It ain’t a thing you can do about it. It fell on bad ground but it fell in deep.”’ The uncle, he is saying, will not ultimately have free will. But he, Tarwater, will. ‘“With me,” he said proudly, “it fell on rock and the wind carried it away.”’

But it didn’t. Not in O’Connor’s world.

This tension reaches its inevitable conclusion when Tarwater, Rayber and Bishop have a day out and Tarwater takes the child for a boat trip. At this point the constant references to baptism, and to Tarwater’s duty to ensure that Bishop is properly baptized, reach a climax. And here the carefully arranged narrative starts to become utterly constricting, as O’Connor’s plot is wrapped ever tighter around her messianic theme. Tarwater, the central character, isn’t allowed the luxury of free thought, not in the end. Right at the start of the novel, when his great-uncle explains that the responsibility to baptize Rayber’s son will fall to him if he, the uncle, dies without having achieved it, Tarwater replies: ‘“Oh no it won’t be…He don’t mean for me to finish up your leavings. He has other things in mind for me.”’ But, of course, that is exactly what happens, because O’Connor is telling us that mankind has no free will.

Therefore, Tarwater does what is expected of him, but in the course of baptizing Bishop he drowns him. Is this killing an evil act? O’Connor is highly ambiguous on this point. It is never quite clear whether it was an accident or intentional. And yet, in an exchange immediately prior to the death, a hotel worker says to Tarwater: ‘“Whatever devil’s work you mean to do, don’t do it here.”’ So, clearly, we’re being directed towards this being deliberate, an evil act. Yet in the description of the baptism and drowning itself, we are told that ‘in a high raw voice the defeated boy cried out the words of baptism.’ Defeated is a very precise description. Classifying this as the crux of the novel, Whitt calls Tarwater ‘broken’ and suggests 'he has capitulated to a power he cannot understand. He has done the deed that the old man ordained him to do.'[2]

Violence thus resides in Tarwater, whether the drowning was intentional or not. Later, in a highly curious passage with the ‘lavender man’ who is the devil incarnate, Tarwater seems to admit the death was intentional, and it was the baptism that was an accident. Indeed, the baptism appears to affect him more than the death itself:

“I baptized him.”
“Huh?” the man said.
“It was an accident. I didn’t mean to…it didn’t mean nothing. You can’t be born again… I only meant to drown him,” the boy said. “You’re only born once. They were only some words that run ot of my mouth and spilled in the water.”

However, this act of violence is only the dress rehearsal for the real violence that is presaged by the book’s epigraph and title. That comes next. The lavender man picks up the fleeing Tarwater and plies him with ‘strange’ cigarettes and alcohol. He rapes him and leaves him naked and bound in a clearing in the woods. When he comes to, Tarwater, in a rage, burns the clearing, removing every vestige of what occurred. We are told: ‘He knew that he could not turn back now. He knew that his destiny forced him to a final revelation.’

And this, incredibly, is the ultimate message of the novel. Through this act of wickedness, Tarwater is resolved with his God. Through violence he finds a spiritual awakening. He returns to the burned out house, to discover that a kindly Negro neighbour had, in fact, buried the old man. The hunger he has increasingly felt throughout the novel, without any means of satisfaction, is finally sated as, with the old man and a multitude of the dead, he is fed the bread of Christ. He is free to move on to the ‘fate that awaits him’.

And meanwhile, Rayber, the man who believes in man and not God, and is rewarded for that by having a retarded son who dies violently, is shown to be living a futile existence. This is the choice O’Connor leaves us with. As Whitt explains:

The Violent bear it away delivers two symbolic alternatives for the reader: choose the way of Tarwater, which is less choice than a violence racked upon its chosen, or the way of Rayber, the ultimate torture because it yields only nothing disguised as free will.

This strikes me as so perverse as to be close to evil. To suggest that man can find salvation and harmony through the violence of rape is profoundly disturbing. To suggest that the glory of heaven should be predicated on such violence is surely contrary to any sane understanding of the Christian religion. This book delivers a terrible and repulsive message, one which can only be understood as a deep loathing of humanity. To suppose that a deity would exact this sort of duty from his followers is to create a deity who is not worthy of an iota of humanity’s compassion or consideration.

[1] Margaret Earley Whitt. Understanding Flannery O’Connor. Columbia: University of South California Press, 1995, p. 95
[2] Ibid, p. 92

1 comment:

Binjju said...

If it is the violence inflicted on Christ at the cross that has become a source of salvation for humanity ("By his stripes we are healed.") , could it not be possible that violence inflicted on other humans can have an ennobling or purgatorial effect? Violence is not at all to be condoned but it part of the fabric of reality not only for humans but for animals and the entire planet itself. God (in Christ) instead of removing violence "bear it away", transforming and recycling it back to forgiveness and salvation at the cross.