Sunday, April 26, 2009

The question of suffering

Here's an intersting quote about Flannery O'Connor's views on William Faulkner, from Thomas F. Gossett in the Southern Literary Journal in 1974:

Miss O’Connor mentioned her great admiration for [William Faulkner], but then paused as if to consider. She said that the problem of suffering in Faulkner puzzled her, that he had a great ability to render it in his fiction but it always turned out to be suffering essentially without meaning.

I really do have a lot of difficulty with this. It gets to the root of O'Connor's writing and her mindset (effectively one and the same thing). I find this notion of redemption through violence extraordinary, frankly inexplicable. Tarwater finds redemption by being buggered by the Devil; Haze Motes blinds himself with acid. The Misfit slaughters an entire family. And, for O'Connor, this has meaning because it brings the mortals closer to the sky-god.

The result, for me, is that suffering in Flannery O'Connor feels manufactured. In Faulkner, because it is more rooted in humanity and human frailty, it feels more genuine. There is suffering here - the Compson family in The Sound and The Fury virtually disintegrates - but it feels like a human drama, without the intervention of a deus ex machina to skew it. Faulkner's vision was every bit as bleak as O'Connor's, yet it feels more palatable. 'Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow', he tells us, the suffering will go on because 'all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death.'

However bleak that may be, I still find it more acceptable than O'Connor's manufactured grace, because it still leaves room for the human experience. Fools we may be, but we are still in charge of our own destiny. And as long as that is the case there is hope.

The difficulty with O'Connor's brand of suffering is that it appears not to offer hope

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