Monday, November 15, 2010

John Hawkes on Flannery O'Connor

Here’s a couple of perceptive comments from John Hawkes on Flannery O’Connor:

For pure, devastating, comic brilliance and originality she stands quite alone in America - except perhaps for Nathanael West. Both of these writers maintain incredible distance in their work, both explode the reality around us into meaningful new patterns, both treat disability and inadequacy and hypocrisy with brutal humor, both of them deal fiercely with paradox and use deceptively simple language in such a way as to achieve fantastic verbal surprise and remarkable poetic expression.


She's an extraordinary woman with what I like to think of as a demonic sensibility. I've been trying to persuade Flannery O'Connor that as a writer she's on the devil's side. Her answer is that my idea of the devil corresponds to her idea of God. I must admit that I resist this equation. Certainly in her two great short stories, "A Good Man is Hard to Find," and "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," as well as in her brilliant first novel, Wise Blood, it's the unwavering accuracy and diabolism of her satiric impulse that impresses me most.

Regular readers of this blog will know I have a love/hate relationship with Flannery O’Connor. She is an astoundingly good writer, and the way she uses humour to describe brutality is nothing short of amazing. Cormac McCarthy’s use of humour is similar, but even he cannot combine the comic and the horrific in quite the way O’Connor achieves.

But to what end? This has always been my difficulty with Flannery O’Connor. The violence she wreaks on her characters in the name of her God is so extreme I have tremendous difficulty identifying anything remotely Christian in it. This is perhaps explained by her observation, as reported by Hawkes here, that his conception of the devil corresponds to her God. There is an awesome darkness to this vision of Christianity, as evidenced by the gruesome self-abuse of Haze Motes and his eventual, miserable death, or by the buggery of Tarwater by the Devil, an act which leads directly to his redemption. Redemption through rape? A Christian ideal? Really?

I fully accept that what I am doing is surveying O’Connor’s profoundly held and theologically reasoned position from a shallow perspective. In terms of both literary criticism – in which I am being too literal – and theological debate – in which I could not hope to match O’Connor’s erudition – I am projecting too much of my own beliefs onto an analysis of her work. But it is hard not to. O’Connor’s vision of humanity is of a broken, flawed, failed community helpless before God and hopeless in its earthly dealings. She deals such a rigged hand there is no prospect of success. And her vision of God appears to owe much to the Old Testament. There is a brutality to it that I can’t and wouldn’t want to accept. For sure, there is evil in the world. But there is also goodness.


Mark Perkins said...

Somewhere in the Habit of Being, Flannery writes about a number of early readers of 'the Violent Bear it Away' thinking that "the stranger"/Tarwater's "friend" was an angel of light or some sort of positive buiding incarnation of reason... when, of course, the friend is quite literally the devil. It makes for a very interesting contrast indeed.

I wouldn't, as an aside, oversell the idea of Flannery's sense of religion being 'Old Testament.' After all, the central story of the New Testament is a brutal killing leading directly to redemption. [an aside to my aside: My mother, Montgomery-Alabama-born-and-bred, has a great story about her great aunt recoiling in horror when someone tried to talk to her about the "blood of Christ"--"Blood?? Blood?!? That's disgusting! Blood doesn't have anything to do with Christianity!"]

Tom Conoboy said...

I don't know, I think there is a very, very strong sense of the OT in Flannery's writing. Her novels are people by prophets, after all, and old man Tarwater, in particular, is straight out of the OT. Her view of society, at both a local and a spiritual level, also seems distinctly flavoured by the OT.

The blood of Christ - excellent story!!

Mark Perkins said...

I'm not saying that she isn't strongly influenced by the Old Testament. I only think sometimes it's oversold. There are also passages in the New Testament about giving up a soul to the devil in order to bring about his salvation, or something like that.

Flannery writes in the Habit of Being (I would look up references but I'm lazy) that someone seized or filled or something by the Holy Spirit in the Catholic Church joins a monastery, whereas someone seized by the Holy Spirit outside the Church becomes one of her crazy prophets. So I think part of the Old Testament feel is her idea that Church came about as a way of mediating the grace of God--something allowing people to experience the grace of God without, you know, going crazy or something. Her stories are like "too much God for man to handle" kind of crazy. Just a thought.

Tom Conoboy said...

Her stories are like "too much God for man to handle" kind of crazy. Just a thought.
Yes, I definitely think there's something in that. Her conception of Christianity is very much the Augustinian brand, with "mystery" at the core, the unknowable God and the revelation at the end to which man aspires but can never understand (or possibly even attain).

theternalone said...

I think it also very pertinent that we notice something else that Flannery is doing: in a subtle, deeply ironic, and profoundly Catholic way, she is sidestepping or answering the question of Theodicy. Not only that, she is doing so in the arena which, to any Western denizen of the twentieth century who has any sympathies with Christianity whatsoever, is most troubling of all: that of Christian (whether actually or nominally is hardly the point) culture.

If there is such a thing as Providence--that is, if God IS in fact a God of history, ordering events in some substantial way--then, she implicitly argues, he does so not only through the acceptable, prim and proper channels we expect of him, but through those which make us squirm as well. In this sense, saying that she elicits a strong sense of the Old Testament is perfectly apt, for the Old Testament is full of stories containing the same profoundly discomfiting elements. Flannery, though, sees no change in the elements themselves--the world has not shifted in that realm--but instead a possbility of, of course you knew this was coming all along, Grace in the most profound sense THROUGH those elements.

To my mind, this perfects the story, possibly my favorite, of "Parker's Back" by mysteriously and yet satisfactorily unifying Parker's suffering and his redemption. Christ, she seems to say, did not come to relieve us of suffering; far from it! He came to offer us justification thereof through his own.

Tom Conoboy said...

Fascinating stuff, thanks

Flannery and theodicy: yes, I think that's a very pertinent point. It's something I think I missed when I first started reading her: I was reading too literally, missing the humour, the irony, the inventiveness.

I do have difficulty with the concept of Grace. I greatly admire people who can hold to a vision of their God in the light of theodistic arguments, but when it comes at the expense of such suffering I find it hard to reconcile. Certainly, if there is a God, he is not the fluffy, cuddly, anthropomorphic benevolent grandfather type that holds such sway in modern popular culture, and O'Connor's work is a brilliant critique of such simplistic readings of theology, but the brutality of O'Connor's vision seems to me to be at the opposite extreme.