Monday, November 15, 2010

The saving beauty of language

In the same interview in which he comments on Flannery O’Connor (see post below) John Hawkes makes the following observation on a constant which he sees running through the ‘avant-garde’ from Quevedo and Thomas Nash through to himself, Flannery, James Purdy et al:

This constant is a quality of coldness, detachment, ruthless determination to face up to the enormities of ugliness and potential failure within ourselves and in the world around us, and to bring to this exposure a savage or saving comic spirit and the saving beauties of language.

It is, in some ways, a persuasive argument. The ‘saving beauty of language’ could certainly be said to mitigate the excesses of O’Connor’s themes, for example, while coldness and detachment are undoubtedly traits discernible in, say, Blood Meridian. The lineage could also be traced back to Dostoevsky – you don’t get a colder analysis of personal and societal failure than the Underground Man, for example.

But, again, the issue for me is one of balance. James Purdy, whom Hawkes mentions in this context, was a writer who clearly saw the excesses and failures of modernity, and yet he also displayed a sense of hope which is much, much more difficult to discern in Hawkes or O’Connor or Dostoevsky. The Nephew or Malcolm, as written by Flannery, say, would be radically different from the novels as written by Purdy. His comic spirit is bright as well as brutal, and his language savingly beautiful, but he also offers a vision of humanity that is not hopelessly skewed towards failure.


Mark Perkins said...

A professor of mine was once speaking about the "legacy" or influence of Flannery on McCarthy (and specifically Blood Meridian) and said something to the effect that McCarthy retained the violence of Flannery's work, but her sense of grace only persevered in the beauty of the language itself.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hi Mark

That's a very neat summation, I have to say. There is grace in O'Connor, no matter how difficult I find it, but I would agree with your professor that it is largely lacking in McCarthy's narrative.

Perhaps the ending of Child of God. And Suttree, I think, finds grace at the end of the novel. But certainly not in Blood Meridian.