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.