Friday, January 29, 2016
Reading Flannery O'Connor
[Yes, I have been a complete and utter blog slacker this past month, though I have been quite active on my Facebook page. I won’t bore you with excuses; let’s just get on with business as usual, shall we?]
Last year, my Schole Sisters group deep-read Hamlet using the 5 Common Topics of Invention to discuss the play. It was an incredible experience and one we wanted to continue. After some deliberation, we chose Flannery O’Connor as our worthy literary project for 2016. Eleven women met this month at my house to discuss two short stories (led by my brilliant friend Mindy Pickens), and several more women read and joined us in spirit if not in body. [I am also in a small online Schole Sisters group which is also reading and discussing Flannery, so I’m digging in deep this year!]
Flannery can be intimidating.
Her stories, at first glance, may seem shocking or harsh or violent. Using her biography and essays as a background to her stories, however, has helped me in my understanding of what it is she was trying to say.
Are you unfamiliar with Flannery O’Connor? Have you tried to read her short stories (or one of her two novels) and had difficulty enjoying them? Please allow me to share a few podcasts and articles to give you a better introduction.
[Many of the following podcasts and articles, as well as her biography and essays, contain spoilers for her stories.]
:: The Commons (CiRCE Podcast) #7: Flannery O’Connor, featuring Jonathan Rogers (author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O'Connor). This is a fantastic introduction to Flannery O’Connor as a person and as a worthy author. I found the biography of Flannery by Jonathan Rogers a fascinating and enlightening read. I’ll share some great quotes later in this post.
[You can also read an interview with Jonathan Rogers regarding Flannery O’Connor at The Gospel Coalition.]
:: A Flannery O’Connor “Starter Kit” @ CiRCE [If you are not sure where to start, you may want to begin with these stories. I purchased her Complete Stories for convenience.]
A Good Man Is Hard to Find is one of Flannery’s most memorable stories, but it is not her easiest. I appreciated reading her own comments about this story in her book of essays, Mystery and Manners. (Again, I’ll share quotes later in this post.)
If you need more help understanding or appreciating A Good Man, you may enjoy the following podcast:
:: Close Reads (CiRCE Podcast) #1: A Good Man Is Hard to Find
The following is a recording of Flannery O’Connor reading A Good Man Is Hard to Find. We enjoyed listening to much of it together at our last Schole Sisters meeting.
More blog posts and articles about Flannery O’Connor:
:: Flannery O’Connor: Gifts of Meaning & Mystery @ The Imaginative Conservative [This is a long, detailed post about O’Connor. She is a frequent topic at The Imaginative Conservative.]
:: My God [excerpts from her prayer journal] @ The New Yorker
:: Flannery O’Connor on Why the Grotesque Appeals to Us @ Brain Pickings
:: The Promise of Flawed Characters @ The Atlantic
:: Interview with Flannery O’Connor @ World Magazine
:: The Displaced Person @ The Paris Review
And some quotes from her biography and book of essays:
The Terrible Speed of Mercy
"'To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.'"
"If the stories offend conventional morality, it is because the gospel itself is an offense to conventional morality. Grace is a scandal; it always has been. Jesus put out the glad hand to lepers and cripples and prostitutes and losers of every stripe even as he called the self-righteous a brood of vipers."
"She's like an Isaiah who never quite gets around to 'Comfort ye my people.’”
"Truth is hard for O'Connor's characters; she seems to take it as a point of honor not to make truth easy for the reader either."
"In O'Connor's unique vision, the physical world, even at its seediest and ugliest, is a place where grace still does its work. In fact, it is exactly the place where grace does its work. Truth tells itself here, no matter how loud it has to shout."
"There's a kind of comfort in finally facing the truth about oneself. That's what happens in every one of Flannery O'Connor's stories: in a moment of extremity, a character--usually a self-satisfied, self-sufficient character--finally comes to see the truth of his situation. He is accountable to a great God who is the source of all. He inhabits mysteries that are too great for him. And for the first time there is hope, even if he doesn't understand it yet."
"In O'Connor's oeuvre even the most damaged sinners long for transcendence whether they know it or not, and transcendence makes its presence known at long last."
"Perhaps the most important thing that sets O'Connor's work apart from that of her Southern Gothic contemporaries is the possibility that her lame will walk again and her maimed will be made whole."
[In bad health] "'I have enough energy to write with and as that is all I have any business doing anyhow, I can with one eye squinted take it all as a blessing. What you have to measure out, you come to observe closer, or so I tell myself.'"
"Each day for the "hillbilly Thomist" ended with twenty minutes' reading in Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica--a daily brushup on the fundamentals of her faith. 'If my mother were to come in during this process and say, "Turn off that light. It's late," I with lifted finger and broad bland beatific expression would reply, "On the contrary, I answer that the light, being eternal and limitless, cannot be turned off. Shut your eyes," or some such thing.' It's a classic O'Connor moment. The practical, solicitous mother issues an order. The witty, overeducated daughter smarts off piously."
"'My talent lies in a kind of intellectual vaudeville.’"
"'A serious novelist is in pursuit of reality. And of course when you're a Southerner and in pursuit of reality, the reality you come up with is going to have a Southern accent, but that's just an accent; it's not the essence of what you're trying to do.'"
"Remarking on the work of another Catholic writer, she commented that it 'is just propaganda and its being propaganda for the side of the angels only makes it worse. The novel is an art form and when you use it for anything other than art, you pervert it.'"
'"I have got to the point now where I keep thinking more and more about the presentation of love and charity, or better call it grace, as love suggests tenderness, whereas grace can be violent or would have to be to compete with the kind of evil I can make concrete.’ ...These aren't tender mercies O'Connor speaks of.'
"Sin and grace and forgiveness and love and mercy and hell and heaven are all mysteries. 'If they were such that we could understand them, they wouldn't be worth understanding... A God you understood would be less than yourself.' For O'Connor, the purpose of fiction was to portray these and other mysteries--to embody them--in human manners. She did not expect fiction to explain mystery, but to gesture at its unfathomable depths, and thus to preserve the mystery that dogma guards."
"’Writing is a good example of self-abandonment. I never completely forget myself except when I am writing, and I am never more completely myself than when I am writing. It is the same with Christian self-abandonment. The great difference between Christianity and the Eastern religions is the Christian insistence on the fulfillment of the individual person.’"
“'I am mighty tired of reading reviews that call A Good Man brutal and sarcastic,' she wrote. 'The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. I believe that there are many rough beasts now slouching toward Bethlehem to be born and that I have reported the progress of a few of them, and when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.' For O'Connor, the real horror was never violence or deformity, but damnation. Horror that awakens a soul to its own danger and prepares it to receive grace is no horror, but a mercy.’"
“'The moral basis of fiction and poetry, she wrote...’is the accurate naming of the things of God.’ ‘It's only trying to see straight and it's the least you can set yourself to do, the least you can ask for. You ask God to let you see straight and write straight.’ Seeing straight, for O'Connor, first meant seeing this world and from here learning to see another world. ‘For me the visible universe is a reflection of the invisible universe,’ she wrote. ‘The visible universe is one way eternal truths are bodied forth. Another is through story--the accurate naming of the things of God. And the most important was the sacraments.’”
Writing to a friend who revealed her shameful background. "’...But there are times when the sharpest suffering is not to suffer and the worst affliction not to be afflicted. Job's comforters were worse off than he was, though they didn't know it... Where you are wrong is in saying that you are a history of horror. The meaning of the Redemption is precisely that we do not have to be our history, and nothing is plainer to me than that you are not your history.’"
Mystery and Manners
[Regarding A Good Man is Hard to Find, with spoilers…]
"The heroine of this story, the Grandmother, is in the most significant position life offers the Christian. She is facing death. And to all appearances she, like the rest of us, is not too well prepared for it. She would like to see the event postponed. Indefinitely.
"... I often ask myself what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as a story, and I have decided that it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story...This would have to be an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity... It would be a gesture that transcended any neat allegory that might have been intended or any pat moral categories a reader could make. It would be a gesture which somehow made contact with mystery.
"There is a point in this story where such a gesture occurs. The Grandmother is at last alone, facing the Misfit...
"Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them...
"In my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.
"This story has been called grotesque, but I prefer to call it literal...Now the lines of motion that interest the writer are usually invisible. They are lines of spiritual motion. And in this story you should be on the lookout for such things as the action of grace in the Grandmother's soul, and not for the dead bodies."
"With the serious writer, violence is never an end in itself. It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially, and I believe these are times when writers are more interested in what we are essentially than in the tenor of our daily lives... The man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him; and since the characters in this story are all on the verge of eternity, it is appropriate to think of what they take with them."