Magazine | March 9, 2009, Issue

Such a Catholic

In 1972 Flannery O’Connor was posthumously honored with the National Book Award for her Complete Stories. As her publisher, Robert Giroux, was readying himself to receive this highest of American literary prizes, he was caught short when an eminent author asked, “Do you really think Flannery O’Connor was a great writer? She’s such a Roman Catholic.” Brad Gooch might well have begun his much-anticipated biography — Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor (Little, Brown, 416 pp., $30) — with this remarkable charge. Instead, he places it on the penultimate page. This decision is regrettable, for it leaves us still needing the book that hasn’t been written during the 45 years since O’Connor’s death in 1964: a critical biography showing that her life and work are quite incomprehensible apart from her being “such a Roman Catholic.”

The problem is not merely that O’Connor fell prey to the anti-Catholicism that remains the only acceptable bigotry among some American intellectuals. She did, of course, endure the condescension of such ex-Catholics as Mary McCarthy, who said: “Considering how intelligent she was, [O’Connor] was more pious than any other Catholic I’ve ever known.” The deeper problem is far more perplexing: Why, prior to Flannery O’Connor, had this country — the only Western nation “with the soul of a church,” as G. K. Chesterton famously said — failed to produce a single major writer whose work is Christian in both form and substance? Why would a triple outsider to the American project — a self-declared advocate of 13th-century Catholicism, a southerner who refused to apologize for the evils of her region, a sympathizer with backwoods Protestant fundamentalists — become this country’s first thoroughly Christian writer of fiction? Why are nearly all of our eminent writers — Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, Melville, Poe, Hawthorne, Twain, James, Frost, Faulkner — heterodox at best, atheist or even nihilist at worst? Why was Flannery O’Connor the first distinguished American writer to have her imagination shaped by the scandalous claims of the Gospel? Why, above all, does her greatness lie precisely in her being “such a Roman Catholic,” a Christian convinced that the triune God has uniquely and definitively identified Himself and His will for the world in the Jews and Jesus and the Church?

These unanswered questions point to what is truly remarkable about Flannery O’Connor. She was a woman who died at age 39; a southerner who except for seven years lived an almost reclusive life in the small city of Milledgeville, Ga.; a fiction writer who during her lifetime produced only two novels (Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away) and a single collection of short stories (A Good Man Is Hard to Find); an author who left only three more books to be published after her death — another collection of short stories (Everything That Rises Must Converge), a gathering of essays (Mystery and Manners), and a large sampling of her letters (The Habit of Being).

Gooch lays O’Connor’s genuine distinctiveness to the side, and thus fails to bring her life into the sharp focus it demands. His biography has no overarching theme, no compelling trajectory, no revealing figure in the carpet. He seems to believe that O’Connor was a rara avis, but his main evidence is that, as a child, she trained a chicken to walk backward and that, as an adult, she raised peafowl and other exotic birds. The patronizing intimacy of Gooch’s title turns out, moreover, to be a distancing device. Instead of probing the complex depths of “Flannery,” Gooch has written a jauntily superficial book.

It has become virtually standard procedure, among interpreters of Gooch’s kind, to say that O’Connor’s life and work must not be confined or reduced to her Catholicism, that she had not merely one but many strings on her fiddle, that we deny the variousness of her fiction by concentrating chiefly on its religious quality. Gooch establishes the small truth contained in this charge by showing that O’Connor did not confine herself within a religious cocoon but was keenly attuned to writers as various as T. S. Eliot and Guy de Maupassant, Caroline Gordon and William Faulkner, and even J. D. Salinger. He also demonstrates that O’Connor was remarkably alert to popular culture, finding both irony and revelation in seedy clichés and banal commercials. Having seen a hucksterish stunt for a film called Mark of the Gorilla, she put it to hilarious use in Wise Blood, where an ape impersonator greets moviegoers in order to boost attendance. Yet Gooch doesn’t take time to observe the significance of Enoch Emery, the youth who seeks the tawdry fame of this pseudo-simian: Cut off from religious rituals that might have given redemptive shape to his life, Emery must invent his own ceremonial patterns for living. He bases his life on the vain promises of advertisements, making their blandishments his credo. The result is something at once farcical and pathetic, as Emery becomes a telling caricature of our unacknowledged nihilism.

#page# Instead of attending to such moral discernments, Gooch chooses to make Freudian readings that obfuscate rather than clarify. He interprets the brilliant brat in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” as wrestling with her dawning erotic desires, arguing that her sexuality is finally “sublimated in religious expression.” Such sexual preoccupations blind Gooch to the child’s real problem: She is afflicted with a condition far more fundamental than her prepubescent sexuality — namely, her religious pride as a Roman Catholic. O’Connor the Catholic, Gooch might have noticed, is far from uncritical of her Catholicism. Missing such subtleties, Gooch declares that there is a hidden “Jansenist aspect of Flannery’s character.” He also speaks condescendingly of O’Connor’s “intact innocence,” as if she were a naïve virgin who feared and loathed her carnality.

It’s true that, as one inexperienced in sexual love, O’Connor was reluctant to depict erotic relations. When asked why there is no romance in her work, she candidly replied that she had no firsthand knowledge of such love and thus did not make it central to her art. Instead, she confined her fiction almost entirely to comic encounters between the sexes. And wildly funny they often are. Hazel Motes, the young protagonist of Wise Blood, flees from his calling to be a minister of the Gospel by setting out “to do some things I have never done before,” thus proving that, as he says, “I’m no goddam preacher.” And so he visits a prostitute named Leora Watts. Yet this motherly moll comically deflates Motes’s vision of himself as a sexual raptor by treating him as a child: “Momma don’t mind if you ain’t a preacher.”

Gooch occasions his own unintended comedy when he describes O’Connor as “spinning” Thomism for Elizabeth Hester, her close friend and most important correspondent. That O’Connor sought to “pitch” the rigors of the Summa Theologiae so as to make them less discomfiting is hilariously wrongheaded. On the contrary, she made fun of herself as a “hillbilly Thomist,” knowing well that she had barely penetrated the surface of the great theologian’s work, and that she needed the help of such authentic Thomists as Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson in order to find a real Catholic basis for her art.

She learned, especially from Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism, that art is “a virtue of the practical intellect,” and that the excellence of a work of art is not found in its moral effect on audiences but in the fulfillment of its own inherent requirements. The artist seeks to order matter to form, so that everything is necessary, nothing extraneous or tendentious. “Art is reason in making,” was St. Thomas’s lapidary saying, a definition that O’Connor found “very cold and very beautiful.” The single virtue required of a fiction writer, it follows, is mastery of the craft: plot and character and point of view, scene and setting and atmosphere. When these are properly apportioned and integrated — with no hectoring message or false sympathy — the result is an artistic whole that redounds to the good of both God and man.

This is a lesson that O’Connor had also learned from Andrew Lytle, a southern writer, at the University of Iowa. Lytle admonished her to “sink the theme” — to integrate artistic means and ends so fully that her fiction could not be reduced to abstract paraphrase. When Harvey Breit, a New York television interviewer, asked an awkward and ill-at-ease O’Connor whether she would like to explain what happens in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” she wasn’t rattled. “No,” she curtly replied, “I certainly would not.”

It came as almost a relief for Flannery O’Connor to find, as Gooch notes, that “you don’t have to be good to write well.” Far from encouraging O’Connor to live a self-indulgent life, neglecting the corporal works of mercy required by her Christianity, this insight enabled O’Connor to practice what Maritain called “the habit of art.” The word habit does not here refer to the daily routine of working at her typewriter for three hours, although this was indeed O’Connor’s regimen. Habitus, in Aquinas’s sense, means the formation of the mind and the will, the intellect and the heart, through long exercise and steady devotion to particular practices — in O’Connor’s case, to the rigorous requirements of her art.

When seen in this light, O’Connor’s self-confessed “anti-social” disposition can be understood as anything but misanthropic. A loner who often was awkward in public, O’Connor knew well that, if she became a “hale-woman-well-met,” she would never harvest the fruits of her genius. No wonder, then, that she glared even at her friends when they disrupted her quasi-monastic discipline of writing and rewriting. Nor should her self-confessed “disappointed look” be taken as evidence that she lived a disappointed life. In declaring that she was “born disenchanted,” O’Connor does not refer to a native sourness of disposition so much as to the disenchantment we all suffer for being the progeny of Adam and Eve.

#page# Already as a young child, O’Connor envisioned herself as a thorough but unsentimental kind of Christian. When told that she was being watched over by guardian angels, for example, she flailed at them in the air, determined to rout all pious notions of divine protection. She was unabashedly eccentric in the admirable and literal sense of the word — not in easy disdain for the masses, but in candid recognition that Christians are necessarily ex-centric, pivoting about another Center than the world’s hub or their own ego.

O’Connor’s recognition that she was called to be a writer was linked with her simultaneous discovery that there is nothing larger than the Gospel and the Church, since they reenact the drama of the entire cosmos. In order to be catholic (universal), she had first to be Catholic, ordering everything — however imperfectly — to the goodness of the triune God. During the three years she was a graduate student in Iowa City, for instance, she attended Mass at the same Catholic parish, but without ever meeting a single soul, either clerical or lay. “It was not necessary,” she wrote. “As soon as I went in the door I was at home.” She was at home in the Body of Christ, not as a refuge from the world’s menacing reality, but as the locus of the Reality that menaces us with its truth and beauty and goodness. “GO WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCY” is the command that Francis Marion Tarwater hears and heeds at the end of The Violent Bear It Away.

Flannery O’Connor found herself sent on a similarly urgent mission at a now-famous dinner party hosted by Mary McCarthy. Having recently “outgrown” Catholicism, McCarthy opined that she still found eucharistic symbolism literarily useful, even though she didn’t believe any of its hocus-pocus. With a candor not usually encountered at New York social gatherings, the usually taciturn O’Connor could not remain silent, even at the cost of giving great offense. “Well,” she said, “if it’s a symbol, then to hell with it.” Gooch makes nothing of this scandalous claim, nor does he deal with O’Connor’s later elaboration: “That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”

The Eucharist does not merely point or gesture toward something vaguely transcendent, O’Connor was saying; it sacramentally enacts the Reality it declares: This is Christ’s life-giving body and blood, the feast without which we are literally starved of life. Or else it is a snare and a delusion that should be denounced as such. Gooch observes, instead, that O’Connor “framed her new life in religion” when her illness compelled her to return home and live with her mother back in Milledgeville for the last dozen years. Quite to the contrary, O’Connor had already framed her life — both literary and existential — in her Catholicism. “I am a Catholic not like someone else would be a Baptist or a Methodist,” she said, “but like someone else would be an atheist.”

A Peter De Vries character describes an atheist as someone who cannot forgive God for not existing. An authentic atheist is a God-botherer, one who cannot rest at ease in unbelief. O’Connor admired Sartre and Camus for the vigor of their unbelief, precisely because she herself wrestled with the demon of doubt. Long before she contracted the lupus that eventually killed her, O’Connor was grappling with the godless horrors of her century. “If you live today,” she wrote, “you breathe in nihilism. In or out of the Church, it’s the gas you breathe.” Spiritual and bodily calamities are closely related. Ours is the age of ashes, she discerned, because it is also the culture of death. This explains why her fiction is at once so comical and so grotesque, why her characters and plots are simultaneously shocking and redemptive. She wants to render the dreadful disorders of our age, while also artistically revealing their potential to be reordered to the appalling love of God.

For Flannery O’Connor, a civil religion of “Do Unto Others” will never suffice. It has no metaphysical foundations to undergird it, no sacramental or prophetic communities to sustain it. Though her region was wracked with racial violence, O’Connor dealt head-on with the race question in but a single story, “The Artificial Nigger.” The problem wasn’t that racial injustice failed to arrest her imagination so much as that its solution required no keen moral discernment. As a Walker Percy character declares, the one thing requisite is obedience to a single command: Stop abusing Negroes. For similar reasons, O’Connor was drawn to southern fundamentalists, despite their inveterate scorn for Catholicism as the “whore of Babylon.” Like them, she sought something far more needful than political equality: the Faith that heals racial reformers of their false righteousness no less than racial bigots of their true sinfulness. Gooch misses the mark, therefore, when he says that O’Connor is guilty of “a type of artistic racism” for not seeking, by her own confession, to get inside the minds of her black characters. If O’Connor had focused her fiction on such matters, she might have become another Lillian Smith (the author of the 1944 novel Strange Fruit). But she might also have failed to become the greater writer she in fact became.

#page# As Hazel Motes discovers, authentic faith is often acquired through the rear door, after all other alternatives have been exhausted. Motes has returned from World War II as nihilist preacher and sole member of his self-invented though unironically named “Church Without Christ.” Though Motes has never heard of Sartre, he agrees with the great atheist’s claim that “man is nothing other than that which he makes of himself.” “Where you come from is gone,” Motes thus proclaims, “where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. . . . In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got.”

Place has ontological significance for Flannery O’Connor. We do not know God in unmediated relation, nor do we humanly flourish except as we are rooted in time and space, by way of commitments that have chosen us before we chose them. The murderous deed of a deracinated creature such as Hazel Motes proves to be the outward and visible sign of his inward and invisible unbelief. Multiply Motes by several million and we are left with the pervasive nihilism of our time. O’Connor made clear, therefore, that the unprecedented incinerations of the 20th century were the political consequences of a profound theological displacement. “When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness,” she wrote, “its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.”

Moral and religious suffering — and the attempt to avoid it — was intrinsic to O’Connor’s vision. Her deadly illness did not bring it to the fore. O’Connor came, instead, to regard her lupus more as a nuisance than as her defining center. She did so by distinguishing between two kinds of seeing. If we see with our eyes, using them as mere optical instruments, we have only sight: the perception of such relatively trivial things as wealth and power and position. If we see through our eyes, with lenses formed by true convictions about God and man and the world, then we have vision. Like a latter-day Oedipus, Hazel Motes finishes as a blind man, but his burned-out eye sockets envision the enduring and invisible and ultimate things. Flannery O’Connor’s life will be long remembered and her work long honored because they were imbued with just such prophetic vision.

– Mr. Wood, a professor of theology and literature at Baylor University, is the author of Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South.

 

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