Alan Jacobs patiently explains why even the most scrupulous of scholars can’t understand the first thing about Flannery O’Connor’s stories without at least a good deal of biblical literacy. Well, a real poet or a person with genuine artistic and psychological sensitivity can understand something about her writing without the Bible. John Huston’s film version of O’Connor’s Wise Blood (a highly compressed version of the whole history of the West written by a seemingly badly educated young woman in her very early twenties) shows what O’Connor can be construed to be saying when you abstract from revelation. It’s a lot better than nothing.
It’s news to Mrs. Turpin in O’Connor’s “Revelation” that her complacent virtues (for which she fakes gratitude) count for nothing when it comes to salvation. Those virtues are bourgeois or, maybe better, democratized or middle-class Southern Stoicism. They’re the points of distinction that separate respectable, personally responsible folks from “white trash.” So Mrs. Turpin reminds us a little of Aunt Emily — the angry Stoic defender of class-based decency for its own sake — in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, just as she reminds us a little of the complacent decency of the old man of means Cephalus in book 1 of Plato’s Republic. She also reminds you more than a little of many a Southern Republican these days.
Mrs. Turpin is not a bad woman in many ways. But she’s not a seeker or searcher or pilgrim or wayfarer, and that’s what we’re all called to be. She’s incapable of experiencing the anxiety that’s the prelude to wonder that, in turn, might be the prelude to grateful hope in things unseen. She doesn’t know she longs to be seen and loved just as she is, because she hasn’t even begun to come to terms with who she is as a wounded, sinful being in need of help she can’t provide for herself. (In that respect, she’s a bit like the wounded philosopher-girl Hulga [Joy] in O’Connor’s “Good Country People.”) Her complacent self-satisfaction keeps her from being open to the truth that the most indispensable virtues are faith, hope, and love (charity). In her inability to wonder or truthfully be grateful, she reminds us a bit of Aristotle’s magnanimous man (without, of course, the high level of human excellence). To be fair to the Southern Stoics who have been genuinely magnanimous and generous, she’s graced by neither of those natural moral virtues.
One educational takeaway here is that the South provides us with two sources of criticism of middle-class or techno-vocational education. Those destined for literary careers, as Tocqueville explains, should study the great Greek and Roman authors in their original languages. Aristocracy (Southern or Greek or Roman) is strong where democracy is weak. It was the Southern aristocrats who modeled themselves on said Greeks and Romans and were sometimes educated well enough to read Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and the rest in “the original.” But it’s equally or even more true that our “literary class” should possess a high level of biblical literacy.
It was, as Tocqueville adds, our Puritans (in many ways the opposite of our Southerners) who gave us the legacy of “liberal education for everyone” with the intention of having each creature read the Bible for himself or herself. But a different or in many ways less liberal or sophisticated version of that legacy can also be found in O’Connor’s Christ-haunted, postbellum South. And Southern Christianity at its lowest or in its most characteristic forms (as in low church) is nothing if not democratic (visit a Holiness church or watch Robert Duvall’s film The Apostle). The Stoic aristocrats, such as William Alexander Percy, typically thought of said Christianity as the religion of white trash and (to use the term he used) Negroes.
Jacobs is perfectly right to fear a future (which is already much of the present) in which even scholars and poets are so biblically illiterate that they don’t know what they’re missing when they read O’Connor (or Percy) — or, for that matter, Faulkner and the others moved by the consciousness of dispossessed aristocrats in the Christ-haunted South.
Well, who cares? It might be the case that what we most need to know is the “indigenous American Thomism” found in the writing of Percy and O’Connor. Neither O’Connor nor Percy had the aristocratic mastery of languages Tocqueville described. In O’Connor’s case, the lack was compensated or more than compensated for by absorbing Thomas Aquinas in the spirit of making the truth her own.
It might be possible to accuse me of complacency here. So let me confess my own low level of biblical literacy, and that occasionally I’m shamed by one of my students who has been raised really to know his or her Bible (in a Christian home here in the South). And I’ve also been shamed, when I participate in various national honors program, by Jews who have been raised the same way.