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On Flannery

On Flannery

Catholic, that is to say artist

Someone compared her to James Joyce, someone else wrote that her work surpasses Dostoevsky’s, Poe’s and Kafka’s. She was proud of owning a substantial number of peacocks, of having a chicken that walked both backwards and forwards, and of having been born in the same town as Oliver Hardy, the “Hardy” of the mythic pair Laurel and Hardy. Certainly one does not come away from reading the stories of Flannery O’connor, born in 1923 and dead at only 39 years old,  unscathed. We are struck by a deeply original strength. After reading, an expression of distant reflection remains on our faces along with a question whose formulation elbows its way slowly up from the depths of our being. “Because I am catholic I cannot permit myself to be anything less than an artist.” In these words all the reasons for O’Connor’s force come together. We’re speaking of words that enter into the body of our epoch with a sharpness and provocation that have no equal. In fact, in 1932 T.S. Eliot had already written that we had entered the third phase of the life of the novel in terms of the relationship between literature and religion. In the phase, that is, in which the authors of fiction “except James Joyce (…) have never heard the Christian faith spoken of except as an anachronism. In these few introductory pages, we will examine the words of O’Connor quoted above. In them we find the elements of consciousness and judgment that act and are revealed in her work. These elements characterize her as one of the most relevant writers in the sense of her extreme capacity to be contemporary,  though not, of course, in the sense of a fashion or fad.

At the end of reading this book there will be, as happens with critics who have just begin the study of O’Connor, those who appreciate (or dislike) the intensity of the stories’ realism. And there will be also those who appreciate (or dislike) the cruel violence of the narrated events. There will also be those who will believe that they recognize the element of interest for a reader aware of the Christian phenomenon in this or that characteristic of the work (the themes, the references to the bible, the visionary quality of the work, the idea of morality). I believe that all of these readings fall into the category of consequences or results. The heart of O’Connor’s art beats first, or rather, underneath these things. It is exactly at this level that she cannot be considered a “Catholic writer” if by this category, for the enth time, the creation of a “separate” place is meant. One cannot say that O’Connor is a Catholic writer in the same way that no one dreams of defining Caravaggio or Michelangelo as “Catholic painters.” And yet they were, and how.

The value and subversive force that are contained, as they are by every great work of art, in O’Connor’s writing resemble the gratuitous power of any great natural event (and we are never so amazed as when we notice something spectacular that exists in nature). They have to do with the power of attraction that makes a great work of art, and with its function as something that can reveal the world. 

In other words, it is a question of understanding why a Catholic of our times must be an artist. An artist is defined as such for a characteristic that does not pertain, first of all, to his or her intelligence or morality, at least in terms of the way those two words are used currently. One can say that in the great artist of any time period there is at work an intelligence, and therefore a morality, recognizably more authentic with respect to what is considered intelligent or good in their era. This is certainly valid for Homer, as it is for Dante but also for Baudelaire, for Rimbaud, and for Eliot, as well as for Gaugain and Shuterland. An artist is generally more than an intelligent, good man. But he is so in a  way that forces whoever observes his work to reach a discovery, to enter an experience of intelligence and morality that is deeper than the one dictated by common opinion and habit. 

In that sense it is easy to understand what is meant in Christian aesthetics when it is affirmed that all geniuses are in some way “prophets.” Their works, in fact, constitute a surpassing of the intelligence, an uneasiness about the etchics of their own time because that work achieves a special intimation of what reality might be.

Their works reveal the real. Michelangelo’s bodies, like Rublev’s golds, Parmigianino’s hills, like Modigliani’s girls, the happy torments of Mozart and Beethoven’s beginnings, the questions of Leopardi, the energy of Luzi’s verses, the way that Pasolini and Caproni dedicate poems to their mothers as if they were lovers. They are all examples of how much the gesture of the artist urges our gaze (both interior and exterior) to take in the presence of life, to consider the real with attention and passion, with greater dedication and compassion.

In this sense for those who, like Flannery O’Connor, believe that reality is made by and therefore of God, the artistic gesture is a way toward the (re) discovery of the mysterious nature of reality. “The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with mystery.” (The Nature and Aim of Fiction). With these words O’Connor describes her own ideal reader. Moreover, a few pages later she explains why: “Saint Thomas called art ‘reason in making.’ This is a very cold and very beautiful definition, and if it is unpopular today, this is because reason has lost ground among us.”

From which it is understood that today a Catholic must be an artist. Today more than ever in fact there are at work so many modes of “reduction” of the nature of the real that whoever recognizes in their existence an experience of mystery accomplishes, even with the sole action of listening to their own faith, an act analogous to that of the artist. Mystery incarnated, the stupefying announcement of the Christian event, is the apex and confirmation of this recognition. The incarnation, from this point of veiw, can be considered the sudden artistic gesture with which God revealed the nature of his own creation. To cross through or break the by-now ingrained conviction that reality is the fruit and projection of one’s own feeling (or of the interplay of one’s own interior make-up), or that it’s a nothing of nothingness in which one abandons oneself casually as to a fog, or that it’s the result of what man can understand and operate upon it, is an action that brings into play the same difference and the same intensity as an artistic gesture. In an era in which reason is “unpopular” (now that the wave of sterile rationalism has finished, many weakenings of reason have come into fashion) the gesture of the man of faith who believes it’s reasonable to consider mystery as the ultimate reality and not as a different/other dimension but rather as the real from which springs the real, resembles the authentic artistic gesture, offering itself as an original contribution to the defense and the exultation of reason.

Flannery O’Connor said and lived these things with the intensity and the irony that came out of a temperament both humble and combative, witty and not much given to flattery. And with the urgency of the difficult existential situation into which sickness threw her. Most of all with the integrity that comes from clear judgment and is accompanied by free action. 

What Pavese wrote of Faulkner in 1934 is valid for her as well: “He is (…) neither the national champion of hygienic morality, nor the subverter, equally puritan, of national moralistic patterns, as have been in North America almost all rebels  over the past thirty years.”

A young and valuable Italian writer, Carola Susani, admittting recently that “we share with her more than we’d like to,” wrote that what interested Flannery O’Connor were moments “in which God manifests himself, where you find him exactly when you would rather not have. I call them miracles. When, that is to say, in your own life which is organized like an apology for yourself, fear is re-awakened in you.”

Her stories shock the reader  who is afflicted with a faith that has a mawkish quality. They diorient the reader who expects edification. 

“The result of the correct study of a novel should be the contemplation of the mystery incarnated in it, but it’s a question of the contemplation of the mystery of the entire work and not in a couple of clauses or paraphrases. It is not a question of unearthing an easily expressed moral or a declaration on life.”

For O’Connor, the novel or short story whose theme or moral can be expressed in a few words is a dead work.

In the extraordinary essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer” that we present here, she affirms that for each writer “everything is verified by the eye, an organ that, in the end, implicates the entire personality and as much of the world as it can contain. Mons. Romano Guarini wrote that the roots of the eye are in the heart. Whatever the case, for the Catholic they radiate all the way to those depths of mystery with respect to which today’s world is divided. On the one hand seeking to remove mystery, while on the other hoping to rediscover it in disciplines that demand less from a person than religion.” For this reason, proceeds O’Connor “the writer of fiction discovers this way, if ever he discovers something, that it is not up to him to modify reality or model it in favor of an abstract truth. The writer will learn, perhaps faster than the reader, to be humble in front of what is. What is is everything with which he has doings, the concrete is his means.

Using one of Henry James’ definitions, O’Connor concludes that the “morality of a piece of fiction depends on the amount of life encompassed by it. The Catholic writer in the measure in which he conforms to the eye of the Church will feel life from the point of view of the central Christian mystery. It is for this that, despite all his horror, God deemed that it was worthwhile to die.” Here it is worthwhile to hint at what was taking place in the American literature of the contemporaries of the author of Wise Blood, her debut novel in which is told the story of a preacher who goes mad in a Church without Christ. For further considerations see the after-word of this volume. For now it is enough to think about the fact that she was writing in the same years as King Hemingway and the rare fury of W. Faulkner, (to whom in certain stylistic aspects O’Connor is comparable for her world of lost souls), and Dos Passos with his world filled with ideological voluntarism.

O’Connor’s realism, her attention to the “customs” of the South, to its sayings, its dialects, the priviledged position given to protagonists and figures that today would be defined as “borderline,” and in everything in which she has been classified as “grotesque,” are not the programmatic result of an aesthetic choice, but the consequence of an ontological evaluation. It is, in fact, the most imporessive ontological evaluation: “It is for this – life – that God was willing to die.” Citing Conrad, a favorite author, she affirmed that her goal was “to render as much possible justice to the visible universe.” Or rather, to not forget that “a story always implicates in a dramatic manner the mystery of personality.”

“All writers are fundamentally people who seek and describe the real. But the type of realism of each writer depends on his/her vision of the ultimate extensions of reality.” And what are these “ultimate extensions?” It has to do with human liberty, or rather, the drama that runs throughout it. “If the writer believes that our life is and remains essentially mysterious, if he considers us all as beings who exist in a created order whose laws we respond to freely, then what he sees on the surface interests him only in so far as the experience of it allows one to penetrate into an experience of mystery. (…) For this kind of writer the meaning of a story does not begin if not at a depth at which the fitting motivations and the fitting psychology and all the various determinations have been exhausted. Such a writer will be interested in what we do not understand instead of what we do. He will be interested in possibility instead of probability.” This means that reason in making, in the act of an artistic gesture, lies in affirming the category of possibility as nature’s highest level. That is to say, the place in which human reason and liberty meet the existence and action of Mystery. All of which seems a titanic undertaking in an era that, as O’Connor writes, “doubts facts as much as values.”

But what would seem titanic in any other kind of work whether philosophical, theological, or even apologetic in the traditional sense, comes to be in a special manner in an artistic accomplishment. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most recent renewal in the life of the Church through the work of great figures of shepherds and thinkers, to say nothing of the contribution of great movements, began in the years 1949 and 1950 – the same years to which O’Connor refers – came to pass because of the work of people gifted with a strong artistic sensibility.

As for the rest, insisted Claudel in “Positions and Propositions,” the level of aesthetic sense in the story of the Church is equal to the level of the Church’s conscience of its own nature and its own goals. The poet of the Annunciation complained, because of this, about the fact that priests who in the daily morning recitation from the psalmbook encounter the grandiose poetry of the Psalms then propagated, in the gestures of catechism and in their own eloquence, an aesthetic spoiled by preciousness. 

The Church, wrote O’Connor “is not a culture.” It is worth saying that it is not a basin from which to draw subjects, characters, or ideas that might be good or edifying. Or, worse, a kind of arena inside of which certain figures and experiences are denied access. “If one were able to flush out the Catholic reader in the swamp of letters to the director and other places where he is for a moment in the open, one would realize that he is more Manichean than the Church permits him to be. Separating as much as possible nature from grace has reduced the supernatural to a pious cliché.”

For O’Connor the Church is the “only thing that makes bearable the terrible world toward which we are moving.” exactly in the measure in which, the announcement of the coming of Christ who encouters the condition of “poverty,” of “abnormality,” and of human liberty, does not permit the separation between nature and grace. Isn’t this the deepest aspiration of every artistic gesture, its very structure, even? In the middle of everything that is predictable, the element that makes a story work for O’Connor is “the free act,” “the acceptance of grace.”

Of the stories that follow, some are endowed with great tragic force. Reading O’Connor we realize that a Christian tragedy exists, a tragedy that is doubly desperate: human liberty can declare itself closed to grace, can be the thin but invincible wall against which even the will of the heavens is powerless. Grace here is not a matter of nice angels or blue levitation. It’s a flash in which the protagonist of the story understands his destiny, his real destiny. A destiny which does not coincide, naturally, with a happy ending. 

(One thinks of the story “A Good Man is Hard To Find” and of the figure of the grandmother who finally understands who the Bandit is when he assails her and her family.) It’s a question of tragedy, if you will, no longer simply man’s but God’s as well. There is not simply human desperation on the stage but, devastated and powerless, there is also divine desperation. A desperation, mind you, that can be overturned only by a force that man cannot succeed in imagining, and therefore can certainly not represent, and that constitutes the force of God’s forces, of his mercy.

The irony that marks O’Connor’s stories is born as an echo of this “force of forces;” it is not a paliative, it’s not an expedient of gratitude. Her capacity to laugh (and to make us laugh) is born from the same roots as the gaze that observes the difficult and deformed life of her characters. This cohabitiation of a sense of tragedy and irony characterized her own existence. While she wrote “terrible” stories, she drew, according to her primitive vocation, comics. And in certain letters in which she speaks of her fatal illness…

Quite rightly, Elisa Buzzi in her stimulating essay on O’Connor of a few yars ago, written slightly before many here in Italy gave life to a kind of recent “discovery” of O’Connor, calls up the anagogical sense that was recognized in the writings of the Middle Ages and which Dante himself in his enigmatic letter to Cangrande affirms as the right path to follow when reading his Commedia. By anagogical vision is meant an attitude or way of seeing that is able to notice in a singe image or situation the many levels of reality that are at play there, and which are connected to the mystery of divine existence and of our participation in it. In other words, the various levels of meaning – literal, moral, existential, dramatic, theological – live together in one single image. They form its structure. The figures or significant symbols in a story (a character, the car he uses, certain actions) are rich with all these levels. It’s not necessarily the case that one can capture them all, nor that the significant figures and symbols are the ones most easily thought of or identified. But it’s certain that the comprehension of a story like those of O’Connor is enriched, as little by little the anagogical vision is perceived. This holds, we suspect as we reread Dante’s Epistle, for every great work of art. The reader, then, must be ready to leave the habitual frame of his own perception. He must be ready to let the figures and situations that the author proposes “go to work” inside him and in the end, he must be ready to surprise moments of epiphany. Precisely because of the epiphanic nature of their stories have James Joyce and Flannery O’Connor been compared. 

“I believe that there exists one sole Reality, period.” writes O’Connor in one of the letters present in this volume. She also writes “the ultimate reality is the Incarnation.” The author understands that she writes in an era in which “no one believes anymore in the Incarnation, that is, no one believes in it publicly.” She is well aware that her “public” is made up of people who believe that “God is dead.”

From this precise awareness comes O’Connor’s intolerance for everything that reduces Christianity to anything other than the certainty of the event of incarnation. In another letter reproduced here she tells of how she burst out in front of those who consider the eucharist “only a symbol, however successful.” “Well, if it’s a symbol than you can go to hell.” The value of the anagogical vision is rooted in a faith that is reasonable, free, and certain. 

These are eyes which, according to Conrad’s definition, already cited here and beloved by O’Connor, render the “most possible justice to the visible universe.” They are eyes that have loved much and that, speaking of what exists, hand down real life instead of all the publicity of appearance.