Review of Flannery O'Connor's Mystery and Manners (excerpt)
by Joyce Carol Oates
Originally published in The Southern Review, Winter 1971"The prophet is a realist of distances."
"We are not living in times when the realist of distances is understood or well thought of, even though he may be in the dominant tradition of American letters," Flannery O'Connor states in one of her superb essays, "The Grotesque in Southern Fiction." The distinction Miss O'Connor makes between prophetic, visionary art in the novel and the more immediate "realism" of social or political urgency is an important one; living in such extraordinary times, or in times highly publicized as extraordinary (because accelerated and exaggerated, as well as violent), it is well for us to remember as readers and as critics that the world of art, beginning and ending in the immediate, has as its obsessive goal the establishment of another dimension entirely.
Flannery O'Connor died in 1964. Reading and rereading this book is a moving experience: not only is Mystery and Manners (Occasional Prose of Flannery O'Connor, selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald) a valuable and exciting collection of essays in itself, it is a testament to the deep humanity of Miss O'Connor, to the modesty and wisdom and gentle humor that lay behind her vivid, sometimes repulsive fictional accomplishments. Her death at the age of thirty-nine is one of our bitterest losses. It is impossible to guess, given the body of work she has left and the evidence of shrewd, speculative intelligence in these essays, just how far she might have gone; as it is she remains one of our finest writers, though she has not written any single "masterpiece."
Mystery and Manners is a collection of essays, lectures, critical articles, and notes by Miss O'Connor, dealing with a variety of subjects: raising peacocks, regional writing, the nature of literature, the teaching of literature, the peculiar problems of religious writers, and even a long essay about a terribly afflicted but somehow beautiful child named Mary Ann. Miss O'Connor's writing is direct and startling in its simplicity. She is not pretentious. She is not even very dogmatic, though she is certain of a few things and repeats them in one way or another—the beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and art must operate through the senses, beginning and ending humbly. In all these essays there is the calm, consistent sound of her voice, never shrill or combative, always checked by her sense of humor.
"The Fiction Writer and His Country," one of the best essays in the book, will probably become a classic. It was written in response to a Life editorial urging the novelists of America to write positively of their country, to speak of "the joy of life itself." Miss O'Connor considers the idea of a writer's relationship to his country; what, exactly, is his "country"—his true "country"? "The writer who emphasizes spiritual values is very likely to take the darkest view of all of what he sees in this country today," she says. And, perhaps, his "country" is
not simply his region or his nation, but a farther country, an eternal and absolute territory. Measured against a spiritual absolute, the powerful nation in which American writers live is bound to seem deformed; but the deformed is fit material for art, for what is deformed and lives makes better sense than what is dead and whole. As to the charge that Southerners are alienated from the rest of the country, Miss O'Connor says sardonically that the South is not alienated enough. As a "Southern" writer she has the advantage, at least, of recognizing a freak when she sees one; as a Catholic she has the advantage of a core of moral and historical certainty:
My own feeling is that writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eyes for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable. In some cases, these writers may be unconsciously infected with the Manichean spirit of the times . . . but I think that more often the reason for this attention to the perverse is the difference between their beliefs and the beliefs of their audience. . . . The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience.
She quotes St. Cyril of Jerusalem (prefaced also to A Good Man is Hard to Find): "The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon." It is of this "mysterious passage" that fiction speaks.
Miss O'Connor's writing is incarnational—a celebration of the distant in terms of the immediate. It is not important whether her fiction mirrors an accurate sociological world (does it?—doesn't it?), because its territory is not really Georgia; "Georgia" is the surface of the mystery. She states again and again that fiction concerns itself with mystery. To readers and critics to whom life is not at all mysterious, but simply a matter of processes, her writing will seem unnaturally rigorous, restrained, even compulsive. It is certainly "neurotic." However, if one believes that life is essentially mysterious, then literature is a celebration of that mystery, a pushing toward the "limits of mystery." As Miss O'Connor says in the well-known essay, "The Grotesque in Southern Fiction," a writer with this view is interested in the surface of things only "as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself." And, in a surprising conclusion which brings up again the tormenting question of Miss O'Connor's promise: "The direction of many of us will be more toward poetry than toward the traditional novel."
The mystery of the divine is dramatized through the immediate, through the manners of a region (the best American writing is always regional). Miss O'Connor remarks in "The Teaching of Literature" that Henry James once wrote of a hypothetical young woman of the future who would be taken out for airings in a flying-machine, but "would know nothing of mystery or manners."
The mystery he was talking about is the mystery of our position on earth, and the manners are those conventions which, in the hands of the artist, reveal that central mystery.
There is much in this excellent book that cannot be drawn together except arbitrarily. A "realist of distances," Miss O'Connor possessed a devastating eye for the immediate; here are some scattered remarks that seem exceptionally worthwhile:
The writer can choose what he writes about but he cannot choose what he is able to make live ....
Manners are of such great consequence to the novelist that any kind will do.
Unless we are willing to accept our artists as they are, the answer to the question, "Who speaks for America today?" will have to be: the advertising agencies.
I think that every writer, when he speaks of his own approach to fiction, hopes to show that, in some crucial and deep sense, he is a realist ....
The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.
I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.
. . . there's a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once.
Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them.
Where there is no belief in the soul, there is very little drama.