by Joyce Carol Oates
Originally published in two parts as: "Ritual and Violence in Flannery O’Connor" in Thought, Winter 1966; and "The Visionary Art of Flannery O’Connor" in Southern Humanities Review, Summer 1973; this version published in New Heaven, New Earth. . . something is developing in the world by means of us, perhaps at our expense.
Teilhard de Chardin
The revolt against science and scientism that characterizes much of twentieth-century literature has its origin in nineteenth-century dissatisfaction with the utopian vision of man as essentially rational. Of course, this dissatisfaction was never homogeneous; the concept of man's free will was attacked from a number of directions. Kant, earlier, attempted to show that man's reason is limited and suspect and must be supplemented by intuition; Nietzsche argued, less optimistically, that intuition is really the "irrational" and may indeed endanger man's rational powers. It was the scientifically speculative thinkers, however, who had the greatest impact on our century's attitude toward free will—Darwin, Marx, Frazer, Freud. In the writings of each of these men, freedom of the will and of the mind is severely questioned. It is not generally known that Freud does allow "freedom" for man, but this freedom can only be the result of intensive self-knowledge and analysis, hardly available to the majority of men.
Modern literature, directly influenced by the nineteenth century, attempts to demonstrate the climate of this "new" world. For someone like Thomas Mann's Von Aschenbach in Death in Venice, loss of rationality is loss of the social "good" and causes man's death, yet before his fall Aschenbach was not truly alive. Mann demonstrates in The Magic Mountain that civilization rests upon barbarism and that this is a fact one must accept. The ethical demands of an earlier, simpler era are baffled here. And when the irrational is not linked to the purely physical but, on the contrary, is linked to the divine, the problem of an ethical determination of good or evil becomes hopelessly complex.
It is this complexity that makes the fiction of Flannery O'Connor so rich and at the same time so perplexing and alienating. She seems unique in her celebration of the necessity of succumbing to the divine through violence that is immediate and irreparable. There is no mysticism in her work that is only spiritual; it is physical as well. She has been accused of being un-Christian or anti-Christian in her insistence upon the limitations of the human will. For, as she says in an introductory note to her first novel, Wise Blood, " ... free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man. Freedom cannot be
conceived simply. It is a mystery .... " Her refusal to account for the mystery leads to the bizarre atmosphere of her world. It is a world of utter mystery whose center is the "bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus." Everything is related to the mystery of Christ's Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. And, if the promise of the Resurrection seems muted in O'Connor's world, it is because that world has ignored it. O'Connor, who spoke of herself as a born Catholic to whom death "has always been brother to my imagination," can see the "reality" of the contemporary South only in relationship to the higher reality of Christian mystery.
Not meant to be realistic or naturalistic, her fiction should be read as a series of parables. Like the metaphysical poets, especially T. S. Eliot, she yokes together sacred and secular images by violence; it is the artistic arrangement of these images, in themselves grotesque, that leads to the construction of a vision that is not grotesque but harshly and defiantly spiritual. Her death in the summer of 1964 marked not simply the end of the career of a powerful descendant of Faulkner whose individual achievements are at times superior to his, but the end of the career of one of the greatest religious writers of modern times.
Not Faulkner, however, or Nathanael West, but Kafka and Kierkegaard are O'Connor's most important ancestors. Superficially, her work bears strong resemblances to Faulkner's—the exaggeration of physical and psychological horror, the back-country Southern settings—and to West's mainly in surrealistic style; but it is the revelation of a transcendental world of absolute value beyond the cheap, flashy wasteland of modern America that is O'Connor's real concern. She is understandable only in a religious context. If the reality of the transcendental world is denied, as it is in Faulkner and West and other existential writers, her literature becomes vulgar farce and is indecipherable. If there is no central mystery in Christ, then for O'Connor there would be no mystery in life. Everyone in her world is obsessed with the mystery of Christ, not as a curious historical occurrence but as an always-present reality. The Misfit, of the story "A Good Man is Hard to Find," complains that Jesus "thown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can .... " This murderer, whose metaphysical anguish is in direct contrast with his grotesque being, goes on to say that since he was not there with Christ, he cannot know if the story of Christ is true. "It ain't right that I wasn't there because if I had of been there I would of known. . . . I would of known and I wouldn't be like I am now." Hazel Motes of Wise Blood tries to escape the "wild ragged figure" of Christ moving from tree to tree in the back of his mind because he cannot reject the evidence of his senses. "Nothing matters but that Jesus don't exist," Motes says; and the violence of his rejection suggests the hopelessness of his commitment. He will cut out the offending eye by blinding himself to the physical world, withdrawing from it into a kind of catatonic state, and finally dying. For O'Connor, his integrity lies in his being unable to rid himself of Jesus—he is not intended, as some readers might think, to be an example of the morbid side effects of religion. Similarly, the hermaphrodite freak of "A Temple of the Holy Ghost" is not introduced to generate irony between the
horror of the freak as freak and someone's lofty concept of it as a temple of the Holy Ghost; the freak in all his freakishness is a temple of the Holy Ghost, like it or not: "This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain't disputing His way."
Kierkegaard, similarly, calls for a complete commitment to Christ. But this commitment is not to be in terms of a comfortable, joyous communion but in terms of personal anxiety. For to Kierkegaard, man's natural state is one of anxiety. Man is alone, isolated. The world, seemingly created for him, is a dangerous illusion that blinds him to his true home; the world of man, and especially erotic love, blinds man to his real state, which is that of fear and trembling before God. The crowd, Kierkegaard teaches, is untruth. He follows Saint Paul in saying that "only one attains the goal"; he rejects the modern, or pagan, notion that "to be a man is to belong to a race endowed with reason, to belong to it as a specimen, so that the race or species is higher than the individual." The Kierkegaardian Christian, could he exist, would be a misfit in the world of man. Indeed, to be anything else but a misfit and an "individual" would be a betrayal of his destiny.
The anguish of the believer who is not equal to the worship of his God is recorded faithfully by Kafka. In his novels, stories, parables, and diary entries one reads of the plight of the individual for whom the crowd is impossible, and yet the ecstasy of being "one" with God is also impossible. Kafka is not existential in the common sense of the term (believing that existence creates essence or soul) but is rather an essentialist—believing that man does not create his soul through free acts but is instead given a soul with which he must live, however unsuitable it may be. One runs into problems trying to link Kafka's heroes with those of, say, Camus or Sartre. They are of another species altogether, for their anxiety is expressed only in terms of a higher, invisible, possibly malignant Being, while the heroes of the typical existential novel create their own values completely. In Freudian terms, one would say rather clinically that the Kafkan hero represents an ego that is slowly but irresistibly destroyed by a superego. The superiority of the Kafkan "force" (be it a father or an institution ) is suggested most horribly at the end of The Trial, where Joseph K. understands that he is expected to commit suicide and thereby execute himself—but he cannot perform this final act because he has been created without the strength needed for it. Kafka's men are subjected to ritualistic performances in which they are victims, initiated into the knowledge of their own powerlessness. Eliseo Vivas sees Kafka's art as the expression of the dilemma of empirical method confronted with the world's irrationality:1 the crisis of the modern age, which is committed to scientific method but can find no ultimate answers by way of this method. Yet there is a deeply religious core to Kafka's art that Vivas does not see.
This is O'Connor's world: Kierkegaardian anguish in the face of man's certitude and Kafkan anguish in the face of man's ignorance, the blending of the two impulses, toward fanatic certainty (her demented preachers) and toward pathetic, groping empiricism in the face of extraordinary events (the "rational" men of The Violent Bear It Away and "The Lame Shall Enter First"). Between these two extremes the world is populated by "grotesques." It is the intention of the typical O'Connor story to initiate the unthinking grotesques into a vision of reality. This is accomplished through ceremonial, almost ritualistic devices: the gathering together of the unfaithful in order to witness a "miracle," most likely performed upon them. An analysis of several of her works will bring out the significance of the pattern of violent rituals in O'Connor.
O'Connor's two novels deal with essentially the same subject: the romance of the "mad shadow of Jesus" and the soul that demands freedom. As Lewis A. Lawson has noted in his excellent study of Wise Blood,2 she uses the construction of the parable, introducing an abstract idea that will be made concrete, as in the parables of Christ. Hazel Motes, the Christless preacher of Wise Blood, represents by his very being the contradictory elements of modern society—pushed, of course, to comic and morbid extremes. It is not necessary to assume, along with Lawson, that O'Connor feels Motes's fundamentalism to be "perverted." In other of her stories ("The River," for one) the vitality and passion of the fundamentalist is contrasted favorably with the skepticism of the "civilized." Motes embodies the soul in rebellion, not simply against Christ but against his own destiny. He is the grandson of a preacher and the son of a woman, both of whom were consumed with religious feeling. "He had gone to a country school where he had learned to read and write but that it was wiser not to; the Bible was the only book he read." In the sterility of a government institution—the army—Motes is told he has no soul, and is anxious to believe this. "He saw the opportunity here to get rid of it without corruption, to be converted to nothing instead of to evil." The choice Motes wants to make, like modern man, is not between good and evil but between the reality of both good and evil, and nothing: for an absolute nothing would seem to insure man's freedom. Clearly, O'Connor is as fascinated by this theme as is Dostoyevsky, and one cannot resist assuming that the battle fought so bravely and hopelessly by her heroes is in part her own battle.
Motes tries to achieve the sterility of absolute freedom by rejecting his destiny. Yet everywhere he goes, people mistake him for a preacher. Even the fake blind man can recognize him: "I can hear the urge for Jesus in his voice." Enoch Emery, a kind of parody of Motes as a searcher for truth, says: "I knew when I first seen you you didn't have nobody nor nothing but Jesus." Mrs. Watts, the prostitute who is "so well-adjusted that she didn't have to think any more," says when she sees Motes: "That Jesus-seeing hat!" When Motes rages to himself, he is actually praying without knowing it. His blasphemous words are punctuated with "Jesus" and "Jesus Christ Crucified." We do not know what O'Connor thought of Freud's vision of man, but apart from its atheistic implications it is quite compatible with her apparent psychology. She sees man as dualistic: torn between the conventional polarities of God and the devil, but further confused because the choice must be made in human terms, and the divine might share superficial similarities with the diabolical. Indeed, it is difficult for the average reader at times to distinguish between the two in her fiction. Freud's anatomy of the mind, involving a dynamic struggle of the conscious ego or self to maintain its individuality against the raging forces of the primitive unconscious and the
highly repressive reservoir of civilization is a classic one. It is the struggle of Oedipus with his fate, the struggle of Hamlet with his, and, on a lesser dramatic level, the struggle of O'Connor's perverse saints with the saintly that is in them. It is not the devil they wish to defeat, but grace in them that prevents them from being "free." In all cases it is a struggle toward knowledge—forbidden knowledge. Freud's rationalism has alienated existential writers—Ionesco, for one—because his absolute commitment to a psychology that wants to explain the inexplicable runs counter to the age-old belief in the sanctity of the unconscious or of divine mystery. D. H. Lawrence, no existentialist, hated Freud for these reasons, and we might assume that O'Connor would have shared this reaction. Freud bears too close a resemblance to her intellectual parodies—Rayber of The Violent Bear It Away and Joy Hulga, the Ph.D. with the wooden leg, in "Good Country People." But the constant seesawing between the conscious and the unconscious, the ego-dominated and the repressed, and, above all, the struggle of the ego to main[tain] itself in a dreamlike world of abstractions made concrete (the usual machinery of the dream) is Freudian drama of a unique type.
What is original, at least for our time, is O'Connor's commitment to the divine origin of the unconscious. Despite her elegance as a stylist, she is a primitive; she insists that only through an initiation by violence does man "see." Paradoxically, it is after his blinding that Motes "sees"; he is also a murderer, but is that relevant? If the novel were realistic, yes, for in realistic or naturalistic fiction everything must be tabulated and accounted for. But if his murder of the sake Motes is seen to be a murder of that side of himself, then the purely symbolic nature of the story is made clear. Motes is an allegorical figure, however exaggerated and ridiculous. He represents contemporary man torn between the religion of his past (the Christianity of the modern West) and the religion of the present (the worship of science—the reliance upon sense-data). There can be no reconciliation of the two. If man cannot make a choice between them, as the completely adjusted have—those lucky people who no longer need to think—man must be destroyed. This is man as hero, however, and not as clown. O'Connor dresses her saints in outlandish costumes, gives both Motes and Tarwater absurd black preacher hats that signal their fates, and plays upon the reader's conventional feelings for these signs of oddness. As metaphysical device, the extreme intellectuality of these back-country preachers is not surprising; if they are taken as representatives of the South, they are unbelievable. O'Connor dares to present conventionally absurd figures as heroes and does not sentimentalize their plights. It is no wonder, then, that she is misunderstood. Her fiction seems to make no compromise with tradition, unless one assumes the larger tradition of Christianity. Saint Paul says that what he preaches is "foolishness" to the Greeks, who are rationalists; Tertullian insists upon the absurdity and impossibility and—for these reasons—the inevitability of Christ's death and resurrection; Duns Scotus preaches the primacy of the will over the intellect, contrary to Aquinas. It is necessary to be a misfit, the religious temperament has always told us. Catholicism presents a clear compromise between unbridled religious emotion and an orderly religious system. Had O'Connor not been born a Catholic, this combination of passion and order would surely have appealed to her, for this "rage for order" is evident in each of her works.
The ritualistic formality of The Violent Bear It Away reveals tragic obsessions that are similar to Motes's. Here the ritual that is demanded of the protagonist is not his self-blinding, but an act of baptism on an idiot child. For both Motes and Tarwater the ceremony is inevitable. Everything in the novels insists upon it—the imagery in Wise Blood of sight and blindness, and the imagery of water in The Violent Bear It Away. The soul struggles to assert its freedom, but in the very act of what should be absolute freedom (the drowning of the child to be baptized) the baptismal ceremony is performed against Tarwater's conscious will. He is initiated into the knowledge that he does not own his soul. He is not in control of himself, despite the hopeful words of the rationalist and atheist, Rayber. Instead, it is just as he secretly feared all along, that his hunger for the bread of life is "hidden in the blood ... and the bottom of his stomach [split out] so that nothing would heal or fill it but the bread of life."
The structure of the novel insists upon a classic predestination. Its first paragraph tells us something that Tarwater will not learn until the conclusion of the novel, and this knowledge—that his uncle's corpse, which he tried to burn, has been buried with a cross by the grave—will destroy Tarwater completely. His mad old uncle warns him about strangers: "You are the kind of boy," the old man says back in Chapter Two, "that the devil is always going to be offering to assist, to give you a smoke or a drink or a ride. . . . You had better mind how you take up with strangers." At the conclusion of the novel he unwisely accepts a ride with a stranger, who drugs and rapes him. The novel, which deals with prophecy, has many small prophecies like these embedded in its early pages. The sinister stranger is anticipated by Tarwater's "other self," his apparently rational self, which tries to talk him out of burying his uncle and out of his "destiny" of baptism. This stranger's face is "sharp and friendly and wise, shadowed under a stiff broad-brimmed panama hat." When Tarwater repeats his uncle's remark, "Jesus or the devil," the stranger corrects him. "It's Jesus or you," he says. Thus the rational side of Tarwater is linked with the devil, and this is supposedly quite a literal devil: he will appear in person in Chapter Eleven, with a "lavender shirt and a thin black suit and a panama hat." Tarwater thinks vaguely that there is "something familiar to him in the look of the stranger." Given liquor to drink by him, Tarwater says recklessly that it is "better than the Bread of Life!" Back in Part I, when he drank some moonshine, he felt as if the "devil were already reaching inside him to finger his soul." He has uncorked the bottle with the corkscrew given him by his Uncle Rayber, saying proudly, "This here thing will open anything." Symbolically, O'Connor is saying here that the gimmicky corkscrew, gift of the would-be skeptic, can open only trouble: it is a product of a technological civilization and, as such, provides a sleazy commentary upon its origin. Faith in rationality leads to a betrayal of the self. Because Tarwater has tried to reject his destiny, he is raped by the devil himself.
The prophecy with which the book ends, "Go, warn the children of God of the terrible speed of mercy," has been anticipated back in Chapter Two with the uncle's raging prophecies: "Go warn the children of God ... of the terrible speed of justice." And when Tarwater is first confronted with the idiot child he must baptize, it is over a telephone (significantly), and though he cannot know who has lifted up the receiver, he hears breathing
on the other end of the line, "a kind of bubbling noise, the kind of noise someone would make who was struggling to breathe in water." The fates of Tarwater and Bishop, the idiot child, are certainly predetermined; they can only act out their roles. Hearing the sound, Tarwater "seemed to have been stunned by some deep internal blow that had not yet made its way to the surface of his mind."
O'Connor would need this ceremonial, formal structure even if her temperament did not incline her naturally toward it, for the extremities of behavior in her writing demand a closely knit, even classical confinement. More than this, the religious commitment itself demands a ceremonial approach. As Sister Bernetta comments: " ... what constitutes a Catholic writer is the realization that for such a person history leads up to and away from what happened on Calvary the first Good Friday."3 If this is so, then the historical event can only be realized through ritual, for it is no longer available to the Christian in its historical reality. Through the use of ritual, the temporal is united with the eternal, and it is this juxtaposition—so reluctantly approached by O'Connor's saints—that is necessary. She is not a clever satirist of modern society, for clearly she does not care for the temporal except as a contrast to the eternal; Philip Rahv in his introduction to Wise Blood in Eight Great American Short Novels echoes many New York-oriented critics in saying that she "has created ... small masterpieces of life in the Southern hinterland,"4 when it is obvious to anyone who has lived in the South that this is not true at all. The initiation of man into the presence of the divine demands not only a surrealistic style but a surrealistic landscape, for man cannot step out of a familiar environment and into the world of Christ and the prophets. O'Connor did not try, evidently, to subject ordinary, psychologically "real" people to religious violence. "A Temple of the Holy Ghost," perhaps, and "Revelation" deal with recognizable people, but these stories are by no means realistic. The grotesque vision cannot work except in certain selected areas of life: note the sudden jarring incongruity of Rayber's hope to send young Tarwater to college!
The drama of Wise Blood is made more complex in The Violent Bear It Away. Here the central figure, Tarwater, doomed to baptize and to murder, shares Motes's conflict between the ego and the unconscious, but these two powerful forces are externalized in the novel. The ego, the rational, striving self, is represented by the schoolteacher, Rayber. He is treated in a surprisingly sympathetic way by O'Connor, though we know that behind his skepticism is a hopeless obsession with the very faith he preaches against. A product of a mechanized civilization that has explained everything, Rayber wears glasses and a hearing aid, goes to restaurants, writes up the mad old uncle in a magazine, and presents Tarwater with the symbolic present of the corkscrew that can "open up anything." The offspring of the schoolteacher and the social worker is, significantly, an idiot child. Where most Southern writers use the idiot child to represent the ingrown decadence of the society, O'Connor uses it to represent the ignorance of a society committed to reason: "The Dream of Reason Breeds Monsters."
Opposed to the schoolteacher is the old uncle, a prophet, preacher, and moonshiner. Old Tarwater's domain is the child's unconscious mind, and O'Connor has said that she is on the old man's side because Christ is the center of his life. One might wish, perhaps, that in her
zeal to correct misunderstandings she had not so drastically simplified her marvelously complex novel. For Old Tarwater, though a man of God, is at the same time responsible for the child's perversion; unless religious feeling must be absolutely linked with insanity, it is difficult to believe that the old uncle is a positive character. Rather, it would seem that he is responsible as much as Rayber for the violence of Tarwater's initiation into his "destiny." He himself is outraged at the schoolteacher's attempt to psychoanalyze him and thus nullify his alliance with God, but his world is one in which the Atonement does not seem to have worked; it is the atmosphere of the Old Testament, haunted by senseless violence. The child Tarwater feels this:
He knew he was called to be a prophet and that the ways of his prophecy would not be remarkable .... The Lord out of dust had created him, had made him blood and nerve and mind, had made him to bleed and weep and think, and set him in a world of loss and fire all to baptize one idiot child that He need not have created in the first place and to cry out a gospel just as foolish.5
The characters struggle together, the absence of the old uncle being more powerful, finally, than the presence of the young uncle. Thus Tarwater rows the child out to drown him, but in drowning him he cries out the words of baptism. Here we have the paradox, which Kierkegaard probes, of the sacred operating simultaneously with the ethically evil. Tarwater can rationalize that the murder offsets the baptism, but his doom is complete when he is attacked by the stranger and then returns home to discover his uncle's body miraculously buried beneath a cross. At the end we see him, with fire raging in the background, moving steadily on to the "dark city, where the children of God lay sleeping." An appropriate prophet—a madman and a murderer, as well as a child of God—for the slumbering modern world?
"The River," a comparatively neglected story, also deals with baptism. Two worlds are contrasted: the world of the child's parents, who live in an apartment that smells of stale cigarette butts, where "everything was a joke," and the world of the red muddy river—the domain of the fervent young preacher and the believers who surround him, where nothing said or done is a joke. As soon as the child is taken out of the apartment by the woman in charge of him for the day, he changes his name; he adopts the name of the preacher they are going to hear, "Bevel." When told that the preacher is a healer, he immediately asks, "Will he heal me?" The description of the preacher and the river baptism is magnificent. O'Connor's admiration for the young fundamentalist preacher is obvious; she ascribes to him a rich, melodic talent for preaching, so that the contagious effect of the ceremony is understandable:
"There ain't but one river and that's the River of Life, made out of Jesus' Blood .... All the rivers come from that one River and go back to it like it was the ocean sea and if you believe, you can lay your pain in that River and get rid of it because that's the River that was made to carry sin. It's a River full of pain itself, pain itself, moving toward the Kingdom of Christ, to be washed away, slow, you people, slow as this here old red water river round my feet. . .. "6
The preacher Bevel and the child Bevel are joined in the ritual of baptism, and the river is more than a metaphorical river for the child's imagination. When the preacher says, "If I baptize you, you'll be able to go to the Kingdom of Christ. You'll be washed in the river of suffering, son, and you'll go by the deep river of life," the child thinks, "I won't go back to the apartment, then, I'll go under the river." The child is baptized into his new life while on the river bank a scoffing old man, Mr. Paradise, watches. "Choose Jesus or the devil!" the preacher demands, suggesting that Mr. Paradise is the devil here. Readers may find alarming the concrete imagination of O'Connor's fiction, where the devil may very well turn up in person to witness a baptism and, later, to tempt the innocent.
When the child is returned to his parents, he is not the same child. He now "counts," where he did not count before. His mother discovers the book he has taken from the woman's home—"The Life of Jesus Christ for Readers Under Twelve"—and reads it mockingly to her guests, who are properly amused by it. The child runs away from home the next morning and returns to the river, where nothing is a joke. Followed by the sinister Mr. Paradise, who carries a peppermint stick with which to tempt the child, he walks into the river: "He intended not to fool with preachers any more but to baptize himself and to keep on going this time until he found the Kingdom of Christ in the river." He turns to see something like a "giant pig bounding after him"—Mr. Paradise, a pig like those shown cast out by Jesus in the child's book—and he plunges into the river and is drawn away by it. O'Connor's deft, blunt strokes suggest here mythical characterizations rather than characters. On one level the story is ironic, but on a higher level it is deadly serious: it is about the capacity for innocence to choose between two worlds without hesitation, rejecting the sensual, materialistic world of Mr. Paradise and the city people, and accepting the world of Christ that is attainable only through death.
The greatest of Flannery O'Connor's books is her last, posthumously published collection of stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge. Though it is customary to interpret O'Connor's allusion to the philosophy of Teilhard de Chardin as ironic, it seems to me that there is no irony involved. There are many small ironies in these nine stories, certainly, and they are comic-grotesque and flamboyant and heartbreaking—but no ultimate irony is intended and the book is not a tragic one. It is a collection of revelations; like all revelations, it points to a dimension of experiential truth that lies outside the sphere of the questing, speculative mind, but is nevertheless available to all.
The "psychic interpenetrability" of which Teilhard speaks in The Phenomenon of Man determines that man, in "rising" to a higher consciousness, will of necessity coalesce into a unity that is basically a phenomenon of mind (hence of man, since only man possesses self-consciousness). It is misleading to emphasize Teilhard's optimism at the expense of his cautious consideration of what he calls the "doctrine by isolation"7 and the "cynical and brutal theories" of the contemporary world; O'Connor has dramatized the tragic consequences of the locked-in ego in earlier fiction, but in Everything That Rises Must Converge nearly every story addresses itself to the problem of bringing to consciousness the latent horror, making manifest the Dream of Reason—which is, of course, a nightmare. It is a measure of her genius that she can so easily and so skillfully evoke the spiritual while dealing in a very concrete, very secular world of fragmentary people.
Despite her rituals of baptism by violence, and her apparently merciless subjecting of ordinary "good" people to extraordinary fates, O'Connor sees the world as an incarnation of spirit; she has stated that the art of fiction itself is "very much an incarnational art."8 In a way she shares the burdens of her fanatical preachers Motes and Tarwater: she sees herself as writing from a prophetic vision, as a "realist of distances."9 Her people are not quite whole until violence makes them whole. They must suffer amazing initiations, revelations nearly as physically brutal as those in Kafka—one might explore the similarities between Parker of "Parker's Back" and the heroic, doomed officer of "In the Penal Colony"—because their way into the spiritual is through the physical; the way into O'Connor's dimension of the sacred is through the secular or vulgar. Teilhard's rising of consciousness into a mysterious Super-Life, in which the multiplicity of the world driven to seek unity through love, assumes a mystical "gravity of bodies"10 that must have appealed to O'Connor's sacramental imagination. Fundamental to the schoolteacher Rayber's insistence upon rationality is his quite justified terror of the unconscious—he must act out of his thinking, calculating, mechanical ego simply in order to resist the gravity that threatens to carry him out of himself; otherwise he will become another "fanatic," another victim of that love that is hidden in the blood—in this specific instance, in terms of Christ. The local, human tragedy is, then, the highly conscious resisting of the Incarnation. As human beings (who are fragments) resist the gravity that should bring them into a unity, they emphasize their isolation, their helplessness, and can be delivered from the trance of self only by violence.
Paradoxically, the way into O'Connor's vision that is least ambiguous is through a story that has not received much attention, "The Lame Shall Enter First." This fifty-seven-page story is a reworking of the nuclear fable of The Violent Bear It Away, and since O'Connor explored the tensions between the personalities of the rationalist-liberal and the object of his charity at such length in the novel, she is free to move swiftly and bluntly here. "We are accustomed to consider," says Teilhard in "Beyond the Collective," a discussion of the energies of love, "only the sentimental face of love ... ."11 In "The Lame Shall Enter First" it is this sentimental love that brings disaster to the would-be savior, Sheppard. He is a young white-haired City Recreational Director who, on Saturdays, works as a counselor at a boys' reformatory; since his wife's death he has moved out of their bedroom and lives an ascetic, repressed life, refusing even to fully acknowledge his love for his son. Befriending the crippled, exasperating Rufus Johnson, Sheppard further neglects his own son, Norton, and is forced to realize that his entire conception of himself has been hypocritical. O'Connor underscores the religious nature of his experience by calling it a revelation: Sheppard hears his own voice "as if it were the voice of his accuser." Though he closes his eyes against the revelation, he cannot elude it:
His heart constricted with a repulsion for himself so clear and intense that he gasped for breath. He had stuffed his own
emptiness with good works like a glutton. He had ignored his own child to feed his vision of himself. He saw the clear-eyed Devil, the sounder of hearts, leering at him. . . . His image of himself shrivelled until everything was black before him. He sat there paralyzed, aghast.
Sheppard then wakes from his trance and runs to his son, but even as he hurries to the boy he imagines Norton's face "transformed; the image of his salvation; all light," and the reader sees that even at this dramatic point Sheppard is deluded. It is still his salvation he desires, his experience of the transformation of his son's misery into joy. Therefore it is poetically just that his change of heart leads to nothing, to no joyous reconciliation. He rushes up to the boy's room and discovers that Norton has hanged himself.
The boy's soul has been "launched ... into space"; like Bishop of The Violent Bear It Away, he is a victim of the tensions between two ways of life, two warring visions. In the image of Christ there is something "mad" and "stinking" and catastrophic, at least in a secularized civilization; in the liberal, manipulative humanitarianism of the modern world there is that "clear-eyed Devil" who cuts through all bonds, all mystery, all "psychical convergence" that cannot be reduced to simplistic sociological formulas. It is innocence that is destroyed. The well-intentioned savior, Sheppard, has acted only to fill his own vacuity; his failure as a true father results in his son's suicide.
He had stuffed his own emptiness with good works like a glutton.
Perhaps this is O'Connor's judgment, blunt and final, upon our civilization. Surely she is sympathetic with Teilhard's rejection of egoism as the last desperate attempt of the world of matter—in its fragmentary forms, "individuals"—to persist in its own limited being. In discussing the evolutionary process of love, the rising-to-consciousness of individuals through love, Teilhard analyzes the motives for "the fervour and impotence" that accompany every egoistic solution of life:
In trying to separate itself as much as possible from others, the element individualizes itself; but in so doing it becomes retrograde and seeks to drag the world backwards toward plurality and into matter. In fact it diminishes itself and loses itself. . . . The peak of ourselves, the acme of our originality, is not our individuality but our person; and according to the evolutionary structure of the world, we can only find our person by uniting together.12
What is difficult, perhaps, is to see how the humanitarian impulse—when it is not spiritual—is an egoistic activity. O'Connor's imagination is like Dostoyevsky's: politically reactionary but spiritually fierce, combative, revolutionary. If the liberal, atheistic, man-centered society of modern times is dedicated to manipulating others in order to "save" them, to transform them into flattering images of its own ego, then there is no love involved—there is no true merging of selves but only a manipulative aggression. This kind of love is deadly, because it believes itself to be selfless; it is the sudden joy of the intellectual Julian, in the story "Everything That Rises Must Converge," when he sees that his mother is about to be humiliated by a black woman who is wearing the same outrageously ugly hat his mother has bought—"His grin hardened until it said to her as plainly as if he were saying aloud: Your punishment exactly fits your pettiness. This should teach
you a permanent lesson." The lesson his mother gets, however, is fatal: the permanence of death.
"He thinks he's Jesus Christ!" the clubfooted juvenile delinquent, Rufus Johnson, exclaims of Sheppard. He thinks he is divine, when in fact he is empty; he tries to stuff himself with what he believes to be good works in order to disguise the terrifying fact of his own emptiness. For O'Connor this is the gravest sin. Her madmen, thieves, misfits, and murderers commit crimes of a secular nature, against other men; they are not so sinful as the criminals who attempt to usurp the role of the divine. In Kafka's words, "They ... attempted to realize the happiness of mankind without the aid of grace."13 It is an erecting of the tower of Babel upon the finite, earthly Wall of China: a ludicrous act of folly.
O'Connor's writing is so stark and, for many readers, so difficult to absorb into a recognizable world because it insists upon a brutal distinction between what Augustine would call the City of Man and the City of God. One can reject O'Connor's fierce insistence upon this separation—as I must admit I do—and yet sympathize with the terror that must be experienced when these two "realms" of being are imagined as distinct. For, given the essentially Manichaean dualism of the secular and the sacred, man is forced to choose between them: he cannot comfortably live in both "cities." Yet his body, especially if it is a diseased and obviously, immediately, perpetually mortal body, forces him to realize that he is existing in that City of Man, at every instant that he is not so spiritually chaste as to be in the City of God. Therefore life is a struggle; the natural, ordinary world is either sacramental (and ceremonial) or profane (and vulgar). And it follows from this that the diseased body is not only an affirmation, or a symbolic intensification of, the spiritual "disease" that attends physical processes; it becomes a matter of one's personal salvation—Jung would use the term "individuation"—to interpret the accidents of the flesh in terms of the larger, unfathomable, but ultimately no more abstract pattern that links the self to the cosmos. This is a way of saying that for Flannery O'Connor (as for Kafka and for D. H. Lawrence) the betrayal of the body, its loss of normal health, must be seen as necessary; it must make sense. Wise Blood, ironically begun before O'Connor suffered her first attack of the disease that ultimately killed her, a disease inherited from her father, makes the point dramatically and lyrically that the "blood" is "wise." And rebellion is futile against it. Thus, the undulant fever suffered by the would-be writer, Asbury, is not only directly and medically attributable to his rash behavior (drinking unpasteurized milk, against his mother's rules of the dairy), but it becomes the means by which he realizes a revelation he would not otherwise have experienced. Here, O'Connor affirms a far more primitive and far more brutal sense of fate than Teilhard would affirm—at least as I understand Teilhard—for in the physical transformation of man into a higher consciousness and finally into a collective, Godlike "synthesized state,"14 the transformation is experienced in terms of a space/time series of events, but is in fact (if it could be a demonstrable or measurable "fact") one single event: one phenomenon. Therefore, the "physical" is not really a lower form of the spiritual but is experienced as being lower or earlier in evolution, and the fear of or contempt for the body expressed by Augustine is simply a confusion. The physical is also spiritual; the physical only seems not to be "spiritual." Though this sounds perplexing, it
is really a way of saying that Augustine (and perhaps O'Connor, who was very much influenced by Augustine and other Catholic theologians) prematurely denied the sacredness of the body, as if it were a hindrance and not the only means by which the spirit can attain its "salvation." Useless to rage against his body's deterioration, Lawrence says sadly and nobly, because that body was the only means by which D. H. Lawrence could have appeared in the world. But this is not at all what O'Connor does, for in her necessary and rather defiant acceptance of her inherited disease in terms of its being, perhaps, a kind of original sin and therefore not an accident—somehow obscurely willed either by God or by O'Connor herself (if we read "The Enduring Chill" as a metaphor for O'Connor's predicament)—we are forced to affirm the disease-as-revelation:
The boy [Asbury] fell back on his pillow and stared at the ceiling. His limbs that had been racked for so many weeks by fever and chill were number now. The old life in him was exhausted. He awaited the coming of new. It was then that he felt the beginning of a chill, a chill so peculiar, so light, that it was like a warm ripple across a deeper sea of cold. . . . Asbury blanched and the last film of illusion was torn as if by a whirlwind from his eyes. He saw that for the rest of his days, frail, racked, but enduring, he would live in the face of a purifying terror. A feeble cry, a last impossible protest escaped him. But the Holy Ghost, emblazoned in ice instead of fire, continued, implacable, to descend.
("The Enduring Chill")
This particular story and its epiphany may not have the aesthetic power to move us that belongs to O'Connor's more sharply imagined works, but it is central to an understanding of all of her writing, and like Lawrence's "Ship of Death," it has a beauty and a terrible dignity that carry it beyond criticism. For while Teilhard's monumental work stresses the uniqueness of the individual through his absorption in a larger, and ultimately divine "ultimate earth," there cannot be in his work the dramatization of the real, living, bleeding, suffering, existing individual O'Connor knows so well. She knows this existing individual from the inside and not from the outside; she knows that while the historical and sociological evolution causes one group of people to "rise" (the blacks; the haughty black woman in "Everything That Rises Must Converge"), it is also going to destroy others (both Julian and his mother, who evidently suffers a stroke when the black woman hits her), and she also knows—it is this point, I believe, missed by those critics who are forever stressing her "irony"—that the entire process is divine. Hence her superficially reactionary attitude toward the secularized, liberal, godless society, and her affirmation of the spontaneous, the irrational, the wisdom of the blood in which, for her, Christ somehow is revealed. Because she does believe and states clearly15 that her writing is an expression of her religious commitment, and is itself a kind of divine distortion ("the kind that reveals, or should reveal," as she remarks in the essay "Novelist and Believer"), the immediate problem for most critics is how to wrench her work away from her, how to show that she didn't at all know herself, but must be subjected to a higher, wiser, more objective consciousness in order to be understood. But the amazing thing about O'Connor is that she seems to have known exactly what she was doing and how she might best accomplish it. There is no ultimate irony in her work, no ultimate despair or pessimism or tragedy, and certainly not a paradoxical sympathy for the devil.16 It is only when O'Connor is judged from a secular point of view, or from a "rational" point of view, that she seems unreasonable—a little mad—and must be chastely revised by the liberal imagination.
"Everything That Rises Must Converge" is a story in which someone appears to lose, and to lose mightily; but the "loss" is fragmentary, a necessary and minor part of the entire process of "converging" that is the entire universe—or God. The son, Julian, is then released to the same "entry into the world of guilt and sorrow" that is Rayber's and Sheppard's, and his surrender to the emotions he has carefully refined into ironic, cynical, "rational" ideas is at the same time his death (as an enlightened ego) and his birth (as a true adult). So many of the stories in this volume deal literally with the strained relationships between one generation and another, because this is a way of making explicit the psychological problem of ascending to a higher self. In A Good Man Is Hard to Find, the tensions were mainly between strangers and in terms of very strange gods. The life you save may be your own, and if you cannot bear the realization that a freak is a temple of the Holy Ghost, that is unfortunate for you. As Rufus Johnson says of the Bible, superbly and crazily, Even if I didn't believe it, it would still be true—a reply meant to infuriate the rationalist Sheppard, and no doubt most of us. But O'Connor's art is both an existential dramatization of what it means to suffer and a deliberate series of parodies of that subjectivist philosophy loosely called "existentialism"—though it is the solipsistic, human-value-oriented existentialism she obviously despises, Sartrean and not Kierkegaardian. The deist may say "Whatever is, is right," but the deist cannot prove the truth of his statement, for such truths or revelations can only be experienced by an existing, suffering individual whom some violent shock has catapulted into the world of sorrow. When the intellectual Julian suffers the real loss of his mother, the real Julian emerges; his self-pitying depression vanishes at once; the faith he had somehow lost "in the midst of his martyrdom" is restored. So complex and so powerful a story cannot be reduced to any single meaning; but it is surely O'Connor's intention to show how the egoistic Julian is a spokesman for an entire civilization, and to demonstrate the way by which this civilization will—inevitably, horribly—be jolted out of its complacent, worldly cynicism. By violence. And by no other way, because the ego cannot be destroyed except violently; it cannot be argued out of its egoism by words, by any logical argument; it cannot be instructed in anything except a physical manner. O'Connor would have felt a kinship with the officer of Kafka's "In the Penal Colony," who yearns for an enlightenment that can come only through his own body, through a sentence tattooed on his body. As Christ suffered with his real, literal body, so O'Connor's people must suffer in order to realize Christ in them.
Yet it is not finally necessary to share O'Connor's specific religious beliefs in order to appreciate her art. Though she would certainly refute me in saying this, the "Christ" experience itself may well be interpreted as a psychological event that is received by the individual according to his private expectations. No writer obsessively works and reworks a single theme that is without deep personal meaning, so it is quite likely that O'Connor experienced mystical "visions" or insights that she interpreted according to her Catholicism; her imagination was visual and literal, and she is reported to have said of the
Eucharist that if it were only a symbol, ''I'd say to hell with it."17 This childlike or primitive rejection of a psychic event—only a symbol!—as if it were somehow less real than a physical event gives to O'Connor's writing that curious sense of blunt, graphic impatience, the either/or of fanaticism and genius, that makes it difficult for even her most sympathetic critics to relate her to the dimension of psychological realism explored by the traditional novel. Small obscenities or cruelties in the work of John Updike, for instance, have a power to upset us in a way that gross fantastic acts of violence in O'Connor do not, for we read O'Connor as a writer of parables and Updike as an interpreter of the way we actually live. Yet, because she is impatient with the City of Man except as it contrasts with the City of God, she can relate her localized horrors to a larger harmony that makes everything, however exaggerated, somehow contained within a compact vision.
The triumph of "Revelation" is its apparently natural unfolding of a series of quite extraordinary events, so that the impossibly smug, self-righteous Mrs. Turpin not only experiences a visual revelation but is prepared for it, demands it, and is equal to it in spite of her own bigotry. Another extraordinary aspect of the story is the protagonist's assumption—an almost automatic assumption—that the vicious words spoken to her by a deranged girl in a doctor's waiting room ("Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog") are in fact the words of Christ, intended for her alone. Not only is the spiritual world a literal, palpable fact, but the physical world—of other people, of objects and events—becomes transparent, only a means by which the "higher" judgment is delivered. It is a world of meanings, naturalistic details crowded one upon another until they converge into a higher significance; an antinaturalistic technique, perhaps, but one that is firmly based in the observed world. O'Connor is always writing about original sin and the ways we may be delivered from it, and therefore she does not—cannot—believe in the random innocence of naturalism, which states that all men are innocent and are victims of inner or outer accidents. The naturalistic novel, which attempts to render the "real" world in terms of its external events, must hypothesize an interior randomness that is a primal innocence, antithetical to the Judaeo-Christian culture. O'Connor uses many of the sharply observed surfaces of the world, but her medieval sense of correspondentia, or the ancient "sympathy of all things," forces her to severely restrict her subject matter, compressing it to one or two physical settings and a few hours' duration. Since revelation can occur at any time and sums up, at the same time that it eradicates, all of a person's previous life, there is nothing claustrophobic about the doctor's waiting room, "which was very small," but which becomes a microcosm of an entire godless society.
"Revelation" falls into two sections. The first takes place in the doctor's waiting room; the second takes place in a pig barn. Since so many who live now are diseased, it is significant that O'Connor chooses a doctor's waiting room for the first half of Mrs. Turpin's revelation, and it is significant that Gospel hymns are being played over the radio, almost out of earshot, incorporated into the mechanical vacant listlessness of the situation: "When I looked up and He looked down ... And wona these days I know I'll we-eara crown." Mrs. Turpin glances over the room, notices white-trashy people who are "worse than
niggers any day," and begins a conversation with a well-dressed lady who is accompanying her daughter: the girl, on the verge of a breakdown, is reading a book called Human Development, and it is this book that will strike Mrs. Turpin in the forehead. Good Christian as she imagines herself, Mrs. Turpin cannot conceive of human beings except in terms of class, and is obsessed by a need to continually categorize others and speculate upon her position in regard to them. The effort is so exhausting that she often ends up dreaming "they were all crammed in together in a box car, being ridden off to be put in a gas oven." O'Connor's chilling indictment of Mrs. Turpin's kind of Christianity grows out of her conviction that the displacement of Christ will of necessity result in murder, but that the "murder" is a slow steady drifting rather than a conscious act of will.
The ugly girl, blue-faced with acne, explodes with rage at the inane bigotry expressed by Mrs. Turpin and throws the textbook at her. She loses all control and attacks Mrs. Turpin; held down, subdued, her face "churning," she seems to Mrs. Turpin to know her "in some intense and personal way, beyond time and place and condition." And the girl's eyes lighten, as if a door that had been tightly closed was now open "to admit light and air." Mrs. Turpin steels herself, as if awaiting a revelation: and indeed the revelation comes. Mary Grace, used here by O'Connor as the instrument through which Christ speaks, bears some resemblance to other misfits in O'Connor's stories—not the rather stylish, shabby-glamorous men, but the pathetic overeducated, physically unattractive girls like Joy-Hulga of "Good Country People." That O'Connor identifies with these girls is obvious; it is she, through Mary Grace, who throws that textbook on human development at all of us, striking us in the foreheads, hopefully to bring about a change in our lives.
Mrs. Turpin is shocked, but strangely courageous. It is rare in O'Connor that an obtuse, unsympathetic character ascends to a higher level of self-awareness; indeed, she shows more courage than O'Connor's intellectual young men. She has been called a wart hog from hell and her vision comes to her in the pig barn, where she stands above the hogs that appear to "pant with a secret life." It is these hogs, the secret panting mystery of life itself, that finally allow Mrs. Turpin to realize her vision. She seems to absorb from them some "abysmal life-giving knowledge," and at sunset she stares into the sky, where she sees
. . . a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything. . . . They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they always had been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away ....
This is the most powerful of O'Connor's revelations, because it questions the very foundations of our assumptions of the ethical life. It is not simply our "virtues" that will be burned away, but our rational faculties as well,
and perhaps even the illusion of our separate, isolated egos. There is no way in which the ego can confront Mrs. Turpin's vision except as she does—"her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead." Like Teilhard, O'Connor is ready to acquiesce in the evolution of a form of higher consciousness that may be forcing itself into the world at our expense; as Old Tarwater says, after he is struck and silenced by fire, "even the mercy of the Lord burns." Man cannot remain what he is; he cannot exist without being transformed. We are confronted, says Teilhard, with two directions and only two: one upward and the other downward.
Either nature is closed to our demands for futurity, in which case thought, the fruit of millions of years of effort, is stifled, still-born in a self-abortive and absurd universe. Or else an opening exists—that of the super-soul above our souls; but in that case the way out, if we are to agree to embark upon it, must open out freely onto limitless psychic spaces in a universe to which we can unhesitatingly entrust ourselves.18
O'Connor's people are forced into the upward direction, sometimes against their wills, sometimes because their wills have been burned clean and empty. Rayber, who has concentrated his love for mankind into a possessive, exaggerated love for an idiot child, is forced to contemplate a future without the "raging pain, the intolerable hurt that was his due"; he is at the core of O'Connor's vision, a human being who has suffered a transformation but who survives. The wisdom of the body speaks in us, even when it reveals to us a terrifying knowledge of original sin, a perversion of the blood itself.
O'Connor's revelations concern the mystic origin of religious experience absolutely immune to any familiar labels of "good" and "evil." Her perverted saints are Kierkegaardian knights of the "absurd" for whom ordinary human behavior is impossible. Like young Tarwater, horrified at having said an obscenity, they are "too fierce to brook impurities of such a nature." They are, like O'Connor herself, "intolerant of unspiritual evils .... " There is no patience in O'Connor for a systematic, refined, rational acceptance of God; and of the gradual transformation of apocalyptic religious experience into dogma, she is strangely silent. Her world is that surreal primitive landscape in which the unconscious is a determining quantity that the conscious cannot defeat, because it cannot recognize. In fact, there is nothing to be recognized—in Kafka's words, there is only an experience to be suffered.19
1 Eliseo Vivas, Creation and Discovery (New York, 1955), p. 420.
2 Lewis A. Lawson, "Flannery O'Connor and the Grotesque: Wise Blood," Renascence, XVII (Spring, 1965), pp. 137-47.
3 Quoted by Lewis A. Lawson, loc. cit., p. 139.
4 Philip Rahv, Introduction, Eight Great American Short Novels (New York, 1963),p.15.
5 Flannery O'Connor, "The Violent Bear It Away" in Three by O'Connor (New York, 1964), p. 357.
6 O'Connor, op. cit., p. 151.
7 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (New York, 1959),P·20620.
8 Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners (New York, 1969) , p.68.
9 Ibid., p. 44.
10 Teilhard, p. 291.
11 Ibid., p. 290.
12 Ibid., p. 289.
13 Gustav Janouch, Conversations With Kafka (New York, 1971), P·90.
14 Teilhard, p. 309.
15 In the essay "The Fiction Writer and His Country," she declares that "for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ ... ." Mystery and Manners, p. 32.
16 See John Hawkes's essay, "Flannery O'Connor's Devil," Sewanee Review, LXX (Summer, 1962), p. 400.
17 Quoted by Robert Fitzgerald in his introduction to Everything That Rises Must Converge (New York, 1965), p. xiii.
18 Teilhard, p. 256.
19 Flannery O'Connor is a remarkable synthesis of what Jung would call the personality characterized by participation mystique and the personality that "suffers only in the lower stories, so to speak, but in the upper stories is singularly detached from painful as well as joyful events." "Commentary on The Secret of the Golden Flower," in Jung's Psyche and Symbol (New York, 1958), p. 340.