Faith and Imagination: Flannery O’Connor

The farm on which she lived for fourteen years, from 1951 up to her death, which happened when she was on thirty-nine years old, even has an exotic name, Andalusia. There the vegetation is a dazzling green, as is only possible to see in fertile and humid lands. We are in Milledgeville, a small town of the state of Georgia, of which it was however the capital from 1806 to 1868. When I set foot there for the first time in 2006, I had the impression of entering on the film set of Gone with the Wind.The architecture, the spaces, a sense of warm welcome from other times led me to imagine Scarlet O’Hara.

From the moment you read what Mary Flannery O’Connor wrote you are no longer able to see the world as before. Why? It isn’t easy to understand it or explain it. You can go for approximations. Let’s say that storytelling has for her an “expansive” character and her gaze as a writer is fertile and pregnant, capable of maturing the seeds of mystery that it is able to gather. Her eye as a writer is then like a sun that sprouts the seeds that are already in reality in the subsoil. The problem is that our eye, often used to seeing things always in the same way, is atrophied, unable to discover profound and mysterious richness. Said in other terms, Flannery is convinced that she as a writer is called to have an “anagogical” vision of reality, capable of realizing that in an image or in a situation, there is a density of mystery that requires an «expanded perspective of the human scene».

Then in a good novel «more always happens than we can catch at the moment, more happens than meets the eye». The “more” stretches to the infinite, to inexhaustibility. The writer first sees in a superficial manner, but the visual angle is such that he or she begins to see before getting at the superficial and continues to see after having passed it. In this tension of visual insight, the writer «is staring at it without going straight to the point. The longer you look at an object the more world you will see inside». In the gaze of those who write there must be «a certain grain of stupidity», that leads him or her to stay «to stare». That’s just how a profound sense of listening, of respect and obedience towards reality and of the «mystery of our position on the earth» takes shape.

I understood this gaze better directing my eyes on the roads that lead from Milledgeville to Toomsboro, those on which Flannery imagined the unfolding of the stories like A Good Man is Hard to Find. The red of the clay creates a vivid suspense that, when a car arrives, it results in the dusty prologue loaded with mystery.

Here, you are struck, reading Flannery, because you are surprised by an “epistemological slap” that comes suddenly. Anything can happen in her stories: gratuitous violence, the bizarre and the grotesque, a mixture of comedies and horrors. All this becomes a learning tool and a reading lens. It functions to force the eyes of a reader with “weak sight”. It is then as if Flannery gives a slap to the reader, upsetting visual deliberation the moment he or she moves their face, angling it at a slant. A true and proper apocalyptic shock. What immediately jumps in the air is that vaguely secular “common sense”, rational and enlightened of the “intellectuals”, for whom O’Connor with derogatory irony uses the term

interleckchuls instead of intellectuals,

as it should be in the English language.

Let’s think, for example, of Sheppard, the protagonist of the story The Lame Shall Enter First, director of the community recreation center who works for free on Saturday at the reformatory. He is a widower with a son, Norton, who in his opinion is fundamentally selfish. One day Sheppard decides to welcome into his home Rufus Johnson, a teenager who was in the reformatory and who he had a desire to redeem. Imbued with psycho-sociological notions and a philanthropic humanitarianism, he is convinced that evil can be overcome with a secular education capable of developing intelligence. Johnson, however, does nothing but ignore his rational schemes and this comes off in brilliant pages that touch the nerves of the human condition. Johnson also involves Norton in his rebellion. Sheppard will come out of it defeated: he will realize that he has «stuffed his emptiness with good works like a glutton» and thus to have only cultivated his own ideal image that now is deflated. The story will end in a terrifying way.

At Andalusia currently a small fighting cock is a guest. Going around the paths I found myself in front of him with a curious and at the same time wary attitude, not fearful however. He followed me. At a certain point, I decided to make “friends” imagining that with my “gentleness” I could tame his warlike nature. I did nothing: I simply tried to do as if he were not there, but every now and then I turned to him a calm and benevolent look. The young rooster seemed on another universe but I thought I had “charmed” him. It was when I turned around thinking about something else that he pecked me on the calf. There Rufus’ nature and the very powerful nature contained in his figure was clear to me.

In any case you cannot flee from struggle. Flannery, inside a letter of January 17, 1956, described it effectively in a biographical memory of biblical echoes:

«I did the first six years of school with the nuns. (…) Between the ages of eight and twelve, I used to lock myself in a room every now and then and making a ferocious face, I whirled around with my clenched fists, beating up the angel. It was the guardian angel which, according to the nuns, we were all provided. He didn’t let you go for a moment. I despised him to death. I am convinced I even let go a kick at him ending up sprawling out».

The meaning of this image goes well beyond the moment from which it dates as a lived experience, to the point of being key to understanding her existence as a writer. Flannery O’Connor remained the child who was beating up a guardian angel who would not let up on her. Her essay confirms this, fruit of a conference held some months before her death, which sustains that the writer must struggle «like Jacob with the angel» and yet: «The compilation of a novel worthy of this name is a kind of personal duel».

A precise model for this genre of storytelling exists: the Bible. Our reactions in the confrontations of life will be very different

«if they have inoculated us with only a definition of faith or if we trembled together with Abraham who raised the knife over Isaac».

The biblical story can enrich the imagination and cause the capacity for intuition to grow. Unfortunately, the writer laments, Sacred Scripture has not «conditioned our reactions to the experience».

But it is not enough to talk of models in the case of Flannery. Her gaze has no models. Flannery’s gaze is anti-psychological, seems not to arise from her, but from something that she discovers outside of herself. It is here that we need to talk about her Christianity.

It begins from the future, from the ultimate destiny of man, and not from the accumulation of past experiences that the judgment arises and then the inspiration. At this point, the aesthetic judgment coincides with the universal judgment. The aesthetic is no longer tied solely to the sensory intuition and to the senses, but deals directly with the apocalypse, with the unveiling of the ultimate meaning of all things. The meanings of the oconnorian aesthetic are doors that are thrown open on an abyss. And Flannery is there ready to give a good shove from behind to her reader. The stories then develop not from the beginning but from the end. They are the extreme consequences perceived that in Flannery generate the premises and articulate the stories told, not vice versa.

This vision of things creates that sense of typical disorientation that one has reading Flannery’s pages: we can no longer be astonished by anything. The saving characters, for example, are often evil doers and the maimed can express an immeasurable beauty. It is what happens, for instance, when Flannery reflects on the story of little Mary Ann, disfigured in the face by a tumor and from whom Flannery captures a beauty mysteriously radical. Why? In her way of looking there is nothing pathetic. Flannery sees the good and the beautiful «under construction», and therefore unfinished. It then can have a look — to use to the letter Flannery’s term — not entirely appealing and pleasant.

So,

«when we look good in the face, we can find ourselves in front of a face like that of Mary Ann, full of promise».

Yes, the disfigured face of the little sick girl is full of promise. Thus, Flannery writes,

«the writers that see in the light of their Christian faith are, in these times, the finest observers of the grotesque, of the perverse, of the unacceptable».

In fact,

«it is when his faith is weak, not when it is strong, that the individual will be afraid of an honest romantic representation of life; and when there is a tendency to pigeonhole the spiritual and make it reside in a certain type of life only, the supernatural is destined little by little to get lost».

The characters then seem at every instant on the point of taking any action: in her pages logic and consistency cannot be trusted. Unpredictability is not a technique, but it could mean the metaphysical condition of every narration that “functions”, that is effective, that is to say, every work of art.

The characters are always in any moment all aligned to the principle of all their possibilities.

In this sense Flannery is able to “reset” a human life, make it reconstruct the hierarchy of values, recombine the pieces, to see again the judgments and the points of view.

I have tried to explain why several times to the readers of «La Civiltà Cattolica», and often in conferences and debates. The critic’s craft must be biased and must be, as in this case, a high one, a lucid and wise critical testimony of how Flannery’s gaze truly has the capacity to change life.

Director of La Civiltà Cattolica @CivCatt, Consultor at Pontifical @VaticanCultura, Board of Directors @Georgetown University. Jesuit.