The enduring chill of Flannery O’Connor

We modern secularists often have a problem with religious art and literature: one the one hand, we cannot deny the greatness of Donne or of Milton, of Giotto or of Titian, of Palestrina or of Bach, as the greatness of these artists is not in any serious question. At the same time, we have rejected the religious ethos that permeates the work of these artists; sometimes, our rejection is so vehement that we even accuse those who do not reject of being somehow intellectually or morally deficient. And this obviously creates a problem when it comes to religious art: how can we exalt those works which project the very beliefs we denigrate? The usual way out of this is to claim that the Michelangelo’s Pietà or Bach’s St Matthew Passion are great despite their religious content. I don’t buy this: the religious belief that informs these works is not an optional add-on – it is central: without it, the works are meaningless. It seems to me, rather, that these works are important to us not despite their religious content, but because of it. We respond to these works because, from their religious perspective, they address issues that remain of vital importance to us, and which possibly cannot even be addressed in secular terms.

“But what issues exactly are these issues?” the sceptical reader may well be justified in asking at this point. And this is where I tend to take Wittgenstein’s excellent advice to remain silent on those matters whereof I cannot speak. But remaining silent is not really a valid option when setting out to discuss works that are so religious as the stories of Flannery O’Connor: to discuss such works, however inadequately, one has to take a deep breath and dive in, and hope that perhaps the odd gag or irreverent comment when matters threaten to become too weighty will allay the suspicion that, underneath my professed scepticism, there lies the devoutness of a true believer.

Flannery O’Connor was a devout Catholic in the Deep South, which was predominantly Protestant. In her relatively short life (she died at 39 from the rare inherited disease lupus) she wrote two short novels – Wise Blood and The Violent Bear it Away – and a startling series of short stories, most of them included in the collections A Good Man is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge. These stories are permeated with her religious faith: and yet, it is hard to discern what the nature of her faith is, for she deplored fiction that is didactic. Her characters are often religious: given these stories are set in the Deep South – “Christ-haunted”, as she once described it – how can they not be? And yet, in her fictional world, there is something missing that is very important. The faith professed by so many of her characters seems inadequate at best, and, often, merely silly. This is not because, as a Catholic, she is looking down on the non-Catholic varieties of the Christian faith: after all, Father Finn, who appears in the story “The Enduring Chill” and who is one of the few explicitly Catholic characters to appear in her work, is hardly an advertisement for the Catholic Church; and in any case, the moral and artistic vision she presents in these stories runs far deeper than mere factionalism. No – the human condition that she depicts is fallen, and, Catholic or Protestant or secular, black or white, man or woman, no-one is exempt from this fallen state.

But what, exactly, is it that is missing? We observe these characters through O’Connor’s unsparing eyes: we see cupidity, self-regard, selfishness, cruelty, violence; we see what we would term “racism”, though O’Connor does not use this term explicitly (and, much to the distress of many liberal readers, neither does she explicitly condemn it); we see a lack of generosity, a meanness of spirit, and a distortion of moral values that is frequently grotesque. But there is no moral lesson explicitly stated, or even implied: there is nothing to point to some trite message such as “Selfishness is a bad thing” or “Racism is not nice” or even “We need to accept Christ into our hearts”: Flannery O’Connor despised fiction with a “message”, and refused to saddle her own with one – even with one that she so powerfully believed in. There is no doubt that the sensibility underpinning these stories is deeply religious; but it is hard, all the same, to put one’s finger on what it is – other than the frequently Biblical imagery – that gives these stories their religious dimension. Perhaps it takes a commentator himself possessed of a religious sensibility to identify it. Here is Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, on Catholic writers such as Flannery O’Connor:

The “religious” dimensions of these fictions lies in the insistent sense of incongruity, unmistakable even if no-one within the fiction can say quite what we should be incongruent with.

- from Dostoyevsky by Rowan Williams, London, 2008

Precisely. The selfishness, self-regard, racism – these are all symptoms of a greater malaise, an incongruity, a state that those of a religious temperament would describe as “fallen”, and for which we secularists must hunt for another word. And in this depiction of a “fallen” humanity, there is an undeniable sense of incongruity; and the question of what precisely it is incongruent with, though never posed explicitly, is, nonetheless, always present.

The danger in presenting humanity as so fallen, in so incongruous a state, is that humanity appear not worth bothering with: if one sees one’s fellow human being as essentially depraved Yahoos, as Lemuel Gulliver did, it is but a short step to wish them destroyed. But that is not Flannery O’Connor’s vision. Depraved and despicable though humans may be, she is not looking down on them from on high: from her religious perspective, humans are, despite everything, creations of God, and as such, they matter, spiritually blind though they may be. “The fiction writer,” she once said, “presents mystery through manners, grace through nature, but when he finishes, there always has to be left over that sense of Mystery which cannot be accounted for by any human formula.” Even in humanity’s fallen, incongruent state, it possesses, in her fiction, a Mystery – the very capitalisation of the word indicating the workings of the Divine – and this Mystery must be respected: it is an indication of the presence of God even in our fallen world.

Up to this point, even a reader such as myself of broadly secular perspectives has little difficulty. But from here onwards, I felt myself struggling – much as I felt myself struggling with the very religious novels of Dostoyevsky. The working of the Divine in a fallen world, the redeeming power of Grace, the wind blowing where it listeth – what does all this mean for me? Very little, I must confess. And yet, I was fascinated by and found almost mesmeric the extraordinary sharp-edged clarity of her prose, the startling intensity of her imagery, and, indeed, that sense of Mystery with which she imbues her characters – a Mystery which holds promise of a greatness not apparent in their daily lives. But her fictional world remains a chilly one. If I were to pick one of the titles of her stories as descriptive of the entire collection, it would be “The Enduring Chill”: despite the sultry Southern heat in which these stories are set, the impression they give is that of a chill – a chill that endures even the workings of Divine Grace. For, in Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, even Divine Grace brings no peace, no serenity – no sense, to use Rowan Williams’ word, of “congruity”. As O’Connor herself once wrote: “Grace changes us and change is painful.” And, try as hard as I might to enter into O’Connor’s imagination, I find myself defeated at this point: if our everyday lives are so morally stunted that the only hope of something better is through the action of Divine Grace; but if that Grace itself is painful, and brings no respite; then what hope is there? What can there be to live for? I can understand an irreligious author such as Flaubert – who appeared to believe in nothing – telling us that all is futile; but how can one accept such a message from a religious writer?

I suppose the answer Flannery O’Connor might have given is that Divine Grace, though painful, is what we must strive to receive; because, after all, strait is the gate and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life, and all that; she might have said that even through the pain that comes with Grace, a pain so intense that it can even destroy our lives, there is a spiritual gain. But of course, she doesn’t say any of this: fiction as a vehicle for proselytising she found artistically distasteful. She merely depicts: what we readers choose to make of it is up to us.

Each of these stories is a little jewel, written in the most precise and striking prose, and polished virtually to perfection. “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, “Good Country People”, “The Displaced Person”, “The Artificial Nigger” (the politically incorrect title of which possibly preventing frequent anthologising), “The Lame Shall Enter First”, “Revelation”, “Everything that Rises Must Converge” – each vying with the others to be regarded as her masterpiece. But, despite the extreme clarity of the presentation, there appears something mysterious at the heart of these stories, something that defies attempts to define – for the very act of defining, after all, is to limit the possibilities. I found myself reading these stories exhilarated by the obvious stature of the artistic achievement, but, nonetheless, puzzled: the very clarity of O’Connor’s writing takes us paradoxically into a world where nothing seems quite clear.

That takes us back to our initial question: how can a reader with secular sensibilities read works so obviously imbued as these are with religious belief? I suppose the workings of Grace we may see in secular terms as “epiphanies”, as Joyce called them, or as Wordsworthian “spots of time” – moments of revelation, when that which had remained hidden are perceived with a sudden clarity. While it is possible to see such moments in religious terms, it is not, perhaps, mandatory to do so. But seeing these stories in purely secular terms is to sideline that which, though not made explicit, lies at their very heart. That these stories had so powerful an effect on me – even when I failed adequately to understand them – indicates, rather disturbingly, how important to me those issues remain that we in our secular age prefer to dismiss as unimportant, and which we do not, perhaps, even possess the language to articulate.

But for all that, it is difficult to feel any great affection for these stories: they emanate a chill that, long after reading, endures.

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15 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Brian Joseph on May 20, 2012 at 2:45 am

    Hi Himadri – You provide thought provoking commentary as always.

    Though I have not read O’Connor, I am too am secularist. I have little problem reading works whose worldview is religious based. When I think about it, much of what I read, whether an author has a religious sensibility or not, contains many ideas that I simply do not agree with and sometimes cannot really relate to. That does not mean that I cannot enjoy, and even stimulate my mind by exploring and pondering these concepts. A great example for me would be Friedrich Nietzsche. He certainly was not a religious thinker. I love to read him. He explores fascinating ideas that open intellectual doors for me. Yet I disagree with the majority of his opinions.

    I would add, that though not the primary goal in experiencing such art, that satisfaction can also be gained by exploring concepts that one believes to be faulty, but by understanding that the ideas presented have had important historical impact as they influenced the world around them.

    Reply

    • Hello Brian, yes – I do agree that we may enjoy being stimulated by ideas that we may not ourselves hold. (There are presumably limits to this, though: I don’t think I’d be able to stomach books written from, say, a Stalinst or a Nazi racialist viewpoint.) But isn’t it more than a matter of exploring ideas? Are we not also emotionally touched – or even, perhaps, on occasion, overwhelmed – by certain works in which religious belief is central? I certainly do. And I do feel that these works – and, by extension, religion itself – address certain aspects of my life that are of importance to me. Unfortunately, when I try to articulate what these aspects are, I find I do not have the vocabulary to do so. I do feel that we have certain needs and desires and aspirations which, for want of a better term, we vaguely term “spiritual”, and that even if we do not subscribe to any particular religious belief, certain works with religious content do address these elements; and that, in doing so, they go beyond merely presenting ideas for our consideration. I am moved by Bach’s B Minor Mass or by Handel’s Messiah, or by Donne’s Holy Sonnets or by van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, precisely because they are religious, and the implications of these do take us, I think, into deep waters.

      Reply

  2. Excellent article, H.

    I’m an atheist. When I read religious themed fiction, I deal with it in a similar fashion to how I deal with ghost stories. In the case of ghost stories, I suspend my belief. In the case of religious themed fiction, I suspend my DIS-belief. ;)

    Reply

    • Yes, agreed – those readers who do not believe in religion may suspend their disbelief when reading religious literature, much as we do when we read ghost stories; but I don’t know this answers the following question:

      We suspend our disbelief when reading ghost stories because, when we do so, we are entertained; but why do we suspend our disbelief when we read, say, Paradise Lost, or The Brothers Karamazov, or the short stories of Flannery O’Connor? It’s surely not the sort of entertainment we get from ghost stories!

      Reply

  3. Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on May 22, 2012 at 7:34 pm

    Is there an issue here about ‘life and art’?

    We may learn about someone in a newspaper or pass someone in the street that we fear to be incongruous/contemptable/soulless. But don’t we ask very different demands of ourselves when we find similar characters in fiction or other art forms.

    Is this because fictional creations, whatever they r based on, aren’t able to threaten us with their thoughts and actions in the same direct way.

    I don’t know.

    Is there any way of reconciling the two

    Reply

    • Sure, I agree that our relationship with fictional characters is necessarily different from that with real people: if, for instance, I display as much interest in your personal life as I do in, say, Anna Karenina’s, then you’d rightly consider that intrusive and impertinent. But I think I’m missing some steps in your argument, as ican’t really see how this is related to the writings of Flannery O’Connor, or to the wider issue of religious writing in a secular world.

      Reply

  4. Himadri,

    I stumbled across your blog while searching for help as I make my way through Ulysses. Yours was the most insightful essay I found. Thank you.

    The current essay on O’Connor and the interplay between religious sensibility and artistic genius only confirms my suspicion that yours is a voice I want to hear.

    I appreciate your willingness, despite your secular convictions, to affirm the central place of religious belief in great works of art and literature by people like O’Connor and Dostoevsky. As someone who shares their basic convictions, I grow weary of the dismissive manner many contemporary critics display toward the religious beliefs which informed their work. Thank you for seeing and confirming the integral connection, and for treating it with respect and candor.

    Respectfully,
    Steve Gilbertson

    Reply

    • Hello Steve, and thank you very much for that. I can’t describe how good it makes me feel to know that the various stuff I type into my PC is actually read and enjoyed!

      Like yourself, I too grow weary of the contemptuous dismissal by so many contemporary commentators of anything even vaguely related to religion. The view that is increasingly presented of humans as mere products of empirical forces, and as no more than a sum of their constituent physical parts, seems to me to be a view that diminishes us, and I find myself, to put it mildly, deeply uneasy about it. I become tired also of the viewpoint – often implied and sometimes even explicitly stated – that anyone who believes, or, even further, anyone who declines to be atheist, must be a fool or a knave or both. Quite apart from anything else, I don’t see how we can have any sort of debate or fruitful exchange of ideas if we do not have at least a modicum of respect for those with whom we are disagreeing.

      I hope you enjoyed Ulysses: it’s always an unmitigated pleasure to return to that book!

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

  5. Posted by alan on May 25, 2012 at 4:22 am

    “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto”.

    Reply

  6. Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on May 25, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    Ur not that good…u havn addressed my question!!!

    Reply

    • Hold your horses, Shonti – some of us spend long hours in the office and are too tired in the evenings to do much. I’ll certainly reply to your earlier comment at the same time as I reply to the others.

      By the way, I have great difficulty reading textspeak. I can just about understand English, though.

      Reply

      • Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on May 25, 2012 at 6:36 pm

        I have hours in office and field and stuff also.

        Apologies for the textspeak…just fall in2, er, into it from time to time.

        Apologies for the English as well, whilst I’m at it.

        xx

      • Sorry, Shonti, I didn’t mean it in that sense. It’s just that nowadays I get so tired by the evening that I really do not have the time or the energy required to work on this blog to the extent I’d like. I guess I’m just getting old now…

  7. Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on May 29, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    I know what u mean….the mind is demanding as the years pile up.

    Never mind…it was just a thought plucked out of what you said about some of the characters’ depicted in Flannery’s work. Coming from Blackburn, I have encountered quite a number of scary people – and not neccesarily scary in obvious ways – that I’ve often thought I would like to write about but would be tough to encapsulate and do justice to.

    xx

    Reply

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