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 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.