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Who's Afraid of Flannery O'Connor?

Flannery famously gets a reader to side with a decent but perhaps slightly flawed lady, and then the story slowly turns grim. We see her smile is grounded in pettiness or deep bitterness. Finally, she has a severe encounter with dark grace. Nice readers close the story quickly and refuse to go on to another. It's as if the reader herself has been roughed up unjustly.

But that's the point. Flannery just reflects Christ's priorities. He was much softer on thieves, prostitutes, and murderers than he was on polite, middle class Pharisees. Christ berates and belittles and promises death-from-heaven for the most decent citizens of Jerusalem. The good, law-abiding Rotarian sorts incense Christ's deepest anger. And, in Flannery's stories, grace hunts them down. All evil is not bad. Some evil comes to shake us out of our sin; some evil comes to liberate us. Some evil is a gift of grace. Grace gnashes.


I read this article a few weeks ago and have been wanting to read Flannery O'Connor ever since. Do you suggest a good starting point? I earmarked some short stories from an anthology on the shelf.

Carol, I'd start with "A Good Man is Hard to Find", which is in most anthologies and move on from there. I absolutely loved her novel, The Violent Bear It Away, but it is hard, hard, hard to read. But then I think all of O'Connor is hard. If you can get a copy of her letters: Habit of Being, they are fascinating.

Oh, and Carol, here's a snippet I wrote about The Violent Bear It Away a couple of years ago:

TSO said he was going to quote from Flannery O'Connor tomorrow, so I must beat him to the point and write a little bit about The Violent Bear It Away, as I promised I would.

I can't get my thoughts clear about the ending of the book yet, but the part where I had to put the book down for the second time was in a section that was dealing with Rayber (the schoolteacher) and his son Bishop. Bishop is, in the words of the book, an idiot.

Rayber's wife has left him and her son, leaving the two of them to live together. Rayber seems very callous toward the boy.

These are probably the most powerful words on love that I have ever read:

For the most part Rayber lived with him without being painfully aware of his presence but the moments would still come when, rushing from some inexplicable part of himself, he would experience a love for the child so outrageous that he would be left shocked and depressed for days, and trembling for his sanity. It was only a touch of the curse that lay in his blood......

...The little boy was part of a simple equation that required no further solution, except at the moments when with little or no warning he would feel himself overwhelmed by the horrifying love.... If, without thinking, he lent himself to it, he would feel suddenly a morbid surge of the love that terrified him--powerful enough to throw him to the ground in an act of idiot praise. It was completely irrational and abnormal.....

....The love that would overcome him was of a different order entirely. It was not the kind that could be used for the child's improvement or his own. It was love without reason, love for something futureless, love that appeared to exist only to be itself, imperious and all demanding, the kind that would cause him to make a fool of himself in an instant.

To Rayber, the picture of the modern, rational man, such love is madness. It's inconceivable. It's absurd. It's just not USEFUL.

And as I read those passages over and over and over I realized: THAT'S what the saints have that I don't have. That violent, inconceivable, absurd, non-utilitarian love of God. They have given themselves over to it, let themselves be swept up in it. Just for the love of Him. Just because. They aren't worried about appearing foolish. They just love.

The tragedy of The Violent Bear It Away is that Rayber disconnects himself from this love. He relies on himself and his abilities. He is his own "redemption." Only that which can be tested and quantified and written down is true, worthy, valid. All else is a lie. Or worse than a lie--a madness.

He never sees that it is HE who is truly mad. HE who has locked himself into an ascetical little world tilting toward emptiness and despair.

It's just all too familiar.



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This page contains a single entry by MamaT published on September 5, 2006 10:22 PM.

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