Wednesday, March 14, 2007

An Orchard Among Groves: Depravity, O'Conner, and The Puritans

(Preface: Admittedly, this will be an odd post. It weaves together two kinds of reading I have done recently, both of which offered glimpses into the "T" in TULIP. If it is a little indulgent, I apologize.)

As I was recently reading about the puritan tendency to major on the depravity of man (an incomplete description of them by the way), a certain author was brought to mind. I have never attempted to compare this author with the puritans before and doing so may not be overly fruitful to our readers. But it was for me.

The wise do not compare an apple to an orange only to rebuke the apple for not falling easily into sections. Sage advice would tell us to avoid that folly in comparing writers as well. Flannery O'connor is an apple among oranges, an orchard among groves. I felt relieved in making that estimation after reading her say the same thing about herself in a letter to her editor. "I am amenable to criticism," she granted, "but only in the sphere of what I am trying to do; I will not pretend to do otherwise" (The Complete Stories p. x). The problem was she was in a sphere by herself, making points that few considered in ways even fewer understood.

Many Christian readers take the advice of more adventurous Christian readers (which I did) and fly innocently into O'Connor's mind only to be smacked senseless like a pigeon colliding with a flawless pane of glass. She leaves them shaking their heads and asking, "Why was I sent in this direction?" If you are hoping to find a Narnia in her pages, you will be seeking a refund.

So what is the allure? It is reported that even her publisher wished that she would just sit down to talk about her stories, making clear "what was what" (Stories, x). Is this just another case of literary types elevating an author, draping her in the Emperor's finest so they can have a hero that no one else understands? I think not. The key is understanding O'Connor's intent. In a quote that reveals both her power and point, Thomas Merton wrote soon after her death: "[I compare her with] someone like Sophocles...I write her name with honor, for all the truth and all the craft with which she shows man's fall and dishonor" (Stories, xv) Man's Fall and Man's dishonor. Ah, there's the rub. Summing her up another way, Caroline Gordon said she wrote to demonstrate the "operations of supernatural grace in the lives of natural men and women."Those summaries were helpful to me.

To be fair, I have only read 5 of her very disturbing stories, "Geranium", "The Barber", "A Good Man is Hard to Find", "Good Country People", and "Greenleaf." The first of them left me thunderstruck by her skill but underwhelmed by whatever point she was making. The stories are from a southern perspective (American) and are charged with racial tension and self-righteous characters. Each one ends with some kind of gruesome or confounding climax. Not the kind of reading that calls you to the pillow. I sat on the porch after reading "A Good Man is Hard to Find" feeling somewhere between a weep and a shrug. I found myself doing what many other readers have done: reaching "for any cliché [I] could lay hold of in order to have some way of apprehending this original and disturbing work" (Stories, xvi). With no clichés at hand, I had to simply admit I did not understand. But I pressed on.

After reading the fifth story ("Greenleaf") some things began to dawn. O'Connor began to smile at me, if only a slight smirk. She was not a total Misfit. I felt like a skittish squirrel who finally saw the possibility of taking the peanut from a cryptic palm. O'Connor became Flannery - a woman with "a highly developed sense of comedy, deep faith, [and] a great intelligence" (Stories, xiii).

Her characters are fallen creatures with an acute aptitude for cruelty, humor, and self-deception. Man at his fallen ebb. Each one does what is right in his/her own eyes and their words are often wicked, mostly self-congratulatory, and rarely without a hint of humor. They are seamlessly crafted and stick with you to the point of a kindly haunting. It is in the character that the point leaps to the front.

In my humble and limited evaluation, it seems that O'Connor writes not so much about Grace but about the depths to which Grace must go to touch us where we are. By expounding on depravity - complete with gorings, amputees stranded aloft, and a grandmother's roadside execution - we see the nobility of a Grace that would invade so wretched a stage. Christ touching the harlot: shocking yet immanently necessary and moving.

That is where my reading on the puritans comes in. In their sermons they skillfully thundered away at sinfulness so that Grace would be the ultimate protagonist. As the ugliness of sin is described in excruciating detail, Christ emerges as the stunning redeemer.

In O’Conner, it is as though we are reading the verbal equivalent of a film negative. Things are intimately recognizable, but only in a way that traces what should have been. In short, I benefit from reading O'Connor. I know now to enjoy the orchard and not sniff for orange blossoms - they are not there. I read her to better understand the hot and stinking bog behind me and to rejoice, as did the puritans, in the cool and immovable Rock beneath my bare feet.



Anonymous said...

I have also read the complete stories of Flannery O'Conner(all of them-they depressed me a lot). I would grant that she does talk about the depravity and fallness of man more than many other authors(for which many Calvinists praise her for). However, it is not altogether clear to me that she believes in total depravity; in fact, she was raised in and practiced Roman Catholicism. It is possible that a R.C. could believe in total depravity, but I believe that her writing leaves room for semi-pelagianism.

H.C. Ross said...

Thanks, Tim. I have never read her but your comments make me think I'd like to.

There's something about some 'secular' rock music that appeals to me in the same way I think O'Connery does to you. Even though the musicians aren't believers, because some obviously seek honesty in their music and lyrics, the end result comes out sounding more reality-grounded and appealing than some 'Christian' music ... ironically. Of course I need to be more specific -- I mean groups like Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins, and for the latter I mean any one of a number of plastic, blithe, cliche-spouting groups you might hear in the course of a day on a contemporary Christian station. I suppose the bottom line is that all art, to be good, should have some redemptive quality. And to be fair a lot of secular stuff has little or none.

Bridges said...

Thanks for the comments. Anonymous: Good points! I would DEFINITELY grant that I would not want to take my theological cues from O'Conner. I knew of her RC background. In short, she was not a theologian so I don't try to make her be. What I do know is that after I read her, I wonder at a Christ that would die to redeem people like her characters, like me. She also wrote about sin without celebrating it, a distinction from a lot of fiction authors.

Chris: Have you noticed that some CC music could either be addressed to God or to a girlfriend/boyfriend? A little ambiguous for marketing reasons (I don't want to paint with too broad a brush there). I have to be careful with listening to "rock" type music though. That is why I like the current trend of being able to buy songs and not whole albums.

Ben Barczi said...

If you're interested in reading what O'Connor was doing with her stories, you should check out her book, "Mystery and Manners," a collection of essays. She there talks extensively about her aims as a writer, and (as usual) she is brilliant.

As for her Catholicity, I don't think that need worry us too much as we read her stories. I'd say just by reading her stories that she believes in total depravity more than most Reformed theologians I've known, who believe it doctrinally but not practically. You should particularly look into her short story, "Revelation," which I think is her best. There we can see what she calls the working of grace on those who can't stand it, and don't want it.

All in all I think your insight is directly on the mark. O'Connor writes to an age that no longer believes it is sinful; her genius is (as she points out) to shout into the ears of the hard of hearing, and to draw large pictures for the nearly blind. Somehow in all the grotesque alien depravity of her characters, we see ourselves. It is our sin that we groan at; she holds up a mirror that we cannot evade.

Bridges said...

Ben Barczi,

I appreciate the reference the essays, I was not aware of those. Thanks for the comment. O'Conner is someone I do not read frequently, but what I read of her stays with me. That is the mark of a gifted writer.

I hope you are well and rejoicing.

Tim Bridges


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