I’m reading Flannery O’Connor and detesting every word. I know Christians aren’t supposed to do that! But every story so far is about ugly people suffering ugly things and doing even uglier ones. Penetrating, yes. Insightful, true. But she seems definitely of the tribe of those who produced gargoyles and self-flagellation.
Am I uttering heresy, dear friends?
That, for me, is sufficient provocation. Not that it is provoking (except that it is a call for Flannery O’Connor not to be Flannery O’Connor in that the third sentence implies that there ought to be stories that are not about ugly people suffering ugly things and doing even uglier ones), it is uttered with sufficient trepidation. Not provoking, but it incites me. I’ll examine the question at presumptuous and egregious length, and if you are curious, why then, read on.
The world is a wide and strange place; it is wide and strange because it has been made by God and even though it is under a curse and is not filled with the knowledge of his glory, it is filled with his glory nevertheless, as the seraphim well know. It is in this space that exists between the knowledge of his glory and the actual presence of his glory that we exist, and in it we are discoverers. It is not possible for any of us alone or even with a concerted effort to apprehend and be conscious of every aspect of the glory of the Lord with which the wide world is full, and though in many instances (perhaps most) it is to our reproach that we are not more conscious of the glory of the Lord, it is not always to our reproach that we are not conscious of all the glory of the Lord that fills the wide world simply because we are finite and, as creatures of time, are given the gift of growing: in our understanding, in our consciousness, and, I think, in our being itself.
And so it is not a stinging reproach that one person or another should not have the power to appreciate this or that aspect of all there is in the wide world to appreciate. It is a sign of our ignorance, of our limitations, of the tendencies of our tastes and the scope of our sympathies, and while all these things are things that one might be reproached for in some cases, it is not the case that they are always things for which we might be reproached. After all, the scope of our sympathies must grow; we do not chafe at children who have no taste for sauerkraut because it leaves more for ourselves and we know they will grow up and devour it all too soon. Of course, we object when children are obnoxious about how they dislike it, and we object even more so when this kind of thing shows up in adults, when it is a prejudice and a stupidity—especially about something we love—but as long as nobody is being obnoxious it is understood that all of us have limitations in the scope of our sympathies and in the range of our tastes.
I think, moreover, that part of what makes humans interesting is that they are different, and what really makes us different is found in the core of our being at the level of our loves and desires, and then working out to sympathies, tastes, likes and dislikes. Here is where the wonder of the imagination flourishes, among these things, and if we are to learn from each other to see wonders we might not ourselves see, then these will grow out of the soil of desires that are not our desires, or ways of desiring which we have not learned or felt. Desire is a way of seeing, and the better the desire, the more clearly it sees its object. It is stupid and parochial to dismiss the likes of others without consideration. It is stupid and vain to dismiss the things people we do not agree with without understanding them. Even when dealing with our enemies if we do not deal truly—truly understanding their arguments and aims—then we have not really dealt with them.
Now there is a proper way of dismissing. If you are ever told anything about music by a music major for a Bible College, dismiss it without qualms (humans are so strange it is possible, I suppose, that some of those persons get through and still care about music, but these are wonderfully strange, rare persons, it seems to me). The chance that what they say will be right is only the chance that exists that they will accidentally be right. Had they cared about music, they would not have pursued it where they did; it is evident from the noises emanating form such places that whatever is loved there, it is not music. And more and more nowadays, in every field even the established consensus is reaching the point (or has) where it is to be dismissed in the same manner; all this comes with appreciation of the state of things. But things cannot be dismissed without a proper consideration, and it seems to me the standard of judgment cannot be advanced without that without which it has been shown to fail: desire for the real object. Whenever you have a true love for the thing the judgment on it can be expected to be better or improving because the appreciation of it is grounded in that true love, that right desire. And love is something most of us can recognize without a lot of training. Amor vincet omnia is true—even of bad judgment for it will eventually prevail if it is love. You see, I believe in love.
In literature, the object of desire is something literary—at least something mediated by literature alone, and so it is that judgment must be literary. Flannery O’Connor believed in those cannons of judgment very seriously. She lived surrounded by people who did not understand her work, and it amused her most of the time. She was also vexed at the inability of people to get more out of modern literature than sex and violence and speculated that the reason that was all they got, was that it was all they could see. She was being funny there too (though the fact that she was really worked up can be noticed in that she actually wrote—it is in a letter—“the reason is because”). But it is true. Since it is true (or if you are skeptical: if it is true), then it means there is more to see than what lies on the surface. There is a surface to literature, and there is a depth to literature. The depth has to be suggested and is what the medium is so peculiarly suited to suggesting. The depth is where the point is as in every kind of art, and where the satisfaction comes.
Also in her letters, Flannery O’Connor (complaining of people who misunderstood her writing) pointed out that a talent to write is not a talent to write anything at all. A person who writes must write what he can, and develop that as well as he can, along the lines of what is given to him. People who did not understand what she wrote but who lived in her vicinity would still thank her for describing people as they knew them, and not the remote, fake critters more regularly met in books. We are all that way: we have to work from what is familiar toward the strange, and this limits the scope of our sympathies and of our tastes. Remember that it works for us the same way it works for others, and it is a limitation both for the author and for the reader.
And here comes the part where resignation, it seems to me, must play its role. Dr. Johnson somewhere made a remark I read secondhand and have found extremely useful. It was something to the effect that a man who reads a book he is not really interested in is wasting his time. I will say, mostly wasting his time, since there can be some profit from forced marches through books. But little is that profit, and ruined, often, is the book. It really requires desire. The thing is that we do need to discipline our desires, but discipline without desire is a rotten way to go. And the way to discipline our desires is to cultivate the good ones and discourage the bad ones; and that, you probably already see, gets us back to the limitations of our finiteness. We have to grow things at the rate they grow, not faster, and we have to grow things at the point they are, not at a more advanced point. And so when it comes to what we know, what we think we ought to know, what we like and what we think we ought to like, not all things can be done at once. If desire is a way of seeing, we must learn to see the objects we can see as well as possible (a bad desire, you see, I take to be a sort of blindness), and then we will find ourselves noticing others nearby, and increasingly more, and farther. All that to say, when it comes to reading the best way to go seems to me to forage among the good things one has learned to enjoy, pushing outward, but not so far that it becomes unpleasant.
Don’t like Hemingway? Don’t read Hemingway and hope that one day you might. Don’t think he’s good? Keep your mouth shut since what you’re talking about has rather meandered away to form a separate set from the set consisting of what you know. Etc. (I am aware that some might be tempted to apply this to the quotation where this all began. Certainly, there are applications, but one might be allowed to voice a complaint once in a while, and, after all, where would I be if I disallowed the occasion for what I now do?)
So much for that. Now I proceed to consider the stories of Flannery O’Connor herself. Why did she write about ugly people suffering ugly things and doing even uglier ones? There is a remarkable, long section near the end of The Two Towers when Sam and Frodo are in Ithilien in which they talk about being in tales, and the sort of tales persons like to read. At one point Sam reflects that the best tales to hear are not the best tales to be in—and there is much cause for reflection in just that statement. “Why,” Samwise then observes, “even Gollum might be good in a tale.” Ha! And the tale would not be the tale we reread with amazement (Imladris) and grief (Boromir) and disappointment (that there is not more story to read) and consternation (Frodo after Shelob) and joy (“I don’t hold with wearing ironmongery”) were it not for that most treacherously ugly of all traitors in a tale full of treasons and horrors. But, someone will protest, it is mingled with so much good! It is true: the bad does not stand alone.
And here is where you have to understand the purposes of Flannery O’Connor. Her purpose was to show how ugly people suffering ugly things and doing even uglier ones are still not able in those circumstances to avoid becoming conscious of the grace of God. And she also wants to show, in her day when such circumstances have become the commonplace of literature, in a world that affirmed violence and horror but no meaning behind it, that the grace of God was inextricably a part of it all, could not be shut out of the world, in fact. And people who live in such circumstances, especially ugly people in such circumstances, like to read such tales indeed. Flannery O’Connor, haunted by the meaning of the crucifixion, wrote about it over and over again, producing her own peculiar, particular and amazing eucatastrophes. It was the triumph of God’s love in such circumstances, the inextricability of God’s grace from a world made awful in the attempt to exclude him, the flowering of glory in the worst circumstances and with the most obstinate and insensitive people in the world that she desired to show, and to show, by suggestion, according to the canons of the art of literature.
And so: while the point is theological, to miss it is not necessarily heretical. It may simply be that such things are beyond the range of a person’s sympathies, or it may be that a person’s ability to appreciate does not extend to such things yet. To fail to see what she is doing is not to read it well, that is all. Really, there can be no clinical consent that is adequate for the simple reason that what she does, she does well.
The hicks approved of her stories because the stories were about hicks. And perhaps she only wrote about hicks because those were the people she knew best. But she wrote about more than hicks being hicks. She wrote about one who also found hicks even more interesting than she and some other persons (like me—I revel in the people, the circumstances; I love hicks . . . in literature) do and who noticed them. But I think you have to find the hicks interesting to be able to see the light in which they are found at the end of the story. You have to believe the reality of what she is making through the use of her medium. Reality, as Screwtape suggests at one interesting point, is what you love. Better: love is the only way of truly apprehending reality.
People wanted to domesticate the gift that Flannery O’Connor had. They wanted, since she was Catholic, nice Catholic stories about being good and happy and how it all works out and say your rosary and you will have good luck. You get the idea, reading her correspondence, she considered this a betrayal (Amen!) not only of her religion, but also of her notions about literature. The cannons of good writing, of the limitations and possibilities of literature governed not only how she wrote, but even the things she wrote about. You cannot write well about what does not interest you (as it is hard to read well about what does not interest you), and you cannot write well about what you cannot imagine (people say about what you do not know, but they really mean what you cannot imagine). She saw too clearly, loved to fiercely, to write happy and tidy stuff. For her to write in another way would have been a betrayal because in some mysterious way the proper love of all things corresponds to the proper love of the one we love to the exclusion of all other things.
We are all of us, in this sublunar world, slated for the inability to appreciate things we should. It is sad, but it is unavoidable. We may hope to outgrow some of our inabilities, but I am afraid that until we are transformed, some people on this terrestrial ball may never enjoy the truly enjoyable writing of Flannery O’Connor. The good news is, there is a lot of other stuff to read.