Friday, 23 June 2006

For the love of God (19): Why I love Flannery O’Connor

A guest-post by Kyle Potter

Flannery O’Connor was a Roman Catholic fiction writer from Georgia, USA. I love her because her disturbing, macabre stories capture my imagination for the God who is always creating and redeeming the church and the world.

Her stories are often violent, and her characters unsympathetic. There are country-folk and urbanites, intellectual atheists, and pious bigots. However, they stop just short of being caricatures as I realize that they are so much like me. O’Connor invites us to thank God that we are not like the Pharisee who is thanking God for not being like the publican. It is in this realization that the character’s moment of grace and judgment will become my own.

Revelation comes to O’Connor’s protagonists in unexpected and sometimes violent ways, freeing them (and us) from pretensions and self-deceptions. Her stories turn on the fact of the Incarnation, and on a strong sacramental principle: God acts in and through his creation. Through acts of violence and visions of the grotesque, O’Connor depicts the wrath of God moving upon the ungodly—and the ungodly sure do look a lot like me!

In the story “Revelation,” a pious and judgmental woman is sitting at a doctor’s office, pondering the South’s social hierarchy and her own rightful place in it. Suddenly she is attacked by a hysterical teenager who screams at her, “Go back to hell, you old warthog!” The woman realizes this to be a message from Jesus, and she asks him later: “how am I a hog and me both?” In response she receives a purgative vision and observes that even the virtues of the righteous are burned away.

In her visions of costly redemption, O’Connor teaches powerfully that all our righteousness is indeed as filthy rags, but that God is not content to leave us to our own devices, and will shake us awake rather violently if necessary. Bizarre events become movements of grace by an unseen God who wants us to know the truth about ourselves. O’Connor’s characters rarely find salvation, but salvation often comes to get them—and us.

In O’Connor’s stories, the love of God is tender, self-giving and determined, and it is because of this that it is also wrathful. O’Connor thus helps us to see, perhaps happily, that “even the mercy of the Lord burns.”

7 Comments:

kim fabricius said...

Hot damn, Kyle, how brilliantly you capture the mule-kick of the Catholic O'Connor's evangelical and eschatological vision of the white-hot love of God set in the fallen freak-show of humanity: how (in Rilke's famous phrase) "There is another world but it is the same as this one"; how (in the words of the character the Misfit) "Jesus thrown everything off balance"; how the righteous are often more in need of repentance than sinners; how God's goodness is even more shocking than human wickedness; how God is right here and and he's coming to get us.

Kyle, you perfectly catch - to re-phrase Berkhouwer's title of his book on Barth - "the triumph of grace in the fiction of Flannery O'Connor".

Thanks!

GoobyNelly said...

You also perfect catch "Disruptive Grace," the title of George Hunsinger's collection of essays, a phrase which he attributes to O'Connor. Thanks Kyle! I remember reading an essay by O'Connor in 9th grade English and feeling so secretly happy that Flannery had penetrated my secular education with her gift for writing!

Who would you say is following in her footsteps these days in the realm of fiction?

Chris

Deep Furrows said...

After years of reading O'Connor, I realized that I don't like reading her, I don't enjoy reading her. I also realized that many of those who wax on and on about her sacramental vision, etc. have been just trying to replace her burning coal with a Tic Tac. Reading O'Connor is like reading the parables: I must decide whether I stand with Christ or against Him. In my coursework for education certification, her story, "The Lame Shall Enter First" would not leave me alone. It still doesn't.

John P. said...

Chris...
I took a Short Fiction course as an Undergrad and we discussed who might be a modern day O'Connor...

One story, which i did not find as haunting as O'Connor, was a short story by the author Tony Earley (a southerner from NC who now teaches english at Vandy) called "The Prophet from Jupiter". It does have the same sense of "disruptive grace" and is well worth the read...

Jeff said...

I think it highly worth noting that the book thrown at the pious and judgmental woman in "Revelation" bears the title "Human Development."

Rich(luthsem) said...

This is one of my favorite writers!! Flannery O'connor was the best.

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

I was introduced to Flannery O'connor in 1981 by my boss John Browne , a secular fellow, who was the son of a literature professor from the deep south. He had been giving me some pointers on how to read Faulkner. I had picked up "The Sound and the Fury and was having some problems with it. Browne outlined a reading course in Faulkner which began with Sartoris and Sutpen and went through the The Hamlet, The Town and The Mansion and ended with Absolom, Absolom and The Sound and the Fury.

John Browne (a professional writer) didn't tell me why he liked Flannery O'connor's work. He told me to read A Good Man is Hard to Find, said it was one of the best short stories he had ever read. After reading all of O'connor's work several times I found myself disagreeing with Browne. "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is a shocker but it isn't O'conner at her best. Her two novels invite comparison with Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

Concerning the hard edge in O'connor's work, John Browne observed that every serious Southern female author since Gone with the Wind sets out to prove that she is not Margaret Mitchell. He also pointed out that growing up Catholic in a culture where a socially respectable white adult male was likely to be a member of a baptist church, the Masons and the Clan, probably had something to do with her outlook.

The last time I saw John Browne was in 20 years ago over dinner at Costas (greek) Restaurant just north of the Fremont Bridge. Browne's wife had recently died of melanoma and he smoke at least a full pack during dinner. Our discussion was heated and depressing. I remember at one point toward the end of the evening he looked me straight in the eye and said "what's the matter have you lost God?"

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