Abstract: A comparison of Flannery O'Connor's stories to Jean Paul Sartre's Nausea reveals a surprising number of intertextual parallels and shared themes. Upon close examination, correlations emerge within the overarching incarnational framework of each writer, manifested in similar physical responses of characters in a world that assumes God is dead. Looking at O'Connor through the descriptive lens of Nausea serves to augment a reading of O'Connor as a Christian writer attuned to the nihilism of the modern age, and contributes to an appreciation of the complexity of her vision. Despite the existential angst permeating the work of each writer, the "lines of spiritual motion" found in O'Connor's work reveal redemption in the suffering of Jesus Christ, while Sartre, at best, finds a sort of consolation in "good" faith and art.
About much of the fiction of her time, Flannery O'Connor wrote, "Alienation was once a diagnosis, but ... it has become an ideal. "The modern hero is the outsider. His experience is rootless. He can go anywhere. He belongs nowhere.... The borders of his country are the sides of his skull" (Mystery and Manners 199-200). Indeed, you could say such are the heroes and antiheros of O'Connor's own work: alienated, rootless, drifting. For many readers, O'Connor's fictional worlds are full of senseless violence and devoid of meaning. While this speaks to the accuracy of her depiction of what she saw as "our broken condition and, through it, the face of the devil we are possessed by" (168), when examined from the vantage point of her own commentary, O'Connor's stories become more than reflections of a fallen world; they can also be read as parables, pointing to "the image at the heart of things" (168). What differentiates the Catholic writer's work from the fiction being written in her time is a larger something, what she deemed "lines of spiritual motion" (113), actions of a character that carry the story beyond its obvious meaning. In discussions of her work, O'Connor stressed the primacy of the divine movement most often revealed through a character's "gesture which somehow made contact with mystery" (111). Such moments of transcendence are triggered by a character's sudden intimation of something beyond the self; although the character may not necessarily be saved, his or her existence is redefined.
Even though O'Connor herself directed her readers to the anagogical level in her stories (about one of her more famous stories she observed, "[one] should be on the lookout for such things as the action of grace in the Grandmother's soul, and not for the dead bodies" [Mystery 113]), she was above all a writer with a "distrust of the abstract" (168), who believed that fiction was "an incarnational art" (68). Those dead bodies are first of all dead bodies. Calling herself a Christian Realist (Habit 92). O'Connor revealed what she called "the reality of the added dimension" (Mystery 150) in provocative portrayals of modern man in the "concrete world" (157). That said, the "lines of spiritual motion" found throughout O'Connor's fiction may be thrown into greater relief when her characters are examined in light of one of the all-time great alienated modern heroes of the twentieth century.
Antoine Roquentin, nauseated protagonist of Jean Paul Sartre's famous novel, is a man unmoored, paradoxically submerged in and separated from a reality he is trying to understand; Nausea, the title and the ailment, refers to the nausea of existence. (William Barrett warns: "and to those who are ready to use this as an excuse for tossing out the whole of Sartrian philosophy, we may point out that it is better to encounter one's existence in disgust than never to encounter it at all ..." ). Roquentin experiences the absurdity of existence through the bodily sensation of nausea. The nausea begins as a peculiar revulsion for physical objects and other people, leading to feelings of disgust and isolation, and culminates in the realization that all things, himself included, are de trop (superfluous or "too much").
Though a practicing Catholic and "no vague believer" (O'Connor Collected Works 804), Flannery O'Connor took seriously the existentialist's encounter with the emptiness of existence: "if you live today you breathe in nihilism. In or out of the Church, it's the gas you breathe" (Works 949). Her very first novel featured an existentialist wannabe: in reviews of the time Hazel Motes was labeled in Newsweek as "surely the big man of all antisocial characters" ("Frustrated Preacher") and "a fiercely militant atheist" in Times Literary Supplement (Spearman). The Atlanta Constitution called Wise Blood an "allegory of modern life" (Martha Smith), and a reviewer for The Savannah Morning News recognized in the novel "a quality of Dostoevsky" and "the terror and violence of French novelists" ("Damnation of Man"). More recently, Ralph C. Wood labeled Hazel Motes "O'Connor's Sartrean figure" ("Flannery O'Connor, Martin Heidegger, and Modern Nihilism" 101). He is a character desperate to "be converted to nothing" (O'Connor, Works 12). "He [Haze] kept going forward, thinking nothing and sweating" (41). In her note to the second edition of Wise Blood, O'Connor notes Mote's "vigor" in trying to get away from Jesus. His preoccupation with believing in nothing is strenuous and all consuming.
O'Connor's one philosopher character, Joy / Hulga, of "Good Country People" claims, "I don't have illusions. I'm one of those people who see through to nothing" (Works 280) echoing Sartre himself, who, in his autobiography declares: "I see clearly, I've lost my illusions" (The Words 253). Like a good existentialist, Hulga attempts to embrace her freedom by reinventing herself, beginning with her name. O'Connor's outlaw character, The Misfit, of "A Good Man is Hard to Find" pronounces the moral implications of atheism:
If [Jesus] did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can--by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness. (Works 152)
The Violent Bear it Away and "The Lame Shall Enter First" feature aggressively atheist characters blind to the implications of a godless world, who attempt to not only derive meaning through good works, but to "save" certain Christian characters, to teach them "the truth" (414). These characters and others point to a writer "peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness" (Works 942). In one 1955 letter O'Connor admitted, "If I hadn't had the Church to fight it [nihilism] with or to tell me the necessity of fighting it, I would be the stinkingest logical positivist you ever saw right now. With such a current to write against it (the result) almost has to be negative" (Works 949).
O'Connor's understanding and response to nihilism in her fiction has been the subject of several recent excellent studies. In Return to Good and Evil, Henry Edmonson argues that O'Connor sought to reinstate the concepts of "good" and "evil" that nihilism would deny. In portraying "good" as the entering of the divine through grace into a character's life and "evil" as the absence of that grace, O'Connor showed her characters' need for salvation and redemption. Ralph Wood, in his chapter on demonic nihilism in Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South, discusses O'Connor's understanding of "Nothingness" in terms of the satanic, addressing also the question of freedom and the problem of human pain and suffering. (1) Thomas L. Cooksey finds parallels between "Good Country People" and L'Invitee, a 1954 novel by Simone de Beauvoir, feminist existentialist and longtime companion of Sartre, noting, however, that the seduction scene in each narrative is quite different in tone. He observes that the description of the "unpleasant physicality" of Manley Pointer's kisses is "not unlike descriptions frequently found in Sartre," concluding that "O'Connor and Sartre seem more cognizant of the pure physicality of existence than Beauvoir" (80-81). While most commentators interpret O'Connor's words "Never read Beauvoir. Never aim to" (Habit of Being 522) as a statement that she never read Beauvoir, Cooksey cleverly points to their ambiguity. Without a pronoun, the phrase could be read as a command: Never read Beauvoir!
While Existentialism seems to go in and out of vogue, Jean Paul Sartre, arguably the face of Existentialism, was an imaginative and insightful philosopher. Moreover, French philosophical thought, most people would agree, paved the way for postmodernism, however one wants to define that term. Whether or not this is a good thing is up for debate. Ralph Wood has noted, "As a woman lacking philosophical training but possessing acute spiritual perception, O'Connor spied the canker at the core of the nihilist project, and she thus prophesied the evils inherent in contemporary Deconstructionism" ("Nihilism" 104-05). James K. A. Smith concurs that "postmodernism ... is in some sense, the heir to existentialism" (21), but unlike Wood, maintains that Deconstructionism (for example) is not incompatible with Christianity. Whether one extols or dismisses the evils of postmodernism, context, New Criticism notwithstanding, will only add to our understanding. Theologian Karl Barth wrote, "Whoever is ignorant of the shock [of nothingness] experienced and attested by Heidegger and Sartre is surely incapable of thinking and speaking as a modern man and unable to make himself understood by his contemporaries" (345). Sartre's plays and novels, especially, provide an accessible platform for his philosophy: existentialism, with its preoccupation with physicality, was well suited for literary forms. A comparison of some of O'Connor's stories to Sartre's Nausea reveals a surprising number of intertextual parallels and shared themes. Upon close examination, striking correlations emerge within the overarching incarnational framework of each writer, manifested in similar physical responses of characters in a world that assumes God is dead.
Looking at O'Connor through the narrative and descriptive lens of Nausea serves to augment a reading of O'Connor as a Christian writer attuned to the nihilism of the modern age, contributing to an appreciation of the complexity of O'Connor's vision. Like Sartre, O'Connor was concerned with the individual's experience of existence through the body; the physical responses of several O'Connor characters to things are illuminated when looked at in light of Roquentin's experience. Furthermore, an examination of certain instances of acute de trop in O'Connor reveals notable parallels to Sartre, as does a survey of the surprising number of occurrences of nausea found in O'Connor's fiction, ranging from the incidental to the existential. The brief section titled "Freedom and the Fall" will, I hope, contribute to a clearer differentiation between O'Connor's and Sartre's Christian / philosophical concerns. We end up, predictably, with a vastly different outcome: despite the existential angst permeating the work of both writers, the "lines of spiritual motion" revealed in O'Connor's work lead to the possibility of redemption in the suffering of Jesus Christ while Sartre, at best, finds a sort of consolation in "good" faith and art.
Flannery O'Connor's familiarity with the work of Jean Paul Sartre is evident in two letters; one written in 1958 contains a request of her priest for special dispensation to read him (included in the Vatican's Index of Prohibited Books) in a literary / theological reading group she was in: "I am afraid though that they are headed for Sartre--also on the Index. So if you can …