Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Mechanical in Everything That Rises Must Converge

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Mechanical in Everything That Rises Must Converge

Article excerpt

To many critics, the views of Flannery O'Connor on science and technology have seemed self-evident. The modern faith in science was the extension of a Post-Reformation reliance on Nominalism, a philosophical position that O'Connor never ceased to question. More damaging than pure science, the popular belief in technology as a panacea had led the twentieth century away from religious faith and toward belief in a future paradise to be brought about by technology. As Jane C. Keller insisted, O'Connor's empiricists had erected barriers between themselves and the recognition of the universe as the work of God (266). In the figure of Sheppard, Thomas Carlson saw "the supreme exponent of Pelegianism," a character who "tries to render the material thing spiritual through technology, a kind of latter-day alchemy" (262).

Certainly O'Connor's writing has provided ample evidence that the concept of mechanization is to be viewed in opposition to the religious message of her works. In a letter of March 17, 1956, to Shirley Abbott, O'Connor expressed her rejection of the strictly empirical approach: "It is popular to believe that in order to see clearly one must believe nothing. This may work well enough if you are observing cells under a microscope. It will not work if you are writing fiction. For the fiction writer, to believe nothing is to see nothing" (Habit of Being 147). Speaking of the sweeping impact of mechanization on the South and its effect on the southern writer, O'Connor stated in "The Regional Writer": "The present state of the South is one wherein nothing can be taken for granted, one in which our identity is obscured and in doubt" (Mystery and Manners 57). As a result of this sort of comment, one might well conclude that O'Connor's orthodox Catholicism, attested by her own statements and the great majority of her critics, has set her in opposition to the modern forces of science and technology. According to this interpretation, modernization, as represented by a host of characters from Sheppard to Rayber to Mrs. McIntyre, may be read as the clear villain in each of her works. The representation of the machine carries with it an implied negative cast, and the extent to which characters such as Mr. Head or Parker are depicted as "mechanical" indicates the working out of the destructive effects of a nominalist philosophy.

In view of the frequency with which this reading is repeated, it is striking to find that O'Connor had an extensive interest in natural and social science. While she implied at one point that science has led to the decline of Biblical knowledge and Bible reading (Grace 25), she admired Teilhard de Chardin as a scientist and a Christian, and in a review of his work, she spoke scathingly of "a caricature of Christianity ... which sees human perfection as consisting in escape from the world and from nature" (Grace 87). As O'Connor's book reviews indicate, O'Connor nurtured an open-minded interest in psychology; she praised Cross Currents for printing "the best that can be found on religious subjects as they impinge on the modern world, or on modern discoveries as they impinge on the Judeo-Christian tradition" (Grace 113).

One can trace the tension in O'Connor's writing between the traditionalist eager to decry the abuses of modernization, as when she describes the mass media as a "diet of fantasy" (Grace 86), and the sophisticated modern, aware of the latest advances in psychiatry and philosophy. One suspects that this internal struggle between traditionalist and modern underlies her comment singling out a quotation from Baron von Hugel: "`how thin and abstract, or how strained and unattentive, the religion of most women becomes, owing to their elimination of religious materials and divinely intended tensions!'" (Grace 21). Though certain of her readers have sought to disregard the battling of "divinely intended tensions" in her fiction, her fictional treatment of the changing South benefited enormously from her appreciation of the need to preserve these tensions in her stories. …

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