Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

"His Trees Stood Rising above Him": Philosophical Thomism in Flannery O'connor

Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

"His Trees Stood Rising above Him": Philosophical Thomism in Flannery O'connor

Article excerpt

What is first precipitated in the mind's conception is being. A thing is knowable because existence is pointed to. Therefore being is the proper object of mind.  --Thomas Aquinas, ST, la, q. 5, a. 2  Human Reason lost its grasp of Being.  --Jacques Maritain on the Cartesian Revolution in Philosophy  I feel I can personally guarantee that St. Thomas loved God because for the life of me I cannot help loving St. Thomas.  --Flannery O'Connor in a letter to "A," 9 August 1955 

DESPITE its intrinsic importance, Flannery O'Connor's Thomism is not a topic that receives much attention. (1) Nor is its existence much taken for granted or subsumed in the many exegetical discussions of her fiction. On what would seem to be an important, indeed central, topic, a remarkable silence obtains. There are at least four reasons why this should be so. First, literary studies and advanced literary training do not include Thomism in the curriculum. And while there is a sense in which literary criticism is of necessity implicitly Thomist (it begins with the senses, i.e., the text), literary theory is implicitly Cartesian (beginning not with the text but with ideas) and therefore not pre-disposed to cultivate so foreign, not to say retrograde, a field. Moreover, those whose training has been only in theory are often handicapped by a tendentious and skewed view of the history of philosophy. Second, O'Connor's Thomism is so pervasive, so deftly assimilated into the action and idiom of her work, as to be nearly invisible to many of her readers. Third, and following from the first two, there thus seems little incentive to pursue her myriad references to, and habitual praise of, Aquinas. The stories seem complete, or complete enough, without them. And fourth, many of her readers simply identify, and dismiss, Thomism as Catholicism, a category mistake. Ars longa, vita brevis. And yet, she was insistent, and she was a person who knew her own mind.

If we did happen to be looking for the Thomism in O'Connor's work, what is it we would be seeing? Consider a passage like the following. It is tucked into Chapter Nine of The Violent Bear It Away and it is what we could call an ordinary example of O'Connor Thomism:

Once out of sight of the boy, he felt a pressure had been lifted from the atmosphere. He eliminated the oppressive presence from his thoughts and retained only those aspects of it that could be abstracted, clean, into the future person he envisioned.  (Collected Works 441) 

The he is Rayber, the boy is Tarwater, and the time is five days after Tarwater's arrival at Rayber's door with the announcement that Old Tarwater, their relative, is dead. He, Tarwater, "had done the needful" and burnt the old man's house and body, defying the old man's charge to give him a Christian burial. Rayber's initial response had been something like elation. Here was a boy he could now raise "according to his own ideas," in contrast to his own son, Bishop, who is mentally deficient and therefore "useless." But Tarwater stubbornly refuses Rayber's overtures, insisting that he will not become "a piece of information in [Rayber's] head." It is this refusal to be co-opted that is the source of the pressure. Notice how O'Connor gives it a certain tactile force in the awkward phrasing "oppressive presence," so manifestly in tension with "his thoughts," thoughts specified as "abstracted." Once he has reached that level of abstraction, freed from the weight of actuality, Rayber can see the future boy he envisions. Both the diction and the mental action indicate that these sentences stand as a critique, from a Thomist perspective, of Rayber's Cartesian epistemology. Since he subordinates being to thinking, and metaphysics to epistemology, what thinking he has in mind is only itself, not its putative, actual, object. (2) This is the way Rayber's mind works, and that working is the focus of O'Connor's Thomistic critique.

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