Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Means, Meaning, and Mediated Space in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Means, Meaning, and Mediated Space in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"

Article excerpt

In "The Regional Writer," Flannery O'Connor complained that stories written by young Southerners read as if they originated "anywhere or nowhere" or, worse, are "phony-Southern." These stories, she argued, had been influenced "only by the television."1 O'Connor is adamant, however, that southern identity "is not something that can become a cliché. It is not made from the mean average or the typical, but from the hidden and often the most extreme."2 Bearing her words in mind, one finds that the deep cohesion of the family's itinerary in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," as noted by Frederick Asals, is a sophisticated rhetorical exploration of this claim.3 The story's journey is a carefully organized argument depicting the extent and the limitations of the transformation of the South into commodified cliché. The story's final encounter with the Misfit is one in which this argument culminates in a dialectical synthesis of the mean - as in petty - Grandmother, and the mean - as in cruel - Misfit. Together, they find moral good and valuable meaning beyond the world of goods and means.

The distinction that French Marxist cultural critic Henri Lefebvre makes between absolute and abstract spatialities is one that is helpful in understanding the conflicts at work in O'Connor's roadside Georgia. Lefebvre's conceptualizations of space are varied and complex, and other elements of his work have been applied usefully to O'Connor's representations of space.4 However, this specific division of spatialities into two broad categories is of particular value when considering "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," in that it offers a way to see the relationship between American industrial capitalism and O'Connor's Catholicism in fine detail. Through Lefebvre, one can see the spaces of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" in a way that refrains from reducing them to the simple opposition of sacred, natural spaces of grace, on the one hand, and profane spaces of modern capital on the other. The ability of this theoretical framework to reveal the details of O'Connor's spatial rhetoric, and to do so in the context of the abstracting power of capital, makes it a valuable complement to discussions of her use of space. In particular, Lefebvre's conceptualization of absolute and abstract spatialities resists morally polarizing these spatialities, resists utopianism, and offers a rigorous theorization of space, allowing it to contribute meaningfully to readings of O'Connor that have drawn upon the tradition of the neo-agrarians.

Absolute space, Lefebvre explains, is made up of sanctified or consecrated "fragments of nature" existing outside of capitalist relations. Such spaces are characterized by their making possible a direct, intimate, and local relationship with the specifics of place - rather than generic space - that is not overwritten by a culture of capitalist exchange. Absolute spaces are neither ahistorical nor apolitical, but are governed by natural processes that also include traditional agrarianism and cultural interpretive frameworks grounded in religious belief.5 What is key, is that the concept of absolute space gestures toward the possibility of thinking space outside the context of the free market system. It is not inherently superior to abstract space, morally or otherwise, but it maintains the ideal of experiencing place directly, without the mediating interposition of such a system. This possibility is often characterized in literature as being threatened by, in tension with, or - as it is in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" - impervious to the pressures exerted upon it by the growth of modern capitalism's abstraction of space.

Abstract space is the product of a homogenizing power that aspires to make space entirely transparent and legible, leaving no room for alternative voices. It is the institutional ordering, or synthesis, of heterogeneous spaces, largely through capitalist relations. It ignores or devalues the specifics of a place, turning it into a commodified, generic, and cliché example of its type. …

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