Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, and the Aesthetic of Revelation. By John D. Sykes, Jr. Columbia, Mo. and London: University of Missouri Press, 2007. 216 pp. $37.50 (cloth).
In his 1948 prose classic, The Dyer's Hand, W. H. Auden defined the "sacramental sense" in literature by which a "finite can be a sign for the infinite." Auden was careful to distinguish this sacramental sense from what he called "pansacramentalism," the belief that "the universe is numinous as-awhole." The intervening sixty years have not been kind to this distinction: we have witnessed the over- or misuse of the term sacramental in literary criticism, especially with reference to Christian writers like Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy. What Auden would call "pansacramentalist" ideas have crept into many scholarly accounts of overtly Christian fiction, some writers having forgotten that, in Auden's terms, "a sacramental sign is always some particular aspect of the finite, this thing, this act, not the finite-in-general" (W. H. Auden, The Dyer's Hand [pp. 117-118]).
Happily, John D. Sykes knows not only what a sacrament is; he understands a great deal about critical theory and signs, too. This is important because, as Sykes shows persuasively, the New Critical theorists in whose theoretical ambience both O'Connor and Percy worked came to understand literature in almost religious terms. In a postwar, anxious "world without God," literature was thought (by W. K. Wimsatt and others) to stand in for religion as a "verbal icon"-a direct experience of the transcendent, a replacement for historical faith. This led, as Sykes shows, to some fairly fuzzy thinking about theology and some gigantic claims about literature. So Sykes's new book Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, and the Aesthetic of Revelation is particularly important now as it examines the fiction of O'Connor and Percy both in the light of an informed understanding of how Christians understand the sacraments and a sophisticated grasp of semiotics (especially those of C. S. Peiree). The result is a study which weds theological and literary theory with skillful close readings of both writers.
Sykes takes his title from Lewis Simpson's distinction (in regard to Southern writers) between "the aesthetic of memory" (characterizing the older Southern generation of Faulkner, Welty, Warren, and Tate) and "the aesthetic of revelation" (characterizing the newer, Roman Catholic duo of O'Connor and Percy). …