Academic journal article Flannery O'Connor Review

"To the Hard of Hearing You Shout": Flannery O'Connor and the Imagination of Deafness

Academic journal article Flannery O'Connor Review

"To the Hard of Hearing You Shout": Flannery O'Connor and the Imagination of Deafness

Article excerpt

Note: A version of this article was delivered at Georgia College in April 201 1 as the Flannery O'Connor Memorial Lecture during the Startling Figures conference.

Wnen Flannery O'Connor in "The Fiction Writer and His Country" (1957) famously justified her graphic artistry by explaining that "[F]or the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures," she preceded her visual metaphor with an aural one that turns speaking-loud speaking-into a figure of speech. "[T]o the hard of hearing you shout, . . ." O'Connor proclaimed MM 34). O'Connor's images of near-blindness and mild-to-moderate deafness embody her concern with the obstacle that information theorists describe as noise. In seeking to break down the boundaries among physics, literature, and philosophy, Michel Serres has reformulated the interference that disrupts and corrupts communication as the "parasite," a word in French that also might mean a biological or social predator. Although dialogue seeks to overpower and exclude this static, the noise, according to Serres, is actually beneficial, for it provokes new kinds of structure in response Parasite 21). In the face of such noise, O'Connor writes fiction of noise. She responds to what might obstruct her relationship with her readers by raising her voice against the lost words, by distorting explicitly what is not even heard as already distorted implicitly. "When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do," O'Connor posits, "you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it" MM 34). But since O'Connor recognized that her readers did not necessarily share her convictions about art, faith, and the modern world, she eschewed the well-modulated voice. Instead, she shouted from the very rooftop of her house of fiction.

When you shout, you shift from the normal conversational level of approximately 60 decibels to at least 80 decibels. You typically narrow your eyes, open your mouth wider, force more air through your lungs, raise your pitch, and project your voice from your throat and larynx.1 You become a "large and startling figure." In fact, you look a little like one of those gaping caricatures whose profiles O'Connor drew for The Colonnade. Unlike the frowns or tight lips in many of O'Connor's cartoons for her college newspaper, the crescent mouths on these squawking faces seem to be carved out of the lino-cuts' black background Cartoons at Georgia College 33, 34, 38). O'Connor's amped-up fiction uses the equivalent of such aural and visual distortion to reveal the more-difficult-to-discern distortions of a materialistic and positivistic mid-century America. Not to shout about it, but all of the earmarks of O'Connor's storytelling-the violence of her plots, the deadpan delivery of her narration, the pronounced bodies and perverted desires of her charactersare the raised voice by dint of which she seeks to din her audience, amid the silence of reading, into hearing.2

Although I had always interpreted being deaf or hard-of-hearing in O'Connor's writing as an image for the rhetorical challenge posed by her audience or perhaps for the spiritual challenge faced by her characters, I began to hear the trope differently when my wife and I became the parents of our son Joäo. He was born deaf-or with what the medical community diagnosed as a profound bilateral sensori-neural hearing loss. If Joäo's world were defined by his ears, it would take not a shout but the roar of a jet to be loud enough to reach him. However, Joäo does not allow his receptivity to volume and pitch to determine his identity. He understands himself as being not so much deaf but Deaf. The visual distinction silently emphasizes the difference between having an audiological condition and belonging to a culture that is centered on American Sign Language and characterized by its own set of values and traditions (Padden and Humphries 2-3). Raising Joäo, I soon learned that the deaf have been as marginalized in American society as deafness has been in the study of American literature. …

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