Southern Orientalism: Flannery O'Connor's Cosmopolis

By Yaeger, Patricia | The Mississippi Quarterly, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Southern Orientalism: Flannery O'Connor's Cosmopolis


Yaeger, Patricia, The Mississippi Quarterly


And therefore I have sailed the seas and come To the holy city of Byzantium.

--W. B. Yeats

IN THIS ESSAY I WANT TO EXPLORE the weird connections among tattoo culture, Cold War imperialism, and Flannery O'Connor's funky love of the Southern vernacular. We will scratch file underbelly of O'Connor's passion for Christianity, a Western religion obsessed with the geography and myths of the Middle East (a way of life that is not only an epistemology in O'Connor's fiction but a formula for exoticism). We will ask whether an author as locally grounded and vernacularly driven as Flannery O'Connor can be described as cosmopolitan. If so, which brand of cosmopolitanism does she espouse? Is her sophisticated Christianity proof that she believes in the West's superiority, in the "higher" values held by Western elites, or can she be co-opted for new brands of cosmopolitanism propounded by theorists of global flows or diasporas who say that every "local" is globally inflected, who see fleeting mixtures of vernacular and multiworld cultures dispersed within any locale?

Within the fleeting locales of America, the multiverse of Christian kitsch has finally caught up with Flannery O'Connor. In all era in which tattoos are as common as tictacs and the Midwest can be hard to discriminate from the South, a local Presbyterian church sports a group of eye-catching posters that reach out to today's multi-pierced teens. One features a close-up of Christ's triple stigmata and decorates the wounds with this slogan: "Body piercing is nothing new to us. A lot of people have pierced body parts. But every single one of us has holes in our heart or soul. Jesus Christ suffered on the cross so you wouldn't have to suffer today." How do you sell Christianity to the cosmopolitan teens who come "after Gen X? Another poster zeroes in on the fad for extreme sports. Underneath the likeness of a careening downhill skier we discover the sportiness of today's Christianity: "You fearlessly push yourself to all kinds of achievements. So why do you find church so formidable? After all, Jesus Christ knows something about extremes himself. And he's waiting to show you some truly awesome things." The final poster in this triptych offers the ultimate in empathic cool: a classic Sunday school portrait of the lonely figure kneeling at Gethsemane, accompanied by this earnest caption: "if you think your parents expect a lot, you're not alone."

These church posters grabbed my attention because they clarify the ways in which postmodern Christianity and Madison Avenue go hand in hand; they also made me think twice about my own high seriousness as I've tried to make sense of the relations among Christianity, "Orientalism," and Xtreme tattooing in "Parker's Back," a story O'Connor finished in the last months of her life. The posters' loopy sales pitch reminds me of O'Connor's wild out-takes on Protestantism--her attempts to take Christianity to extremes and her irreverence for any form of cant or piety. As she writes to Maryat Lee: "That grasshopper you left in the cage ... reminded me so much of the poor colored people in the jails that I let him out and fed him to a duck. I'm sure you'll understand." (1) O'Connor loves to shock. Her frank sadism in the grasshopper story suggests her ultra-conservatism in racial matters, but it also demonstrates the ways in which she refuses to domesticate any religious or political movement that comes her way.

This irreverence is an attitude the youth-group posters cannot muster. Each is a gem of kitsch showmanship; each tames its passionate subject. Xtreme sports aren't so dangerous, these Sunday School placards say, nor is body-piercing cutting edge; after all, Christ tried it first. In contrast, O'Connor's stories spin these body metaphors out of control. While triple-piercing may seem promisingly profane for millennial teenagers, for O'Connor, obsessive tattooing or body-piercing could lead to something more progressive: to mind-boggling, soul-penetrating, theos-bending pain. …

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