Flannery O'Connor's Witness to the Gospel of Life
Wood, Ralph C., Modern Age
MORE THAN FORTY WORKS have been devoted to Flannery O'Connor's life and art--I myself having recently contributed to this latest weariness in the making of many books on O'Connor. Yet we have not yet begun to fathom the depth of her literary and theological witness. Which is to say: we have not yet comprehended the real power of her art. O'Connor did not write chiefly to entertain and to edify, the two aims of fiction famously set forth by Samuel Johnson. Art was not, for her, a pleasingly imaginative way to re-enforce existing societial norms and mores. Nor was she a modernist devoted to the making of autotelic works of art that have no ideological or doctrinal referents. Though much influenced by the New Critics of the 1950s, O'Connor did not believe that a novel or short story could stand like Keats's well-wrought urn, a wondrously self-referential whole, dwelling completely unto itself, in splendid isolation from historical, social, and personal implication.
Far from being a reactionary writer, O'Connor was a post-modernist avant la lettre. Well in advance of her time, she knew that we are free at last, and blessedly so, of the Englightenment chimera called "time-less and placeless truth," as if we could view the world sub specie aeternitatis--standing above time and space like Greek deities, determining the truth autonomously for ourselves and thus controlling it for our own (usually selfish) purposes. Truth is indeed universal because every single truth is related to all others, but we do not determine truth, much less control it, for our individual selves. We know and speak and write the Truth only as we are sustained by convictional communities and shared narratives. Not for O'Connor, therefore, the fantasy of authorial neutrality, as if the artist could pare her fingernails while letting her work takes its own inexorable course.
Quite to the contrary, O'Connor took her place at the post-modernist table of confessedly self-interested art. Like Emily Dickinson, she told the truth whole but also "slant"--i.e., she wrote from an unapologetic bias of vision. "If I were not a Catholic," she declared, "I would have no reason to write, no reason to see, no reason ever to feel horrified by anything or to enjoy anything." O'Connor the post-modern visionary wanted not chiefly to entertain and to edify but to convert her readers. Writing to a post-Christian age, she knew that her fiction would have to embody the Gospel's own skandalon, its unremitting offense to all who have ears to hear and eyes to see, but whose deafness requires the raised voice and whose blindness demands large and startling figures. Accordingly, she did not work by gentle persuasion but by grotesque shock and alarm. Like all of our great writers--like Sophocles and Dante, like Chaucer and Milton, like Donne and Bunyan and Dostoevsky--O'Connor sought to alter our vision and thus to transform our lives. By employing literary means that would not violate the integrity of her art, she wanted to reorder our loves to the love of God--or at least to enable our recognition of their terrible disorder.
To put O'Connor in the venerable company of Sophocles, as Thomas Merton did at her death, is to say that she is not only a post-modernist but also a classical writer. Our now-aging enfant terrible of literary incorrectness, the boisterous Harold Bloom, defines a classic as a text that makes us permanently rearrange the furniture of our lives. Classic texts possess what Bloom calls "an arresting strangeness," a de familiarizing of the ordinary so as to open up radical new horrors and wondrous new possibilities that we have thus far managed to avoid. A time-transcending text puts a timely grip on our ethical and religious existence. To read Dante, for instance, is to encounter something far more threatening and infinitely more promising than the discernment of the brilliant imaginative symmetry of his punishments and purgations and paradisal delights; it is also to be confronted with a demand for radical transformation. …