Flannery O'Connor: "A Late Encounter" with Poststructuralism
Knauer, David J., The Mississippi Quarterly
The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.(1)
Frederick Crews, in his essay "The Power of Flannery O'Connor," argues for the ineluctable resistance of O'Connor's fiction to various critical depredations. Crews chastises both the disingenuous attempts of poststructural critics to salvage an embarrassingly pious O'Connor by remaking her in their own ideological image, and explicitly Christian humanist critics who ignore or ritually purify O'Connor's patent violence and grotesquery in order to redeem her as a true believer. He also discards O'Connor's own intentionalist drive to limit the interpretation of her work within strict theological boundaries, claiming that O'Connor, like many authors, was a better writer than a reader of her work. After demonstrating the insufficiency of these three interpretive resources, Crews values in O'Connor the radical "indeterminacy" of her fiction, the "mixture of faith and cool professionalism" that allowed her to draw on religious themes while indulging thoroughly her consummate "gift for demolition."(2) Yet for Crews these qualities remain ambiguous, as he defers to O'Connor's "electrifying power" that leaves critics "still grasping at formulas that might explain, or even explain away." Instead, we are told, her works must be judged "on their chosen ground" (p. 55).
In particular, it is Crews's contention that O'Connor remains "intractable as ever to a postmodern, poststructuralist makeover" that I want to challenge. Crews disparages poststructural work on O'Connor as "critical tampering" (p. 50), without defining tamper-proof criticism, and decries "the recent revival of forthrightly ideological habits of reading" (p. 49), without defining ideology-free habits of reading, and implying that less forthright habits might be preferable. His reinvestment of O'Connor's fiction with an unchanging and unassailable "power" effectively denies any reader's power over her text. While Crews superficially values the indeterminacy of O'Connor's work, his essay perhaps better demonstrates the indeterminacy of our own work with O'Connor. The O'Connor passage quoted as epigraph above describes the writer's task as the conscious positioning of oneself within history and locale to discover and, presumably, to narrate their timelessly signifying intersection. Before we, along with Crews, dismiss O'Connor's appeal to "eternity" as quaintly incompatible with poststructuralism, we might examine some of poststructuralism's own eternizing implications. Crews does not consider that the goals of poststructural criticism may not be to dispel O'Connor's difficulties, since poststructuralism regularly disavows master-narratives that "explain away." By recognizing that its work is always incomplete, poststructuralism attends "power" and "eternity" through equally durable notions of lack and deferment. Poststructural criticism is in fact particularly well-suited to the writerly task that O'Connor has described and to the vague "power" that Crews holds apart.
The following three sections locate O'Connor's "peculiar crossroads" at the Civil War in "A Late Encounter with the Enemy" through the post-structural modes of cultural materialism, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and deconstruction. While endemic to the vocation of many Southern fiction writers, wrestling with the cultural inheritance of the Civil War is a decidedly alienating experience in "A Late Encounter with the Enemy." O'Connor remarked on the problematic confluence of familiarity and disconnection, "To know oneself is to know one's region. It is also to know the world, and it is, paradoxically, a form of exile from that world."(3) As the romance, the dignity, indeed the knowability of the Civil War period are inscribed within the character George Poker Sash, they seem to retreat entirely from possession and understanding. Despite all attempts to contain, control, or commodify it, Southern history in O'Connor's story remains uncooperative, inscrutable, and unforgiving. …