The Anagogical Imagination of Flannery O'Connor

By Candler, Peter M., Jr. | Christianity and Literature, Autumn 2010 | Go to article overview

The Anagogical Imagination of Flannery O'Connor


Candler, Peter M., Jr., Christianity and Literature


Abstract: This essay explores O'Connor's sense of the art of fiction as an art of anagogical vision, which sees all things as instances of participation in God. Such created things are, then, when read or "seen" properly, fragmentary disclosures of the divine glory. To O'Connor, the logic of anagogy implies that the visible realities of this world only take on a fullness of meaning--indeed, they only become truly visible--when seen in the paradoxical light of the unseen. The anagogical sense--the final of the four senses of scripture according to Christian tradition--refers to a text's figurative signification in relation to eternal glory or eschatological reality. This anagogical sensibility is often represented in O'Connor's work by the recurring image of the sun at the close of many of her stories. Therefore O'Connor's "anagogical imagination," operative in so much of her work, is intended to lead one through the contemplation of future glory to the reimagination of temporal existence in light of the Incarnation, and to enable one to see such existence as imbued with the grace of divine creation and ordered towards its consummation. That is to say, when seen in the light of the yet-to-be-fully-disclosed divine glory, the world--including most especially humanity--becomes more truly visible for what it is.

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The story has by now almost the status of legend: Flannery O'Connor was in New York visiting with friends and a couple of what she called "Big Intellectuals" when

toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the "most portable" member of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, "Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it." That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable. (Habit of Being 124-25)

It is O'Connor's sense of the story, the art of fiction, as an art of anagogical vision that I aim to explore in this essay. I will proceed in two stages: first by reading O'Connor's own account, as put forth in her letters and essays, of fiction as an art of anagogical vision that sees all things as instances of participation in God which, read properly, are fragmentary disclosures of the divine glory; and second by a reading of the role of vision and visibility in several of her stories. I suggest that for O'Connor the logic of anagogy implies that the visible realities of this world only take on a fullness of meaning--indeed, they only become truly visible--when seen in the paradoxical light of the unseen.

The anagogical sense--the final of the four senses of scripture according to Christian tradition--refers to a text's figurative signification in relation to eternal glory or eschatological reality. "In its most general and abstract conception" writes Henri de Lubac, "the anagogical sense is that which leads the thought of the exegete 'upwards'" (Medieval Exegesis 2: 180). (1) According to the patristic and medieval traditions of interpretation, the anagogical sense is that "through which speech is borne over to the invisible things to come." (2) This anagogical sensibility is often represented in O'Connor's work by the recurring image of the sun at the close of many of her stories. Therefore O'Connor's "anagogical imagination" operative in so much of her work, is not intended to remove the individual from this world so as to make him "so heavenly minded" that he is "no earthly good" (Cash). On the contrary, the anagogical sense leads one through the contemplation of future glory to the reimagination of temporal existence in light of the Incarnation, as imbued with the grace of divine creation and ordered towards its consummation. …

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