Pulverizing the Idols: Flannery O'Connor's Battle with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung

By Wehner, David Z. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Pulverizing the Idols: Flannery O'Connor's Battle with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung


Wehner, David Z., The Mississippi Quarterly


Curtis: "My wife and I are going to counseling." Briscoe: "Yeah, sometimes a shrink can help." Curtis (somewhat irritated): "We're seeing a priest." Briscoe (in his usual blase manner): "Whatever works."

--Law and Order

IF TWO PEOPLE FLAUNT FLANNERY O'CONNOR'S LETTERS AND LECTURES IN a negative way, they are Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. References to Freud and Jung and psychoanalysis and psychotherapy continually punctuate her letters, from an undated one in 1950 which jokingly has one of her characters, Enoch Emery, push his analyst out a window because he "was so mad that anyone should defame his daddy," to one ten years later scolding William Sessions for the "ridiculous results" of his "Freudian technique" (Habit21,407). In her library at the time of her death, O'Connor had copies of The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud (1937), Jung's Modern Man in Search of a Soul (1933) and The Undiscovered Self (1957), and three different books with introductions by Jung. Tellingly, she underlined extensively in Jung's Modern Man, much more than she did in Freud's Basic Writings (see Kinney). Her thoughts on Freud remain relatively consistent throughout her letters. In 1955, O'Connor wrote to Betty Hester, "As to Sigmund, I am against him tooth and toenail" (Habit 110), and she did not stray far from that opinion. Her thoughts on Jung, however, prove more ambivalent, especially as they relate to Freud. In April 1956, she wrote again to Hester, "I think Jung is probably just as dangerous as Freud" (Habit 152). Three years later, in December 1959, she claimed, "Jung has something to offer religion but is at the same time very dangerous for it," and three years after that, in a September 1962 letter, her thoughts on Jung reached their trajectory: "To religion I think he [Freud] is much less dangerous than Jung" (Habit362, 491). In between these last two letters, on 16 March 1960, after O'Connor had finished The Undiscovered Self, she wrote Ted Spivey, "I admire him [Jung]" (Habit382). O'Connor saw Freud as dangerous for religion for many reasons: one, Freud stood as a great critic of religion, O'Connor a great champion; two, Freud embodied what O'Connor saw as the secular mindset of her times; and, three, O'Connor worried that Americans took up psychoanalysis as a substitute for religion. O'Connor saw Jung as more dangerous than Freud because, whereas Freud at least tried to demarcate a clear line between science and religion, Jung enthusiastically erased such a line, believing that psychoanalysis could complement a religion that no longer addressed modernity's psychic needs. We can then take O'Connor's concerns with Freud and Jung and use them to illuminate one of her most-studied stories, "Good Country People" (1955). The story's main characters, Hulga Hopewell and Manley Pointer, mimic the theological positions promoted by Freud and Jung, positions O'Connor rejected while acknowledging their seductive power. This short story reads as O'Connor's calling, like the biblical prophets she continually invokes, her people back from worshiping false idols, calling her culture back from thinkers like Freud and Jung. (1)

Part of O'Connor's reaction to Freud and Jung corresponds to her reaction to what she saw as the secularism of her times. Her lectures and letters make clear that she envisioned herself as writing in a secular culture. In an August 1955 letter, O'Connor declared, "My audience are the people who think God is dead" (Habit92) and eight years later in an interview, she alleged, "the man of our times is certainly not a believer" (Conversations 104). In her biography of O'Connor, Jean Cash describes the writer's secondary education as restrictive and parochial, her college education as progressive and secular (76). This progressive, secular bent continued when she went to the Iowa Writers' Workshop and, in 1948, to Yaddo, the artists' community in Saratoga Springs, New York. At Yaddo, the restrictive and parochial crashed into the progressive and secular. …

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