Flannery O'Connor, Simone Weil, Writing, and the Crucifixion

By Desmond, John F. | Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Flannery O'Connor, Simone Weil, Writing, and the Crucifixion


Desmond, John F., Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture


IN AN AGE when the prevailing literary aesthetic seems to emphasize the complete autonomy of the creative writer and the absolute value of self-expression, Flannery O'Connor and Simone Weil stand out as two radicals who believe that Jesus's crucifixion is the center of the writer's vocation and work. Though O'Connor and Weil differed greatly in cultural background, personality, intellect, artistry, and religious beliefs, both believed firmly in the Cross as the defining event of all human experience. The views they shared--and differed over--regarding the Crucifixion help shed light on O'Connor's view of the writer's vocation and on her stories. More broadly, a comparison of O'Connor and Weil shows how these two writers found in the Cross both a personal and an artistic answer to the prevailing nihilism of the age. (1)

Throughout her career, in her essays and letters, Flannery O'Connor had much to say about fiction-writing and the fiction writer. As is well known, she saw her fiction as intrinsically linked to the central mysteries of Christian redemption--the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In her essay "The Fiction Writer and His Country," she stated her belief emphatically: "I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that. I don't think that this is a position that can be taken halfway or one that is particularly easy in these times to make transparent in fiction." (2) Fiction-writing, in her view, is "very much an incarnational art," one that she linked directly to Jesus's redemptive act. "Christ didn't redeem us by a direct intellectual act, but became incarnate in human form, and he speaks to us now through the mediation of a visible Church. All this may seem a long way from the subject of fiction, but it is not, for the main concern of the fiction writer is with mystery as it is incarnated in human form" (Mystery 68, 176). Moreover, she believed that the mystery incarnated in fiction, like the mystery of the Incarnation, is beyond both the writer's and the reader's comprehension. In a letter to Betty Hester, O'Connor stated that "the writer doesn't have to understand, only produce. And what makes him produce is not having the experience but contemplating the experience, and contemplating it don't mean understanding it so much as understanding that he doesn't understand it." (3) Such an experience of mystery is persistently humbling for the writer.

Speaking of the difficulties the Christian writer faces in an age hostile or indifferent to essential Christian belief, O'Connor was fond of quoting Francois Mauriac's advice: "Purify the source" (Mystery 149). In O'Connor's mind and in her work, purity and the process of purification were intimately connected to writing. We ask: what did Mauriac's advice to "purify the source" of writing mean to her? Linking Mauriac's call to "purify the source" of writing to O'Connor's affirmation of the Christian Incarnation and redemption as central to life's meaning and to fiction-writing, we can see that, for her, Christ is the "pure source" of writing. Therefore, to "purify the source" meant that the writer must purify her relationship to the crucified Christ. In other words, such a writer must suffer to produce a true work of art in a way analogous on the human level to the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

For O'Connor, the most terrible single event in human history was the crucifixion of Jesus, when the purely innocent God, Truth incarnate, was murdered on the cross. As a writer she must choose, mutatis mutandis, to follow Jesus in his path of suffering in order to purify the source of her work. This is the terrible cost of writing, part of the cost of faith she found discussed by one of her favorite philosophers, Baron von Hugel. As O'Connor said, "Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. …

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