"To Hell with It": Flannery O'Connor, the Exorcist, and the Literal/Figurative Tension in Modernity

By Wehner, David Z. | Flannery O'Connor Review, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

"To Hell with It": Flannery O'Connor, the Exorcist, and the Literal/Figurative Tension in Modernity


Wehner, David Z., Flannery O'Connor Review


On the one hand, we have Flannery O'Connor, whom Bret Lott in a recent article called "the de facto patron saint of creative writing" (44). She stands as the second twentieth-century writer, after William Faulkner, to have her work collected in The Library of America-a distinction Frederick Crews describes as "the closest thing to a formal canonization that our dispersed and eclectic culture can now bestow" (3). Nevertheless, despite her current status as patron saint and the canonization of her collected writings, Flannery O'Connor made only a modest living as a writer in the 1950s and 1960s, and she never won a Nobel or a Pulitzer.

On the other hand, we have William Peter Blatty. In the 1970s, his novel The Exorcist and his subsequent screenplay for the 1973 film version made him a millionaire. Although the novel has now become ubiquitous in used-book stores' bargain bins selling for seventy-five cents, it spent fifty-seven consecutive weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, seventeen weeks at number one. At the release of the film, Jon Landau of Rolling Stone described it as "nothing more than a religious porn film" (64), but with Blatty's screenplay it received ten Academy Award nominations, winning for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound, and it garnered seven Golden Globe nominations, winning Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Drama, and Best Supporting Actress. In 2011, one internet site noted that it had become the ninth-highest-grossing movie of all time, with an adjusted gross of $885,665,000 (Box Office).

If one sets aside these obvious differences, however, one finds a telling relationship between these two American Catholic writers-one epitomizing literary high culture, the other literary pop culture. Both published in a compact time frame, 1950-75, and both were born within years of each other, O'Connor in 1925, Blatty in 1928. Both writers insisted on the literalness of certain elements in Christianity-God, the Resurrection, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the devil-as a bulwark against what they saw as an encroaching secular and scientific culture, a culture in sync with the secularization theory of their day. They insisted on this literalness as a means of fighting what they saw as the emptying of religious faith. Each writer produced works-notably The Violent Bear It Away and The Exorcist-in which characters battle Satan within this secular milieu, and this milieu manifests itself in their work, in part, with a concern over the rising prevalence of psychology. Finally, both O'Connor and Blatty were, to use O'Connor's words, "much taken" with the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (14 Sept. 1961, HB 449). Though they had significant differences with Teilhard, they looked to him as representing a possible reconciliation between Christianity and secular American culture.1

Most obviously, both O'Connor and Blatty insisted upon the literal presence of the devil. In her extensive correspondence with John Hawkes, O'Connor wrote, "[T]here is a difference in our two devils. My Devil has a name, a history and a definite plan. His name is Lucifer, he's a fallen angel, his sin is pride, and his aim is the destruction of the Divine plan. . . . My Devil is objective and yours is subjective" (28 Nov. 1961, HB 456). Despite her differences with Hawkes, O'Connor believed that she and he wrote for an audience that did not believe in "the reality of a personal devil" (31 Oct. 1959, HB 357). In Mystery and Manners, she echoes this emphasis on the actual presence of the devil as "a real spirit": "To insure our sense of mystery, we need a sense of evil which sees the devil as a real spirit who must be made to name himself, and not simply to name himself as vague evil, but to name himself with his specific personality for every occasion" (117). Henry T. Edmondson emphasizes and elaborates on O'Connor's belief in the devil: "O'Connor insists that a recovery of good and evil is impossible without belief in the Devil-not as an abstract metaphor, but as a person sophisticated enough to alter his strategy and appearance to fit the circumstance" (172). …

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