"A Dialogue between above and Below": Flannery O'Connor, Martin Buber, and "Revelation" after the Holocaust

By Piggford, George | Flannery O'Connor Review, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

"A Dialogue between above and Below": Flannery O'Connor, Martin Buber, and "Revelation" after the Holocaust


Piggford, George, Flannery O'Connor Review


Aber weh! es wandelt in Nacht, es wohnt, wie im Orkus, Ohne Goettliches unser Geschlecht.

But alas! our generation walks in night, dwells as in Hades, without the divine.

-Friedrich Hölderlin (qtd. in Buber, Eclipse 22)

According to a series of letters that she wrote in November 1958, Flannery O'Connor was carefully working through The Eclipse of God (1952) by Martin Buber. This collection of essays notably provides the Jewish philosopher's rejoinder to Friedrich Nietzsche's proclamation in The Gay Science of "[t]he greatest recent event-that 'God is dead'" (Buber, Eclipse 303). For Buber, a fervent believer, God is not dead but is in "eclipse" for Western culture in the twentieth century, and particularly in the context of the horrific events of the Holocaust.1 A marginal lining in her personal copy of The Eclipse of God indicates that O'Connor took particular note of Buber's rejection of Nietzsche's phrase "the 'death' of God" as one of a number of "sensational and incompetent sayings" about religion (Buber 68).2 Instead, Buber calls for a two-fold approach to the experience of mutual non-recognition and silence between God and humanity. Humans in Western culture are urged both "to endure it as it is" and, simultaneously, "to move existentially toward a new happening, toward that event in which the word between heaven and earth will again be heard" (68). The trajectory of such an existential movement is not immediately obvious to Buber's reader, but O'Connor agreed that Nietzschean and similar influences on Western culture by the middle of the twentieth century made an approach of the human to the divine, and vice versa, remarkably difficult. As conscious creations of the Divinity, however, human beings have been tasked with just such an effort, according to both the southern Catholic writer and the Jewish professor of philosophy.

In "Revelation," one of her last stories, O'Connor explores Buber's theme of existential movement toward God through its narrative structure. In that story the protagonist Ruby Turpin turns from I-It relationships-those that objectify others-to those that Buber characterizes as I-Thou, and especially for Ruby a powerful intimation of the "transcendent presence" of what Buber terms the eternal Thou (Buber, Eclipse 30).3 The encounter between the young woman Mary Grace and Ruby in a doctor's waiting room in the American South initiates a process that will allow for prophetic speech, upend Ruby's status quo taxonomies, and prepare Ruby for an experience of theophany at the end of the narrative. This character begins by consistently looking down on others as Its but in her vision learns humbly to "look up" in the direction of the eternal Thou. She thereby illustrates Buber's point that ". . . life is a dialogue between above and below" (Buber, "Dialogue" 216). For a moment, at least, the eclipse of God lifts, and Ruby, thanks to an anagogical and "visionary light" that suffuses the natural world around her, is enabled both to perceive a heavenly revelation and to hear a resounding "hallelujah" between heaven and earth (CS 508-09).4

In the years leading up to her 1963 composition of "Revelation," Flannery O'Connor became familiar with at least two books in addition to The Eclipse of God that included writings by Martin Buber: Buber's Between Man and Man (1947) and an anthology titled Four Existentialist Theologians (1958), which features excerpts from a number of Buber's works. She also read carefully one extended article by Buber's biographer Maurice S. Friedman on Buber and psychotherapy, published in the progressive religious journal Cross Currents in 1955.5 In a 15 Nov. 1958 letter to her spiritual advisor Fr. James McCown particularly about her reading of The Eclipse of God, O'Connor comments colloquially that "These boys have a lot to offer us." The antecedent to "these boys"-a somewhat condescending term-is modern "Jewish theologian [s]," specifically Buber, and the "us" indicates Roman Catholics such as O'Connor and Fr. …

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