On Understanding Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O'Connor

Illustration by Ande Cook

“Sometimes Flannery O ’Connor turns readers away bewildered by her violence and seemingly hostile attitude toward life. Perhaps in her writing she is like the peacock who does not present its glory when the observer wants it, nor, even when it spreads its tail, immediately displays the “best” side. What the viewer has to accept first is the peacock’s rear:

When the peacock has presented his back, the spectator will usually begin to walk around him to get a front view; but the peacock will continue to turn so that no front view is possible. The thing to do then is to stand still and wait until it pleases him to turn. When it suits him, the peacock will face you. Then you will see in a green-bronze arch around him a galaxy of gazing, haloed suns. (Flannery O’Connor: Mystery and Manners (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), pp. 9-10).

To seek out and demand the beautiful directly (or the happy or the edifying) does not bring results from Flannery O ’Connor either. Like the peacock she continues to present her awkward characters in their funda­mental weakness and need of salvation.” (Entire excerpt is from Flannery O’Connor and the Peacock by David R. Mayer)

Explanatory “footnote” from Manifest Propensity: This post aims to merely present a few hints for understanding Flannery O’Connor, for those interested, through the beautiful artwork of Ande Cook and the excerpt from an essay by David R. Mayer. An understanding of her life and mysterious writings are well worth pursuing and these two sources I’ve shared in this post seem to quite ably set one on the right course for that pursuit.

BMC @ Manifest propensity, 2016.

Questions & comments are always welcomed. Thanks for reading. (Now go read Flannery!)

 

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Some thoughts on our “natural” human reaction to God’s grace (from Flannery O’Connor, Dean Koontz, Mary Doria Russell, and Jesus of Nazareth)

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“All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”

– Flannery O’Connor

An excerpt from “A Catholic Thinker” blog article “The Mean Grace of Flannery O’Connor“:

“I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God.”

“This notion that grace is healing omits the fact that before it heals, it cuts with the sword Christ said He came to bring.”

“[The trendy “beat” writers] call themselves holy but holiness costs and so far as I can see they pay nothing. It’s true that grace is the free gift of God but in order to put yourself in the way of being receptive to it you have to practice self-denial.”

And when explaining (what I considered incomprehensible) “A Good Man is Hard to Find” to a friend,

“There is a moment of grace in most of the stories, or a moment where it is offered, and usually rejected. Like when the Grandmother recognizes the Misfit as one of her children (a child of God) and reaches out to touch him. It’s the moment of grace for her anyway – a silly old woman – but it leads him to shoot her. This moment of grace excites the devil to frenzy.”

Excerpt from “Odd Thomas” by Dean Koontz:

Most people desperately desire to believe that they are part of a great mystery, that Creation is a work of grace and glory, not merely the result of random forces colliding. Yet each time that they are given but one reason to doubt, a worm in the apple of the heart makes them turn away from a thousand proofs of the miraculous, whereupon they have a drunkard’s thirst for cynicism, and they feed upon despair as a starving man upon a loaf of bread. (page 142)

Excerpt from “The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell:

God was at Sinai and within weeks, people were dancing in front of a golden calf. God walked in jerusalem and days later, folks nailed Him up and then went back to work. Faced with the Divine, people took refuge in the banal, as though answering a cosmic multiple-choice question: If you saw a burning bush, would you (a) call 911, (b) get the hot dogs, or (c) recognize God (Quoted in “Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places” by Eugene Peterson; page 177)

Excerpt from Mark 6:6 King James Version:

“And he marvelled because of their unbelief.” Jesus of Nazareth

(Whereas we marvel at belief.)

BMC @ Manifest Propensity, 2014

“No Cars Go” by Arcade Fire and the human desire for some other “place”

In “No Cars Go” Win Butler & Arcade Fire express a desire for a place where “no cars go.” The song doesn’t say why such a place is desired. Maybe it is a self-evident truth for our time. What does seem evident is that the desire touches upon “spiritual” or “summum bonum” issues. In a few previous posts I have presented other thoughts related to the automobile and such issues based on some things the fiction writer Flannery O’Connor has written. Ralph Wood relates how O’Connor explored the issue through her character Hazel Motes:

(Hazel Motes’s) broken-down car serves as the single sacrament of his nihilistic religion, the true viaticum for escaping everything that would lay claim on him. O’Connor was an early discerner, together with Walker Percy, that the automobile, even more than the movies and television, is the great American Dream Machine. It fulfills our fantasies of individualist autonomy, enabling us to strike out for the proverbial territories whenever the limits of social existence press in upon us. As Motes’s only sacred space, the car serves as both pulpit and residence, enabling him to incarnate his message in a life of perpetual isolation and vagabondage. (Comment on the novel “Wise Blood” by Flannery O’Connor in Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South by Ralph C. Wood, p. 169 )

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Hazel Motes preaching from his pulpit

Flannery O’Connor wrote of the car as the vehicle that seemingly enables self-justification for nihilistic consumerist escape from our modern materialistic world, but which falls short of the desired escape.

Fittingly, Arcade Fire sing of the car, along with other vehicles of transportation, as only capable of movement within this world of seeming nihilism. The world does not seem to contain any place beyond our limited modes of transportation and their nihilistic presence. Their reference to “spaceships” seems to expand the realm of possible nihilism, just as the Soviet cosmonauts in the sixties reported that they did not “find God” in outer space.

So it seems that Arcade Fire sings of a “place” beyond the normal realm. Are they speaking of “heaven?” They sing of knowing about this place.

“…where we know”.

Is this “spiritual” knowledge?

A place we know of in which no cars go! They seem to be bearers of good news! But, they don’t say how they know, or where exactly this place is?

“…don’t know where we’re going”

Interestingly, they don’t know where it is, but they seem to know when it is, or perhaps when it occurs. It occurs in the time

“….between the click of the light and the start of the dream”?

What does their “answer” mean? Is it merely the time of deep sleep, before dreaming, when there seems to be nothing? In the final analysis, are they still subject to nihilism?

Or is this space in time of waking, yet in the dark, when making love can seem to exclude all other reality? Bruce Cockburn sang of this space in time in his song “The Coldest Night of the Year.”

When two lovers really love there’s nothing there
But this suddenly compact universe
Skin and breath and hair

I don’t believe that “making love” or human relationships are a small thing, but are they the answer to nihilism? Many seem to live as such, as expressed in “A Farewell to Arms” by Hemingway:

You’re my religion. You’re all I’ve got.”

So does Arcade Fire believe there is a real place that “No Cars Go?” It is hard to say anything definitive, based on this song alone. But can their longing for such a place mean anything in itself? Theologians like C.S. Lewis thought so, and developed an apologetical “argument from desire” for theism as opposed to nihilism.

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity; book 3, chapter 10.)

Hemingway also wrote in “A Farewell to Arms” that “all thinking men are atheists.” But Pascal the religious thinker thought otherwise.

I conclude this song merely by noting that this early Arcade Fire song is a good one, and perhaps it is even somewhat Pascalian. Could the “click of the light” indicate the limitation of human reason, while the “start of the dream” indicates openness to the “reasons of the heart” that Pascal discovered? The more I think about the lyrics, with the call in the song to “little babies, women and children, old folks,” I am led to think that the interpretations explored above fall short of the sheer drive of the song toward an exodus type movement to another type of place. The use of “dream” may throw us off as indicating unreality, but even the Biblical prophets spoke of the coming of God’s new kingdom in relation to visions of young men and dreams of old men.

Joel 2:28-29
New International Version (NIV)
The Day of the Lord

28 “And afterward,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
29 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.

(See Acts 2:16-18)

Perhaps “between the click of the light and the start of the dream” does not refer to the time in which this other place occurs, but to the revelational method by which one knows about the place, i.e. the Pascalian method of knowledge.

Below is a video someone put together for Bruce Cockburn’s song referenced above. By the way, Bruce Cockburn believes in the reasons of the heart and the movement of the Holy Spirit, and does not make relationships his religion.

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2014. Excerpts, links, and reblogging may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Flannery O’Connor – “She would of been a good woman…”

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“She would of been a good woman,” said The Misfit, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
― Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find

“Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.”
― Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose

Link to the PBS episode on Flannery O’Connor

Introducing “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” by Flannery O’Connor (with Sufjan Stevens)

 

good man

The purpose of this post is simply to provoke curiosity for Flannery O’Connor and her fictional work, as epitomized in her short story “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.”

The song by Sufjan Stevens is loosely based on the story and seems be a telling of the story through the character called “the misfit,” who is an escaped serial killer.

Ralph C. Wood says of O’Connor, “she observed that while lots of folks get killed in her work, nobody gets hurt.” (Flannery O’Connor and the Christ Haunted South, Ralph C. Wood; p. 39)

“It seems to me,” Flannery O’Connor declared, “that all good stories are about conversion, about a character’s changing.” Whether secular or religious in their origins and intentions, novels and stories having lasting merit always depict characters faced with moral challenges and spiritual quandaries that demand their transformation. Whether these tests are met for good or ill, the characters are changed: they are converted. The New Testament word for conversion – metanoia – literally means to alter one’s mind, to revolutionize the entire course of one’s life, to turn around, to travel in the opposite direction. In most of O’Connor’s stories the central character undergoes a painful confrontation with their own pride and presumption, behold themselves in the blinding light of divine grace and, if only at the last moment of their lives, come to radical conversion. Neither in her novels nor her stories does she take her protagonists beyond their sudden and drastic conversion; we are rarely shown the consequences of this total turnabout in their lives.”  (Wood; p. 217)

Once in the backyard
She was once like me
She was once like me
Twice when I killed them
They were once at peace
They were once like me

Hold to your gun, man
And put off all your beast
Put off all the beast
Paid a full of these, I wait for it
But someone’s once like me
She was once like me

I once was better
I put off all my grief
I put off all my grief
So I go to hell, I wait for it
But someone’s left me creased
Someone’s left me creased

Ralph C. Wood on reading Flannery O’Connor

Online version of “A Good Man is Hard To Find”

Wikipedia article (which contains a link for an audio reading of the story by Flannery O’Connor)

A live version of Sufjan and a big band doing “A Good Man…”  on Austin City Limits:

Comments are always welcome!

BMC @ Manifest Propensity, 2013

Flannery O’Connor’s “Onnie Jay Holy” and her critique of “Hucksterism” (American “Consumer-Christianity”)

Onnie Jay Holy

In Flannery O’Connor’s novel “Wise Blood,” Preacher Onnie Jay Holy sees Hazel Motes engaged in his atheistic “preaching” and seeking to squeeze some financial gain from what could be a ripe situation starts preaching that Hazel is the prophet of the new “Holy Church of Christ without Christ.” Of course Hazel is quite disturbed at this seemingly friendly “hostile takeover.”

The cultural criticism of O’Connor exhibits her genius here, as the Rev. Holy without reservation greedily uses the atheistic “preaching” of Hazel Motes by only slightly modifying the name of the “church” by adding a few words that are ironically self-defeating: Hazel Motes “Church Without Christ” becomes Rev. Holy’s “Holy Church of Christ Without Christ.” It is also genius that the first name is also Onnie Jay’s name, “Holy” and that this “church of Christ” is “without Christ” but that contradiction doesn’t matter. Also, it is ironic that the atheist Hazel motes is the only one with enough sense to detect the logical fallacies of Onnie Jay Holy’s revisionist “Christianity.” All of these points reveal that the “huckster” Onnie Jay Holy cares nothing for truth, preaches sheer nonsense, and is only in it for the almighty dollar.

Onnie Jay Holy preached a classic three-point sermon for his “church.” In each point Flannery O’Connor’s critiques a different aspect of degenerated American “Christianity.” Onnie Jay Holy’s first point is that his religion is fully American, “nothing foreign.”  :

“Now I just want to give you folks a few reasons why you can trust this church,” he said. “In the first place, friends, you can rely on it that it’s nothing foreign connected with it. You don’t have to believe nothing you don’t understand and approve of. If you don’t understand it, it ain’t true, and that’s all there is to it. No jokers in the deck, friends.”

In degenerated American Christianity, everything is “domesticated,” made easy for consumption.  Nothing is “foreign” that would be offensive to our human sensibility, and there are no surprises from hidden “jokers in the deck” that could disturb our “understanding” of God and his ways.

The second  point of Rev. Holy is that it is based in our own “personal interpitation.” Everything in his religion is based on, congenial to, and able to be conformed to each individual’s desires.

“Now, friends,” Onnie Jay said, “I want to tell you a second reason why you can absolutely trust this church – it’s based on the Bible. Yes sir! It’s based on your own personal interpitation of the Bible friends. You can sit at home and interpit your own Bible however you feel in your heart it ought to be interpited. That’s right,” he said, “just the way Jesus would have done it. Gee, I wisht I had my gittarr here,” he complained.

Another stroke of genius is O’Connor’s inclusion of Rev. Holy’s statement concerning his “gittarr,” showing the use of marketing and packaging for the success of his new “church.” Flannery O’Connor certainly understood how a consumeristic model provided a success formula for the creation of the “mega-church” in America, and she perceived this in the 1950’s!

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The third point of the sermon is that the “Church” was contemporary.

“That ought to be enough reasons, friends,” Onnie Jay Holy said, “but I’m going to tell you one more just to show you I can. This church is up-to-date! When your in this church you can know that there’s nothing or nobody ahead of you, nobody knows nothing you don’t know, all the cards are on the table, friends, and that’s a fack!”

C.S. Lewis though that most modern people suffer from what he called “chronological snobbery,” which is mainly based on the modern myth of inevitable progress. Anything thought to contain “tradition” is automatically suspect, to such intelligent and “progressive” moderns. Again O’Connor’s genius uses an irony in this belief, namely that “there’s nothing or nobody ahead of you.”  She reveals another self-defeater since if there is “nothing or nobody ahead” there can be no real progress. A “contemporary” church designed on the precept of “chronological snobbery” is always destined to ultimate irrelevance and practical nihilism.

Flannery O’Connor was certainly critiquing what in her day was called religious “hucksterism.” But she was also critiquing the modernism in liberal Christianity and the degenerated cultural Christianity that was developing. She saw liberal Christianity as mainly compromised by modern myths and therefore without defense against the individualistic consumer Christianity that was developing within America’s secularistic liberal capitalistic democracy.

Following is an excerpt from the 1979 movie version of Wise Blood by John Huston.

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2014. Excerpts, links, and reblogging may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Bob Dylan’s “deconstruction” of the “American Dream Machine”

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It seems appropriate to close out the “old” year with some deconstruction! After all, out with the old and in with the new, right? So what kind of “deconstruction” do I have in mind? Continue reading