Posts Tagged ‘Flannery O’Connor’

The Moral Imagination

The use of an adjective like moral to modify imagination, suggests that the opposite construct, an immoral imagination, exists. Plenty authors, of course, have written about immoral behavior; yet even in depiction of horrific acts, an author is reflecting on man as the moral animal. Implicit is the assumption that a moral standard exists to which fictional characters conform to or deviate from to a lesser or greater extent. The very exercise of the imagination is a moral act; for what does it entail to imagine–to imagine anything at all?

The noun from which the verb derives is image–a picture in the creator’s mind, a vision of something or someone other than himself. The effort to enter into the consciousness of another individual, to try to walk in his shoes, and to inhabit his body involves a psychic and spiritual union with a fictional character that is a moral act–the very essence of morality.  Imagination of the other–the not-self–has a spiritual dimension.  Differences dissolve when we imagine another human being as prone to the same vices and virtues as we are. We start to see men and women of other races, nationalities, or circumstances as sharing the same interests. In this regard writing fiction, indeed the pursuit of any art form, is a moral act. Art is vivifying and ennobling, both for the artist and the audience, because vision broadens beyond the myopic self.

Art, then, is close to, or borders on, the religious experience, which artists have been known to regard as a religious calling, such as that of a priest, putting imagination in the service of revealing moral truths. Justly, then, the words moral and imagination inextricably are a bound pair, practically the two words in conjunction are a redundancy; similarly the term immoral imagination is an oxymoron.  A moral vision entails a search for values. In the process particular types of human conduct are either viewed as desirable or undesirable, producing either peace or conflict. Without the ability to imagine, the task cannot be attempted. The individual remains in a circumscribed shell, a prisoner of his own ego, and fearful of anyone who does not look like or behave like him.

This quote from A Course in Miracles describes how exercise of the moral imagination defines the spiritual path: “When you meet anyone, remember it is a holy encounter. As you see him, you will see yourself. As you treat him you treat yourself. As you think of him you will think of yourself.” It sounds a lot like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In every encounter with his characters, a writer is seeing himself, treating that character as he would himself, and thinking of that character as himself. Otherwise the character does not come alive on the page, nor can that character come alive to the reader who partakes of that moral imagination. With good reason a voracious reader expands his moral imagination too.

In this poem, I see Flannery O’Connor as a writer who exemplifies the moral imagination at work:       

           Intelligently Holy

Flannery O’Connor in her journal writes

            I want to be intelligently holy

As if intelligence and holiness comprise

            an oxymoron in her mind.

The mindlessness of holiness does exist,

            for the mystic adept in practice

Of emptying makes room for entry in

            of the Holy of Holies who bathes in

Light—enlightens, sanctifies, and delights.

To offer one’s work, one’s art, one’s pain

            in God’s praise is very Catholic,

Which she is before ever she writes a line,

            praying to create catholic stories—

Catholic in the Latin sense that they’ll hold

            universal truths of the human soul,

Being at its core, religious fiction—the kind

            that redeems, the kind that makes holy

Even the Misfit gunning down a grandmother.


Hillbilly Catholic: Flannery O’Connor

O'Connor Self-Portrait


Flannery O’Connor was an oddball–a Catholic living in the Bible Belt, so it is no wonder her stories revolve around eccentrics, misfits, and a slew of bizarre characters usually typified as the grotesque in Southern literature. She had that sympathetic vision of their plight, for she was a displaced person in that culture not only because of her religion but also because she suffered from a disability. Thus in “Good Country People” she writes of the one-legged, college-educated girl Hulga, who gave herself that ugly name on purpose, living alone with her mother,” or  the retardedgirl married off to the itinerant carpenter in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” O’Connor observed the onion in the petunia patch and loved it even though it did not look or smell as lovely as a flower. Reading her fiction, I wondered how her Catholic sensibilities could coexist with the Bible-thumping, literalness of the Southern Baptist Church. You can’t be a Catholic and not love metaphor and symbol–the staples of O’Connor’s vision.

In her essays and letters she explains that she wrote about Protestants from a Catholic perspective. Her fiction is laden with Catholic iconography and Biblical allusions to affirm that even the dim-witted, the halt, the lame, the most malicious and despicable, are not impervious to revelation or divine grace. According to the Catholic catechism from which she would have been taught, “God made man to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.”  Even the deformed and the violent serve that purpose in some fashion. The freak in the carnival in her story “The Temple of the Holy Ghost” tells the sideshow crowd, “God made me thisaway and if you laugh He may strike you the same way. This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain’t disputing His way.” In another place in her letters, she says that the South is “Christ-haunted” while acknowledging that quality also in herself. She actually called herself a “hillbilly Thomist,” but I prefer to term her a hillbilly Catholic. Her letters are often hilarious. Sometimes she directs the humor at herself, adopting the rural idiom that she knew so well to pose as a country bumpkin.

She perceived that religious fervor borders on violence and is capable of overflowing into overt violence–an idea she explores in her novel The Violent Bear It Away–the title taken from Matthew 11:12. This is a world of fundamentalism, of religious fanatics and charlatans, which she also informs her first novel Wise Blood. While poking fun at the absurdities of her characters, she at the same time validates their search for God with her particular Catholic mystical vision that a soul must descend into the depths of darkness–the Dark Night of the Soul–in order to receive a spiritual rebirth. This is not the same as the one time Protestant declaration of accepting Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior, but is a long journey into night. Consequently the motifs of light and blindness play prominently in O’Connor’s imagery.

O'Connor on Front Porch

O’Connor on Front Porch

Catholic characters figure in two of her short stories, both less widely anthologized. In “The Temple of the Holy Ghost” two girls from a convent school dubbed themselves, “Temple One” and “Temple Two,” making fun of the nun’s counsel against boys’ sexual advances.  In one of her most humorous scenes, O’Connor has the two girls matched with two Protestant country boys, aspiring Church of God preachers, who strum church hymns for them. In response the two girls sing the traditional Latin chant “Tanto Ergo” for the boys. This is a very funny story about the immaturity of religion based on dogma and not yet forged in the fiery furnace of suffering and pain. In “The Displaced Person” Southern culture is illuminated when a Polish family from a displaced person’s camp in the post-War World II period come to work on a widow’s farm. They are placed there through the efforts of an elderly Irish Catholic priest. The Guizacs are obviously Catholic. Mr. Guizac is so hard-working that the white farm hands fear the foreigners will displace both them and the black workers. Although the widow claims to have no religion, she ultimately faces a moral dilemma. The priest tells the widow, “Christ was just another D.P.” There is more than one displaced person in the story other than Mr. Guizac.  Here the intricate relations among poor whites, Negroes, white landowners, and foreign newcomers are portrayed with wit and irony, exploding in tragedy at the end. The one person whose place is not disrupted is the old priest. If I had to pick one story of O’Connor’s to anthologize  without consideration of its length, it would be this one.

This hillbilly Catholic’s perspective superbly captured the place she inhabited and by rendering it so well she created a universal vision of mankind’s dilemma wherever they may live. The South inhabited by freaks, eccentrics and fanatics replicates one facet of American culture. No matter how grotesque or dark the picture, there lurks in the background the potential for redemption. No matter what the region of the world a man inhabits, he innately possesses a thirst for spiritual truth. According to O’Connor, even the path of nihilism must lead to God. For the origin of my last statement, read Wise Blood. But any of her stories and novels will make for great discussion because they are so dense and provocative.


Violence in Flannery O’Connor: The Partridge Festival

There are three or four Flannery O’Connor’s short stories that are widely anthologized, and many more of the thirty-one stories she wrote in her short life of thirty-nine years, that should be better known. “The Partridge Festival” is one of them, which I discovered in reading her Complete Works.  No one who reads O’Connor fails to recognize her preoccupation with violence. What makes a person a killer is a theme she returns to over and over again. That concern is also visible in the title she chooses for her second novel The Violent Bear It Away. It is also a theme that has preoccupied me.  More than one American author has delved into the violent streak running through our history, most notably also in the work of Joyce Carol Oates.

The continuation of mass shootings even after the killing of twenty children in December of 2012 make this story particularly meaningful. O’Connor began writing this story in September 1959,  and it was first published in The Critic in 1961, before the Kennedy assassination and the ever-growing list of assassinations and shootings since November 22, 1963. Partridge is a fictional southern town that hosts an annual azalea festival. The event continues as scheduled despite the shooting of six townsmen. The murderer is the town eccentric and loner, a man named Singleton, who goes on the killing spree after he is the victim of a mock punishment, a cruel joke, for not wearing a festival badge.  As the story opens, he is considered insane and confined to the state mental institution for the killings. The whole scenario is one we have heard repeated so many times in the United States. Remarkably, “The Partridge Festival” singles out elements persisting in our culture, which are not just confined to the South, or can be dismissed as merely Southern Gothic writing in operation.

Calhoun, a young man who returns to his hometown ostensibly for the festival and to visit his great aunts, really is in Partridge because he is fascinated with Singleton (O’Connor’s choice of names is never random) with whom he senses a kinship.  Singleton disavows and disdains the pettiness and silliness of the town just like Calhoun does. At the danger of simplifying the complexity of this story, the idea of kinship is key to the understanding and appreciation of the complicity of every character in the murders. Calhoun walks around the town asking people their opinion of Singleton, much like TV reporters do today. O’Connor writes: “He would have liked to start, in Socratic fashion, a street discussion about where the real guilt for the six deaths lay, but as he surveyed the scene, he saw no one who looked capable of any genuine interest in meaning. ” He takes a seat at a drugstore counter and pronounces that, “Partridge is guilty.” The soda fountain boy responds, “Partridge can’t shoot nobody.”  He visits the barbershop to find out how more of the locals feel about the shootings. Every opinion voiced in the barbershop contains its bigoted logic, even as with masterful irony O’Connor exposes Calhoun’s own prejudices.

The story unfolds in a way in which the reader is compelled to ask: How are all the characters, even Calhoun who is the relentless investigator and the killer’s sympathizer,  part of the shootings in Partridge, and how are we, in fact, kin with the killer? Can the answers to these questions be found in our neglect of the mentally ill and a failure to recognize our kinship with the misfit, the disabled, and the dispossessed?  We fail also to recognize that under similar circumstances, we also might go mad, if bullied and badgered enough?

Eerily, Partridge goes on about its business just as we go on about our business after every report of a school shooting.