I’m reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil while I’m here in Savannah. I’m only a couple of chapters in.

Having just visited Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home, Midnight etc. seems a good title for all of O’Connor’s work.

I’ve taught her short stories for a couple of decades, and you know what? They don’t grow on you.

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It’s not that I’ve stopped admiring the artist. No one saw better than O’Connor what a short story was, and what it could do. She powerfully influenced Don DeLillo and many others.

Her prose is stately and muscular and she can do it all: Irony…

But irony doesn’t really say it. What she’s got is a stealthy point of view, slinking among pity, amusement, disgust, horror, and indifference.

She foreshadows her outcomes elegantly, but her images amass a symbolic force that can only be called appalling.

She writes hilarious, spot-on, dialogue, but the spot she’s on about is so stupid as to be fundamentally mute.

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Above all, there’s no denying the consistency and depth of O’Connor’s denunciation of humanity.

Flannery O’Connor seems unable to forgive us for remaining elusive in regard to our own suffering and in regard to what O’Connor takes to be our salvation. Unlike the much kinder James Merrill, who writes in his poem “Santorini” that most of us cultivate “an oblivion that knows its own limits,” O’Connor believes we’re blind fools blundering through existence in the baddest of bad faith. Bestially dumb to human and spiritual realities, we receive our inevitable epiphanies as cartoonish hammer blows to the head.

Here is Flannery O’Connor on the subject of Simone Weil:

The life of this remarkable woman still intrigues me while much of what she writes, naturally, is ridiculous to me. Her life is almost a perfect blending of the Comic and the Terrible, which two things may be opposite sides of the same coin. In my own experience, everything funny I have written is more terrible than it is funny, or only funny because it is terrible, or only terrible because it is funny. Well Simone Weil’s life is the most comical life I have ever read about and the most truly tragic and terrible. If I were to live long enough and develop as an artist to the proper extent, I would like to write a comic novel about a woman—and what is more comic and terrible than the angular intellectual proud woman approaching God inch by inch with ground teeth?…

By saying Simone Weil’s life was both comic and terrible, I am not trying to reduce it, but mean to be paying her the highest tribute I can, short of calling her a saint, which I don’t believe she was. Possibly I have a higher opinion of the comic and terrible than you do. To my way of thinking it includes her great courage and to call her anything less would be to see her as merely ordinary. She was certainly not ordinary. Of course, I can only say, as you point out, this is what I see, not this is what she is—which only God knows. But I didn’t mean that my heroine [in a short story or novel] would be a hypothetical Miss Weil. My heroine already is, and is Hulga. Miss Weil’s existence only parallels what I have in mind, and it strikes me especially hard because I had it in mind before I knew as much as I do now about Simone Weil. …You have to be able to dominate the existence that you characterize. That is why I write about people who are more or less primitive. I couldn’t dominate a Miss Weil because she is more intelligent and better than I am but I can project a Hulga.

At least Nabokov, in writing about Lolita, acknowledges her power over Humbert Humbert as much as her primitiveness. At least he gives Humbert moral awareness. O’Connor needs to assume a world of moral morons over whom the writer has absolute control.

Simone Weil, with her ethical profundity along with her absurdity, can’t be aesthetically dominated; she can’t be tossed so easily onto the ship of fools and made to float along with everyone else.

Of course for O’Connor Weil is a fool -a particularly pathetic one, in fact, because she exemplifies the sinful pride that lies behind trying to use your mind to understand divinity: She was a “proud woman approaching God inch by inch with ground teeth.” What I’ve always seen as most impressive and human about Weil – her attraction to faith and her resistance to it – O’Connor sees as a pitiable farce, a comic parable about human vainglory and the way it blocks our acceptance of cosmic mysteries.

I see how in extreme and self-destructive gestures like starving herself in sympathy with suffering people Weil becomes an object of interest for O’Connor, who in story after story features extremists and compulsives doing weird self-destructive things in an hilariously distorted belief that they’re being spiritual, or, even worse, doing these things out of no belief at all, but rather out of some deeply obscure, deeply stupid need for self-expression. Weil, O’Connor writes, “parallels” such characters…. Yet how unkind of O’Connor, who routinely condemns the tawdry and deluded class snobbery of characters like Mrs Turpin in “A Revelation,” to see Simone Weil, of all people, as a mere variant of that.

“To look at the worst will be for [the writer] no more than an act of trust in God,” writes O’Connor; but actually I think she means to look for the worst. It was O’Connor’s strange mission to make us trust the actions of grace even in regard to the most lost among us (the wildly popular tv series, Lost, apparently featured O’Connor’s work); yet how can I trust a writer for whom it’s always midnight in the garden of good and evil? Who cannot grant us any clarity at all?

“The reader wants his grace warm and binding, not dark and disruptive,” O’Connor writes, with characteristic dismissiveness. Instead of seeing life as one long squalid torpor disrupted by a probably fatal but somehow spiritually bracing blow to the head, the reader will insist on something different… But that something different is not necessarily the kitschy grace that O’Connor imagines we’re after.

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6 Responses to “O’Connor”

  1. alan Jacobs Says:

    Margaret, I don’t think you’ve gotten O’Connor’s critique of Weil right. There’s no sign that she thinks of Weil as a “fool” or that she thinks her “pathetic” — you’re translating a subtle pont about the comic and terrible into more commonplace and less precise language. Nor do I think you’re right that O’Connor’s critique of Weil is a critique of intellectualism: O’Connor was not exactly an enemy of the life of the mind.

    Rather, I think she is saying that (whatever Weil’s articulated theology may have been) the life she lived (especially near the end) was one of trying to achieve by sheer effort of will one very particular thing, reconciliation with God, that in orthodox Christian theology can only be received by grace. O’Connor just didn’t believe that you can take by force what’s offered to you as a gift — but you do have to be willing to receive the gift when it’s offered, which (for all her comical flaws and foibles and sins) Ruby Turpin is able to do. Simone Weil isn’t a “variant” of Mrs. Turpin, she’s pretty much the opposite of Mrs. Turpin.

    I think Weil’s determination to remain independent from the Church grated on O’Connor also, and is more than anything else what O’Connor thinks of as both comic and terrible.

    I think it’s clear from what I said above that I don’t think Mrs. Turpin is a “moral moron,” and I don’t think that’s a fair description of what O’Connor meant when she talked about “dominating” her characters. But still, that’s a telling admission on her part, as you rightly note. Not many writers have that much knowledge of their limitations. And it’s one reason why I don’t think O’Connor could have continued much longer writing the way she did. Had she lived past 38, she would either have become a caricature of herself, or would have fallen silent, or would have had to completely reinvent herself as a writer. And I’m not sure she had the internal resources to do the third of those.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    There’s lots there to think about, Alan, but on the point about intellectualism:

    Look at the intellectual in “Revelation.” Look at the girl reading the book. She’s disgusting, crude, and cruel. All her budding intellectuality has given her is enough understanding of the world to eviscerate, without any mercy and real understanding, people like poor Mrs Turpin (unlike you, I see nothing in the story to indicate Turpin has the slightest moral insight). She hates herself, her family, her culture, and the world. To top it off she’s violent. Probably psychotic.

    That she’s reading a book called Human Development is clearly meant as a sick joke. We can’t develop. Trying to develop intellectually just makes us a predator rather than a prey animal.

    As with Mary Grace’s functional equivalent, the Misfit, in Good Man, whose glasses “gave him a scholarly look,” the psycho head-bashers in O’Connor, the messengers from God, the Mary and Jesus figures, are routinely given intellectual attributes.

    Hulga, in Good Country People, is, as O’Connor suggests, a travestied Weil who needs to have her intellectual pride literally knocked off of her.

  3. Alan Jacobs Says:

    It’s true that O’Connor wrote about the intellectual life in its twisted and perverted forms. However, she wrote about everything else in its twisted and perverted forms as well. It’s just what she did; it seems to be how she could write. I think your case would be stronger if she singled out intellectuals for satire and critique, but she doesn’t: none of her titles is more savagely ironic than “Good Country People.”

    And about Mrs. Turpin: if she altogether lacked moral insight she wouldn’t be able to see Mary Grace’s action as a judgment on her — she would just think the girl was crazy, end of story. But she is tormented because she thinks that God himself is speaking through Mary Grace. (“How can I be a hog and me too,” she says to God.) And then she is the recipient of that concluding vision — the best thing O’Connor ever wrote, I think — in which she and Claud are unmistakably at the end of the heavenly procession, and “she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” The key phrase there is “she could see” — not we can see, or O’Connor can see, but Mrs. Turpin can see.

    So sez me, anyway!

  4. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Alan: In a review of the Gooch biography, Joseph O’Neil, in The Atlantic, writes:

    Of course, you cannot help asking [in reading O’Connor], Are we humans really so awful? Is the world really like this?

    He goes on to note that O’Connor as a Catholic argues

    … (1) from the Christian viewpoint, the modern human condition is filled with a peculiar horror; (2) therefore, to fictionally depict humans in their peculiarly horrifying aspect is necessary in order to explore the mysteries of redemption and grace.

    The problem with (1) is that the Christian viewpoint does not necessitate a heightened sensitivity to that which is loathsome about humans or modern times. A heightened love of humans and the lives they create for themselves could just as easily be argued. There is a further problem. The repugnancy of O’Connor’s characters is, in her portrayal, connected to their poverty and backwardness. Yet in the essays, she is anguished by, and fundamentally hostile to, the forces—ostensibly progressive—that ask us “to form our consciences in the light of statistics.” She is hostile, in other words, to the enlightened disturbance of the culture of which the poverty and backwardness are part, and in which characters repugnantly find themselves. Some readers may find that here O’Connor is herself repugnant: that they are faced with one of those people for whom the misery and injustice of human affairs is chiefly a source of egocentric intellectual gratification, and whose political and moral instincts are distorted accordingly. However, it is precisely this troubling feature that gives O’Connor’s work its strange power.

    One problem with O’Connor the exegesist is that she narrows the scope of her work, even for Catholic readers. To decode her fiction for its doctrinal or supernatural content is to render it dreary, even false, because whatever her private purposes, O’Connor was above all faithful to a baleful comic vision derived, surely, from an ancient, artistically wholesome tradition of misanthropy. Nonetheless, a spiritual drama is playing out. Only it is not the one put forward by the self-explaining author, in which she figures as an onlooker occupying the high ground of piety. On the contrary, Flannery O’Connor’s criticism reveals her as scarily belonging to the low world she evokes. She was touched by evil and no doubt knew it. That is what makes her so wickedly good.

    I think this gets at part of my problem with O’Connor — why her stories don’t grow on me, why I feel more alienated from her as I get older. She seems not so much theologically serious and severe as malsain, even disreputable, writing out of a bitter misanthropy that somehow seems to gratify her. Her pinched and obscure vision fits the pinched enigmatic short story form beautifully. As interpreters, we revel in her stylistic brilliance and then go one generous step further, granting her a redemptive vision I’m not at all sure she had for us.

  5. Alan Jacobs Says:

    I generally agree with what O’Neil says, Margaret — I like his phrase “baleful comic vision,” and in light of that I might say that you’re ovremphasizing the “baleful” at the expense of the “comic.” I grant that O’Connor’s comedy is often savage and even cruel, but it’s not always so, and I really do think that in her last few years she came more clearly to see the limits of the “baleful.” But I can’t really quarrel with a reader (such as yourself) who feels those limits more strongly than O’Connor did.

    In one of Auden’s finest essays he says there are two kinds of comedy, “classical” and “Christian”: “In classical comedy the characters are exposed and punished: when the curtain falls, the audience is laughing and those on stage are in tears. In Christian comedy the characters are exposed and forgiven: when the curtain falls, the audience and the characters are laughing together.” I think most of O’Connor’s comedy is in Auden’s sense classical, a product of her own misanthropy rather than her Christian beliefs, which is surely why you tire of it. But her best stories are of a different order: think of the silent but deeply felt exchange of forgiveness between Nelson and Mr. Head in “The Artificial Nigger,” or what happens to Mrs. Turpin in “Revelation.”

    On that point, I just found this late letter to Maryat Lee about Mrs. Turpin: “Sure you are right. She gets the vision. Wouldn’t have been any point in that story if she hadn’t. I like Mrs. Turpin as well as Mary Grace. You got to be a very big woman to shout at the Lord across a hogpen.”

    I will say that I seriously doubt that O’Connor “liked” Mary Grace, though no doubt she too would have enjoyed hitting Mrs. Turpin in the head with a book.

    Thanks for getting me thinking about all this. It’s been a nice change from the technology stuff I’ve been working on lately.

  6. Benj Says:

    “Of course for O’Connor Weil is a fool”. I am not convinced that this is an accurate analysis. Flannery was a big reader of Weil right through her life and regarded her as a Catholic visionary. The quote you have given, from a private letter to a close friend, displays Flannery’s umour, making gentle fun of Simone Weil. Ayone who has read Weil surely also has felt, at times, something like the same response to her dramatic earnestness and pathos. A couple of years after the letter you quoted Flannery sent another letter where she wrote about Weil’s just published notebooks: “These are books that I cannot begin to exhaust, and Simone Weil is a mystery that should keep us all humble, and I need it more than most.” Along with Flannery’s dark humour she was humble in the presence of wisdom and ‘fool’ is your word not hers.

    “Kitschy grace” also seems to be an outrageously unfair and casual way to dismiss her whole religious vision. Othodox Catholicism -was- precisely the vision of clarity which O’Connor wanted to grant to the reader through her stories. Despite the fact that this may be the modern view, Flannery perhaps may not have expected her contemporary readers to see Catholicism in your terms as “one long squalid torpor disrupted by a probably fatal but somehow spiritually bracing blow to the head”.

    Critics seem to tie themselves in knots trying to square Flannery’s obvious artistic achievements with her religious sense, the possibility of which contradicts the foundations of moden secular criticism and aesthetics, but all of which was based in her understanding of Aquinas’s metaphysics/aesthetics and Jaques Maritain’s “Habit of Art”.

    All through her letters and essays she anticipates the way critics might see her symbolic force as “appalling” the way you do but, I think any attack like this really needs to take into account her eloquent defence as espressed in her letters, and particularly, “Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose”, otherwise it might seem to be poorly informed and/or prejudice.

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