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.
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.
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.