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Friday, August 6, 2010

Flannery O'Connor: the writer vs. the believer

There’s a lively debate currently energizing the posts at Big Questions Online over whether a letter Flannery O’Connor wrote in 1958 to a friend troubled about his faith—especially the lines “You don’t serve God by saying: the Church is ineffective. . . Your pain over its ineffectiveness is a sign of your nearness to God”—provides a persuasive counter-argument to the reasons Anne Rice gives in her recent public announcement on Facebook that she is “quitting Christianity.”

Many readers find it difficult to reconcile O’Connor’s devout Catholicism with the dark often horrific comedy of her fiction. Brad Gooch, author of Flannery: The Life of Flannery O’Connor, addressed the question in an exclusive 2009 interview with The Library of America:
LOA: Your biography closely chronicles what a devout Catholic O’Connor was: a daily communicant who enjoyed reading and discussing scholarly theological treatises. Yet she didn’t entirely discourage writers who took contrarian readings of her works. For instance, you recount her telling John Hawkes that she “liked very very much” his essay “Flannery O’Connor’s Devil” in which he finds her “authorial attitude in itself in some measure diabolical . . . that is, ‘the disbelief that we breathe in with the air of the times’ emerges fully as two-sided or complex as the ‘attraction for the Holy.’” Was it her aim, do you think, to create works that could be interpreted in antithetical ways?

Gooch: O’Connor forever crossed wires in her life and work. Conan O’Brien wrote his senior thesis at Harvard on O’Connor. One night on The Charlie Rose Show he put the riddle succinctly: “You’d think it was this bitter old alcoholic who’s writing these really funny, dark stories. Then you find out that she’s a woman and that she’s devoutly religious. It’s the opposite of what you would expect.” She definitely designed her stories to be read in a world not as given as she to literal belief in God or the devil. Such a trick was not easy and took a while to develop. While at Iowa, she sought guidance from a local priest: how could a Catholic girl be writing about snarly types like Haze Motes, who calls on a town prostitute. The priest told her she didn’t need to write for 15-year-old girls. She slowly parlayed this advice into a more sophisticated apology, borrowed from Thomas Aquinas by way of Jacques Maritain: art is a habit of the practical rather than the moral intellect. As she put it: “You don’t have to be good to write well. Much to be thankful for.”

But the issue of contrary readings of O’Connor’s fiction is compelling, and has never been raised more provocatively than by her friend John Hawkes during her lifetime. Borrowing a line of reasoning from Dr. Johnson when he claimed that Milton was “of the Devil’s party” because Paradise Lost loses its zing when Satan is offstage, Hawkes finds the “diabolical” to be the guilty pleasure in O’Connor’s work. Privately—not to Hawkes—she judged the theory “off center.” But Hawkes was not alone in the camp that felt O’Connor was not the best reader of her own work, and her theological gloss perhaps spin, whether conscious or not. Firmly planted in this opinion was her progressive friend Maryat Lee, who found dissonance between O’Connor the story writer and O’Connor the theologian. “The writing is one thing and the thinking and speeches are another,” she wrote to a mutual friend. “Jekyll and Hyde if you will. Perhaps.”
Read the entire interview here (PDF).

There are an impressive number of websites dedicated to aggregating online essays and information about Flannery O’Connor. See in particular Comforts of Home, the O’Connor Collection at Georgia College & State University, and the Andalusia Foundation, which keeps her farm open to the public and which you can support with purchases from its gift shop—including the classic “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor” bumper sticker.

Related LOA works: Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely fantastic post. Very intriguing - Flannery O'Connor is one of my favorites and I too was taken aback when I learned she was such a devout Christian (I think I found out just after reading "A Good Man is Hard to Find.")


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