March 24, 2005,
The dripping blood our only drink, The bloody flesh our only food: In spite of which we like to think That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good. T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, "East Coker"
Born 80 years ago this week, Flannery O'Connor is one of the few female authors included in The Library of America series. There is something fitting about O'Connor's birthday falling on Good Friday, just as it was appropriate that she spend her childhood in that most Gothic of southern towns, Savannah, Ga., in a home, now a landmark, just across the street from the architecturally splendid Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.
From the novel Wise Blood to short stories such as "A Good Man is Hard to Find" and "A View of the Woods," O'Connor's delicately crafted fiction featured ordinary folks as freaks, dark humor, and violent twists of fate. When scandalized readers accused her of being a "hillbilly nihilist," she quipped that she was a "hillbilly Thomist." She read Aquinas for 20 minutes each night before going to sleep and learned from him and his contemporary commentator, Jacques Maritain, two simple teachings: that all knowledge comes to us from the senses and that the good of art consists in the excellence of the work of art, not in the moral character of the artist. The first teaching she took to be essential to the art of fiction, whose task is to immerse the reader in a rich world of sensible realities.
O'Connor also learned from Aquinas that Christianity affirms the integrity and intelligibility of the sensible world even more than pagan philosophy does. The Church labeled heretical the Manichean doctrine espousing a dualism of mind and body. The Catholic author must ground the readers' experience of the supernatural "in concrete observable reality." O'Connor expressed dismissive irritation toward religious readers who preferred abstract, pious clichés to credible narrative. That is why Aquinas's distinction between the good of human character and the good of craft or art was such a liberating teaching for her.
Of course, O'Connor does not completely sever the link between art and virtue, aesthetics and ethics. The artist's obligation is to describe truthfully what he sees from where he is. What he sees will certainly involve ethical appraisal and it will inevitably be informed, at least indirectly, by the sort of life the artist leads, by the virtues and vices in his own character. She objects to the tendency in contemporary art to treat alienation, not as a "diagnosis," but as an "ideal." But art can never be conflated with good intentions, with wanting to make the world better. It is about the enormously difficult task of seeing and articulating what is seen. Before an artist can "save the world," which is not directly the job of art anyway, the artist must "save the work," must become adept at a craft.
The problem for a religious writer in our culture is that the basic vocabulary of religion, as of virtue and vice, had become trivialized and stripped of meaning. Walker Percy once noted how difficult it is to talk about baptism in a world where that sacrament had become a "minor tribal rite" equivalent to the Christmas ritual of taking the kids to visit "Santa at the department store." In such a context, where distortions seem natural to us, the artist must resort to freaks and monsters, to a Gothic sensibility that enables us to see anew what we thought we understood. When it appears in such fiction, grace will seem, not "warm and binding," but "dark and disruptive."
In contrast to the comforting platitudes of conventional Christian practice, Christianity does not teach that the existence of God is obvious; instead, it teaches, as Pascal was fond of noting, that God is a hidden God. It does not teach that we can see that this is the best of all possible worlds. As O'Connor insisted, we cannot even begin to appreciate redemption until we experience how lost we are and how great is the "price of restoration."
As both Henry Edmundson (A Return to Good and Evil: Flannery O'Connor's Response to Nihilism) and Ralph Wood (Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South) show, O'Connor takes us through evil to good, through sacrifice to redemption, and through tragedy to comedy. The Christian story is indeed a divine comedy, but it is, as the literary critic Northrup Frye noted in his study of T. S. Eliot, a peculiar sort of comedy, one that contains a tragedy as its penultimate act. As St. Cyril of Jerusalem put it many centuries ago, in a passage O'Connor fully embraced,
The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.
Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.