Flannery O’Connor is the master of Southern Gothic fiction. I never know what that means. The word “gothic” is oddly-shaped in my brain, spanning the pointed arches of old churches and the painted eyes of unhappy teenagers. I also suppose Wuthering Heights is somewhere in there. In any case, my point is that Flannery O’Connor is a hard person to get to know.
She is eminently quotable. O’Connor appears on social media in terse and intelligent aphorisms that paint her in brief, witty touches. Because she has been abbreviated, she seems to be employed for most anything. The pain of brevity is in its pinprick disambiguation: it’s said and then it’s gone, all bright and disconcerting until it leaves me so I can make of it something much easier to understand. Flannery O’Connor is immensely hard to understand. The Catholic writer who was as fiercely Catholic as she was writer, and whose relationship to each term is nothing if not complex.
I dare you, after all, to find any easy link to Catholicism in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the story that ends with the Misfit killing an entire family. Or “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” which ends with a man abandoning his young bride. Sudden deaths, strange symbolic encounters, characters of ambiguous or cruel moral demeanor. Patient descriptions of human pettiness and starkly lit small Southern towns. Now there’s a Catholic imagination that’ll leave you pale.
And she faithfully read from Thomas Aquinas’ Summa every night before going to bed.
And that is why I like Flannery O’Connor: I find her impossible.
She has an instinct for how strange the world is, and this – I think – is what Thomas also knew. It is a strange world and often very dark, especially when brightened by the grace it refuses. Flannery O’Connor is the author who knows compunction, that sudden stab of conscience when we realize with horror that we have done something quite wrong. Her stories are all threaded with compunction. Every juncture of the needle is felt as it holds the story together.
Perhaps this is why her short stories and letters live so strongly: Flannery O’Connor knows the strength of a moment.
On my mind in particular is the freak from “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” since I will be teaching it in the classroom soon. It is one of O’Connor’s easier stories, since religion rises to the surface and haunts it at every turn in an unusually explicit way. My favorite tale is actually “The Artificial Nigger,” and it shares certain themes with “Temple.” The central of these is an encounter with a grotesque caricature that is impossible to understand. Rather than being understood, the figure seizes the character who meets it, imparting a transformation or a rejection – or some mysterious blend.
In “Temple,” this figure is a circus freak who is revealed to be a hermaphrodite. Men and women are split into groups and stand before a curtained stage. “God made me thisaway,” says the freak, “and if you laugh He may strike you the same way.” After giving the speech, the freak reveals its nature to the men and then the women. The child, who hears the story from two girls rather than seeing it, begins to imagine a scene from a church. After each phrase from the freak, the people respond, “Amen, Amen.”
The freak returns to the child’s mind at Eucharistic adoration, where the image becomes a mode for experiencing the Eucharist. Before the monstrance, the child pictures the freak saying, “I don’t dispute hit. This is the way He wanted me to be.”
Much could and has been said about this story and others of O’Connor’s. I cannot help but hearing the liturgy in the encounter, both in the circus tent with the stage and in the far-off convent with its chapel. Strange lines are repeated, and the people answer with “Amen.” Comprehending and not, all at once.
That is the power of a symbol, especially sacramental symbols. One the one hand they are very simple, good symbols. Understood in an easy way: bread for nourishment, water for washing, oil for blessing. (The last was easier when that was a common practice, and now it is a simplicity borne by history into an odd modern complexity.) What happens with each symbol becomes impossibly mysterious, however, as each in its simplicity bears the totality of Christ. After all, it is a strange thing indeed to bow before a piece of bread. Except it is not bread at all.
“Fides supplementum,” says Thomas. Faith supplements the failure of the senses. This from the prayer that O’Connor quotes over the course of the short story.
Faith supplements not because the symbol has gone strange, or has split itself dialectically from the earth in a kind of poetic non sequitur. The gift of faith rises to greet realities for which we do not have eyes. Not absurdities for which we have no sense.
So the freak is really the most honest and real character in the story, though those present haven’t the eyes. The freak is the only character in “Temple” who does not tell some kind of lie: through teenage games, insolent youth, or weary adulthood. The freak and the nun, who hugs the child so hard her cheek is pressed against the crucifix of a belted rosary. In each case, the bewildering confrontation with Christ is illuminated suddenly and never entirely understood. It’s not so much that the encounter is impossible so much as those enduring it don’t quite have the sense to grasp it. So instead they are grasped by it, and it follows them.
I can never make much sense of the “goodness” of Good Friday when I consider only its bare symbols. The naked man who breathes his last, the weeping mother, the mocking onlookers. There are some stories we tell so many times that they become unreal to us, no longer startling or strange. And the brief, measured phrases of the Gospels, their odd brevity (especially in Mark), have a powerful way of laying to bear the res (the reality) with disconcerting frankness that we tend to leave behind so that we can understand something easier.
Good stories, like good symbols, lay to bear the delicacies of our encounters again. Forcing us not so much away from reality back to it. One very good recent story by a living Catholic author reminds us that “all the world is glass.” Ever so breakable and mysterious that knowledge of its precious fragility strikes us like a sudden puncture through our haze. Like the cross: so very impossible and yet it is so. This seems to be what Flannery O’Connor knew.
Photo “A los pies del Amor” (c)Angel Sánchez Herrera. Explore his work on Flickr.
Photo “Funfair” (c)Youssef Nabil. Explore his work at yousseffnabil.com
The short story “Glass Queen” (c)Rachel Japs. Read the full work at Another Realm.