Books June 2009

Touched by Evil

The real spiritual drama in Flannery O’Connor’s fiction was even darker than the one she acknowledged.

To summarize: O’Connor was diagnosed with lupus when she was 25, although she was not told the truth for more than a year. The disease caused her joint pain in the arms, hips, and shoulders; required blood transfusions and ACTH injections and bed rest; weakened her horribly. There was severe hair loss, and at 29 she needed a cane to walk. At 34, she had trouble eating because of necrosis in her jaws; thereafter her ailments became ever more painful and grotesque and immobilizing, as if her well-being had been entrusted to Samuel Beckett. But O’Connor unwell was as purposeful and witty and free of desperation as O’Connor healthy. She was given to dutifulness, religious and artistic, and this strengthened her. She put in two hours a day at the typewriter, even after receiving the sacrament of the dying.

O’Connor was a fervent Roman Catholic—a “thirteenth century” Catholic, as she described herself. She read deeply into theology, with a special interest in Teilhard de Chardin. She went to Mass every day she could, invariably accompanied by her mother. Flannery and Regina’s claustrophobic, mutually dependent relationship was inevitably vexing for both women—and mortifying for the daughter when the mother revealed to visitors her own less than edified social attitudes. These domestic circumstances, in combination with Flannery’s religiosity and visibly worsening health, hardly form a propitious setup for a gentleman caller. But one did materialize. In 1953, she began to receive visits from Erik Langkjaer, a handsome, thoughtful Dane whose work as a college-textbook salesman regularly brought him to the Milledgeville area. The friendship became, Gooch writes, “at least tinged with romance.” On a drive together, they shared a fateful kiss. Langkjaer, in one of the biography’s most powerful passages, remembers this:

She had no real muscle tension in her mouth, a result being that my own lips touched her teeth rather than lips, and this gave me an unhappy feeling of a sort of memento mori, and so the kissing stopped … I had a feeling of kissing a skeleton, and in that sense it was a shocking experience.

It is very hard, reading this kind of thing, not to feel great sympathy for O’Connor and mix the feeling into one’s evaluation of her work. She herself would have rejected such a mixture. “My lupus has no business in literary considerations,” she maintained. This was true not only for critics but for the writer herself. O’Connor’s fiction gives few signs of her disease. Wise Blood was more or less completed before the diagnosis, and her subsequent writing obviously was cut from the same pre-lupine bolt of obsessions.

Flannery O’Connor’s preoccupations are so insistent that it is probably not ideal to read her work from beginning to end in one go, as I did. Again and again, the same dynamic impresses itself: A and B and—why not?—C reveal their more or less cretinous moral natures and slide toward a bizarre, often violent crisis, the whole production unfolding under the auspices of a solar or lunar drama (“A fat yellow moon appeared in the branches of the fig tree as if it were going to roost there with the chickens”). Her settings are agrarian, static, unscientific, largely insulated from modern modes of information and movement. We are given a tragicomic world of dirt roads, pigs, girls who are “practically morons,” “trashy” whites, idiotic “niggers,” and every stripe of schemer and nitwitted chatterer. The dramatic premises are almost premodern, very easily concerned with religious visionaries or with the arrival, into an unchanging locale, of a stranger. Grassroots evangelical Protestantism and its defective adherents are objects of fascination, though the appearance of an urbane secular party is generally a cue for a particularly grievous display of stupidity and pride. The characters are not “likeable,” but my God they are alive. The writing is almost unfairly good:

She lay her head back and as he watched, gradually her eyes closed and her mouth fell open to show a few long scattered teeth, some gold and some darker than her face; she began to whistle and blow like a musical skeleton.

Or (upon the arrival of refugee Poles at a farm):

She began to imagine a war of words, to see the Polish words and the English words coming at each other, stalking forward, not sentences, just words, gabble gabble gabble, flung out high and shrill and stalking forward and then grappling with each other. She saw the Polish words, dirty and all-knowing and unreformed, flinging mud on the clean English words until everything was equally dirty. She saw them all piled up in a room, all the dead dirty words, theirs and hers too, piled up like the naked bodies in the newsreel. God save me, she cried silently, from the stinking power of Satan!

The narrating third person hovers in an almost miraculous fusion of proximity and comic distance. With O’Connor, there never seems to be space between the words and their creator’s sensibility. You almost never catch a whiff of authorial self-consciousness. About how many writers can this be said?

Of course, you cannot help asking, Are we humans really so awful? Is the world really like this? O’Connor wrote several essays/lectures on these and related questions:

I am always having it pointed out to me that life in Georgia is not at all the way I picture it, that escaped criminals do not roam the roads exterminating families, nor Bible salesmen prowl about looking for girls with wooden legs.

But her own circumstances, in their sadness and oddness, corroborated her dark fantasies, and, as Gooch shows, many of her stories’ outlandish elements were inspired by actual events. O’Connor declared her-self a realist, albeit one pushing “toward the limits of mystery.” Mystery, in her mind, was concerned with “the ultimate reaches of reality,” which is to say, the agency of the divine in human affairs. This is where things become problematic—where the churchgoer glosses her gloriously sullen fiction.

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