Touched by Evil

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

By Joseph O'Neil

For years I was under the impression that Flannery O’Connor was Irish—a Kerryman, perhaps—and without doubt a male link in the concatenation featuring Flann O’Brien and Frank O’Connor. The delusion belonged to the fog in which one’s early and unsystematic encounters with literature, and indeed the world, take place. My own fog was thickened by growing up in a Dutch town. The only sizable store of books in English was the American Book Center, a faintly indecent basement establishment mainly stocked, unless I misremember, with Mad comics and X-rated-looking publications. At the far end of the store was a wall of poetry (I now marvel, Why? Which hero was behind that?), and it was during half hours spent at that wall, wearing a figurative mackintosh, that I was blown away by Ariel without knowing that Sylvia Plath had killed herself, and fell under the spell of North clueless as to who Seamus Heaney might be.

The force of such pure shocks of language—made only more blissful by the merely flickering intelligibility, to my immature self, of versified English—features significantly in the work of O’Connor, which gives us characters who are, in their empty-headedness, unusually vulnerable to the thrilling mystery of religious speech. More generally, it’s a force that highlights one’s natural ambivalence about biography and the cloud it places between the reader and the words. The mystery of the unknown is lost; distractions creep in. It is questionable, for example, that an appreciation of V. S. Naipaul’s work is much improved by knowing the particulars of his marital nastiness, or that the value of such improvement exceeds its cost—namely, a diminishment in the autonomy that an artistic text formally, if feebly, claims for itself. Fiction necessarily insists on a separation between itself and an extrinsic world that includes the possibly vile, possibly virtuous author: Why, otherwise, create a self-contained body of words? How, other-wise, can a novel generate its moral authority?

The literary significance of mystery, the interrelations of fictive text and actual text-maker—these are particularly charged issues in the case of Flannery O’Connor. Her work (like that of Plath, a contemporary) is hard for a reader to approach without being dazzled by a high beam of personal myths—the reclusiveness, the lupus, the pathetically short lifespan (1925–1964). Now we have Brad Gooch’s Flannery, its subject’s first major biography and a more controlled illumination of the background to O’Connor’s two novels and two story collections. Note that nine further stories may be found in the Library of America’s exemplary O’Connor, a single, ingot-like volume that, in addition to the collected fiction, contains select essays, lectures, and letters, not to mention a penetrating chronology of the life. Therefore Flannery qualifies O’Connor, which is as it should be.

Externally, Flannery O’Connor’s life was, except in the matter of her physical travails, uneventful. As she noted with satisfaction, “Lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.” After all, she was born into the Georgia bourgeoisie, a milieu rarely thought of as action-packed. The O’Connors, descended from mid-19th-century immigrants from Ireland, were unexceptional specimens of the middle class. The Clines, Flannery’s maternal line, were also Irish Catholic, but posher and more prosperous, though it is not clear from Gooch’s account precisely how their ethnic/religious identity affected their position in the local pecking order (a pity, because social nuances are important in O’Connor’s fiction). Flannery grew up—in Savannah and in Atlanta and, from 1938, in the Cline mansion in Milledgeville—with black servants floating around and a sense of herself as part of the genteel, bigoted, spottily educated stratum of landed whites. An only child, she was treated as a brilliant case almost from infancy. Though she was hopeless at math and spelling, everyone seems to have recognized that her confidence and strangeness—the young Flannery was sardonic, marginal, good at cartooning, obsessed with ducks and chickens—were the signs of giftedness. Hers was a well-nurtured, happy childhood, except that in 1941 her gentle, failed-realtor father died from lupus erythematosus, an incurable disease in which the immune system fatally attacks the sufferer’s vital organs.

The following year, Flannery went off to Georgia State College for Women—went off being slightly misleading, given that the college was a block from her home. There she began to write with growing seriousness. Although O’Connor is commonly perceived as an outsider artist—the crippled, eccentric scribbler—she was in fact from the beginning very much an insider. Her career ladder, with its institutional rungs, was a prototype of the ladder young writers still seek to scramble up. Indeed, they’d kill for the résumé:

1945–48: University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, winning prizes and fellowships. Magazines begin publishing her stories.

1948–49: Lengthy residence at Yaddo, stories in Partisan Review.

1952: First novel, Wise Blood, published.

1955: A Good Man Is Hard to Find (stories). Finalist, National Book Award, and a commercial hit.

1956 and onward: Fellowships and O. Henry Awards and lecturing invitations and grants (including $8,000 from the Ford Foundation).

1960: The Violent Bear It Away (novel). Finalist, National Book Award.

1965: Everything That Rises Must Converge (stories). Finalist, National Book Award.

1971: The Complete Stories. Winner, National Book Award.

1971—: Literary immortality.

Thus O’Connor never experienced professional hardship. Her belief in herself and sense of vocation were never shaken. She was famous and revered by her early 30s. (“How we did adore and envy them, the idols of our college years—Hemingway and Faulkner, Frost and Eliot, Mary McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty!” wrote John Updike. He was seven years younger than O’Connor.) She never lacked for a prestigious mentor (Robert Lowell, Philip Rahv, Robert Penn Warren) or for helpful friends. She never had to take a job. From 1951, she lived at Andalusia, the Georgia property (500 acres of fields and 1,000 acres of woods) co-owned and farmed by her mother, Regina, which turned out to be the perfect habitat for her imagination. Her personal needs were few: she seemingly never wanted, and therefore was never distracted by, children or by her lack thereof. Ditto, pretty much, lovers. Genuinely cerebral, she apparently received ample emotional gratification from her collection of exotic barnyard fowl (peacocks and swans as well as chickens), from her piety, and from her intellectual endeavors. She regularly entertained visitors and was sustained by the friendship of interesting and loyal correspondents, Elizabeth Bishop among them. In sum, she was a great writer but also a fortunate one. This bears emphasizing in light of her exceedingly unfortunate medical history.

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.

O’Connor was dismissive of any pressure, whether of religious or secular origin, for more “positive” fiction. She saw no contradiction between her faith and her art. Just the opposite: “Because I am a Catholic I cannot afford to be less than an artist.” However, she stated,

the novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural.

This assertion, taken together with O’Connor’s assertion that the central mystery is why human existence “has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for,” constitutes the following argument: (1) from the Christian viewpoint, the modern human condition is filled with a peculiar horror; (2) therefore, to fictionally depict humans in their peculiarly horrifying aspect is necessary in order to explore the mysteries of redemption and grace.

The problem with (1) is that the Christian viewpoint does not necessitate a heightened sensitivity to that which is loathsome about humans or modern times. A heightened love of humans and the lives they create for themselves could just as easily be argued. There is a further problem. The repugnancy of O’Connor’s characters is, in her portrayal, connected to their poverty and backwardness. Yet in the essays, she is anguished by, and fundamentally hostile to, the forces—ostensibly progressive—that ask us “to form our consciences in the light of statistics.” She is hostile, in other words, to the enlightened disturbance of the culture of which the poverty and backwardness are part, and in which characters repugnantly find themselves. Some readers may find that here O’Connor is herself repugnant: that they are faced with one of those people for whom the misery and injustice of human affairs is chiefly a source of egocentric intellectual gratification, and whose political and moral instincts are distorted accordingly. However, it is precisely this troubling feature that gives O’Connor’s work its strange power.

One problem with O’Connor the exegesist is that she narrows the scope of her work, even for Catholic readers. To decode her fiction for its doctrinal or supernatural content is to render it dreary, even false, because whatever her private purposes, O’Connor was above all faithful to a baleful comic vision derived, surely, from an ancient, artistically wholesome tradition of misanthropy. Nonetheless, a spiritual drama is playing out. Only it is not the one put forward by the self-explaining author, in which she figures as an onlooker occupying the high ground of piety. On the contrary, Flannery O’Connor’s criticism reveals her as scarily belonging to the low world she evokes. She was touched by evil and no doubt knew it. That is what makes her so wickedly good.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/06/touched-by-evil/307422/