Wednesday, March 31, 2010

IAM Reader's Guild review: The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Connor

My blog reviews of the IAM Reader's Guild gatherings in 2010.  (see previous Readers Guild posts here)

March 2010: The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Connor
Endicott, NY chapter of the IAM Readers Guild

“Last fall I received a letter from a student who said she would be ‘graciously appreciative’ if I would tell her ‘just what enlightenment’ I expected her to get from each of my stories…I wrote her back to forget the enlightenment and just try to enjoy them.”
 -- Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners

Mid-way through our discussion of O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away, I was reminded of this surprisingly blithe statement made by the revered storyteller.  Really?  Just enjoy the stories and skip the quest for enlightenment?  If I had the chance to quip back, I’d be tempted to say “Enjoy what, Ms. O’Connor?” 

As a group, the Endicott, NY Readers Guild agreed that the novel was easy-to-read in the sense that the plot kept moving forward – even as it flashed backward -- taking us with it without too much distraction.  We cared about what happened next – all the way to the last heartbreaking page.  But enjoy?  Like anything else any of us had read by this author, The Violent is littered with tragedy upon tragedy: abandonment, abuse, acridity. 

This is not to say, however, that we all shared the same views on the “action of grace in territory held largely by the devil”, O’Connor’s stated primary subject in her writing. A couple of us saw it in the conviction of the elder Tarwater’s dogged conviction to live life as a prophet and to save all who came under his care, come hell or high water.  I confess that this is a perspective that never even occurred to me the first time I read the book last year.  Only the discipline of re-reading the story in community helped me to understand a different way of seeing O’Connor’s iconically outrageous characters.  (Studying the characteristics of Southern Gothic literature at some point in my life might also have been helpful in this regard!)

One of our readers opted out of the evening, letting me know that the story “depressed her too much.”  I understood where she was coming from.  Expecting more of the same from the group discussion, I tried to do my homework.  For the sake of full disclosure, I must confess that O’Connor’s work frustrates me. The writing is brilliant, sharp, wickedly witty.  For example, my favorite character description, possibly of all time, is written by this author: "His grandfather had been a ... circuit preacher, a waspish old man who had ridden over three counties with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger."  (from Wise Blood) But, in the totality of her writing, there seems no light, no grace, no softness; therefore, in my feeble understanding, no redemption.  This seems to conflict with my lofty expectations for a writer committed to her faith, as Flannery O’Connor persuasively asserts.  A conflict not unlike another well-known name in the fields of art and faith.

Hoping to gain insight with what I assumed to be a stupendously simplistic error in my thinking, I emailed several of my brainy friends with this question: 
“I completely understand (and agree with) the viewpoint the assessment that the body of work by Thomas Kinkade does not tell the truth because he wishes only to paint Eden and never paint the Fall. This excludes themes not only of depravity and fallenness, but also -- and, perhaps, worse -- themes of grace and redemption…. What I'm struggling with is that it feels to me that Flannery O'Connor's body of work does the same thing but from the opposite direction.  I’m stumped.”

Once again I was reminded of the value of reading in community.  This is the way we sharpen ourselves and each other in the way we view the world around us.

Among several helpful replies, this one from Mako Fujimura:

A good comparison to bring these two diametrically opposed expressions!

Another angle to look at it is to see what Kinkade does (successfully) as creating a market surrounding his art, i.e., he is driven to create an entrepreneurial business around his art, and that is how he defines his success (not whether his art is good and enduring or not; his art is defined by how many people buy them).  I am not saying that marketing art is bad; but such the market driven work will be limited by the demands of people's tastes, rather than the artist's vision.  Flannery did not care at all about the market, and she saw her writings in the stream of art/theology that stems back to Augustine, Aquinas, Dante and Shakespeare.  She wrestled with not just art, but life itself; knowing that she will have a short life with her lupus condition. So her vision is a millennium vision, whereas Kinkade's vision is 5-10 years (at most).  They define art and success differently.  Kinkade paints (or have his assistants paint) to make money; O'Connor wrote to face death head on, and her writings, in my opinion, have the aroma of the Resurrection.

O'Connor's work is hard hitting and violent; it does provoke and even transgress against our notion of what religion is.  In many ways, she is merely pointing out the violence that is submerged in culture, denied by religion: and by doing so she points to grace, as you say, much more powerfully than Kinkade's paintings.

Perhaps, like Ms. O’Connor’s characters, Rayber and Tarwater, it’s all a matter of knowing how to deal with our passions.  In this light, we found ourselves uncomfortably challenged by the contrast of stark reason and insatiable passion.  Not unlike the camel-hair-clad, locust-eating prophet, crying out in the wilderness for the violent to bear it away.  What is this story we each are walking around in, with so much numb assent?  Not Flannery O’Connor.  Nor us either, if we allow ourselves to enjoy her work.

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