Thursday, August 18, 2005

'Ain't bothering with trifles': Some notes on the urgent fiction of Flannery O'Connor

Having just finished re-reading both of the novels (would that there were more) of she who I consider to be the greatest American fiction writer of the 20th century, Flannery O'Connor, the time is ripe for me to share some reflections on her work on The Secret Thread. Not that my reflections will make a valuable contribution -- so much has been written about her work already, it's hard to say something new -- but because hers is that rare kind of fiction that just makes you sit back and ponder and marvel. And scratch your head and puzzle too. Because if there's one thing you can most certainly say about her novels, it's that they don't provide any easy answers, and they don't leave you with a feeling that all is well with the world... or well inside yourself, for that matter. And (this hits on the title I have selected for this reflection), they don't deal in trivialities or 'trifles'. This is fiction that dives well below the shiny surface of the world and plumbs the murky, mysterious depths of the spiritual realm churning just underneath that which we see, hear and feel.

In fact, if I can take a slight diversion off the path here for just a minute, this kind of fiction is what The Secret Thread exists to celebrate and explore... in fact, I would argue that it is indeed this awareness in a writer of the spiritual, existing and acting just underneath the surface of things, that is "the secret thread" that binds "the books you really love" together. I (and certainly others before me) call this awareness a "sacramental view of reality". The shortest way to describe it is this way: matter matters. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins so famously put it, "the world is charged with the grandeur of God." Not surprisingly, Hopkins' poetry was a major influence on O'Connor, and also not surprisingly, both of these spiritually keen writers were Catholics. I have a theory that the very best fiction always comes from writers who understand and adhere to this sacramental view of reality, this notion that our primary contact with God is through the stuff of this world. (Jesus Christ Himself, of course, taught us this spiritual truth in so many ways, such as when He said we would encounter Him in the "least of these my brothers," and when he instituted the Eucharist with the words, "This is my body.") This is NOT to say that the best literature the world has to offer can only come from Catholic or Catholic-influenced writers -- although much of it inarguably has (St. Augustine, Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare (arguably), Balzac, Hugo, Conrad, Wilde, Joyce, Hopkins, Undset, Mauriac, Waugh, Greene, Camus, O'Connor, etc. etc.). But it is to say that the best literature always humble in the face of the Divine: it knows that we are but dust, and to dust we shall return... O'Connor herself understood this so well... she once said, "The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn't try to write fiction." (Credit where it's due: it was Mutt who first turned me on to that quote, and to O'Connor in general. That in itself vaults him into the elite league of Readers Whom I Immensely Respect.) The literature most admired and sought after here at The Secret Thread is the kind which acknowledges that there is much more to the universe than what we feeble-minded human beings know and understand... there is, in a word, mystery.

Anyway, back to the subject at hand, which was supposed to be Flannery O'Connor... specifically, her two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear it Away. Now, for those of you don't know, Mutt has published an excellent article that examines the former novel, O'Connor's first, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its publication. Entitled "The Ragged Figure: On the 50th Anniversary of Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood," the article ran in the November 2002 issue of Touchstone magazine, and can be found by clicking on the Touchstone link in our right hand column there, in their "Archives" section (or by Googling "The Ragged Figure"). I highly recommend this fresh and compelling analysis of O'Connor's darkly comic masterpiece.

As for me, I can't hope to come up with such an insightful examination here, but I would like to share some of my own personal thoughts and observations after reading straight through both of these powerful novels, back-to-back (each for the second time). C. S. Lewis once made a comment that was something to the effect of (I can't remember the exact wording he used, no doubt it was more eloquent than this will be), "Only a fool says he knows a book after having only read it once." I used to laugh this idea, but now that I am just a bit older and have done a lot more reading, I am, as is always the case with Lewis, beginning to see the deep wisdom behind such a seemingly casual statement. Especially with literature that touches deeply on the mysteries of human existence, you're not going to understand all that the author is trying to convey on your first reading of it: indeed, it may take several reads to even begin to scratch the surface of the writer's meanings and message (anyone who's ever tackled Melville's Moby Dick can back me up on this point). As I said, this is only my second time through O'Connor's novels, but now I know enough about them to at least know that I'm never going to know enough about them!

(more to come... not enough gas in the tank tonight! sorry to bring up a sore subject these days, fuel... $3.00 for a gallon of gas??? who would've thunk it?)

1 comment:

Mutt Ploughman said...

I can't think of a better way to get out some reflections on these great works of literature than to leave a post like this. To me this is what this blog is all about. You read something, you find it kicking around your head, you're thinking it it! Duke, great post. I enjoyed reading about your thoughts on O'Connor this morning. Also I appreciate the plug of JJL's piece on Flannery O'Connor; he says thanks. It's not the greatest piece of analysis of O'Connor out there, as so many other giants have tried to explore her work, but it's a personal take on that difficult but extraordinary novel.

Duke once shared with me, too, a quote I think of often, although i have to paraphrase it and i don't precisely know the source (great journalistic aplomb, there). But it comes from an anecdote about a guy that was seeking a meeting with C.S. Lewis and happened to be in Oxford, England, looking for him. One day he saw him walking outdoors while talking to Lewis' colleague and friend, J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien told the man, gesturing towards Lewis, 'you'll never get to the bottom of him'. I think I have that story more or less right.

This is how I feel about O'Connor too. We'll never get to the bottom of the talent and mysteries that converged inside of her and are manifested so startlingly in her work. But that same work supples endless fascination and enlightenment, particularly for those with a literary-Christian bent who are not interested in 'trifles', watered-down messages, and apocalyptic stories that end with the good guys being saved and everyone else chucked to the pit. Life and Truth are far more complicated than that. O'Connor knew it, and she pushed hard to plumb the depths of these unfathomables. Looking forward to reading more insights from Duke.