“From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence and the violent bear it away.” -Matthew 11:12 1; the basis for Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away.
“I vote Republican, I worship Martha Stewart and I don’t mind being naked.” -Haley Cope, Olympic swimmer, preparing to make money off of Playboy’s “Women of the Summer Games” edition, airbrushed in the buff.
“My friends with the big cars and boats are not evil or stupid. They are just thoughtless.” -John Blair, “A Culture of Waste,” CounterPunch. Dedicated to Flannery O’Connor (who died 40 years ago on August 3rd). And to all of those who helped her reach us, like Sally and Robert Fitzgerald and John Huston.
Respecting the quotations above: If only she were obese, this Haley Whore, she’d be oh-so All-American. No mystery, all self-seeking, greed, envy and worse, not unlike O’Connor’s own pyknic character Cope in “A Circle in the Fire.” And Blair’s evil? You don’t have to subscribe to Bush’s polar opposite of “good,” or Flannery O’Connor’s biblical interpretation either, for that matter, in order to characterize the profound depravity of Blair’s friends as something other than “thoughtless.” One of FO’C’s great contributions was her inexorable moral stance regarding what plagues us; the very American “do your own thing” was anathema to her. But violence was not.
I’ll never forget the premiere of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in New York City. For the first time in my cinematic consumer’s life I encountered a creature from Outer Space that had neither two eyes, two ears, etc., nor spoke perfectly grammatical English. It was from a different realm, that Monolith. It was truly an enigma. And remained so throughout the film.
Enter writer/religious absolutist Flannery O’Connor, advocate of Mystery (not literary mysteries), from Savannah and Millidgeville, Georgia, the latter the capital of Dixie prior to the Civil War.
When the U.S. was celebrating its Bicentennial, and the CIA was assisting South African-backed rebels in Angola (see the great John Stockwell’s In Search of Enemies account of how Kissinger came to give the green light), I discovered Flannery in the most mysterious way.
I had been in and around Millidgeville as a kid visiting Rebel Relatives in my 50s summers, and I had taught literature for over a decade on the college level by the mid-seventies…but, oddly, I had never heard of O’Connor; particularly strange since one of my academic mentors was from the Deep South.
Then—at the age of thirty-four—I got involved in a scam of sorts on the grounds of my old alma mater, Columbia University. Well, not exactly my (M.A.) alma mater, as I had graduated from Teachers College, Columbia University not the Ivy League wonder; nevertheless, there were shared commons between 116th and 120th Streets, and some of the faculty wore two hats. There was a sense of community.
The scam? I was matriculating (impersonating an Israeli who had hired me to complete his degree) as a major in Comparative Literature. Wondrous program they had at that time. And it was then and there some professor introduced me to Flannery’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find. The heavens opened up. I felt like Balboa’s unbalanced brain from Keats’ “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer.” I was introduced not to just another Southern literary phenom, but to a Genuine Mystery, like Kubrick’s Monolith.
Very early on she said that the look of her fiction was “going to be wild…it is almost of necessity going to be violent…because of the discrepancies it seeks to combine.”
With her strains of anti-communism, racism and severe religious credo, I’m sure Las Vegas would have offered up daunting odds that I’d have zero to do with her…beyond the usual academic fandango. But I fell deeply in love with the spirit of her earthy, earthly message, its universal importance*.
*I ask activists who don’t “get it” the first time around to stick with her, as the nature of her art and thought almost demand special perseverance of readers today…additional encounters. Alice Walker’s superb essay “Beyond the Peacock” (in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens) will help readers get past some inconsequential biographical details.
Flannery, who ranks among the foremost writers of American fiction, was raised as a devout Roman Catholic; her short stories are considered model paradigms of the form. The inattentive reader, your typical American atheist—rushing to explain everything, feeling one-up on sociological matters and all else—will come away from her work exuding a superior air…in this age of secular superficiality and abominations taken for granted. But the open activist—truly concerned with discovering something new—will rise above the temptation to make the easy criticism, and be rewarded with “wild surmise,” epiphanies.
Thirty-nine is young. That’s when Martin Luther King left us. Ditto for Malcolm. Ditto for Blaise Pascal*. And…Flannery never reached forty because of lupus erythematosis, a mysterious disease if ever there was one. Not often talked about, it’s more common than both cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy. It arises when the system produces antibodies which attack its own connective tissues. The term lupus (wolf) is applied because the patient frequently manifests a “wolf-like” appearance. The disease—which claimed Flannery’s father when he was only forty-five—is characterized by progressive physical degeneration. It is significant that Flannery labored under this horror—worked with it wracking her from within—during the last twelve years of her life.
*Pascal’s claim that “all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber” did not apply to Flannery. She worked in very tight quarters (Don’t get me started with Emily Dickinson!), her focus fed by faith.
After studying the responses to my recent article titled “Pilger’s Preferences and a Zinn Zinger: Calling for Liberators, Not Librarians,” I have come to the conclusion that those wishing to bring about change in society are in dire need of something more than the graphs, diatribes and hysterical, historical stats that dominate leftist circles. I am convinced that everyone needs to slow down—for just an existential moment*—and contemplate The Mystery at hand.
*The tick, tick, ticking of one headline after another grabbing our attention does distract us from The Eternal. One could be as radically accomplished as having eliminated every trace of capitalism, up on every daily bit that Google has to offer…and have gone nowhere, know nothing.
If that’s too cryptic for you, let me clarify—while I can—in this tribute to the inexplicable. To wit, the most persistent features among “progressives” (particularly the ABB crowd) AND those more radical are…their alienation, isolation and separateness respecting man’s condition.
They believe in progress; they are convinced that man can have a handle on what sails/what can float…and that they have their hands on the rudder. There’s a lack of humility running rampant, and activists are not truly connected with their colleagues, their opponents, “the unfortunates” they’re trying to help or The Natural Order. There is deep spiritual emptiness in our quarters.
They believe only in what they can see.
Shirley Ann Grau, Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor all “have an essential sense of mystery, a special awareness and belief in invisible things” for those of you who want additional leads in this regard. 3 Vine Deloria Jr.’s God Is Red provides an introduction toMystery from a completely different perspective; I’d say this Native American angle is indispensable. In a brief review of Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, Flannery delineates the principle of creative insight; prophetic vision, whether achieved by the poet or the scientist, is born of the attempt to “penetrate matter until spirit is revealed in it.”
The mundane, pedestrian mentality we run across in the activist community is cocksure of itself, and allows for nothing that can’t be counted. Quantitative Analysis rules. Flannery is as firm as any of our fixed and frozen leftists—moral neutrality is not characteristic of her work—but her stances are not derived from pride or intellectual masturbation.
Like her beloved peacocks which she raised in Millidgeville, she saw something in the distance, transcended immediate confusion and imminent ruin; peacocks, in case you didn’t know, are known for not scurrying in the presence of an approaching car when crossing the road*.
*See her marvelous “The King of the Birds” in Sally and Robert Fitzgerald’s Mystery and Manners, and delight over the unparalleled beauty in the opening two paragraphs of “The Displaced Person.” That latter work is, arguably, the best place for activists to start…if delving into her creations cold. “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” (my introduction), “Parker’s Back” (FO’C’s last story) or Flannery’s personal favorite, “The Artificial Nigger,” are also excellent options.
For Flannery, rational explanation and logical interpretation always took a back seat to the fact that what we do not understand is infinitely more important than what we know.
As Arnold Weinstein points out in A Scream Goes Through The House,
|“The religious vision that fuels O’Connor’s art is savage: it reminds us that the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist are inexorably corporeal, and that the body—far from being ‘God’s temple’ in the traditional sense—is a carnal mystery beyond our knowing.”|
Which brings us to bodily violence as it is manifested on this earth.
O’Connor’s view on the subject has the potential to replenish juices. We need a rejuvenation vacation…so that we can return to the barricades with stronger resolve, and have a better shot at results. As it is, it is clear that “progressives” are flailing in the wind, destined to advance millemetres only, understanding too little. When it comes to violence, activists can do no more these days than trot out the usual suspect arguments—pro and con—placing misrepresentations of MLK, Gandhi, and a few far out Far Eastern ascetics against a backdrop of Ward Churchill, the RCP and the Animal Liberation Front.
Other angles can be found in a review of Southern fiction.
William Styron’s The Long March emphasizes how the accretion of violence in the twentieth century and the deadening of conscience and sensibility was created from almost uninterrupted warfare. Faulkner—in several works—pans what passes for progress, pointing out how it’s necessarily produced violence. Flannery (in Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away), on the other hand, shows us that our violence reflects a restlessness, a divine madness, which can be satisfied only with God*. Robert Penn Warren leads his characters to the same threshold as Flannery, but he inevitably “stops them short,” offering knowledge as a palliative, a legitimate alternative to redemption.
*Those of you who recoil at being forced here to contemplate the Holy Ghost can relate simply by substituting the notion of Almighty Mystery. The devil assumes a role quite similar to that of the bad angel in a medieval morality play in The Violent Bear It Away; we all can reflect on our own experiences with people, drawing secular conclusions that parallel the religious framework in which Flannery’s characters are firmly ensconced, avoiding the need to adopt her terminology, her particular belief system.
Flannery’s view is that violence is inevitable given our common human condition. And—to extrapolate—talk about whether or not to consider embracing violence as a tactic is meaningless…since there is a life force that cannot be controlled in the context of our faithlessness, a momentum exacerbated by well-meaning, atheistic existentialists.
Violence inheres in the fate of America, bearing overwhelming guilt from the past “when the dream of Eden was destroyed by slavery both on Southern farms and in Northern factories.” 6 It is the test by fire that all mankind must endure, according to Flannery. Our struggle with Nature (which includes one another) involves complicated/conflicting moral demands which subject us all to violent confrontation. We cannot avoid it, given our unwillingness to abandon The God of Analysis.
Like with the schoolteacher in The Violent Bear It Away, every living thing is turned by our brains “into a book or a paper or a chart.” The charted, reflexively, are locked into a violent response. The nonviolent ideals of activists are permitted no entry here.
As Arnold Weinstein notes, in talking about Flannery’s “The Life You Save May Be Your Own, “…human behavior often remains a mystery. O’Connor, more even than most writers, honors mystery, regards human motive as opaque; her characters apply the thin grids of reason to their lives (just as we do when we read her stories), but those lives are invariably fitful, animated by dark, imperious, and entirely unpredictable forces.” In her work the revelatory and the traumatic are inseparable because grace and horror (or grace as horror) can pop out at any moment.” 7 The italics are mine.
It would be great if everyone could take their eyes off of the sociological prize for a moment, and allow Mystery its proper place.
What is Mystery? By Flannery’s own definition, it’s “what is left after everything else has been explained.” It resides in the wordless regions where activists do not trek. But it holds a key, arguably…The Key.
The first place to start, perhaps, is to dispense with the hackneyed phrases found in Flannery’s “Good Country People”: “Nothing is perfect.” “That is life!” “Other people have their opinions too.” A tall order, considering the loose sense of what freedom means in our country. But the violence in our society cannot be quelled without accosting those hackneyed Prime Time platitudes.
Like with the youngsters’ rage in her “A Circle of Fire,” American adults must face “the blank eyes of boys who can imagine a parking lot where…precious trees now stand,” outcasts in a world that affords little. Boys and girls who, blinded, can still smell our sickness; they “snarl like caged, mistreated animals.” Possessiveness and its false correlative “progress” are leading to our destruction. Exclusivity and emptiness, as per her class conscious “Greenleaf,” are driving us over the edge.
And yet we permit capitalism and corporate values to rule our lives in the name of our having to allow freedom of choice, in the name of more is better, and…so on. The minute we come up against overwhelming numbers looking askance at our protestations, we back up. We back up because we have no backbone when it comes to values. We are the product of popularity-based/convenient actions, bamboo bending with the prevailing winds, eyes on something other than The Eternal.
The brutality and savagery in works like Flannery’s “The River” cut through all conventional progressive concepts to underscore the notion that religion of some sort is necessary to reorder human life. The pleasantness of politically correct respectability has zero to do with man’s need for redemption in Flannery’s eyes. Hunger strikes, allowing one’s head to be bashed in at the barricades, etc. will count for nought without an attendant honoring of a deeper motivation than simply doing good works.
One’s place in the scheme of things must be taken stock of, must be felt.
When life produces what the intellect labels as Evil we may confront it violently, as per Joseph Campbell’s “The Mythology of Love,” as long as Christ’s “Love your enemies” is not lost in the shuffle…along with our humanity. 9 In the spirit of everything from the Egyptian Book of the Dead‘s “On Coming Forth By Day In The Underworld,” the early Gnostic Gospel According to Thomas, and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. In terms of our being One with All.
Our challenge is not to rid the world of Evil, regardless of whether or not we use violent tactics in contending with it. The very use of the word may serve as an impediment for the average secular reader, and it may encourage the (traditional) religiously oriented soul to think in the wrong direction. Nevertheless, our acknowledgment of our part in all of life’s horror must be forthcoming…as we cannot address it otherwise.
Flannery, at the end of the day/to the end of her days, underscored the fact that we are sadly asked to “form our consciences in the light of statistics,” establishing the relative as absolute. Without question, she saw from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy.
For the masses of activists—with a resolve of spiritual purpose at least a notch down from Flannery’s point of departure, to say the least—we must deal with the fact that for the last few centuries we have been operating in a culture which has found no cause for adopting Redemption in any form, no healthy perspective on secular Manichaeism and a predisposition to embrace the repugnant as normal or tolerable.
Just as Flannery felt the need to shout to the spiritually hard of hearing, and draw huge startling figures for the spiritually near-blind, many activists who face hostile opposition (holding different fundamental beliefs than they do) will feel compelled to adopt violence.
If you have any doubts with regard to this, just think about what’ll come down as soon as typical Americans like Cope and Blair’s buddies are finally confronted with the fact that their daily life IS stupid and evil…and not merely thoughtless or different.