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Flannery O’Connor & the “Literary Temple”


By Bruce L. Edwards Jr. | April 1984
Bruce L. Edwards Jr. is Assistant Professor of English at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

Few post-World War II writers have spoken as articulately and as compellingly about their craft and about the relationship of their fiction to its perceived audience as Flannery O’Connor. In her occasional prose, in her published letters, and in the newly published collection of her book re­views, O’Connor evinced an uncommonly percep­tive grasp of her readers and the society in which they lived. The late John Gardner captured the O’Connor spirit in his book On Moral Fiction when he observed, “Art that tries hard to tell the truth unretouched is difficult and often offensive. It tears down our heroes and heart-warming convic­tions, violates our canons of politeness and hu­mane compromise.” “The truth unretouched” is an O’Connoresque phrasing and recalls her own adamantly expressed stance:

For I am no disbeliever in spiritual pur­pose and no vague believer. I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption in Christ and what I see in the world I see in relation to that. I don’t think that this is a position that can be taken halfway or one that is particularly easy in these times to make transparent in fiction.

O’Connor was hardly naïve about the difficulty of her task: proclaiming such orthodoxy to modern readers was problematic on two scores. First, they rarely recognized orthodoxy for what it was in the muzak of religious clatter and commotion; second­ly, when they did recognize it, they rejected it out of hand as meaningless and unscientific baggage from a backward time.

O’Connor peered into demythologized and desacralized 20th-century society and, without blinking, confronted both the apathy and the ran­cor with which modern culture meets the religious and the supernatural Moreover, to shake and sharpen the sensibilities of a culture made lethargic by the heritage of American civil religion, she turn­ed to shock, to the literally awe-ful and the grotesque, to proclaim her gospel. The would-be Christian writer who was “no vague believer” found herself in a dilemma she considered unique to Christian writers, a dilemma characterized well by her fellow Southeern Roman Catholic writer Walker Percy:

How does the [Christian writer] set about writing, having cast his lot with a discredited Christendom and having in­herited a defunct vocabulary? He does the only thing he can do. Like Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, he calls on every ounce of cunning, craft and guile he can muster from the darker regions of his soul. The fictional use of violence, shock, insult, the bizarre, are the everyday tools of his trade.

O’Connor’s single-minded devotion to making the Christian world view both “seeable” and cred­itable to readers and critics led her to herald a Christ who bears little resemblance to the “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” of childhood hymnody, and still less to the celebrity Jesus of the evangelical churches who operates a bank of toll-free numbers for prospective “saints.” O’Connor’s Christ is a Tiger who disturbs and terrorizes; “bleeding stink­ing mad,” He “upsets the balance around here,” winning men or driving them away. One thinks here especially of one O’Connor protagonist, Hazel Motes, evangelist for the “Church without Christ” in Wise Blood. Motes fought ferociously to avoid that Jesus who was

moving from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild, ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and suddenly know it and drown.

Motes is a child of the fundamentalist South, but in O’Connor’s economy he is also Everyman: those who refuse Christ’s offer to help them, force Him to haunt them. O’Connor used sudden death, disease, or trauma to depict the devastating en­counter with Christ one must have to live truly in this world and for the one to come. Worse things than death could befall a person made in God’s im­age; her characters more often than not must be brought to the brink of crisis or death in order to see themselves as they are, in dire need of repen­tance and grace. Those O’Connor characters who attempt to redeem themselves with errant scientism or sheer intellectualism meet a savage Savior, manifested in a bull, a haunting dream, or a terrify­ing vision, who will not release them until they confess their sins or utterly denounce Him. There is no middle ground, no neutral corner; all who are not with Him are against Him.

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