Saturday, August 25, 2018

Flannery O’Connor’s Christian Realism

That many of Flannery O'Connor's early admirers had no idea they were reading the work of a deeply committed Catholic is little surprise. Her stories are mordant and gruesome to a degree incompatible with the image of the "Christian writer”. The Christian writer is imagined to be a pious and blinkered sort, and must be, above all, inoffensive. O'Connor was none of this. Shot through with mania and black humor, often violent, her writing cuts deep, and left many early readers wondering how such narratives could also be Catholic. Where were the edifying homilies, the clean cut role models? It was a paradox they were unable to resolve. How could O’Connor’s Catholicism bring her to focus on such things?  

For O'Connor, such readers were taking things backwards. Her fiction, with all its darkness and perversity, was only possible because of what she could see through the eyes of the Church. Her task was to depict the world as seen through Catholic doctrine. That doctrine was emphatically not a matter of putting on rose-colored glasses. O’Connor called it “Christian realism”.

O'Connor's ideas of what she was up to in her brutally realistic stories make for one of the strongest Christian apologies for literature left us by the last century. Though she never wrote a book on this Catholic poetics, her ideas cohere into a strong, unified vision of the Christian writer. But one must look for these ideas spread across her correspondence and a few brief essays.

Ralph Ellsberg's collection Flannery O'Connor: Spiritual Writings is an excellent place to find some of O'Connor's strongest statements on the art of fiction. It was Ellsberg's wise decision as editor of this compact collection to include not only the writer's musings about the faith per se, but also her arguments on the technique and purpose of writing novels and stories. Spiritual Writings contains key passages from the writer’s letters, essays and stories, as well as one complete story, "Revelation."  There's also a biographical introduction by Richard Giannone. 

Readers wanting to make a strong start on O'Connor couldn't do better than read the stories alongside the writer's statements here on her beliefs and goals. Spiritual Writings is the best short collection available.

Below I offer a few key passages found in the volume, most of them from O'Connor's correspondence.


From Spiritual Writings:  

I am mighty tired of reading reviews that call A Good Man [Is Hard to Find] brutal and sarcastic. The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. I believe that there are many rough beasts now slouching toward Bethlehem to be born and that I have reported the progress of a few of them, and when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror. (1955)  


To see Christ as God and man is probably no more difficult today than it has always been, even if today there seem to be more reasons to doubt. For you it may be a matter of not being able to accept what you call a suspension of the laws of the flesh and the physical, but for my part I think that when I know what the laws of the flesh and the physical really are, then I will know what God is. (1955)  


Mystery isn't something that is gradually evaporating. It grows along with knowledge. (1962)  


The serious writer has always taken the flaw in human nature for his starting point, usually the flaw in an otherwise admirable character. (1963)  


In the gospels it was the devils who first recognized Christ and the evangelists didn't censor this information. They apparently thought it was pretty good witness. It scandalizes us when we see the same thing in modern dress only because we have this defensive attitude toward the faith. (1963)  


What kept me a skeptic in college was precisely my Christian faith. It always said: wait, don't bite on this, get a wider picture, continue to read. (1962)  


The novelist is required to create the illusion of a whole world with believable people in it, and the chief difference between the novelist who is an orthodox Christian and the novelist who is merely a naturalist is that the Christian novelist lives in a larger universe. He believes that the natural world contains the supernatural. And this doesn't mean that his obligation to portray the natural is less; it means it is greater.     


The novelist is required to open his eyes on the world around him and look. If what he sees is not highly edifying, he is still required to look. Then he is required to reproduce, with words, what he sees. Now this is the first point at which the novelist who is a Catholic may feel some friction between what he is supposed to do as a novelist and what he is supposed to do as a Catholic, for what he sees at all times is fallen man perverted by false philosophies. Is he to reproduce this? Or is he to change what he sees and make it, instead of what it is, what in the light of faith he thinks it ought to be? Is he, As Baron von Hügel has said, to "tidy up reality"?     

There is no reason why fixed dogma should fix anything that the writer sees in the world. On the contrary, dogma is an instrument for penetrating reality. … The Catholic fiction writer is entirely free to observe. He feels no call to take on the duties of God or to create a new universe. … For him, to "tidy up reality" is certainly to succumb to the sin of pride. Open and free observation is founded on our ultimate faith that the universe is meaningful, as the Church teaches.    

The fiction writer should be characterized by his kind of vision. His kind of vision is prophetic vision. Prophecy, which is dependent on the imaginative and not the moral faculty, need not be a matter of predicting the future. The prophet is a realist of distances, and it is this kind of realism that goes into great novels. It is the realism which does not hesitate to distort appearances in order to show a hidden truth.     

For the Catholic novelist, the prophetic vision is not simply a matter of his personal imaginative gift; it is also a matter of the Church's gift, which, unlike his own, is safeguarded and deals with greater matters. It is one of the functions of the Church to transmit the prophetic vision that is good for all time, and when the novelist has this as a part of his own vision, he has a powerful extension of sight.     

It is, unfortunately, a means of extension which we constantly abuse by thinking that we can close our own eyes and that the eyes of the Church will do the seeing. They will not. … When the Catholic novelist closes his own eyes and tries to see with the eyes of the Church, the result is another addition to that large body of pious trash for which we have so long been famous. ("Catholic Novelists and Their Readers," 1964)

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