Friday, December 11, 2009

The Power of God Has Broken Our Complacency like A Bullet in the Side: Notes of Grace, Illness and Violence in Popular Culture Part 3

Part 1 begins here, and part 2 (on Clement of Rome) continues here.

Flannery O'Connor

When novelist and short story writer Flannery O'Connor spoke to Eastern Lansing High School in 1956, she "said that modern writers must often tell perverse stories to shock a morally blind world. Later, when she addressed Notre Dame that same year, "O'Connor insisted that her own use of the grotesque was meant to convey a shocking Christian vision of original sin. "To the hard of hearing you shout," she said, "and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures." "

What makes O'Connor so phenomenal is not her subject matter – original sin – but in her unwillingness to bring any kind of overarching, omniscient moral voice of judgment against her characters. Rather, along with the creator that Clement describes, she allows her created object to unfold according to its own particular internal logic. Yet even this internal harmony within her stories, grace penetrates, always according to the internal demands of the fallen lives of her characters, through a disjunctive and shocking penetration that nevertheless does not break the rule of harmony.

This layering of order, sin, and grace wasn't always understood by her reviewers. Upon the release of her first novel, Wise Blood, one New Yorker reviewer wrote that "there is a brutality in these stories, but since the brutes are as mindless as their victims, all we have, in the end, is a series of tales about creatures who collide and drown, or survive to float passively in the isolated sea of the author's compassion, which accepts them without reflecting anything." When O'Connor's longtime friend Betty Hester wrote to O'Connor, in response to that same New Yorker review, commenting that these stories really were "about God", O'Connor's response was that it was "startling to me to find someone who recognizes my work for what I try to make it." The New Yorker reviewer wasn't wrong; there certainly is brutality in her stories, and O'Connor does look upon these brutish, colliding, drowning creatures with compassion. What is significant is that O'Connor, in her descriptive narratives of sin and sin's consequence, never withholds compassion until some moral judgment is heard, thus disallowing any abstracted moral high-ground on the part of the observer.

That O'Connor could see so penetratingly into the reality of sin, and nevertheless so unrelentingly disallow any moral omniscience, is not because she was able to divorce her artistic production from her Catholicism, but because she was able to integrate them. She was influenced particularly by Jacques Maritain's lectures on Art and Scholasticism. "Do not make the absurd attempt to sever in yourself the artist and the Christian", wrote Maritain, in a passage that O'Connor marked out in her copy. Writing again to Hester, O'Connor says "I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic. This is a fact and nothing covers it like the bald statement." Biographer Brad Gooch writes of the influence of another Catholic novelist François Mauriac on O'Connor:
"Flannery received from the lost, often amoral characters of this living Catholic novelist the same thrilling permission she received theologically from the Thomist definition of art, in Maritain's Art and Scholasticism, as a "habit of the practical intellect," rather than a speculative or moral activity – the territory of theologians and saints. As Maritain concluded, "The pure artist considered in the abstract as such, is something completely unmoral." The job of the Christian writer, understood in this "thirteenth century" way, was pure devotion to craft, to telling strong stories, even if they involved atheists, hoodlums, or prostitutes . . . As she would later spell out this enabling notion in folksier language to Betty Hester, "you don't have to be good to write well. Much to be thankful for." "
It was dogma that made the reality of sin accessible possible for O'Connor, because as Rowan Williams observes, writing on O'Connor as an artist, belief adds to the artistic vision, rather than subtract from it. O'Connor herself observes that "the Catholic writer, insofar as he has the mind of the Church, will feel life from the standpoint of the central Christian mystery: that it has, for all it's horror, been found by God to be worth dying for." Because of his dogmatic conviction, "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 . . . He feels no need to apologize for the ways of God to man or to avoid looking at the ways of man to God." Williams notes that for O'Connor, "doing justice to the visible world is reflecting the love of God for it, the fact that this world is worth dying for in God's eyes," and that O'Connor "is always taking for granted that God is possible – thinkable or accessible or even manifest – in the most grotesque and empty or cruel situations; she pursues the unacceptable in the ironic faith that the pursuit will vindicate God, at least to the extent that God is intrinsic to whatever is uncovered in the work of writing." If Hester is right, and O'Connor's stories are "about God," they are about a God whose grace, as disruptive as it is, still penetrates the stories according to the structures we live in, the structure and order of sin, but sin that is at once a moment of judgment and grace.

As O'Connor plumbs the depth and meaning of sin, and the infiltration of grace into it through her underlying dogmatic commitments, she is able to let her characters see out their ends according to the aesthetic limitation of coherence and harmony within the work, without any need for an omniscient moral voice. In O'Connor's stories, sin- and violence-as-such without the exercise of rationalization or omniscient judgment apart from the acts themselves, is exactly where and how grace breaks through, albeit imperfectly – imperfectly because grace itself operates according to the world given it, with reference to God's created order able to envelop the disorder of sin with a loving act of re-creation. God, or the creator of the object, allows for the order and coherence of what has been made, but nevertheless is interested in a coherent, disruptive redemption of the disruption itself.

Our single example from O'Connor is her story "The Enduring Chill", where we see a work with coherence, without any stabilizing moral omniscient voice, and with a disruptive grace – though we find this all over her work, in places like her journal (where the title of this paper comes from, as she writes about the death of her father), or in other more specifically violent stories like "A Good Man is Hard to Find", where grace happens at the very moment when a mother recognizes her son in the serial killer putting a bullet in her head. Again, in "The Enduring Chill," the characters engender very little sympathy; their world is rife with sin and death; and there is an explicitly dogmatic interruption that is, while it is entirely disruptive, consistent and coherent with sin, judgment and mercy according to the internal tension of the narrative.

In the story a young writer named Asbury comes home for what he thinks is the last time, convinced that he is dying. Asbury is far less than gracious to his mother, even though she takes him in. Instead, he is irritable and argumentative. After settling into her house, Asbury asks for a visit from a Catholic priest, in order to spite his Protestant mother. Asbury hopes the priest will be an educated and worldly conversation partner; but the priest he gets, Father Finn, is irritable, blind in one eye and deaf in one ear, has no idea who James Joyce is, and would rather exhort his pastoral charge to pray for purity and the salvation of Asbury's atheist sister. Father Finn peppers Asbury with questions from the catechism, ignoring Asbury's attempt at conversation about "the myth of the dying god". Pray for the Holy Ghost, says Father Finn, who will come when Asbury is able to see himself for who he is.

It is Asbury's illness that is his moment of penetrating grace, like the needle that draws Asbury's blood as his doctor quietly sings a hymn. "Though he grew rapidly worse," writes O'Connor, "his mind functioned with a terrible clarity. On the point of death, he found himself existing in a state of illumination." The death that he thought would be his final vindication and opportunity to blame his mother for his artistic inability, becomes a moment of absolute clarity when he is confronted with the truth: he was not going to die. Instead of the inexplicable death sentence he hopes for, Asbury's chills are a result of drinking unpasteurized milk in another, earlier attempt to spite his mother. The result was undulant fever, not fatal, but something that he would live with for many years. This is the moment of clarity described by Father Finn, and Asbury experiences
the beginning of a chill, a chill so peculiar, so light, that it was like a warm ripple across a deeper sea of cold. His breath came short. The fierce bird which through the years of his childhood and the days of his illness had been poised over his head, waiting mysteriously, appeared all at once to be in motion. Asbury blanched and the last film of illusion was torn as if by a whirlwind from his eyes. He saw that for the rest of his days, frail, racked, but enduring, he would live in the face of a purifying terror. A feeble cry, a last impossible protest escaped him. But the Holy Ghost, emblazoned in ice instead of fire, continued, implacable, to descend.
Grace descends, because of his act of malice, not in spite of it, and the judgment of a lifelong chill becomes the very moment that the Holy Ghost falls like a shard of ice. There is no judgment apart from what Asbury has done, and there is no grace but the grace made available because of his chill. Asbury's grace is the Holy Ghost descending, "emblazoned in ice". And it is this world, that of the unlovable and the implacable, that is visited by the descending Holy Ghost, purifying Asbury through his illness, not allowing him to escape it, either through a miraculous healing or even death. His illness, caused by a spiteful act, becomes a terrifying grace.

part 4: Sufjan Stevens