April 20, 2002
Years ago, an acquaintance made an interesting statement: concerning one’s appearance, he said that it really isn’t so much a matter of how good-looking one is as how distinctive are one’s features; to him, this was the single most important ingredient for the power of attraction one holds over others. The same could be said for the literary world, for while all good literature alike embraces the universal truths of what it means to be a human being—to love, to hate, to yearn, to hope, to live, to die—it is often the pieces with special distinction that stand out most in our minds. 2 A case in point is the work of late American author Flannery O’Connor.
O’Connor’s short stories, set almost entirely in the South shortly after World War II, carry both distinction and memorability, easily bringing to mind the paintings of Norman Rockwell. Much of Rockwell’s subject matter consists of rough-hewn, backwoods people, would-be Southern belles, youngsters with knobby knees and freckles—in a word, simple small-town folks—much like the characters of O’Connor. Further, when Rockwell paints, he has the amazing ability to capture the awkwardness of humanity in exaggerated yet convincing ways, as does O’Connor with her verbal caricatures. Given that O’Connor never abandoned a long-time interest in producing cartoon characters, such an analogous parallel is afforded further warrant, Rockwell providing the near-perfect pictorial bridge between O’Connor’s prints and her prose. Yet comparing Flannery O’Conner’s caricatures to Norman Rockwell paintings is still a somewhat inadequate description. While some of Rockwell’s characters had a grotesque quality about them, it is deathly paled to O’Connor’s use of violence as a common motif within the so-called Southern Gothic genre she embodied.
We said O’Connor was interested in creating cartoons: her preferred method was a technique called linocut 3 in which an artist etches linoleum to produce a print relief; she acquired this skill between 1939 and 1942 while attending the Peabody Laboratory (High) School in Milledgeville, Georgia. She also served as the arts editor for the school’s newsletter The Palladium, a publication frequently adorned with her artwork.
It was apparently during this Milledgeville period that her first cartoons were published, though she did not have much overall success with the medium. 4 Her next cartooning stint came when she enrolled in Georgia State College for Women (GSCW), where she was arts editor of The Colonnade, the bi-weekly newspaper that featured her cartoons until her graduation in 1945. The professors at GSCW, however, treated cartooning contemptuously, an irritation to O’Connor, who could see no difference in the relative status between this medium, her painting, and her literary endeavors. 5
Her senior year she was appointed as the features editor of GSCW’s yearbook The Spectrum, a post in which she abandoned linocut methodologies in favor of splattering pages with her more conventional charcoal or ink renditions. It was during this same year that her role as author began to emerge to the fore, particularly when she became editor of the campus literary magazine The Corinthian, though even here, she could not resist the temptation to adorn the paper’s pages of poetry and prose with linocut and spot illustration. The apex of her college career arrived when she was inaugurated into the Phoenix Society, an honor conferred only GSCW’s crème de la crème. 6 She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social science, a fitting field of study for one soon to achieve such great renown for her clever caricatures of humanity.
Moving on to the Writer’s Workshop at the then State University of Iowa (now the University of Iowa), she dropped her first name, Mary, in favor of the shortened Flannery O’Connor by which we know her best today. 7 Writing—short stories and a burgeoning novel—was increasingly becoming her central focus, though even here American political cartoons and advanced courses in drawing were a staple in her curriculum.
In 1951, she was diagnosed with lupus erythematosus, the terminal disease that had fatally smitten her father just ten years earlier. In light of this discovery, she concentrated her efforts on contributing what she could to the world, knowing the sword of Damocles hung precariously over her head by its proverbial thread. 8 On August 3, 1964, the silver cord was severed, claiming O’Connor at the age of 39. 9, 10
The description of “Southern Gothic” applied to O’Connor’s prose is itself interesting: she was born in Savannah, a town nearly 160 miles away from Milledgeville, where the O’Connors lived until Flannery was twelve. The little town with its “sloping trees draped with Spanish Moss that appear almost as ornaments” and “its picturesque carriage rides” sports the skyscraping Cathedral of St. John the Baptist directly across the square from Flannery’s childhood home. 11 Every day that young Mary Flannery looked up, its lofty Gothic presence was certain to be there, soaring high above in the Southern sky, a mental image further reinforced by the family’s frequenting there and its centrality to her enrollment in parochial training at St. Vincent’s and Sacred Heart. 12
That Flannery was a devout Christian of the Roman Catholic faith, seeing it as the towering mystery overarching her Southern “storyscapes,” there is no doubt. Perhaps the most widely quoted self-description of her own writing is from her essay “The Fiction Writer and His Country”:
The novelist with Christian concerns will find modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures. 13
An examination of O’Connor’s stories soon reveals many such recurrent themes: disfigurement, shallowness, pettiness, naïveté, hypocrisy, and an overall ugliness, badness, and meanness of character woven together into a sort of dark comedy. Almost always, some shocking act of violence acts as the catalyst by which the protagonists are forced to face their own inner poverty. In this regard, she has much in common with Søren Kierkegaard, the late nineteenth-century Danish thinker hailed as the father of existentialism.
Kierkegaard was especially drawn to themes of self-sacrifice and salvific suffering, in no little part due to his Lutheran father’s own obsessions with the Christian faith. Much like Flannery’s method of approach, his writings were not immediately obvious in their orthodox underpinnings, for he employed what he defined as “indirect communication”; that is, he painted predicaments that only the Christian answer could satisfy fully rather than offering pious solutions. “An illusion can never be destroyed directly,” he wrote, “and only by indirect means can it be radically removed.” 14 In this way, he endeavored to indirectly point the reader toward Christ, the only answer he believed would ever afford any lasting meaning or solution.
Like the Danish philosopher, on one level O’Connor was very adamant that her stories function first and foremost as just that: stories. Her patience wore thin when people tried to dissect her writing in order to condense it down into a fixed meaning; much like Kierkegaardian existentialism, she maintained that the meaning of a story was to be found in the story itself: in “an experience, not an abstraction.” 15 Yet on another level akin to Kierkegaard the Christian theologian there was a deeper meaning being conveyed: one that portrayed her world-view with startling clarity, once understood.
“A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way,” she writes, “and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.” 16 Only after one has read and enjoyed the story for the story’s sake can one begin to go through the process of understanding, an act O’Connor saw as being far removed from understanding itself. 17 Such a process entails discussing the story and mulling over its particulars to be certain, but it does not involve isolating a meaning apart from the story; rather the meaning becomes the story’s natural extension just as we would lose something if we crushed a flower to get at its fragrance; rather, we best enjoy its aroma—along with its natural beauty—precisely because it is the flower that it is.
Yet not all is rose-colored in O’Connnor’s work. She describes her characters as being so hardheaded that nothing short of an act of violence will give them pause to critically examine their lives. Over and above this climatic use of aggression, violence has its heavenly parallels as well, for, as she alludes to in the words of Jesus: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.” 18 Such a mixture of ferocity and faith is O’Connor’s recipe for the distinction that makes her stand out from autres—her fellow men and women of letters—whether we call her power one of attraction or its inverse.
Perhaps most interesting to O’Connor was the essential mystery of life, a theme implicit in even the most grotesque elements of her tales. In “A Reasonable Use of the Unreasonable,” O’Connnor speaks of her quest to understand the mechanism and mystery behind a good story:
I often ask myself what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as a story, and I have decided that it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicated where the real heart of the story lies. This would have to be an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity. The action or gesture I’m talking about would have to be on the anagogical level, that is, the level which has to do with the Divine life and our participation in it. It would be a gesture that transcended any neat allegory that might have been intended or any pat moral categories a reader could make. It would be a gesture which somehow made contact with reality. 19
In the same essay, she describes belief “as the engine which makes perception operate”; seeing the world as she does through the eyes of Christian orthodoxy, the temporal realm of man and the eternal realm of God are inextricably linked. This union of earthly and Divine is to her an almost unfathomable enigma, and it is by the light of this sacred mystery that she weaves her Southern yarns.
The shy, introverted Southern girl who died young and never married viewed life through the peculiar child-eyes of faith, wonder, and mystery—and a strange twist of macabre. When she cast her gaze about, she had an eye for the unusual and a gift for being able to capture it, be that through her linocut, painting, or prose. Perhaps she understood well what my acquaintance told me so many years ago: it isn’t so much about pleasant appearances, but about distinction. Is this why her stories stick in one’s mind so, troubling one, compelling one to pause and reflect on life from rarefied angles of distinction only O’Connor could capture with her unique perspective of the world, filtered through the shallow caricatured Southerners of her imagination with all their many maladies and faith afflictions?
Could there be something to this Kiekegaardian idea of “indirect communication” after all? Is existence more meaningful than the abstractions we supply it? is truth more than dogma? So many mysteries ripped open, their innards spilling out, the blood-red sunrise casting its ghastly hue on the reader’s face, twisted and contorted purple, looking for all the world like a man gasping for his last dying breath, until at last falling upon his ears he hears “the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hellelujah.” 20
Hellelujah to the Highest, indeed!
See http://www.chalcos.it/technique/linocut.htm for additional information on this technique.
Linoleum is made of a combination of linseed oil, ground cork, and gum spread on a canvas or burlap backing, creating a smooth, compact surface that can easily be engraved using gouges. This technique is not different from woodcut as the finished prints have the same aspect, but linoleum is easier to work than wood, as there are no knots and it is flexible, offering itself to fluid, spontaneous drawings. This material was patented by F. Walton in 1863 and has been used to make matrices for relief printing since the first years of this century.
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