Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Flannery O'Connor's Mean Streak

I just read "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor.  Another one of her brutal horrifying tales that is supposed to somehow give us a glimpse of God's grace. I'm not saying it doesn't, and she was undoubtedly a great writer. But I wonder if there are other ways to show that. Despite all the fancy explanations of her work (by her and others), I sometimes feel that woman had, as they used to say, a "mean streak."

In her talk about the story she speaks about violence in modern stories: " my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world." And further: "Violence is a force which can be used for good or evil, and among other things taken by it is the kingdom of heaven.

And there, in my opinion, we get to the heart of it. As a Catholic who went to church every day while growing up, she was raised in an inherently violent religion that has been responsible for the suffering and death of millions of people. She was inculcated with the belief that eternal good can only come out of violent mortal suffering. And so, she creates ridiculous coincidences in order to put a family in the hands of killers so that they can be slaughtered in cold blood, just in order for a moment of grace to be provided for the main killer (or the grandmother or both, or hell, neither, depending on your viewpoint).

I am not against violence in literature, and I agree with her when she states, "With the serious writer, violence is never an end in itself." But when she says, "It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially than in the tenor of our daily lives," this comes from a belief system. I would not argue that it may in some ways be true, but extreme situations do not have to always be violent ones. And, I believe essential aspects of us, such as deep love for another person, nature, or the divine, can come about spontaneously in our day to day lives. Many of the great mystical experiences did not happen in foxholes, but during walks in nature or simply stepping from here to there. Extreme violent situations might just as easily reveal aspects of someone's nature that are in fact "false," in the sense that they may only be physical responses to danger created by adrenalin and other chemicals that alter our mental state at the time. If a lion is chewing on your leg and you shoot it in the head, that doesn't mean that you're actually an animal hater. So, again, this comes from her religious beliefs and may be true in some cases and in other cases, be a complete red herring.

I suppose her stories would not have been as fascinating or sold as well if they were about people going on vision quests alone in the wild, praying and meditating alone for hours, or working to provide the basic necessities for the extreme poor in adverse conditions. And her upbringing with an inherently violent religious worldview helped make her choice for her.

And speaking of saving graces, despite the horror and drama, her stories are also hilarious, and that is the reason I still find them palatable.

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