Essays

Flannery O’Connor; An Altogether Difficult Character


I have long been an admirer of Flannery O’Connor’s work, and this admiration has been a difficult one, considering her curious and conflicted views towards race and religion. O’Connor was a woman who was very much a product of her time, and at once transcendent of it. She is an example of the difficulty of separating an artist’s work from what might be considered extreme views, all the while trying to give as much “rope “as  possible for them to exercise aesthetic license in order to draw forth truth…by whatever means necessary. The canon of work left behind, most notably Wise Blood, The Violent Bear it Away, and Everything That Rises Must Converge,  is indisputable proof of her genius, her ability to weave threads of realistic wisdom concerning human experience into the novels,the reading of which catalyzed individual humans  becoming more aware of themselves. It’s Curious that this was probably not her intention concerning the writing of them (the novels).

There are some allowances for genius we must make if we are going to pull the fruit  from the vines, or in some cases haul the pony out of the shit, but we make those allowances because of the value of what we pull forth. I think it’s necessary to deal with the work and life of Flannery O’Connor like that,  as we would the lives and work of Ezra Pound, Hemmingway, or Howlin Wolf.

O’Connor was born in Savannah Georgia in 1925, a town that pulsed with the tensions, struggle, and pain of the experiences of Black people, and the confusion, hatred, ignorance and fractured self-image of White  people. The Sting of the civil war was not far removed, and is still not, in many instances. Black and White were embroiled in a bloodknot , in relationship in perpetuity, like it or not. Blacks were one step removed from slaves, performing many of the same functions of servitude that they had when they were slaves. The difference lay in the degree to which Backs were exploitable flesh. There was just enough space around the black body for attentive whites to observe some cursory aspects of humanity. Cursory in that it was not enough to approximate any exchange between equals. This was the environment that O’Connor was raised in. 

Complicating the racial tensions and struggles in the South of that Era was a strong resentment on the part of Southern Whites regarding their portrayal by “liberal” Northern Whites. The qualifier of liberality meant to express that those same whites were still mired in a racism that was, in its own right, as paternalistic as Southern racism. Southern paternalism functioned on the assumption that we know how to treat “our niggers”, and northern paternalism functioned on the assumption that, like children, blacks needed to constantly be “shown the way home”. Southern Whites resented the northern liberal portrayal of backwardness, ignorance, and violent inclination as being definitive of the southern white character. They resented the fact that these northerners misunderstood the cultural nuances and graces, the sheer complication of the southern way of life, but felt they were qualified to judge this life, this culture, in Toto. O’Connor was not immune to this response, and expressed feeling along this continuum quite often in her correspondences with her great friend Maryat Lee.

O’Connor was by nature critical of sentimentality and emotional drama, never one to dig into the core of the experience of the other and feign understanding  or emotional connection outside the realm of her own experience. This was probably to her detriment in some ways, but also energized her monstrous ability to be both witness and scribe to the evil that is a by-product of our greed, avarice, desire and prurience. She examined these elements of our humanity and built characterizations around them.  So, it is not surprising to me that she could say, concerning trying to understand the “souls of Black folks” as it were:

“I can only see them from the outside. I wouldn’t have the courage . . . to go inside their heads”.

 Of course she would not. It would have been disingenuous for her to do so, and presumptive. Humanity and the truth trumping sentimentality and the need for righteous correctness.

 There is the well-known instance of O’Connor being asked to meet with James Baldwin in Savannah by  Maryat Lee. When Lee wrote her asking her to meet Baldwin she replied:

 No I can’t see James Baldwin in Georgia. It would cause the greatest trouble and disunion. In New York it would be nice to meet him; here it would not. I observe the traditions of the society I feed on—it’s only fair (emphasis mine). Might as well expect a mule to fly as me to see James Baldwin in Georgia”

 On the face of things this might be seen as further indication of deeply imbedded racism. The effect, the personal impact, is indeed racist, and somewhat cowardly. The intent was anything but. The intent was imbedded deeply within a southern psychological construct of always, always, respecting the order of the community. The way of life, the sensitivities of those like yourself you might offend. This was so imbedded in her it was almost an autonomic response. In New York it would be nice to meet him….O’Connor probably felt she was stretching her politeness to write thus much, about a man whom she once said:

About the Negroes, the kind I don’t like is the philosophizing prophesying pontificating kind, the James Baldwin kind. Very ignorant but never silent…[Martin Luther] King I don’t think is the age’s great saint…My question is usually, would this person be endurable if white? If Baldwin were white nobody would stand him a minute.”

I do not believe she saw this statement as an analysis of a Black Man per se. Although she mentions his Blackness, the comment was made concerning a man she saw as  irritating and self-important. She felt the need, in my opinion to mention his Blackness because she felt it thrust against her, like a gauntlet being thrown down. She probably felt that her opinion of his essential “Blackness” mattered little in the context of what troubled her (in her view) about Baldwin as a man. She obviously would not have held much admiration for him if he were White.

 O’Connor’s following words are probably the most indicative of how she truly saw the world and its inhabitants, all of its inhabitants, independent of race, creed, or religion:

Love and understanding are one and the same only in God. Who do you think you understand? If anybody, you delude yourself. I love a lot of people, understand none of them. This is not perfect love but as much as a finite creature can be capable of.”

 Again, she professes her ignorance of the understanding of any individual. O’Connor was first and foremost concerned with our collective nature, with the truth about humanity, not individual humans. She knew a damnable amount about many individual humans, but contributed a universe of significance to our understanding of human nature, writ large.

 It is most interesting that O’Connor’s response to the impetus of the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement was to say that “she did not understand” how anyone could not see any efforts to improve the situation in the South concerning race relations as not being a good thing. This is not surprising, because it is not an elicited opinion at the expense of the reality of the southern way of life. It is an independent assessment of what is right to do concerning the treatment of humans, not an adversarial trap, to her possible thinking.

 In the end, genius that recognizes the truth must be given its way. Flannery O’Connor was a difficult character, but one who ultimately left behind much more illumination than shadow.

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