Grace, Necessity and Imagination: Catholic Philosophy and the Twentieth Century Artist - Lecture 3: 'Flannery
Thursday 10th February 2005Clark Lectures, Trinity College, Cambridge. A lecture by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.
In 1957, Mary Flannery O'Connor sent a copy of Art and Scholasticism to a friend, describing it as 'the book I cut my aesthetic teeth on, though I think even some of the things he says get soft at times'. 'Soft' may be an odd word to use of Maritain (I shall be trying later to work out why she uses it), but it is certainly a word no-one would readily use of O'Connor herself. Her letters and essays, like her fiction, reflect an uncompromising intellect, unfashionable, sceptical and satirical, almost destructive; most of her adult life was spent at her mother's home in rural Georgia, since the onset of lupus, which killed her at the age of thirty-nine, had prevented her living alone, and she had decided to return to her roots. Her involvement with the respectable society of Milledgeville, as chronicled in her letters, was a constant exercise in irony, sometimes benevolent, sometimes less so. A cradle Catholic, unlike Maritain and David Jones, she was a robust defender of orthodox doctrine and traditional devotion, as well as being a scathing critic of religious subculture. Some of her most pungent observations are to do with assumptions about 'Catholic art' which insist that such art should be edifying and moral; this, she argues, plays straight into the hands of critics of the Church who hold that dogmatic belief incapacitates a creative writer. On the contrary: '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 its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for.'(MM 146) And this means that the Catholic writer is precisely someone who cannot rule out any subject matter; belief adds a dimension to what is seen, it does not take anything away (150). '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 apologise for the ways of God to man or to avoid looking at the ways of man to God' (178). This imposes on the Catholic writer a dangerous task, since she has to deal with matters that may indeed be 'occasions of sin', subjects that expose the worst in humanity. And while 'to look at the worst will be for [the writer] no more than an act of trust in God' (148), it may be a source of danger for the reader.
This can be a paralysing prospect, a Medusa that turns the writer to stone, in O'Connor's forceful image (cf 187). It can only be dealt with by the asceticism that concentrates on what is actually to be done, the logic and integrity of the work to be made. To ask about possible moral consequences is to interrupt this integrity. But the paradoxical point is that if the writer urgently wants to lay bare a moral universe or a dogmatic structure, she has to do so exclusively in the terms of the work itself, not by introducing a moral excursus or by holding back because of possible undesirable results in a vulnerable reader. Of course, she would say, the work is propagandist in the sense that it claims truthful vision and seeks to recreate that vision in the reader; but it must do this by not interfering in what is seen. Belief, remember, adds to vision and does not subtract; the plausibility of a work of fiction dealing with humanity's relation to God is inseparable from its refusal to make easy or tidy up the data of a recognisable world. On this, it is worth quoting her at length:
'This means that [the work] must carry its meaning inside it. It means that any abstractly expressed compassion or piety or morality in a piece of fiction is only a statement added to it. It means that you can't make an inadequate dramatic action complete by putting a statement of meaning on the end of it or in the middle of it or at the beginning of it. It means that when you write fiction you are speaking with character and action, not about character and action (MM75-6).'
Here is her clearest statement of what Maritain's aesthetic means applied to fiction; and one of its interesting corollaries is that the retreat from fictional narrative of the visible presence of a narrator focuses us more directly on the actual task of fiction. In an important sense, the narrator must not 'speak'; the action and the character must. Thus they must have the realised life, the wholeness, that the action of a work demands. Self-expression is ruled out; what matters is the search for the internal necessity of a work. 'Strangle that word dreams', she wrote to the friend to whom she had sent Maritain; 'You don't dream up a form and put the truth in it. The truth creates its own form. Form is necessity in the work of art. You know what you mean but you ain't got the right words for it' (HB 218, cf MM153). In a lecture on 'The Nature and Aim of Fiction', she quotes Aquinas on art as 'reason in making', glossing this as meaning that for the artist 'to be reasonable is to find, in the object, in the situation, in the sequence, the spirit which makes it itself' (MM82). And because 'dogma is an instrument for penetrating reality' (178), religious belief should be an aid to 'reason in making – that is, to the discernment of what truly is in the environment so that this active content can be understood by being re-embodied in the artist's labour.
So: the fiction writer is out to 'do justice' to the world, in a phrase of Conrad's which O'Connor obviously liked (HB128, MM 80 and 157); but to believe nothing is to see nothing, and every artist, like it or not, works with a framework of assumptions about humanity and its world (91). The visible appearances that are the indispensable building blocks of the writer's work are already organised in this way or that; and the claim of Catholic doctrine is that it offers the most comprehensive, least selective way of reading the world that could be imagined because it identifies the real finally with the good (a point we have seen in David Jones), in the strongest possible sense – the sense for which the good must be the loveable, or perhaps is good because it is loved. 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. The tightrope that the Catholic writer must walk is to forget or ignore nothing of the visually, morally, humanly sordid world, making nothing easy for the reader, while doing so in the name of a radical conviction that depends on that world being interrupted and transfigured by revelation. The event that disrupts and questions and changes the world is precisely what obliges the artist not to try and recreate it from scratch. Irony is going to be unavoidable in this exercise.
It is not a word we have encountered much so far in this discussion. For O'Connor, the artist takes the risk of uncovering the world within the world of visible things as a way of 'doing justice', confident because of her commitment that what is uncovered will be the 'reason' in things, a consonance that is well beyond any felt harmony or system of explanation but is simply a coherence and connectedness always more than can be seen or expressed. Because of this trust, she can push towards the limits of what is thinkable and 'acceptable', let alone edifying. She is always taking for granted that God is possible even 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. It is a sort of transcription of George Herbert's poetic technique of licensing more and more violent expressions of rebellion in the confidence that they will be halted and absorbed in the divine word that interrupts; but the irony is deeper because here you have to imagine voices and histories other than your own in which God's freedom must be lured into appearing by testing the moral limits of a situation.
What's more, in a cultural environment where grace is not part of an expected or understood landscape, it is only by such extreme irony that grace can be made to be 'natural'. 'You have to make your vision apparent by shock' says O'Connor (MM34, cf 185)), given that 'the supernatural is an embarrassment today even to many of the churches' (163). 'The supernatural' here does not of course mean the paranormal, but the action of God, perceived as it touches the human condition in ways that open up a radically 'other' depth in things. It is both deeply strange to the created order, which can get along without it for practical purposes, or thinks it can (a good neo-Thomist point), yet also familiar and usual, that upon which the ordinary constantly opens. So the Catholic writer of fiction must offer a recognisable world that is also utterly unexpected – just as we noted with David Jones the tension between 'an affection for the intimate creatureliness of things' and the metamorphosis that somehow recognises the excess in things, their giving of themselves for surplus significance and meaning. Translated into the fiction writer's terms, this means that the Catholic novelist like O'Connor has to create agents in fiction who embody excess of meaning and whose relations with each other and with the otherness of God are not limited by the visible, though inconceivable without the visible. The uncompromising specificity of the dogma of the Incarnation and the action of the Mass again becomes a key to the artist's task: the infinite cannot be directly apprehended, so we must take appearance seriously; it is the infinite that is being apprehended, so we must take appearance seriously enough to read its concealments and stratagems (MM 163): 'He's tricked me before with his manifold lurking places'.
'The prophet is a realist of distances, and it is this kind of realism that goes into great novels' (MM179). A realist of distances, like David Jones painting objects as dark against a bright sky in his face, or making a landscape's contour into a complex surface, creates details, creates figures that seem unreal if we stand too close, yet whose words and acts and interrelations emerge as the real substructure of the human landscape. This illuminates also what O'Connor says about what she thinks makes a story work as a story – 'some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies... both totally right and totally unexpected...both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both time and eternity' (MM111). It would be an act that, theologically, represented our participation in God's action; but not an allegory of divine action or a moral lesson. Thus the pivotal point of a fiction is a moment when the irony is most intense; it is not that the finite rises to a degree of sublimity but that the actuality of grace is uncovered in a deliberately intensified gracelessness without doing violence to the narrative surface.
What exactly does she mean? She herself refers to a well-known and much anthologised story of hers, 'A Good Man is Hard to Find', which describes a tediously squabbling family on an outing which ends in horror. They get lost, the car turns over in a ditch, and the first vehicle to stop in this desolate setting contains an escaped convict, a psychopathic murderer. Quietly and purposefully, he and his companions kill the family one by one; the last to die is the muddled and selfish grandmother, who has inadvertently been responsible for getting them lost. Inarticulate with fear, she mutters, 'Jesus! Jesus!' and tries to tell the killer to pray.
'"Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead." The Misfit continued, "and he shouldn't have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can...It ain't right I wasn't there because if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn't be like I am now." His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother's head cleared for an instant. She saw the man's face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!"'
He recoils and kills her. Why is this a moment of 'grace'? Because, says O'Connor, 'she realizes, even in her limited way, that she is responsible for the man before her and joined to him by ties of kinship which have their roots deep in the mystery she has been merely prattling about so far' (MM111-2). It is a risk-charged incident, veering towards sentimentality and brutally pulled back. In Maritain's terms, it is an imaginative movement that takes hold of a 'pulsion', a connection or rhythm: something unites the grandmother and the criminal, enables the grandmother to recognise some sense in which she is not only part of the same family as the Misfit but his parent, part of what has made him who he is. Her own petty sins and self-obsessions and self-delusions are involved in making a world in which he is possible; but her recognition of this is also a moment of compassion, not of self-loathing. So she speaks the truth, unusually, but in a way that is, as O'Connor suggests, not a denial of who we have found her to be in the whole narrative.
The same impulse is at work in O'Connor's second novel, The Violent Bear it Away, first published in 1955, though it is if anything even darker and more complex as an evocation of grace. The work took her a long time to complete, and it is intriguing to see in one or two of the short stories of the early fifties her first attempts at some of the themes and even characters of the finished work. Briefly, this is a novel about obsession and rationality, and about faith and baptism. Mason Tarwater is a prophet, a vivid, grotesque old man living on a remote smallholding with his orphaned teenage great-nephew, Francis Marion Tarwater. He has abducted the boy from the home of his nephew, Francis's uncle, Rayber; just as, years before, he had taken Rayber himself from his indifferent and feckless parents. But Rayber had left him, rejecting the old man's faith and the prophetic vocation; he has married and has a mentally retarded son, now abandoned by his mother. The old man dies and Francis, with nowhere else to turn, hitches a ride to the city and lands up on Rayber's doorstep.
Old Tarwater has impressed on Francis that he must follow the prophetic calling too; and part of that vocation will be to baptise Rayber's little boy, Bishop. He will receive confirmatory signs as to when he must do this. Rayber greets the teenage boy with initial delight at the opportunity of educating him out of his blind and distorted faith. But young Tarwater is a profoundly damaged, fearful, resentful child, who cannot shake off his great-uncle's presence; from the start, his relation with Bishop is charged with terror and panic, as Bishop stands for the calling he is eager to forget, yet cannot. As the story unfolds, we learn that Rayber, who loves the small child helplessly and mutely, has in the past tried to drown him, unable to bear the burden of his own compassion. He challenges and goads young Tarwater, increasingly despairing of making any contact; he admits to him his attempt to kill the child. Eventually Tarwater himself drowns the child – partly to prove to Rayber that he can do what Rayber can't, and to free himself from the haunting presence of the old man. As he kills the child, he finds himself saying the formula of baptism. He runs away in greater turmoil than ever, and is drugged and raped by a passing motorist. When he returns to the smallholding, he finds that his great-uncle's body – which he thought had been burned in the fire he kindled as he left the house – has been properly buried by a black neighbour and the cross has been erected on the grave. All through the book, Tarwater has been unable to eat properly, fasting and vomiting; at this point he suddenly has a hallucinatory vision of the feeding of the five thousand (a scene described for him earlier by the old man as what lies ahead in heaven, provoking a sort of horror in the boy at a hunger that splits the bottom out of his stomach; p.21), and he becomes 'aware at last of the object of his hunger, aware that it was the same as the old man's and that nothing on earth would fill him'. And he knows that he has no option but to 'sustain' that hunger, along with all those others throughout the ages, 'strangers from that violent country where the silence is never broken except to shout the truth' (241, 242).
Grace, but not as we know it? It is a story that shocked at the time of its publication and still has the capacity to make the reader intensely uneasy. Part of the unease is that the laconic narration unsettles any clarity about the emotional perspective we ought to be adopting. The teenage boy's feelings are rigorously kept within the frame of what is possible for him – an emotionally starved and injured child from one point of view; a fully grown sceptic and critic of what and who he encounters from another. We follow his perceptions and are given no easy handle for empathy. Paradoxically, the figure of Rayber, who represents what is in O'Connor's world most seriously destructive, is the one through whose eyes we see most, physically and emotionally; and because he is so manifestly the enemy of young Tarwater, we are left uncomfortable at the empathy he prompts. He utters the platitudes of a moderately educated progressive and sceptical pedagogue; but his inner life is as emotionally tormented as Tarwater's. His relatively greater self-awareness only serves to highlight the tension between his banal philosophy and his terrible internal suffering – the pain he feels in his love for both children, especially his love for Bishop, 'love without reason, love for something futureless, love that appeared to exist only for itself' (113). And this 'horrifying love' will, he knows, overflow into the whole of his world if it is not kept focused on the child. He fails to kill him because he has 'a moment of complete terror in which he envisioned his life without the child'(142); he cannot imagine living with that dreadful pointless compassion set free to seek for other objects. (the point is developed in a letter of July 1962 to Alfred Corn, HB 484).
So the revelation of grace, here as in 'A Good Man is Hard to Find', is a revelation of unseen solidarity. Young Tarwater is hungry for more than the world can supply; Rayber suffers from the drag of a 'futureless' love that wants and needs only itself as love and seeks no outcome. They are both 'excessive' people, who are more than they are and see in the world more than it is. Yet they are both also appallingly wounded people. In a highly charged scene halfway through the book, Rayber discovers that Tarwater has left his house in the night to slip away to a church, where he hears a six year old child preacher proclaiming the gospel. Rayber eavesdrops and hears the child speaking of the flight into Egypt: '"The world hoped old Herod would slay the right child, the world hoped old Herod wouldn't waste those children, but he wasted them. He didn't get the right one. Jesus grew up and raised the dead."' And Rayber protests silently that Jesus did not raise the dead the Lord himself had killed – Tarwater, Bishop, himself as a child, children scarred and ruined by their contact with him. By the end of the book, the question of dead children has become central to the whole world of the narrative. When Herod sets out to kill Jesus, he kills every child but Jesus: Rayber and Tarwater between them kill Bishop because both are trying to kill Christ. But they are trying to kill Christ because they have encountered grace as a death sentence.
This is no easy solidarity, not even the complex recognition of the Misfit by the grandmother. It is an uncovering of the tragic within grace; the violence in love, to borrow Gillian Rose's phrase. Grace is concrete and specific, it raises the dead; but, as the child evangelist goes on to say, the world wants to say, 'Leave the dead lie'. As for the Misfit –and as for Hazel Motes, the central figure of O'Connor's first novel, Wise Blood, who founds the 'Church Without Christ' - Jesus has 'thrown everything off balance.' And 'Rayber saw himself fleeing with the child to some enclosed garden where he would teach her the truth, where he would gather all the exploited children of the world and let the sunshine flood their minds'. His passionate desire to teach children their mortality is both a real and disinterested love and a terrible longing to contain love within finite boundaries only. Teaching mortality alone is, it seems, itself fatal. No wonder that O'Connor said that she had spent most of the seven years of working on the novel refining the character of Rayber (HB353); he could have been a caricature or a wholly unsympathetic figure – like the kindred character of Sheppard, the militant agnostic father in the later story, 'The Lame Shall Enter First', who, like Rayber, struggles to love an unlovable teenager into reasonable adult life and colludes in destroying his own small son in the process. It reads almost as an alternative vehicle for issues not fully explored in the novel, the not-quite-finished business of the threefold relation of vulnerable child, rational father and adolescent disturber. She wrote in a letter about the kinship between Tarwater and the disturbed boy Johnson – 'one of his terrible cousins' (HB 456) – in this story; and it is again a story of how passionate rationalism with its insistence on mortality combines with a distorted and obsessional relation with the divine to produce a real child's death. But she also admitted (HB491) that she had failed to get inside Sheppard. The early drafts of The Violent Bear it Away had obviously had the same problem, keeping Rayber at a distance emotionally; but much of the strength of the finished novel is in the extraordinary access we have to Rayber's inner world. It is utterly wrong to say, as did Paul Bailey in his introduction to the 1980 Faber edition of the novel, that she meant Rayber to be 'repugnant' and that her understanding of him was almost an accidental by-product of her art. The truth is that his doomed and frustrated love is indispensable for the creation of the deepest tensions of the work, which have to do with his fearful awareness of his closeness to Tarwater.
O'Connor is insisting on a perception of grace that is not the introduction of a meaning or even an absolution (though there are powerful stories where absolution is precisely the crux, as in 'The Artificial Nigger' and the late and splendid 'Revelation'); grace is an excess that may make for significance or forgiveness, but needn't. Yet without the breakthrough to the level of hunger and 'futureless' passion, there is no forgiveness. O'Connor's impatience with readers and critics who complained about the anti-humanistic distortion of her vision or the cruelty of her picture of God is understandable. A 'humanism' that denied the facts of mental and physical suffering and above all of the capacity of the human mind for untruth would be ultimately murderous; her narrative is out to show how literally true that is. A God who fails to generate desperate hunger and confused and uncompromising passion is no God at all. It is not that Tarwater's life and faith are held up as a model of or for anything; they are what they are. And they are what they are because God is as God is, not an agent within the universe, not a source of specialised religious consolation. If God is real, the person in touch with God is in danger, at any number of levels. And to awaken the hunger that Tarwater at last recognises is to risk creating in people a longing too painful to bear or a longing that will lead them to take such risks that it seems indeed nakedly cruel to expose them to that hunger in the first place.
This is at the heart of 'The Lame Shall Enter First', where Johnson, the teenage petty criminal, refuses the 'salvation' offered by Sheppard because 'Nobody can save me but Jesus' (478). He knows he is morally and spiritually corrupt in a way that only repentance can heal; he knows he risks hell. And very deliberately he sets out to introduce Sheppard's own child, Norton, to this world of impossible hope. Norton longs to know if his dead mother still exists; Sheppard gives an uncompromising no, Johnson an equally uncompromising yes. But where she is, 'you got to be dead to get there'. Eventually Norton, desperate for a love his father cannot show and ecstatically confident that he can go to meet his mother, hangs himself. So too, in the earlier story, 'The River', an unloved child ends up embracing death: taken out for the day by a local woman to a revival meeting, he is baptised by another of O'Connor's alarming child evangelists (a teenager this time), who tells him that 'You count now...You didn't even count before' (168). But what has changed for him? Life with his parents is the same, lived against the background of their dim Bohemianism and cynicism, and he is thirsty for the river of life the young preacher has opened his eyes to. He heads back to the river, determined to baptise himself once again. 'For an instant he was overcome with surprise: then, since he was moving quickly and knew that he was getting somewhere, all his fear and fury left him' (174).
Death as 'getting somewhere' is a typically brutal piece of O'Connor irony. You can see why critics mutter about a denial of life in her fiction; but her point is, as she almost despaired of making clear, that the juxtaposing of God and these terrible moments of fatal longing is the only possible hopeful perspective on such moments. When hunger is faced without illusion, in the way she argues only a believer can face it, what the artist achieves is exactly the representation of what Maritain calls the 'woundedness' of the world in its entirety. Without the evocation (not invocation) of God in these narratives, the scope of the human actuality would be denied or reduced. Sheppard and Rayber would be right in seeing the awfulness of the prophetic calling and what another latish story, 'The Enduring Chill', calls 'purifying terror', as essentially a disease to be extirpated from the human self. With another twist of irony, 'The Everlasting Chill' charts the progress of a pretentious and selfish young man who believes he is romantically dying of some appropriately dramatic disease towards the recognition that he will live, an invalid with a chronic medical problem that is inexorably unromantic; as he comes to terms with this, he feels the first stirrings of actual faith. He has been dispossessed of his death and given life – life, like everyone else's, lived under the shadow of ordinary, boring mortality. And his dispossession opens him to a truth both utterly undramatic and terrifying, 'a chill so peculiar, so light, that it was like a warm ripple across a deeper sea of cold' (382). His previous hectic rationalism has been a denial that looked logically to a death which would seal once and for all his rightness and his uniqueness. Illness refuses him death and gives him mortality; it refuses to let him ignore the time he will have to live, refuses his own denial. The irony is that the gift of life is the gift of daily 'terror', the terror of being aware of reality in the light of God.
What O'Connor has to say about the particular reasons why the Catholic novelist has the liberty to leave nothing out of his view becomes more and more clear as we look at her actual practice as a writer. The convergence between the real and the good which is axiomatic for her, as for Jones and Maritain, is far from being the acceptance of a world in which human choices and human contingency produce terrible outcomes, terrible in their tragedy and their comedy alike. Nor is she saying that any situation is 'redeemable' (that would be dangerously close to the illusions of a Rayber). It is primarily just that every human desire or disposition signifies, and so is worth narrating, worth transubstantiating into the words of narrative. Explanation is reduction; it is trying to contain another in your own identity. Old Tarwater reads an article about him by Rayber and is incensed at the plot to capture him 'inside his head' (20); young Tarwater echoes this in his protest to Rayber when the latter tries to find out the extent of his literacy: 'I'm free...I'm outside your head' (111). So the narrator steps back from seeking to effect and control a specific emotional reaction to a character; as we have seen, O'Connor deliberately confuses our sympathies in ways that not every critic seems to recognise. We see through young Tarwater's eyes, but what we see is overwhelmingly unclear and shot through with his rebellion as well as his obsessive religious haunting. We see through Rayber's eyes, but what we see is also his impotence before the absolute otherness of both the children whom he longs to embrace and make sense of. We are not given a stable judgement in the way the story is told; and when Tarwater finally accepts his vocation, we are left with the sense of the rightness or intelligibility of this in terms of all that has happened to him – not least his encounter with another level of embodied evil in the rapist – but not with a justification that can be hooked on to anything outside the drama of the persons created in the telling. The necessity of Tarwater's calling has to emerge from the necessity that the world of the fiction has created. The reader is free to believe Tarwater and his great-uncle equally deluded. The reader cannot be 'inside' the author's head, because the freedom of the characters within the story has to be evoked in the reader. But what the narrative will have done is to oblige the reader to see what it is to inhabit their universe and not to run to the explanations that Rayber has to offer which license us not really to attend to the world of the Tarwaters as an inhabitable world, a significant world. Rayber and the Tarwaters are alike 'outside' an authorial head to the extent that they embody 'necessities' that arise from something other than the artist's individual will.
The cultivation of the will in order to shape your own identity is what is involved in the moral life, and the narrator – O'Connor agrees with Maritain – doesn't need moral rectitude as narrator: 'rectitude of the appetite' is incidental to all art (HB123-4, MM 171-2). Freedom is at work in both art and prudence, as David Jones reminds us, but there is a difference between the choices that a person makes for the good of their soul and the choices made for the good of the work. 'The Catholic novelist doesn't have to be a saint; he doesn't even have to be a Catholic; he does, unfortunately, have to be a novelist' (MM172). And the primary task then becomes 'the accurate naming of the things of God' (HB128). It is striking that Francis Tarwater, at the beginning of the story, is frightened by the old man's insistence on his calling because 'It was as if he were afraid that if he let his eye for an instant longer than was needed to place something – a spade, a hoe, the mule's hind quarters before his plow, the red furrow under him – that the thing would suddenly stand before him, strange and terrifying, demanding that he name it and name it justly and be judged for the name he gave it. He did all he could to avoid this threatened intimacy of creation' (21-2). We may remember Jones's account of the artist's 'intimacy' with the world as one of the poles of human engagement with the environment. What O'Connor seems to be saying is that the attention given to this intimate summons to name (and so to change) what is there in front of you is a suspension of artistic control so as to let the inner necessities of the subject – in this case, the imagined person – unfold. And it is the opposite of the immediate 'placing' of the thing or person seen that is the habitual mode of human operation. As Tarwater's own movement is traced, we can see that his final baptising of Bishop is a response to just this demand for a naming; at last, he and he alone can give the child a name that says who he most seriously is, God's child. The process of learning that name is agonising and protracted, inseparably bound up with the destructiveness that is generated by the conflicting pressures of the two worlds Tarwater has to cope with. But at last he becomes himself an 'artist' in becoming a prophet; as O'Connor says, the vision of the artist of fiction is prophetic vision, that 'realism of distance' we have already noted (MM 179). The ethic of the artist, if we can speak in such terms, is detachment, dispossession of the desire to hold everything inside your own head.
I have devoted a fair amount of attention to O'Connor's second novel because it so densely and subtly brings together the themes of her whole aesthetic. She takes baptism for her theme, not in order to perform a simple apologetic job of persuading the reader that baptism is a Good Thing, but to establish that it is a serious affair and one that is crucial in grounding and contextualising an entire system of perceiving, of doing maximal justice to the visible world. To arrive at the point where the world can be truthfully named in its relation to God involves some grasp of the world as object of pointless, 'futureless' love; it must therefore involve levels of bewilderment, deep emotional confusion and frustration in the process, even a blurring of the boundaries between love and rejection (since we are frightened of replacing ordinary human affection with this radical and disabling love). And the recognition that the world can never be loved enough is bound in with the recognition of the 'hunger' at the heart of human identity: if ordinary food is consistently rejected as not enough, what is it that sustains that hunger? It may be a depth of emotional and psychological bondage and injury that has terminally disabled a person's appetite. But what if saying this so shrinks the actuality of such a person that it is also becomes a terminal disabling of any relation with them? The narrator has to make this last question as pressing as possible if the credibility of this particular sort of 'naming' of the world represented by baptism is to be vindicated or at least established as serious. And part of the pressing of that question is also a tracing of unseen or unacknowledged solidarities between agents who are on utterly different paths. As O'Connor laconically puts it in 1962, 'Tarwater wrestles with the Lord and Rayber wins' (HB 488); both are exploring their freedom before God, and only fully make narrative sense in that relation with each other.
O'Connor is largely a faithful theoretical follower of Maritain; but she, like Jones, takes him further than perhaps he would easily want to go. Certainly she might come under Maritain's strictures about deliberately setting out to shock; though I think she would respond by saying that the artist has an obligation to find the tone or register in which she can actually be heard, and an artist presenting a Christian universe cannot but shock. This must be defensible so long as it is actually a strategy for the truth, not a flexing of the artistic muscles for its own sake. I suspect that this is one of those areas where she found Maritain 'soft'; and perhaps the pervasiveness of the musical analogy in Maritain was equally a problem. O'Connor does not seem to be responding to the sense of a buried rhythm or consonance exactly. And yet, her irony depends on something like this; people are bound together in both the seeking for God and the rejection of God and their acknowledgement of the reality of being together in rejection can trigger a sense of the other solidarity – as in the conclusion of 'The Displaced Person', one of her bleakest tales, where the momentary and frightening revelation of collusion in hatred brings about a crisis which might lead (though we don't know within the narrative) to a moment of grace. We are some way from the language of 'pulsions'; but the whole point of narrative irony is a disruption of the politics of appearances to redraw the map of relations between the agents in the narrative. It is, as was suggested earlier, the handling of irony that is most distinctive to O'Connor; it acknowledges that the artist's challenge to appearances is necessarily a challenge to how we appear to ourselves, that the stories we tell about ourselves are pervaded by motivations, connections, interests that we either deny or know nothing of. The narrator too tells a story whose full pattern of interconnections he or she cannot know, so that an ironic storyteller must stand back, must strive for dispossession in respect of the story being told and its agents, fully aware that final dispossession is not possible. Hence for the Christian narrator above all, the act of telling a story about human agents who do not know themselves while vulnerable to the same deceits as those characters is itself potentially both a comic and a tragic matter, in which a measure of absurdity attends both characters and narrator. Once more we find ourselves in territory not charted by Maritain – but as the result of a meeting between his theory and a specific artistic practice.
Comedy, O'Connor argues, depends on theological conviction (MM 167-8). If nothing is unjustifiable, nothing is absurd. Perhaps we should expand the dictum of Dostoevsky, that underrated comic genius: 'If God does not exist, everything is permitted and nothing is ridiculous.' The examination of Flannery O'Connor's fiction leaves us with a clear sense of the artist's task as involving a recognition of the inherently ludicrous element in art, the constant doomed effort to let go of objects, characters, that the artist has created. But the more this recognition is achieved, the more the connections can appear that do not belong simply in an artist's will and decision, the more the work can embody both the freedom and the necessity of the actual finite world and the material produced by the artist can communicate the excess of reality. O'Connor was in a number of senses an artist of excess; but not the least of her gifts was to suggest that the perception of excess can generate perspectives that are equally and painfully appalling and comical. You might even say that this was how she made concrete in her storytelling the strangeness of an unconditional love.
So we shall move on in the last of these lectures to some reflection on the artist and the love of God, the question of whether art is finally possible without the sacred. If O'Connor is right, the least we could say would be that belief in the Christian dogma both offers and enjoins a radically unselective range of material for the artist. As she wrote, 'When people have told me that because I am a Catholic, I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am a Catholic, I cannot afford to be less than an artist' (MM 146).
MM = Mystery and Manners. Occasional Prose, London, Faber 1972
HB = The Habit of Being. Letters Edited and with an Introduction By Sally Fitzgerald, New York, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 1979.
© Rowan Williams 2005