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On Attention and Art
James Paul Old

When people read a Flannery O’Connor story for the first time, their initial reaction is often one of shock. Her stories are not happy ones, at least not obviously so. They are populated with an odd collection of misfits and misanthropes, characters who almost always meet with some form of sudden violence before the story ends. To those unprepared for what is coming, these painful moments seem terribly dark, even despairing. But O’Connor wants her readers to pay close enough attention to see how these life-shattering experiences offer an opening for grace. O’Connor considered fiction to be an inherently hopeful art form, even once telling a class of creative writing student, “People without hope do not write novels… but what is more to the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience” (quoting “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970]).

To write or to read fiction is to take a long, patient look at the world. Fiction is not escapism, but, in O’Connor’s words, a “plunge into reality.” When O’Connor looked at the residents of her “Christ-haunted South,” she saw sinners in need of God’s grace: like proud Mrs. Turpin of “Revelation,” pretentious Asbury of “The Enduring Chill,” or the judgmental, grandmother of “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” She saw fallen creatures warped by pride, wrapped up in self-satisfaction. And when she looked more closely, she found in them the image of God and the possibility for redemption. O’Connor the artist saw past the superficial and grotesque, and she wanted her readers to do the same.

In this issue’s first essay, “Created for Creativity,” Steven R. Guthrie examines different conceptions of the process of artistic inspiration. Guthrie concludes that, from a Christian perspective, creativity begins with receptivity, with listening attentively to the voices of others and receiving them as gifts, but the process of inspiration continues when the artist’s own voice joins with those of others to create a new contribution in an ongoing ecology of giving. (The essay is based on Guthrie’s plenary lecture to the National Conference of the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts, held at Belmont University on October 9–11, 2015.)

In “Look at Your Fish,” Jason Crawford explores what it means to be genuinely attentive toward a painting, or a poem, or another person. Like Guthrie, he describes a process that begins with practicing a patient openness to works of art, waiting for their secrets to be revealed, but it is a process that eventually generates a kind of community that includes artist, viewer, and all of their imaginative acts. And in “Petroglyphs, Unpublished Poetry, and the Urge to Leave a Mark,” Michael Kramer describes how on his many trips to revisit the Southwest, rock carvings of the Hopi tribe have inspired his own poetry. In both ancient petroglyphs and modern poetry, Kramer recognizes the effort to create stories that explain the mysteries of our lives, as well as the attempt to mark out our own roles within those stories.

As O’Connor reminded those creative writing students, fiction is an incarnational art, concerned not with abstract notions and ideals, but with the concrete details of life. The writer of fiction’s task, she told them, is to stare rudely and stupidly at those details. “The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it.” It is an insight that explains the work of the poet, the painter, the songwriter, and other artists as well. It is often difficult to see God in others, to hear God in their voices. But because the world itself is a gift created by God, if we give it our patient and loving attention, we can discover, even in its sometimes shocking ugliness, the beauty of God’s presence and signs of hope of the redemption to come.

 

                                                            —JPO

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