Shocked By Grace
Flannery O'Connor's Prophetic Politics of Love
James Paul Old

A volume that offers itself as a “political companion” to the author Flannery O’Connor faces a substantial challenge, since O’Connor is not generally thought of as a political author. O’Connor was a Roman Catholic writer who lived in rural Georgia until she died in 1964 at the age of thirty-nine from a debilitating form of lupus. Those who have read either of her two novels or selections from her two collections of short stories probably recall a menagerie of characters including misfits, outcasts, and ordinary people of the rural South. They also certainly remember the shocking violence—physical assault, rape, even murder—that is ultimately inflicted on so many of these characters. But her readers likely do not remember commentary on current events or overt political teachings from O’Connor. Her writings highlight issues of race and class, but rarely engage political matters directly. A southerner who did most of her writing in the 1950s and 1960s and set her fiction within that culture, O’Connor, perhaps surprisingly, makes no more than passing, “topical” reference to the Civil Rights Movement in a few stories.

But politics is about more than election campaigns and the controversies of the day. To understand O’Connor as a political writer, one needs to take a broader view of what counts as “political,” a view similar to what Henry T. Edmondson—editor of this collection of fifteen essays—notes was held by ancient political thinkers like Aristotle and Plato. This broader understanding recognizes politics as “the overarching discipline, the inquiry concerned with all areas of study having relevance to a virtuous life and with those matters that contribute to ‘human flourishing’” (1–2). Politics involves a community’s shared understanding of what it means to live a good life together. In this sense, O’Connor’s writings are of profound political significance, for her fiction presents a highly critical portrait of late-twentieth century American culture and offers a hopeful vision of the kind of political community to which we should aspire.

A Political Companion to Flannery O' Connor edited by Henry T. Edmonson III University of Kentucky Press, 2017 398 Pages $60.00

The Protestantism of the rural South pervades the landscapes of O’Connor’s fiction, even though her Catholic faith left her somewhat of a misfit and outsider in that locale. O’Connor could be scathingly critical of Southern religious hypocrisy, but she also appreciated the spiritual zeal and hunger of Southern Protestants, especially the simpler faith of the poor and uneducated. O’Connor’s own faith, however, was far from simple. The essays in this volume demonstrate the extent to which she had read and corresponded with many of the great literary and theological minds of the mid-twentieth century. John D. Sykes Jr. explores her relationship with the southern literary establishment of her time, particularly Southern Agrarians such as John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate. George Piggford, C.S.C., describes her engagement with the writings of Catholic theologians such as Jacques Maritain, whose work introduced O’Connor to St. Thomas Aquinas. Multiple essays in the volume note that O’Connor carefully read the books of Eric Voegelin, the political philosopher who explored the theological roots of modern political ideologies.

While O’Connor was not herself a formal theologian, her writings present a profound and compelling indictment of the spiritual deformities she perceived in the culture around her. Edmondson writes, “Perhaps the most conspicuous political dimension of O’Connor’s work is her self-conscious concern with, and response to, the doctrine of nihilism as she saw it emerge and gain vigor in the twentieth century” (3). Nihilism can take many shapes, and O’Connor confronts its various modern manifestations: utilitarianism, economic rationalism, secular humanism. O’Connor often depicts her most educated characters as espousing forms of nihilism, for example social worker Hazel Motes in her first novel, Wise Blood (1952), who preaches that “There’s nothing but Nothing” (150) or arrogant intellectual Hulga Hopewell in “Good Country People” (1955) who brags, “I am one of those who see through to nothing” (335). These characters often end up experiencing injustice or even violence at the hands of others. Motes dies after a violent encounter with a police officer. Hopewell is taken for a fool by a dishonest Bible salesman who seduces her. In these stories, O’Connor suggests that if these characters cannot recognize the existence of a moral order that transcends the narrow limits of their own selfish desires, then they should have no reason to expect anything except selfishness and violence from others. As the misanthropic Misfit of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1953) explains, if Jesus did not die on the cross for our sins, then there is nothing left for us to do but indulge our most violent impulses: “…by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness” (332).

Of course, O’Connor’s nihilistic characters don’t think of themselves as bad people; on the contrary, they usually consider themselves to be the best kind of people, filled with decency and compassion for those in less fortunate circumstances. But O’Connor believed that the compassion of the modern intellectual is a dangerous thing. Describing the scene from The Violent Bear It Away (1960) when Tarwater drowns the mentally-disabled boy, Bishop, Christina Bieber Lake writes, “Readers are not permitted to pity Bishop, because O’Connor knew that having feelings of pity for the vulnerable is not enough. Pity does not necessarily lead to recognition of the child’s humanity; one can feel pity for animals” (313). Pity is a form of arrogance. It is an attitude common among those who believe that modern science and philosophy have taught them what it means to live a worthwhile life and who see others as failing to meet that standard. In a passage quoted by multiple authors in this volume, O’Connor once wrote that benevolence without transcendence is dangerous. “When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber” (134, 251, 313). Pity alone does not create a relationship of equality or a recognition of any shared common good on which to base genuine human community. Nor is enlightened self-interest enough to sustain human community. John Roos describes Mrs. McIntyre’s farm in “The Displaced Person” (1955) as a community tied together by social contract in mutual pursuit of self-interest, but in a polity based only on self-interest, “…there is no natural basis for a human community of friendship. The distinction between political society and the state of nature is ultimately fragile. The state of war can erupt at any time” (293). When the refugee Mr. Guizac brings disorder to the farm’s social order, war does erupt; Mrs. McIntyre and her allies allow a tractor to roll over him (278–9).

O’Connor was suspicious of all understandings of human nature or community that were abstract and theoretical. She saw human evil as not a theoretical social problem, but a practical problem of individual character. As Sarah Gordon explains in her excellent essay on O’Connor’s engagement with the writings of French mystic Simone Weil, O’Connor depicts evil as a “destructive impulse [that] takes root in the human heart. From the evil in the individual to the implications in world history, the microcosm mirrors the macrocosm” (142). In that sense, O’Connor’s writings are more concerned with the causes of evil than with public policies intended to address it, but as Edmondson observes in his essay on O’Connor’s interactions with Russell Kirk, “the two believed a society devoid of individual religious belief, and one that ignores or aggressively opposes religious inspiration, is destined for trouble” (265). Social reform must begin with the transformation of the individual heart, and that transformation begins with a moment of grace.

Moments when divine grace manifests itself in the lives of her characters create the most memorable scenes in O’Connor’s fiction. Many of her characters live in a world of delusions that shape their sense of self-worth. Hazel Motes and Hulga Hopewell think that they have figured out the way the world really works and believe that their knowledge gives them a claim to power over others who know less. Southern matriarchs like Ruby Turpin in “Revelation” (published posthumously in 1965) reduce the Christian gospel to living like a proper white woman who acts kindly toward her inferiors, even toward blacks and poor white-trash. Moments of grace can teach us exactly how we are deluding ourselves, but this is not a teaching most sinners are ready to hear. As Sykes writes: “For O’Connor, the real God is the last thing moderns want” (33). O’Connor’s response to this resistance was straightforward: “you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the blind you draw large and startling figures” (185). And shout she does. And shocked we are. Her depictions of moments of grace are not for the faint of heart. They often come suddenly with a violence that destroys illusions of self-importance and righteousness. Ruby Turpin’s shock comes when an angry girl hits her in the face with a book and then tries to strangle her. The grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” gets her shock at gunpoint as she listens to her family being murdered and waits for the Misfit to kill her too. Tarwater in The Violent Bear It Away gets his shock when he is raped by a motorist who offers him a ride. The irruption of grace into our lives is not something we experience as pleasant; rather, it is painful, a destruction of our self-image and the false world we have created for ourselves. It is violent and terrible, but it is redeeming.

Bieber Lake’s discussion of the title of The Violent Bear It Away is helpful in understanding the violence in O’Connor’s fiction:

The story is… a kind of exposition of Jesus’s words in Matthew 11, quoted in the epigraph of this novella; “The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.” Many writers have tried to make sense of this difficult teaching of Jesus… it needs to be taken in context of the Gospel of Matthew. That gospel includes the following: Jesus’s teaching that he came not to bring peace but a sword; his teaching that if anyone loves their own family more than Jesus they are not worthy to follow him; and his teaching that whoever loves him must take up their cross and follow him…. The violent bear away the kingdom of God because it is they who recognize the reality that to love God and others unconditionally will be a struggle in an age of cheap grace. (308)

O’Connor takes the struggle that all Christians experience internally on a daily basis and draws it so large and stark that we cannot fail to see it, even if we would rather avert our eyes. The moment of grace in O’Connor’s fiction is necessarily violent and dramatic, because it requires such a shock to make us recognize and admit our own ignorance and weakness.

If we hold fast to our arrogant convictions that we are autonomous, free, and self-made, the possibilities for human community are limited, but if we respond to grace by recognizing ourselves as needy, frail creatures of God, whose beauty is found not in our own accomplishments, but in the image of God within us, membership in a new kind of human community becomes possible. Grace invites us into a community where all are equal and all are lovable, and the possibility of genuine love transforms the political. As Roos writes, “[Mrs.] McIntyre [in “The Displaced Person”] could not admit ‘she liked [the Judge, her husband]’ because such acknowledgement would undermine her view of the world as one of autonomy, freedom, and calculation. To admit love would be to admit neediness and responsibility rather than unfettered freedom and stark equality. Such an admission would make her liable to concern over a common good between her and the Judge, rather than the solitary pursuit of her own private good” (295). O’Connor does not show us exactly what this new polity of love will look like, since most of her characters who recognize its possibility do so only at the moment of their violent death.  The experience of grace offers O’Connor’s characters an opportunity for self-knowledge and a fleeting glimpse of the blessed community of love to which our politics must aspire. As John F. Desmond states in one of the volume’s boldest claims about O’Connor as a political writer: “For O’Connor, the mysterious light of divine grace can, through suffering and the humiliation of pride, penetrate even nihilism and decadence. Recognition of communal responsibility, of humanity bonded in guilt and charity, is faith in action, and a testament to the true meaning of the sociopolitical order” (332-3).

The essays in this “political companion” succeed in their task, not by showing us Flannery O’Connor the political philosopher, but by helping us recognize Flannery O’Connor the artist who offers a prophetic vision for our politics and culture. Her characters undergo violent and often fatal traumas that open their eyes. Their recognition only at the moment of death seems tragic, but this vision is not wasted. For if O’Connor’s art is successful, her readers’ eyes will be opened as well. As Mark Bosco, S.J., explains in an essay comparing O’Connor to Caravaggio: “If her art is effective, then, readers experience a transformation of consciousness in which the story—on the surface horrific and nihilistic—becomes imbued with a new perspective, a deeper possibility of meaning” (186). If O’Connor can help us, her readers, recognize our own delusions and need for grace, teach us to resist nihilism in all its modern forms, and sustain our faith in a truth beyond ourselves and the course of human history, then she will prepare us to be open to grace when it irrupts into our own lives. Then, when it is our turn to be shocked by grace, we will be ready to respond to the invitation to join a community governed not by arrogance and pride, but by charity and love.

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