The Enduring Mystery Of Truth
© August 2001, Stephen Sparrow
“Most things are beyond me,” Block said. “I ain’t found anything yet that I thoroughly understood.” Dr Block’s words are a calm response to the insult flung by his hostile patient Asbury Fox, who claims that his illness is way beyond the expertise of any ‘simple’ rural doctor. This exchange occurs early on in Flannery O’Connor’s short story "The Enduring Chill", and I think that Block’s reply was crafted by the author, to explain to the reader (her patient), that the world is full of mystery. Anybody coming to O’Connor’s fiction for the first time should be ‘warned’ that the lady uses loaded language. Words loaded with symbolism and double meaning; the second meaning invariably being either a truism or an irony.
Before that first encounter between Fox and Dr Block, we learn that Asbury Fox is a twenty five year old aspiring writer, a vain young man determined to leave his mark on the world. He’s a Southerner who has rejected his heritage and now lives in New York City, which he believes is a superior environment for the development of his artistic talent. He works in a bookstore to support himself while writing and his leisure time is spent cultivating the company of a motley group of pseudo intellectuals typified by Goetz, whose chief aim and enjoyment of life revolves around preaching a vague gospel of despair to anyone searching for some meaning to existence. However, at one of Goetz’s gatherings, Asbury meets a Jesuit priest who impressed him as being vastly different from the usual ruck of ‘hangers on’ attracted to Goetz.
The story begins with a sick Asbury Fox being met by his mother at the rail stop nearest home. "Living alone in his freezing flat" in New York, Asbury had become ill; too ill to work even; and without money he had no alternative but to return home, a move he utterly detested, placing him as it did, back in the care of his fussing widowed mother who owns and runs the family dairy farm. Convinced he’s going to die, Asbury fumes that his artistic talent has been stifled by his upbringing and in a bizarre retaliation he burns all his dreary scribblings. However, before leaving for home, he fills two notebooks with a letter to his mother, which he intends should be read after his death. In the letter he likened himself to a caged bird denied its freedom. He hoped it would be a painful reminder to his mother of what she had supposedly done to him. Asbury is the classic spoilt brat. A phoney who wallows in self-pity and craves attention; but attention only on his terms, hence his hostility to Dr Block who has been brought in by Mrs. Fox to treat him. As far as Asbury is concerned, he’s on the brink of death, and death is the way he intends to leave his mark on the world, in this case his family. He knows he’s sick. Everyone knows he’s sick. But he’s desperately trying to resist any help. He’s a real "dog in the manger." He sees himself as the dying artist, full of potential but with no chance of fulfilment and this is obviously how he hopes to be remembered.
Back home Asbury’s symptoms worsen. He suffers from thudding headaches and drenching sweats. He sleeps poorly and has wild dreams and recalls with "terrible clarity" events from the past including a childhood memory of some meanness inflicted on him by his older sister. Other memories crowd in on him. Memories of brief stays back home that never exceeded two weeks if he could possibly help it. During one of those visits, he spent a small amount of time working with Morgan and Randall, Mrs. Fox’s two coloured farm workers. At the time he had been writing a play about the Negro, and Asbury wanted "to see how they really felt about their condition," but they never had much to say. The most he got out of the contact was to encourage them to covertly defy Mrs. Fox by smoking in the dairy, which resulted in two cans of milk being rejected and returned by the Milk Factory the following day. A day later Asbury tried to provoke a further reaction by getting the two Negroes to follow his example and drink a jelly glass of fresh milk straight from the cow. This time it didn’t work; they refused and gave no reason.
“She don’t ‘low noner us to drink this here milk.” Randall said. Asbury persisted and still the reply was “She don’t ‘low it.” Asbury, now infuriated with their "subservience" to the absent Mrs. Fox railed against her. “My God.” He exploded. “She. She. She.” To show his contempt for his mother, Asbury continued to drink fresh milk each afternoon for as long as he helped in the dairy but Morgan and Randall steadfastly refused to follow suit.
Asbury was aware of his mother’s rules. Was his disobedience a symbolic rejection of dogma? One dogma exchanged for what G. K. Chesterton once described as the ultimate dogma. ‘The dogma of those who will not accept any dogma.’ O’Connor was familiar with Chesterton’s writings.
Lying there sick and feeling sorry for himself, Asbury brightens at a new idea to annoy his mother. He recalls the gathering at Goetz’s New York flat when he met the Jesuit priest and he badgers his mother into phoning the Jesuit house in the city and asking for a priest to visit him, something Mrs. Fox is definitely not in favour of. But it’s the least she can do for him, isn’t it? He’s dying isn’t he? To which she retorts.
“You are NOT dying. ... Nowadays doctors don’t let young people die.”
Reluctantly, Mrs. Fox phones the Jesuits and in a chilly voice explains the situation. The priest who arrives late the next afternoon is nothing like Asbury imagined he would be. Father Finn is elderly, blind in one eye and deaf in one ear but he sees straight through Asbury immediately, as soon as the latter attempts to engage the priest in a superficial debate. In reply Father Finn delivers a hectoring stinging lecture, shouting dogma at him and finishes by telling him he’s “a lazy ignorant conceited youth," but nevertheless he gives Asbury his blessing before leaving and says they "can have another little chat" some other time.
Dogma by definition admits of no other explanation. One eyed perhaps? Deaf to alternatives maybe? Like Father Finn? Another example of O’Connor dishing out medicine to the "patient"? Let’s also look at the character names she has chosen. Surely there’s irony in the doctor being called Block or Asbury’s family name being Fox. A doctor who’s no blockhead and Asbury a none too smart fox.
Asbury also wants to say goodbye to the two coloured farm workers before he dies and persuades his mother to bring them to his room but this time it is Mrs. Fox who relishes the situation. The farewell is a disaster with neither Morgan nor Randall feeling comfortable and they spend the time telling Asbury how well he looks and that it won’t be long before he’s up and about. Mrs. Fox eavesdrops, obviously enjoying his discomfort but there is a portent lurking in the Negro dialogue and the irony only surfaces when several hours later Dr Block pays a visit and a beaming Mrs. Fox enters Asbury’s room with the doctor behind her.
“Guess what you’ve got sugarpie!” Mrs. Fox shrills. Without waiting for a reply she prattles on, telling Asbury that Block has discovered the cause of his illness; undulant fever and that it will keep coming back but that it won’t kill him. Now it’s Dr Block’s turn and Asbury’s comforting delusion about his imminent departure is completely snatched away when the doctor leans over his patient and ‘with deep satisfaction says, “You ain’t going to die Asbury.” Mrs. Fox and Block then tip toe out of the room and as they leave, Mrs. Fox comments to the doctor that Asbury must have drunk some unpasteurised milk while in New York. Even the barely perceptive reader should see here, the connection between the flouting of authority and its consequence.
Asbury, now left alone in his room is hit with an awful truth; the shock of self-awareness. It suddenly becomes apparent to him that there IS a transcendental power, over which he has NO control, and the descending water stain on his bedroom wall and which has lately been bothering him, is used to symbolise the descent of the Holy Spirit. Self-awareness must precede any possibility of Asbury acquiring humility and humility is required before he can submit to the Will of God, but like all O’Connor stories, this one doesn’t go that far. But, if we had been able to look ahead, we may have seen Father Finn return and explain to Asbury the time honoured Catholic practice of the regular examination of his conscience, to discover what he’s done wrong and where he’s gone wrong. We do know from the story that before his illness was diagnosed, Asbury was obsessed with the regular examination of every one else’s conscience, especially those of his mother and sister.
"The Enduring Chill" is actually another slant on the theme of “returning home,” in both the real and the metaphoric sense. It is about a ‘wake up call’, and, like all of us, Asbury is another “Prodigal Son” (or daughter), and his anger with the world is that age-old conflict between Authority and Pride: i.e. the mystery of the Creation and Christ’s redemption of Adam’s fallen race. In Christian parlance, obedience means keeping commandments out of love. Keeping them for fear of punishment is not obedience, only plain simple fear. Little wonder that at the story’s beginning Asbury was raging at the world, determined to die and by doing so, strike back at his mother and sister, after all there was nobody else who seemed to care about him. And then came his moment of truth when the hoped for death was denied. What a shock; to be suddenly bought back face to face with reality in that manner. As O’Connor herself said, there is a moment in all of her stories when supernatural grace enters. This is one of its more obvious manifestations. Until that shock of self-awareness, Asbury Fox hated the thought that there could be anyone or anything more important in the world than himself and especially that there might be some things always beyond his knowing and understanding.
In a 1959 letter to Louise Abbot, O’Connor wrote, “Remember that these things are mysteries and that if they were such that we could understand them, they wouldn’t be worth understanding. A God you understood would be less than yourself.” And from her collected essays published in Mystery and Manners comes, “For nearly two centuries the popular spirit of each succeeding generation has tended more and more to the view that the mysteries of life will eventually fall before the mind of man.” Like the simple child, who pointed out the parading king’s nakedness in Hans Anderson’s fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes”; are we (like O’Connor) not entitled to ask when will this world of men make good their promise that some day all mystery will cease being mystery? It shouldn’t be all that difficult surely. After all, its only little more than thirty years ago that men began walking on the moon.