Flannery O’Connor’s Inescapable Jesus.
© 1 June 2002, Stephen Sparrow
a short career she made a strong impression with her strange God obsessed novels
and stories. How she might have
developed cannot be conjectured but the small body of her work she has left
makes her early death a matter for regret.
above quote comes from the O’Connor entry in the Cambridge Guide to English
Literature (U.K.:1981). Now contrast that quote
with O’Connor’s own raison d’ê tre, contained
in a piece she wrote twenty-five years earlier for "The Living Novel: A
am no disbeliever in spiritual purpose and no vague believer. I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy.
This means that for me the meaning of life is centred in our redemption
by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that.
familiar with O’Connor’s published letters could imagine her laughter and
perhaps even her indignation, if she had lived to read the Cambridge Guide’s
patronising finding that her artistic development was in some way hindered by an
obsession with God, and yes I know the quote doesn’t actually say that in so
many words, but the inference is plain enough. However, at least that same source did acknowledge O’Connor’s talent
and noted her early death as “a matter for regret”.
what is it that makes O’Connor’s stories so alluring, so compelling and yet
so incomprehensible to many first
time readers? Well, apart from the
fact that they are well written and well constructed--after all O’Connor’s
prose is always spare and to the point--the stories themselves deal with the
hard and the realistic in life. Realism
that is hinged to the mystery of evil and which presents God as the "inescapable Jesus" in language that ranges from the subliminal to the
thunderously obvious. Her fictional
characters have the uncanny ability to reflect an image of our own psyches,
which calls to mind the images we see when we look into one of those crazy
distortion mirrors at a Carnival; uncomfortable reminders of our real selves.
her first novel Wise Blood published in 1952, O’Connor invented a character called Hazel Motes.
Hazel was spiritually maimed through being raised inside an insanely
fundamentalist family. In a
reaction against his unhappy upbringing he declared "war" on God and started
his own church, “The Church
Without Christ”, "where the blind
don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way." Hazel
began his "evangelising" by standing on the nose of his car and haranguing
the crowds leaving cinema showings and his opening spiel would commence like
you people. I’m going to preach
there was no Fall because there was nothing to fall from and no Redemption
because there was no Fall and no Judgement because there wasn’t the first two. Nothing matters but that Jesus was a liar...
you came from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and
where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.
if the reader teases out the meaning of those words, he ends up with a
frightening scenario. All explanations have vanished: all justification for
living, gone: everything has collapsed in a heap. The virtue of Hope lies dead.
Of course O’Connor would be the first to say that Faith is not about
comfort zones. In 1959 she wrote to
her friend Louise Abbot saying;
people don’t realise is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the
cross. It is much harder to believe
than not to believe." But the irony
here is that for those who profess no faith, there are likewise no comfort
zones. The bottom line is that
Atheism is also a Faith. O’Connor
was familiar with the writings of French thinker and poet Charles Péguy
(1874-1914) who said "Until the Day of Judgement, when they will no
longer be necessary. Its
[Christianity’s] best proof, its only proof, is not to offer proofs...
Otherwise there would be no liberty for man (we have so little as it is)...
All would be compelled to enter." So, where should we look for a sign? Well, fortunately not far. By
their fruits alone, they (Faiths) shall be known and for those whose "faith"
is to deny any sort of faith;
Existentialism is an especially barren and joyless place and has never in the
whole history of the world provided a kick start for any civilisation, never
mind the high improbability of it ever being able to sustain one.
now, to return to O’Connor’s advice to Louise Abbot that "it is much
harder to believe than not to believe." We
could add; yes, it’s easier not to believe by simply not bothering to worry
about it; but sooner or later curiosity about the great WHY has to be resolved, and the only way to dodge that issue is to turn your back on
the question, to run away from it and refuse to confront it. It is probably the laziest intellectual mindset that there is and the
real name of it is agnosticism, which is a Greek word meaning ignorance.
in returning to Wise Blood and the
claim of Hazel Mote’s that Jesus was a liar; if we think on it, we should be
able to see where O’Connor is coming from. The logic of the premise is plain. If
we don’t accept that Jesus Christ is God, then we have to agree with what
O’Connor wrote in a letter to Betty Hester in 1955,
“If He was not God, he was no realist, only a liar, and the crucifixion an act
of justice.” That
stance leaves no No Man’s Land in which to take refuge, which makes it
difficult to evade the question: if human beings don’t have immortal souls,
then why did Christ submit to His crucifixion? Or, in denying Christ’s redemption, how are we going to resolve the
baffling but illusory dichotomy that exists between Free Will and Justice.1 But, luckily for us, O’Connor, further on in her letter to Louise
Abbot, amplified in simple language the whole question of immortality by
writing. “My reading of the priest’s article on hell was that hell is
what God’s love becomes to those who reject it. God made us to love Him. It
takes two to love. It takes
liberty. It takes the right to
reject. If there were no hell, we
would be like the animals. No hell,
no dignity. And remember the mercy
of God. It is easy to put this down
as a formula and hard to believe it, but try believing the opposite, and you
will find it too easy. Life has no
meaning that way.”
through O’Connor’s fiction for examples of the Inescapable Jesus is like
looking for stones in a riverbed. They’re
everywhere. You start one story and read a little way and think, ‘Ah ha, yes that’ll do.’ You read a little further and find a
better example. ‘Or is it
better?’ you ask yourself. Anyway,
before you’ve gone very far, you’ve ended up with scores of quotes and the
more you look at them the harder it is to rank them. They all look good and in different ways. However, I think there is so much iridescence in her novel Wise
Blood that it is probably the best story in which to start looking
for the Inescapable Jesus of Flannery O’Connor. The following two extracts, which exemplify it, occur in the first
[Hazel’s] grandfather had been a circuit preacher, a waspish old man who had
ridden over three counties with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger.
on the following page.
He [Hazel] knew by the time he was twelve years old that he was going to be a
preacher. Later he saw Jesus move
from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to
turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing,
where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it
we have the quintessential
O’Connor portrait of Southern characters raised in and shaped by a region that
O’Connor once described as being "Christ
haunted but no longer Christ centred." However it was still (mid 20th Century) a region where the Old Testament governed the psyche and enriched the
language of its inhabitants. A place where on the streets of O’Connor’s
fictional Taulkinham it would come as no surprise to hear the fake blind man Asa
Hawks telling Hazel Motes, “listen
boy. You can’t run away from
Jesus. Jesus is a fact.”
Blood is in my
opinion an incredible novel and I think that all of O’Connor’s subsequent
stories owe their Genesis to it and of course Wise
Blood has grown straight out of the ‘modern’ (but certainly not
O’Connor’s) notion that the New Testament is hogwash or at least doesn’t
matter any more.
second novel The Violent Bear It Away is also stiff with references alluding to the Inescapable Jesus, such as this
one which uses negative inference to illustrate the subject.
“The man, an insurance salesman, wore a straw hat on the side of his head and
smoked a cigar and when you told him his soul was in danger, he offered to sell
you a policy against any contingency.”
from the short story "The Comforts of Home" comes this
"Thomas does not hate you.” His mother said. “We are not the kind of
people who hate,” she added, as if this were an imperfection that had been
bred out of them generations ago.
the connection between this and these lines from O’Connor’s letter to Louise
Abbot. "If there were no hell, we would be like the animals. No hell, no dignity."
the short story "Greenleaf" we find
Mrs. May justifying her position in the world by thinking of herself as
a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not of
course, believe any of it was true. Mrs. May, in possession of all the civil and social advantages that
Christianity brought in its wake, is now too lofty to acknowledge that gratitude
is due to anyone but herself.
for me the piece
de resistance, which
best illustrates the Inescapable Jesus, comes from the story "Parker’s
Back," especially where O.E. Parker enters
the tattooist’s salon determined to have something religious tattooed on his
back as a means to please his shrewish and absurdly religious wife.
artist [tattooist] went over to a cabinet at the back of a room and began to
look over some art books. “Who are you interested in?” he said, "saints, angels, Christs or what?”
“God,” Parker said.
Son or Spirit?”
God,” Parker said impatiently. “Christ. I don’t care. Just so
cannot read that exchange without becoming convulsed with laughter. Poor old O.E. trying to please his wife. Trying to please a religious woman whose religion is so pure and
wraithlike that it is absolutely useless in helping her to live sensibly. Banished from that religion is the Jesus of the gospels. Banished from it
are all images of the Good Shepherd, the Crazy Vineyard Owner or the Prodigal
Father who cannot resist loving the wayward son after his U turn. In fact banished from Sarah Ruth Cate’s religion are all religious
images. They are condemned as
idolatrous. You have to wonder
whether in her ‘spiritual economy’ even thoughts about God would be
Back" shows Flannery O’Connor at her best and in this one, as in most of her
stories, we should be able to see O’Connor like the Grandmother in "A
Good Man Is hard To Find" shaking the rolled up newspaper at our
heads and telling us to wake up.
written by an author who sees life in relation to Christian Redemption will
always be difficult to understand for readers who find the basic Christian
Doctrines either irrelevant or repellent or both and O’Connor had a message
for these people, which she repeated several times in the series of lectures she
delivered in 1963.
never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is
only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it.
no mistake, Flannery O’Connor produced real art and no small part of that art
was her ability to sow seeds of doubt among the smug and the arrogant,
especially those who are secure in their “faith” that life fundamentally has
no meaning. Her approach comes
through clearly in some puckish advice that she gave her playwright friend
Maryat Lee in a 1959 letter.
thing to do is write something with a delayed reaction like those capsules that
take an hour to melt in the stomach. In
this way, it could be performed on Monday and not make them vomit until
Wednesday, by which time they would not be sure who was to blame. This is the principle I operate under and I find it works very well.
those sorts of detonators with a set time delay, her stories reveal God by
highlighting His absence from people’s lives. Gradually the dots are
connected, the conclusion drawn, even if belatedly. Flannery O’Connor never wrote overtly Christian fiction but invariably
she came at it from the other end and her stories are almost always dominated by
characters that illumine Christianity by trying to deny that Jesus Christ
1. In reality
free will and justice are different aspects of the same thing. Neither can exist
without the other. Justice is the only object of freewill and freewill is the
only means by which justice is achieved. Justice is not a product of
evolutionary natural selection. That
would be an impossibility. Otherwise, we
should by now be able to trace and measure Justice from its beginnings until the
present: with a graph to show the improvement in Justice. Justice perfecting itself and becoming more
just? The mind boggles at the thought of
where it could all end until we suddenly realise that Justice has its source in
the person of God and that without freewill there could be no such thing as
justice and of course without justice, free will would be an absurdity.