Useful Revulsion

Art & Literature, Book Reviews — By on March 25, 2009 at 10:11 pm

Flannery O’Connor’s short stories are not for the faint of heart.
I’ve only read two or three of them. They were short, but jam-packed with lots to think about. Months later, I’m still digesting. She somehow manages to create a world that is both fully revolting and fascinating at the same time; her stories both disgusted and drew me in all at once. They were so very strange… and so very familiar.
Could this be because our own world is like that?


One of the reasons we need to be intentional about learning to cultivate and appreciate Beauty is that we are surrounded by ugliness; so surrounded, in fact, that it’s easy to forget how Ugly it really is. We become so accustomed to it that our capacity to see both Beauty and ugliness is dimmed.
I’m not referring just to bad aesthetics, but also to sin. We are fallen people, and we’re used to that. We should try to surround ourselves with beauty not only because it is Good but also because it helps us remember how bad sin really is. Without this stark contrast we sometimes forget just how different right and wrong, good and evil really are.
I wonder if this is why O’Connor’s work has been so enduring. We respond to her stories with revulsion because…. well, because they’re revolting. She slams our faces in the ugliness so that we’ll recognize it for what it is, and she manages to do so in a way that gets past our dimmed vision.
We spend time looking at beautiful things so that we’ll learn to recognize the Beautiful. I suspect that O’Connor’s work was intended to function similarly; we look at ugliness so that we’ll be better able to respond to it with an appropriate amount of revulsion.
This is not to say that everything she ever wrote was ugly, or even that any one of her stories is completely ugly. I like the way this writer put it:

When asked why her fiction, like that of so many other Southern writers, is filled with freaks, O’Connor wryly replied that Southerners “are still able to recognize one.” To discern deviations and distortions, O’Connor explained, one must first have a clear vision of the Norm. The rural and “Christ-haunted” South, as she called it, has retained such a vision because the popular imagination has remained essentially Biblical. When the folk religion is shaped by the Biblical narrative — of creation and fall, of Israel’s election and Christ’s incarnation, of the crucifixion and the resurrection, of the church as God’s own people and the Second Coming as history’s consummation — then even the barely literate possess the ultimate criterion for measuring themselves and everything else.

Happy birthday, Flannery O’Connor. Thank you for helping us learn to see the Good by showing us how awful the Bad is. ‘


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  • http://dwightk.com Dwight Knoll

    If you haven’t yet, I recommend “Artificial Nigger” it is the only one in her _Complete Stories_ in which I noticed moving beyond depravity into reconciliation/redemption.

  • http://wheatstoneforum.com Rachel Motte

    Thanks for the tip, Dwight! I’ll take a look.

  • miliukov

    A very thoughtful post Rachel. I probably don’t agree with everything in it, but literary criticism is one area that warrants a big tent.
    I think that what Flannery O’Connor does is to shove a mirror into the reader’s face. And the quality of her prose was very precise, with each word and description carefully chosen and re-written several times; accordingly, that mirror she’s shoving in our faces is one of those cosmetic mirrors, surrounded by bright fluorescent lights, and that magnifies even the slightest imperfections: so you see the wrinkles, the blackheads, the scars, the baggy eyelids, the double chin; and you think, ahhh those crazy southerners — but it’s not the crazy southerners, it’s everyone. It’s the human condition.
    And if that’s all it was — just an exercise in self-recognition — well, that would still be noteworthy. But I don’t think she stops there: I do think that there is a redemptive message in almost all her stories: it’s contained in the stories’ epiphanies, when the protagonist (or anti-/con-tagonist I suppose) realizes his own depravity and hopelessness. Like in a flash, he sees himself with the same clarity as the reader has seen him all along. Hazel Motes blinding himself in some mutilating act of non-repentance; or Mrs Turpin scolding the Lord; or Julian vainly shouting for help on the empty street for his collapsed mother; sobbing Parker with the beaten-up Christ tattooed on his back.[***]
    In all these cases, and many more than I can’t immediately recall, the epiphany is a “moment of grace” [O’Connor’s word, not mine] — a chance for the characters to be redeemed, the first step of which is that self-recognition contained in the epiphany, of the need for redemption. Clearly not all her characters make that choice; but the mirror she’s still holding is not for them, it’s for us.
    And there is always one more person, just outside the frame of the main story, haunting the characters, the author and careful reader alike: Haze’s ragged pursuer through shadows and trees.
    [***] From Wise Blood, Revelation, Everything That Rise Must Converge, and Parker’s Back; my favorites and highly recommended. Of course, once you get through those, Mr. Faulkner will be waiting for you in the middle of Yoknapatawpha County, bourbon in hand, happy to take you ’round to visit with his friends for an afternoon spell. Ms. O’Connor was well-acquainted with them all you may be sure. Faulkner of course makes no pretense about anyone gettin’ saved however.

  • miliukov

    A very thoughtful post Rachel. I probably don’t agree with everything in it, but literary criticism is one area that warrants a big tent.
    I think that what Flannery O’Connor does is to shove a mirror into the reader’s face. And the quality of her prose was very precise, with each word and description carefully chosen and re-written several times; accordingly, that mirror she’s shoving in our faces is one of those cosmetic mirrors, surrounded by bright fluorescent lights, and that magnifies even the slightest imperfections: so you see the wrinkles, the blackheads, the scars, the baggy eyelids, the double chin; and you think, ahhh those crazy southerners — but it’s not the crazy southerners, it’s everyone. It’s the human condition.
    And if that’s all it was — just an exercise in self-recognition — well, that would still be noteworthy. But I don’t think she stops there: I do think that there is a redemptive message in almost all her stories: it’s contained in the stories’ epiphanies, when the protagonist (or anti-/con-tagonist I suppose) realizes his own depravity and hopelessness. Like in a flash, he sees himself with the same clarity as the reader has seen him all along. Hazel Motes blinding himself in some mutilating act of non-repentance; or Mrs Turpin scolding the Lord; or Julian vainly shouting for help on the empty street for his collapsed mother; sobbing Parker with the beaten-up Christ tattooed on his back.[***]
    In all these cases, and many more than I can’t immediately recall, the epiphany is a “moment of grace” [O’Connor’s word, not mine] — a chance for the characters to be redeemed, the first step of which is that self-recognition contained in the epiphany, of the need for redemption. Clearly not all her characters make that choice; but the mirror she’s still holding is not for them, it’s for us.
    And there is always one more person, just outside the frame of the main story, haunting the characters, the author and careful reader alike: Haze’s ragged pursuer through shadows and trees.
    [***] From Wise Blood, Revelation, Everything That Rise Must Converge, and Parker’s Back; my favorites and highly recommended. Of course, once you get through those, Mr. Faulkner will be waiting for you in the middle of Yoknapatawpha County, bourbon in hand, happy to take you ’round to visit with his friends for an afternoon spell. Ms. O’Connor was well-acquainted with them all you may be sure. Faulkner of course makes no pretense about anyone gettin’ saved however.

  • miliukov

    A very thoughtful post Rachel. I probably don’t agree with everything in it, but literary criticism is one area that warrants a big tent.
    I think that what Flannery O’Connor does is to shove a mirror into the reader’s face. And the quality of her prose was very precise, with each word and description carefully chosen and re-written several times; accordingly, that mirror she’s shoving in our faces is one of those cosmetic mirrors, surrounded by bright fluorescent lights, and that magnifies even the slightest imperfections: so you see the wrinkles, the blackheads, the scars, the baggy eyelids, the double chin; and you think, ahhh those crazy southerners — but it’s not the crazy southerners, it’s everyone. It’s the human condition.
    And if that’s all it was — just an exercise in self-recognition — well, that would still be noteworthy. But I don’t think she stops there: I do think that there is a redemptive message in almost all her stories: it’s contained in the stories’ epiphanies, when the protagonist (or anti-/con-tagonist I suppose) realizes his own depravity and hopelessness. Like in a flash, he sees himself with the same clarity as the reader has seen him all along. Hazel Motes blinding himself in some mutilating act of non-repentance; or Mrs Turpin scolding the Lord; or Julian vainly shouting for help on the empty street for his collapsed mother; sobbing Parker with the beaten-up Christ tattooed on his back.[***]
    In all these cases, and many more than I can’t immediately recall, the epiphany is a “moment of grace” [O’Connor’s word, not mine] — a chance for the characters to be redeemed, the first step of which is that self-recognition contained in the epiphany, of the need for redemption. Clearly not all her characters make that choice; but the mirror she’s still holding is not for them, it’s for us.
    And there is always one more person, just outside the frame of the main story, haunting the characters, the author and careful reader alike: Haze’s ragged pursuer through shadows and trees.
    [***] From Wise Blood, Revelation, Everything That Rise Must Converge, and Parker’s Back; my favorites and highly recommended. Of course, once you get through those, Mr. Faulkner will be waiting for you in the middle of Yoknapatawpha County, bourbon in hand, happy to take you ’round to visit with his friends for an afternoon spell. Ms. O’Connor was well-acquainted with them all you may be sure. Faulkner of course makes no pretense about anyone gettin’ saved however.

  • miliukov

    A very thoughtful post Rachel. I probably don’t agree with everything in it, but literary criticism is one area that warrants a big tent.
    I think that what Flannery O’Connor does is to shove a mirror into the reader’s face. And the quality of her prose was very precise, with each word and description carefully chosen and re-written several times; accordingly, that mirror she’s shoving in our faces is one of those cosmetic mirrors, surrounded by bright fluorescent lights, and that magnifies even the slightest imperfections: so you see the wrinkles, the blackheads, the scars, the baggy eyelids, the double chin; and you think, ahhh those crazy southerners — but it’s not the crazy southerners, it’s everyone. It’s the human condition.
    And if that’s all it was — just an exercise in self-recognition — well, that would still be noteworthy. But I don’t think she stops there: I do think that there is a redemptive message in almost all her stories: it’s contained in the stories’ epiphanies, when the protagonist (or anti-/con-tagonist I suppose) realizes his own depravity and hopelessness. Like in a flash, he sees himself with the same clarity as the reader has seen him all along. Hazel Motes blinding himself in some mutilating act of non-repentance; or Mrs Turpin scolding the Lord; or Julian vainly shouting for help on the empty street for his collapsed mother; sobbing Parker with the beaten-up Christ tattooed on his back.[***]
    In all these cases, and many more than I can’t immediately recall, the epiphany is a “moment of grace” [O’Connor’s word, not mine] — a chance for the characters to be redeemed, the first step of which is that self-recognition contained in the epiphany, of the need for redemption. Clearly not all her characters make that choice; but the mirror she’s still holding is not for them, it’s for us.
    And there is always one more person, just outside the frame of the main story, haunting the characters, the author and careful reader alike: Haze’s ragged pursuer through shadows and trees.
    [***] From Wise Blood, Revelation, Everything That Rise Must Converge, and Parker’s Back; my favorites and highly recommended. Of course, once you get through those, Mr. Faulkner will be waiting for you in the middle of Yoknapatawpha County, bourbon in hand, happy to take you ’round to visit with his friends for an afternoon spell. Ms. O’Connor was well-acquainted with them all you may be sure. Faulkner of course makes no pretense about anyone gettin’ saved however.

  • http://asthedeer.com Chris

    Her stories are so powerful. It’s been years, but many of them are still etched in my mind. The River, Parker’s Back, Everything That Rises Must Converge, so many others. I was not the same person after reading them.

  • http://gleamingsandgloomings.blogspot.com/ Amy K

    Although I think both Robin’s point is a good one, I do not think it represents the totality of O’Connor’s vision, or even what was central to it. I tend to agree with miliukov, and would go one further: it is through the gritty darkness of her stories that she communicates – not only our need for redemption – but the presence of it. O’Connor certainly used the grotesque in her fiction to startle the reader into realizing it in herself and to remembering what it is from which we need salvation. At least by the light of her own critical commentary on her work, O’Connor’s stories serve to show the ways an almost imperceptible grace makes itself manifest in nature, apparently abandoned to itself. She was a thoroughgoing Thomist, and works into her short stories a moment of realization of a higher reality than a given character’s prejudices allow for. This usually is experienced as violent catastrophe: O’Connor seemed to have low expectations for a willing turn to truth, but great confidence that it is generally revealed even in circumstances of the direst sin. Christ is not only symbolical present in the moment of realization when the bull gores Mrs. May in “Greenleaf” — his presence to her is manifest in the other characters, the landscape, and her own ideas. Woven into this picture of human darkness is gleaming thread that normally explodes into view for the protagonist and the reader by the end. I assert most of this without supporting it, but promise that I can should you be interested in further conversation!

  • Lit Lover

    I have read a couple of books that hit me the same way lately, after thinking nobody could do it to me like Flannery did. The first is a book of grotesques that probably owes a few things to Miss O’Connor: Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock. The second is a book actually about evangelical Christians. In the Devil’s Territory by Kyle Minor. The title is I think taken from Mystery and Manners. Thought I would share that there are still O’Connory things cooking.