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. ‘