The Shock and Value of Flannery O’Connor

Works by Flannery O’Connor are not difficult to read in the way that works by Russian authors or Henry James are difficult to read. They are difficult to read in that O’Connor held that because midcentury men and women had seen incredible things, they were harder to impress and wake up out of the doldrums of modern life. How do you stir someone who seems to be asleep?

The same question could be applied to our technologically savvy, smart phone-using world. We are so sated with entertainment that it can be mind-numbing. The whirring of gadgets no longer registers as noise to us. To arrest our attention, screenwriters and directors aim faster, harder and louder to keep us engaged. Headlines are more salacious, brazen or teasing. Considering this approach, little has changed in the 60 years since O’Connor wrote for her audience.

What does Flannery get right?

O’Connor’s work is shocking and violent. I read her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, with relish after the dissatisfaction I felt with “Madame Bovary.”

In Madame Bovary, the novel fails because of the author’s inability to grasp and the possibility of change in the main characters. They are what they are and what they are will damn them.

The Violent Bear It Away deals very directly with our ability to make a choice, to pursue or run away from a transcendent call.

If you, like Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary, believe that man is the only measure of himself, the only one who can call himself to anything, you will disagree with this assessment. But I think there is something beyond us, something bigger than ourselves working in and out of this world.

Transcendence

A belief or experience of transcendence is such a ubiquitous concept across time and cultures that psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman listed it in his list of Character Strengths and Virtues, a concept of positive psychology that examines not what makes a man ill, but well, happy, fulfilled and flourishing.

Internal Locus of Control

Psychology also proposes that successful and well-adapted individuals likely have an internal locus of control (among other things). It is a sense that in a given situation, we can make a choice and our choices matter. Our choices affects the outcomes.

O’Connor’s vision aligns with these concepts. In all her works, we meet broken characters. Most are generally broken by pride. Pride that they are superior in their righteousness, in their class, in their skin color, in their education. It is often the humbler character of her writing who can see the bigger picture, for pride blots out a multitude of good sense.

As these characters, limited by their background or the smallness of the world, interact with the more worldly ones puffed up by pride, something happens. There is an action, an encounter, to deflate the proud. In her short stories, the action is presented in a tightly woven series of events and comes to a quick and intense ending, often deadly.

Even modern man with his gadgets and medicine cannot escape this last end.

We saw our society shaken down with fear of death as the novel virus with unknown origin, risk factors and spread came onto the stage. Anxiety persists even up to now. It has rocked those who felt safe and secure in their modern world to their core.

This, O’Connor believes, is the moment of grace. It is the moment of invitation. It is the moment to ask ourselves, when faced with the universal reality of death, “So what?”

So what? What difference will it make?

Did this last year change you?

What did you do with the anxiety surrounding death?

Those with the stomach for it, who can overcome the shocking quality of her work, find themselves returning to her work again and again. With the shock worn down by repeat exposure, they find themselves drawn into the mystery of these questions. What is the moment of grace? What is the call to transcendence? What choice does the character make? His or her actions have consequences; they mean something; they matter.

And so do yours.

Draw Back to the Garden

Motherhood is work.
And work is play
Until the demands of my duty
Fill the hours of the day

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Melville’s sea and my garden

My first flower order of the year came at the fresh and breezy beginning of May, after the first rush of rose blooms, before the dahlias, pincushions and zinnias start their takeover of my morning hours. The calendula is beginning to speak up. The snapdragons are showing promise. Here and there new flowers are whispering that they are ready for their first bloom. Some garden beds are a disappointment. Some feel more like an investment in the future.

“It will look amazing next spring!” I say, pointing to a bunch of transplant-shocked plants. I know I should transplant in the fall. I know it. But when the plants are healthy is just when I can see they are crowding each other and where its creeping roots might be severed to fill in the gaps of another bed. 

With the first flower order complete, and with ten more bouquets besides to sell bound or  The Loreto Market, an outdoor market we hosted outside our home. As the market progressed, my stand emptied out until the last bouquet sold.

After hours of clipping, cleaning, and arranging I thought how welcome a break would be. Let the bees have the blooms for a few days. Before two days passed, I was back in the garden, gushing over my third peony plant in bloom. Its scent wafted up my nostrils as I tied the arching stems to a stake.

“Motherhood is work,” a priest reminded me.

The simple words spoke volumes to my soul. Motherhood is work, and I do not need to make the other projects into work right now. I’m tempted to ambition, to dive deep into the next project, to go and go and go until I reach the boundary of what I can do, simply because I have the energy to do so. I have the energy, but no longer have the time. 

The thing that was a fun hobby then becomes a strain. Other duties call my name: a five-year-old, a toddler, an emerging 6th grader, field and flower. 

After balancing life and projects last week, I thought with satisfaction of letting the weeds go and leaving the blooms to the pollinators. But then a mystery flower was covered in frilly orange faces, the yarrow burst with sunshine, the bunny tails wiggled in the wind. I must collect them. They all move so beautifully together.

This hobby takes effort, but the effort is sweet. Its work balances my duties within the home. It draws me outside, into the wind, the sun and the dirt. I pause and contemplate. My senses spring to respond to the stimuli nearby. Pathways in my brain flicker with excitement as I draw relationships from color theory. 

I cut, I clean, I arrange. 

And my home is filled with flowers.

The woman who placed the special order listened to my gardening story, that story that begins in sadness and grief, but grew a garden. “You’ll always have this as the gift she left you, your love of gardening,” she said.

Many days of motherhood are filled with laughter and tears. To find the fruit of both, I go out to the garden.

Would that we all could find the hobby that energizes us, that balances us, that helps us find a central space around which we can pivot, flexing our muscles and growing in virtue is ways that pour over into all aspects of our life. This gift is not something only I can receive because of some privilege. It is available to everyone. And its path takes us through, not just the garden, but the good life.

Your Pandemic Entertainment Here

Sure you could watch “Tiger King” on Netflix during the pandemic, but how about something a bit more medieval?

Kristin Lavransdatter

Book jacket of Kristin Lavransdatter. An Example of literature to read during a pandemic.

I picked up the third book of Kristin Lavransdatter written by Sigrid Undset and published in 1920. I have read the entire trilogy a few times already, so this way I know I can get to those plague scenes. It happens at the very end of the book in a flash of action, people die, she stops some people from sacrificing a boy to try to appease whatever divine power they think is causing this and she risks her life to practice the corporal work of mercy, burying the dead. But before all that, this is a tragic and epic story of the fictional life a medieval Norwegian woman who marries a man.

Undset possesses the ability to impeccably draw characters in remarkable detail, demonstrating their personality strengths and weaknesses and how those bear out against the strengths and weaknesses of those around them. In relationship lies all the action, though the horses, axes and swords help too. The book has something for everyone but I find it resonates in particularly powerful ways with mothers.

The Betrothed

Book jacket of The Betrothed. An Example of literature to read during a pandemic.

Joseph Pearce, a literature scholar and Director of the Center for Faith and Culture at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee, wrote an online article about The Betrothed, an Italian pandemic story written by Alessandro Manzoni and published in 1827 in which one village learns that maybe they should have practiced a little more social distancing. I am sure it is about more than that, but that was what I gathered from this article.

The Seventh Seal

Movie poster for The Seventh Seal. An example of films to watch during a pandemic.

I am thinking of watching The Seventh Seal (Swedish, 1957) again. Another Black Plague setting. It is thoughtful and provocative, but undeniably silent, and after social distancing, staying-at-home, the slow pace of something visual and intellectual might just be what I need as I rock my three-month-old baby to sleep. It is a great movie for the artsy types, the types who want to check-off something iconic, and those who want to show off their cultural savviness during a Zoom chat.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Image for Monty Python and the Holy Grail. An example of films to watch during a pandemic.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (British, 1975) is more my husband’s style. It took a few weeks but I finally saw an online reference to the scene in which peasants are carting around bodies and yelling, “bring out you’re dead!” This is a movie for those who enjoy dry, dark humor.

Your Friend the Rat

Your Friend the Rat from Wikipedia. An example of films to watch during a pandemic.

If you have only eleven minutes, in 2007, Pixar and Walt Disney Studios released Your Friend the Rat. This offers a more educational take on the role rats played during the Plague.

Medieval Times

There are undoubtedly better lists out there, but this offers at least a passing survey across time and cultures. According to Merriam-Webster, a pandemic is an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population.

The Black Death was a global epidemic of bubonic plague that struck Europe and Asia in the mid-1300s. It changed the face of Europe and influenced art, literature and music for hundreds of years to come. It still stands out in our mind as a singular event.

And Now

Living now through the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Pandemic, we are experienced something that will also alter the course of history. Our economy has shut down and what once was an epidemic of loneliness in our country has become a government-mandated call to action to stay home and distance ourselves socially.

Things many Americans could take for granted, free access to education, online shopping, a postal and delivery network, 24-hour grocery stores, and abundance of food and paper products, easy and widespread mobility and transportation have become scarce, hard to come by, or risky.

This is a time to grieve. We will grieve the loss of life as we knew it. We will grieve relationships. We will grieve those who die.

But, as in all times of darkness, there is still hope. The projections are improving. As Queen Elizabeth II said in a rare public address on April 5, “Using the great advances of science and our instinctive compassion to heal, we will succeed, and that success will belong to every one of us. We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return. We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again.”

So until then, read, watch and hope.

Previously published as part of “Here’s to the Good Life!” my weekly column in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

To read previous reflections on the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic click here and here and here.