Flannery O'Connor

On the art of disassociation

‘When the Catholic novelist closes his own eyes and tries to see with the eyes of the Church, the result is another addition to that large body of pious trash for which we have so long been famous’. So penned Flannery O’Connor in Mystery and Manners. In such ecclesiolatrous gogglesness, the Christian artist, O’Connor believes, sacrifices reality birthed and fostered through extra-ecclesial but no-less graced experience in favour of a sole voice very likely to soon sing out of key. And O’Connor calls for an end to what she understands to be a false dichotomy while drawing attention to a genuine tension which is neither false nor one typically handled with due care. O’Connor’s concern, however, is not here to dissolve this tension between what the church sees and what the artist sees; rather, she wishes to understand the nature of the Catholic artist’s responsibility to look with both eyes, as it were. The real vocation of (prophetic) artists, she argues, is to achieve and communicate a wholeness of vision, and to take a stand on such a vision rather than engage in enterprises about which side in the conflict is more correct or more fitting. This can only be done through the artist’s willingness to look at what is there to see – and further, to what is not yet seen. Either way, we are talking about activities of hope. (Here, too, the artist and the preacher have much in common.)

It seems to me that Jacques Maritain is trumpeting an analogous (though not the same) melody in Art and Scholasticism and the Frontiers of Poetry when he writes:

Do not make the absurd attempt to disassociate in yourself the artist and the Christian. They are truly one, if you are truly Christian, and if your art is not isolated from your soul by some system of aesthetics. But apply only the artist to the work; precisely because the artist and the Christian are one, the work will derive wholly from each of them.

To press even further, or perhaps to press backwards, I would still want to argue (with Paul Ricœur and others) for a more pronounced expression of and commitment to communal (ecclesial and other) existence; that the Christian artist – whether a prophet or not – does not carve out her own story ex nihilo, as it were, but rather works both at different levels of consciousness in the streams and side pools of narratives – and of that most basic of all Narratives – into which her existence and vocation have been gathered up and formed, and in a network of relationality in which her existence and vocation find the kind of meaning that is both healing and abiding. There is an acute difference, it seems to me, between disregarding one’s own eyes in favour of those of others alone (so O’Connor’s concern), and abandoning the cloud of witnesses altogether. The former posture is, among other things, a denial of our being-as-responsible. The latter is a performance (understood in its positive sense) of proper humility, hope and love, and an act of faith born of the conviction that whenever Jesus comes to us he always tends to bring his friends along with him as well. In like vein, there is no art without community.

Flannery O’Connor on fiction and grace

‘What offends my taste in fiction is when right is held up as wrong, or wrong as right. Fiction is the concrete expression of mystery – mystery that is lived. Catholics believe that all creation is good and that evil is the wrong use of good and that without Grace we use it wrong most of the time. It’s almost impossible to write about supernatural Grace in fiction. We almost have to approach it negatively. As to natural Grace, we have to take that the way it comes – through nature. In any case, it operates surrounded by evil’. – Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor (ed. Sally Fitzgerald; New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1988), 144.