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12/02/2009

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William Luse

Fine post. Thanks for defending the good lady against another willful misreading.

Steven Augustine

Flannery's material is deeply Catholic to the extent that she channels (so transparently) the olde Greeks: no one truly innocent ever suffers a reversal/comeuppance/termination in her stories. I hate to give Freud any credit for the concept by calling these great stories "Freudian", but I do think that in quite a few of them, either Flannery or her mother gets put through a flaming wringer in effigy. The red (or Greene) flag of Catholicism that Anderson is missing in FO's work is probably "redemption"... there is none.

The last line in Greenleaf (Flannery's minotaur workout) is the best of any short story I can recall reading.

Brian Brearley

I tend to agree with your argument pertaining to generic concepts of O'Connor's (any writer's for that matter) style as it presents itself through prose. Though, I think you may have read to deeply into David E. Anderson's use of the word 'style'. Just as you argue, "A writer should be judged by what her work does attempt, not by what it doesn't", the excerpt of Anderson's work is decidedly disinterested in matters of aesthetic and should not be criticized for the exclusion of such.

This obvious flaw in your position is not enough to draw me from my general apathy felt toward such literary blogs, but your portrayal of "southern blacks" as incapable of experiencing higher order philosophical notions is. Whether intentional, or not, you quite clearly dismiss victims of "mundane bigotry" as lesser in some way to victims of "theological/philosophical" nihilism. More so, your assignation of race to each the lesser and the higher notion establishes a very clear bigoted social construct suggesting African-American's of the era were inherently inferior. I believe an edit is in order.

My strongest criticism of Anderson is that his misuse of the single word 'style' has spawned such inane blather.

LML

"Her subject lay elsewhere, in the lives of white Southerners and the effects of class and religion."

Virtually every aspect of life as a white Southerner has something serious to do with race. You can't take a culture as your material and then be completely absolved when you get the central fact of that culture wrong (or evade it because you know you're probably wrong about it).

O'Connor does address race occasionally, usually in a way that makes me uncomfortable. Her unironic use of the n-word (in omniscient narration, not spoken by a character) in the opening pages of The Violent Bear It Away should make anyone this side of Strom Thurmond squirm, something she seems to have realized, since it was edited out of later editions. And "Everything That Rises Must Converge," in keeping with what Steven says above, neatly balances its racist mom with a puffed-up (secretly hateful) liberal son, which has the effect of flattening racism to the level of an ordinary character failing (the story could uncharitably be viewed as a prototype for the most banal kind of anti-PC Republican talking point). This is as far as O'Connor ever goes in passing judgment on racists, and it might seem all right in a hundred years, but she was of a time and place that was defined by institutionalized racism--racism was not an ordinary failing; it was a lever for power and terror--and many of her contemporaries are still alive. So I can't give her a pass.

I think she's a great writer, incidentally. I don't think her work is fatally undermined by all of this, and maybe as the particulars of the issue fade from memory, it won't be a problem. But I for one don't ever expect to have enough distance on the issue to forget about it when I read her, and I'm not sorry about that.

Dan Green

"decidedly disinterested in matters of aesthetic and should not be criticized for the exclusion of such"

If he's not interested in matters of aesthetics, he shouldn't be using a term that essentially names an aesthetic quality.

"you quite clearly dismiss victims of "mundane bigotry" as lesser in some way to victims of "theological/philosophical" nihilism"

I don't dismiss them. In her assessment of the human condition, Flannery O'Connor does. Everyone is a victim of the nihilism she fears.

"You can't take a culture as your material and then be completely absolved when you get the central fact of that culture wrong"

She doesn't get it wrong. She just doesn't pursue it as a subject. If when "particulars of the issue fade from memory, it won't be a problem," it isn't a problem now.

LML

"She just doesn't pursue it as a subject."

This is demonstrably false. In fact I think I already demonstrated it. There are many more examples beyond the two I noted. You can say that these examples (failings in my judgment) are outweighed by her strengths as a writer, but you can't say they don't exist.

"If when "particulars of the issue fade from memory, it won't be a problem," it isn't a problem now."

a) I said "maybe." b) Even if I wanted to, I have no idea how I'd go about reading O'Connor like a citizen of the year 2109.

Steven Augustine

Dan, LML:

Sooner or later, in discussing FO, there comes that point where her fairly-apparent racism wants (or thinks it wants) to be addressed. Luckily, Flannery is no longer around and I can enjoy her Art in peace. This is the Real World (not Sunday School), after all, and many Writers/Artists were/are deeply unpleasant characters at best and, at worst, Vile Shits. Would I let Norman Mailer date my daughter? Doubt it. Even that lefty Bohemian heart throb e.e. cummings wrote Jean Le Negre ("his mind was like a child's") and though, for example, Ayn Rand wasn't even as *explicitly* racist as FO, Rand's books (and "ethos") have caused real damage on a fairly grand scale (re: La Rand and the Neocons) in the real world. Still, my only problem with Rand's books are how shitty they are.

Judge the books, forget the writers. In fact, I'm only interested in biography to the extent that a writer's life was as rich in event (detail) as his/her fiction (hallo Vlad! Milan! Joan!). Flannery's bio is just too depressing. The nigger-loathing... the lupus... ach.

LML

The books are all I'm judging here, Steven. The racism is in them, unfortunately. I don't have some puritanical case to make against her--just saying the work isn't spotless like Dan maintains. Why he'd want to maintain this is what I don't get. I'm totally comfortable loving flawed texts, even when the flaws are ethical lapses. I would never want to forget the lapses are there, though.

Steven Augustine

Let's go further: in a strictly Formal sense, "nigger" is a material deployed towards aesthetic ends in FO's work; to deracinate (npi) the word (in all its rich implication) is to rob the Art of some power; it'd be like bleaching all the yellow-and-violet harmonies out of late-middle period Picasso. I think that "nigger" is vital to many of the stories, artistically, while Flannery's relationship with the word, off the page, is distasteful/irrelevant. The difference between a work of Art being about, or containing, nigger-loathing, versus being *pro-nigger-loathing* is A) at the reader's discretion and B) a matter of the writer's intent. The problem with B) is that it is often unknown, truly, even to the Writer. We can discard it if we want; if we prefer. There's a place for "nigger"-powered Art. Especially for us (of this era), I should think: claim it or not, we're better qualified to read this work than archeologists of 2109. In other words, when the particulars fade from memory, I think the work will lose some power.

Dan Green

I don't know whether O'Connor was racist or not. As with most writers, I've ignored the biographies, as well as the letters, for that matter. I continue to find her work compelling, where, except for the few instances LML points to, race plays very little role. The n-word no longer appears in the passage of The Violent Bear It Away, so it's a moot point. As for "Everything That Rises": An ordinary character failing as compared to what? What kind of failing should it be? As I said in the post, O'Connor had no obligation to pass judgment on racists, although the mother in this story clearly is revealed as one.

Steven Augustine

"'Momma and me got a nigger that drives us around,' she would announce, deadpan, or else regale a friend with her vast repertoire of racial jokes, especially if the friend happened to be a Northern liberal."

I hope we're not really going to split hairs on this issue. The woman was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1925; even the "liberals" would have been "racist" by "our" standards; even the blacks. Laugh. I'm sure that every one-in-a-million turn-of-the-century Saudis was a "feminist", possibly, too.

Richard

I'm (coincidentally) working on an O'Connor post of my own, so I won't say too much here, except that I think an argument can be made that some of the stories (in A Good Man Is Hard to Find anyway, which is all I've read) actually demonstrate how stupid bigotry is, how it's based on virtually nothing. And the word "nigger" is always in the mouths of characters, not the narrator, who generally says "Negro".

Steven Augustine

The narrator may say "Negro" (when it isn't saying "nigger", which it sometimes says) but Flannery herself said "nigger" and often. I think we're so used to being "spun" that we apply spin, ourselves, now, without much prompting. An adult American white woman using the word "nigger" in the year 1955 (or thereabouts) is a pretty strong statement. Sorry, but I just can't see rescuing Flannery O'Connor image in order to have it inducted in the PC brigade's canon. She's a great writer but hardly a star of the Civil Rights movement. Are we too delicate to call a spade a spade (cough)? Literature is, after all, in the end, for and about human beings. Let's open our eyes to the full range of the species.

Steven Augustine

Oh, damned erratum:

"Sorry, but I just can't see rescuing Flannery O'Connor's image..."

Richard

Oh, I'm not trying to rescue her or her image (and certainly wouldn't paint her as any star of the Civil Rights movement; hardly!). I'm merely saying that identifying the stories as themselves racist is not so cut-and-dried. (Frankly, it seemed to me I was in part echoing your own comments.) I think a great writer, however unpleasant in real life, will see things in his or her art that they might not cotton to outside of it. It seems to me that in a few of her stories, she the writer sees the silliness and stupidity of bigotry (I'm thinking, for example, of "The Artificial Nigger"). Which doesn't mean she herself wasn't racist (no doubt she was).

Steven Augustine

We do indeed agree on that; the Art of it all is how ambiguous (vs polemical) a great writer can be on the page.

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