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segunda-feira, abril 19, 2010

Believing in Flannery O’Connor (1/2)

LMD, sem título, 2010

"In 1952, the landscape of American fiction was dominated by a group of literary celebrities who had published their first novels after or near the end of World War II. James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, Truman Capote, Ralph Ellison, Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger, Gore Vidal: these were the up-and-comers about whom everyone was talking in the days when serious fiction still mattered to the educated public, the ones who were expected to do great things.

But while all of them are remembered today, none save Bellow came anywhere near living up to his promise. And though the most consequential American book of 1952 was undoubtedly Ellison’s Invisible Man, the year’s most significant literary debut turns out in retrospect to have been a slender, poorly reviewed novel about a half-crazed itinerant evangelist who preached the gospel of the Church Without Christ, a book whose all-but-unknown author was a young woman whose home was not New York but a small town in rural Georgia.

It took a number of years for Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood to be recognized as a modern classic, but once recognition came, it was decisive. Today O’Connor, who died in 1964 at the age of 39, is generally acknowledged as one of the foremost American fiction writers of the 20th century. Not only has she emerged as a key figure in postwar American letters; she is by far the most critically acclaimed of the many Catholic writers who came to prominence in this country after World War II, as well as one of the most widely read novelists, short-story writers, or poets to have been born in the American South. As Brad Gooch points out in Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor1 the first full-length biography of O’Connor, the Library of America’s 1988 volume of her collected works “outsold [William] Faulkner’s, published three years earlier.”2
That an author who published only two short novels and twenty stories (not counting student work) in her lifetime should now be the subject of such posthumous acclaim is the stuff reevaluations are made of. Might some of the attention now being paid to O’Connor and her modest oeuvre arise from the fact that she died so young? Or could it be that certain of her admirers are going out of their way to praise a writer who—unlike the once-big literary guns of the 50’s—was a woman?

Tempting though such mean-spirited speculation may be, it is misguided. O’Connor’s laconic, formidably tough-minded novels and stories are fully as good as their reputation, and vastly better than anything published by Baldwin, Capote, Mailer, Salinger, or Vidal. After she died, Thomas Merton wrote that “when I read Flannery O’Connor, I do not think of Hemingway, or Katherine Anne Porter, or Sartre, but rather of someone like Sophocles.” Though O’Connor herself would surely have scoffed at such praise, she is among a bare handful of American writers, modern or otherwise, of whom such a thing might plausibly be said.

But her reputation rests in part on a persistent misunderstanding. Unlike most of the other major American novelists of the 20th century, O’Connor wrote not as a more or less secular humanist but as a believer, a rigorously orthodox Roman Catholic. Her fiction was permeated with religious language and symbolism, and its underlying intent was in many cases specifically spiritual. Yet most of O’Connor’s early critics failed to grasp her intentions, and even now many younger readers are ignorant of the true meaning of her work.


Brad Gooch’s excellent book is likely to clear up this misunderstanding once and for all. Flannery: A Life is attractively written, thorough but not obtrusively detailed and—most important—wholly to the point. Unlike much of what has been published about O’Connor in recent years, it is the work of a biographer whose goal is not to advocate or justify but simply to tell the story of O’Connor’s too-short life and (insofar as possible) show how it was mirrored in her fiction.

As Gooch makes clear, O’Connor’s religious beliefs were central to her art. She was a “cradle Catholic,” one of the very few novelists of her generation to have been born into the church rather than converting to Catholicism as an adult, and she appears never to have weathered any crisis of faith. What inspired her to write fiction, however, was not her own reasonably straightforward relationship to the Catholic Church so much as the church’s more complex relationship to the world around her.

Roman Catholicism has long been viewed with suspicion in the South, where evangelical Protestantism in all its myriad varieties is woven into the fabric of a culture that is, in O’Connor’s oft-quoted phrase, “Christ-haunted.” O’Connor, on the other hand, was both a Catholic and an intellectual, a pair of traits that set her as far apart from the common life of rural Georgia as did the chronic illness that forced her to lead the reclusive existence of a semi-invalid.3
Yet O’Connor, to her credit, took the homespun beliefs of her fellow Southerners with the utmost seriousness. Even more surprisingly, she regarded them with exceptional imaginative sympathy, seeking to portray in her fiction the sometimes bizarre ways in which spiritual enthusiasm manifested itself in the lives of people who, lacking an orthodoxy to guide them, were forced to re-create the forms of religion from scratch. As she explained in a 1959 letter:

The religion of the South is a do-it-yourself religion, something which I as a Catholic find painful and touching and grimly comic. It’s full of unconscious pride that lands them in all sorts of ridiculous religious predicaments. They have nothing to correct their practical heresies and so they work them out dramatically.
Her sympathy, she added, arose from the fact that “I accept the same fundamental doctrines of sin and redemption and judgment that they do.”

Hence the ambiguity of Wise Blood, a concisely picaresque novel about Hazel Motes, an uneducated Southerner who longs to free himself from the Christianity in which he was raised but “cannot get rid of his sense of debt and his inner vision of Christ” (as O’Connor put it) and ends by blinding himself in order to better “see” his inner vision of divine grace. What gives Wise Blood its characteristic tone is that O’Connor plays Motes’s desperate struggle for laughs—but without ever making the mistake of viewing it, or him, with contempt.


Terry Teachout

posted by Luís Miguel Dias segunda-feira, abril 19, 2010

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