quarta-feira, abril 21, 2010
"O’Connor, as Wise Blood proves, was no run-of-the-mill religious novelist. In addition to having a deeply philosophical turn of mind, she was a thoroughgoing modernist who adhered no less devoutly to the Jamesian precept to “dramatize, dramatize!” Moreover, her youthful reading of Jacques Maritain, the Catholic philosopher who argued in Art and Scholasticism (1930) that “the pure artist considered in the abstract as such . . . is something completely unmoral,” had persuaded her that the serious Catholic fiction writer had no moral obligation to be preachy.
Between them, these two inclinations led O’Connor to write stories in which religious faith (or its absence) and its effects on her characters were portrayed with little or no explanatory authorial comment. Because these stories are in the broadest sense comic—and because they portray a culture of which most educated Americans of the 50’s knew little or nothing—it was inevitable that they would be misunderstood by many of their first readers, who wrongly pigeonholed their author as a purveyor of the same Southern gothicism and grotesquery that they had previously encountered in such novels as Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road (1932) and Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948).
To be sure, the undeniable brilliance of O’Connor’s writing won her near-immediate acclaim from the American intelligentsia. Her cause was promptly taken up by such noted editors and writers as Robert Giroux, Robert Lowell, Katherine Anne Porter, and Philip Rahv, who published two excerpts from Wise Blood in Partisan Review. But it soon became evident that some of those who most admired her writing failed to grasp its point, and the middlebrow publications of the day reviewed her with a blend of puzzlement and disdain.
Typical of the critical response to O’Connor’s early work was Time’s unsigned review of A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955), her first short-story collection, in which sympathetic detachment was mistaken for cutting satire:
Georgia’s Flannery O’Connor has already learned to strip the acres of clay-country individuality with the merciless efficiency of a cotton-picking machine. . . . The South that simpers, storms, and snivels in these pages moves along a sort of up-to-date Tobacco Road, paved right into town.
O’Connor was unsurprised by such obtuseness. “I have found,” she wrote with dry amusement, “that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.” Yet it vexed her all the same, and when Wise Blood was reissued in 1962, it was accompanied by a newly written author’s note in which she called the book “a comic novel about a Christian malgré lui4.”
Some of O’Connor’s friends were dismayed by her decision to speak so frankly about the book’s religious implications, no doubt because many of them, as Brad Gooch makes clear in Flannery, preferred not to believe that orthodox belief was so salient an aspect of her work. Even the usually sympathetic Gooch describes the note to Wise Blood as “rather heavy, and blunt.” By then, however, it had become apparent to most of O’Connor’s critics that she was writing from a specifically religious perspective, though only a few saw that she identified herself with her Christ-haunted preachers and prophets.
Consider, for instance, the critical reception of The Violent Bear It Away (1960), a dark and shocking short novel whose protagonist, Francis Tarwater, is a fourteen-year-old boy torn between the crude but passionate Protestantism of his great-uncle, an angry old man who believes himself to be a prophet, and the bloodless secularism of his uncle, a school teacher who longs to bring the boy “out of the darkness into the light.” Francis is ignorant, willful, and violent, and there is nothing obviously sympathetic about the way O’Connor describes him—but he has still been touched by grace, and so she sides with him in his quest. “The modern reader will identify himself with the school teacher,” she told a friend, “but it is the old man who speaks for me.” Yet Time, though its reviewer sensed something of O’Connor’s larger purpose, failed to perceive her sympathy, claiming that the book showed “the secure believer poking bitter fun at the confused and bedeviled.”
It was not until 1979, fifteen years after her death, that the full extent of O’Connor’s orthodoxy became widely known. In that year a collection of her letters, The Habit of Being, was published, revealing her to have been a witty, engaging correspondent.5 Paradoxically, it was The Habit of Being that cemented O’Connor’s reputation, displaying her as a person in a way that her fiction never does (though Flannery reveals that a considerable amount of her private life made it onto the page, albeit in cryptic form). But O’Connor also tore the veil of symbolism away from Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away, and such widely anthologized stories as “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” writing with straightforward specificity about their religious aspect.
After the publication of The Habit of Being, there was no longer any excuse for readers to ignore or misinterpret the religious underpinnings of O’Connor’s fiction, or to fail to take at face value her categorical statement that “I write the way do because (not though) I am a Catholic. . . . The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism.” By then, though, O’Connor’s work had taken on a life of its own, and to this day it remains common for readers to assume that her comic portraits of Southern Protestantism are hostile rather than sympathetic.
Therein lies the O’Connor “problem,” if problem it is. To what extent is her fiction accessible to those who do not take its religious wellsprings seriously? This is far more of a problem today than it was in the 50’s and 60’s, for American intellectual culture has lately become almost entirely secularized, and it begs a hard question: Will O’Connor’s work survive only by being misunderstood?
It is true that she has much to offer beyond her spirituality. O’Connor was also a consummate craftsman whose stories are both beautifully wrought and closely observed. A case in point is “Parker’s Back,” a story from Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965), her second and last collection, on which she was working at the time of her death. She describes a small-town boy who sees a man covered with tattoos at a fair and immediately undergoes something like a conversion experience:
Parker had never before felt the least motion of wonder in himself. Until he saw the man at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed. Even then it did not enter his head, but a peculiar unease settled in him. It was as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed.
In many of O’Connor’s best stories, “Parker’s Back” prominent among them, the religious theme is so subtly dramatized that it can be overlooked by casual readers unaware of the author’s larger purpose. Whatever else her fiction is, it is not Catholic propaganda.6 In the end, though, a critical approach that denies or downplays O’Connor’s faith will necessarily result in only a partial appreciation of her work. It is no more possible to understand a book like Wise Blood without taking Catholicism seriously—if only to reject it—than it is possible to understand the fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer without taking Judaism seriously.
The difference, of course, is that Singer viewed religion with reluctant skepticism, O’Connor with unswerving certitude. As I once wrote in these pages:
O’Connor’s Christ-haunted characters differ profoundly from Singer’s demon-infested Jews. In O’Connor, unbelievers living in a fallen world tainted by modernity suddenly find themselves irradiated by grace, but, like Hazel Motes . . . they struggle in vain against its revelatory power. In Singer’s world, by contrast, there are no sudden revelations, only the unquenchable desire to believe, against all evidence to the contrary, that life has meaning.7 Might O’Connor’s faith cause the brilliance of her art to fade in an age of increasingly militant secularism whose cultural tastemakers do not share her beliefs? The fact that her reputation has continued to grow when so many of her contemporaries have become critical also-rans says something about her staying power. Yet there have always been doubters. In 1972, O’Connor was posthumously given the National Book Award for an omnibus volume of her complete stories. Robert Giroux, her longtime editor, was accosted at the ceremony by a dubious colleague who asked, “Do you really think Flannery O’Connor was a great writer? She’s such a Roman Catholic.”
It will be interesting—and revealing—to see whether that question is asked with increasing frequency in the years to come."
posted by Luís Miguel Dias quarta-feira, abril 21, 2010