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terça-feira, junho 02, 2009

The Way of Distortion

Christopher Benfey, The New Republic Published: Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Flannery O'Connor, 1962

"her most reliable cartoon topic": "There followed two years of girls butting their umbrellas along the backs of marching Waves' legs; girls clinging to tree trunks, like cats, to escape a drilling platoon; girls sneaking to check if Waves carried gunpowder in their handbags; or using Waves for archery practice."

Like others before him, Gooch overestimates O'Connor's theological sophistication. It may be that the "cycle of hours and days had a religious significance for Flannery," as Gooch claims, amid the monotony of Milledgeville. But his hush-hush tone makes it sound as though she were a nun at her passionate devotions: "Immediately on waking, she read the prayers for Prime, prescribed for six in the morning, from her 1949 edition of A Short Breviary." Gooch can be unintentionally funny in charting her supposed spiritual development: "She began to look beyond the apologetic Thomism of her formative years, while noting the absence of an indwelling Christ in Buber's God as Other. "

The truth is that O'Connor liked the Catholic Church because she didn't have to think about it. Just as she once claimed that she wanted to remain twelve forever, with none of the complications of puberty, she thought the Church was most trustworthy around the thirteenth century. When someone said at a Manhattan dinner party that the communal wafer was a powerful symbol, she said: "Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it." She knew that postwar Protestant thinkers such as Karl Barth and Paul Tillich were more impressive than anything that contemporary Catholics could offer, but she clung to Romano Guardini and Teilhard like flimsy floats in a strong current.

Attempts to find this or that Christian idea embodied in her stories are doomed to failure, or to tedium at best. Who wants to believe that the interpretive key to her stories lies in the earnest theological musings of Jacques Maritain or Thomas Merton? She wanted to escape what she called in her essays "determinism," the notion that "the ills and mysteries of life will eventually fall before the scientific advances of man." She was all for mystery and freedom, which she thought the Church--at least the thirteenth century Church--made room for, but she found them in Hawthorne and Faulkner as well.

O'Connor's most powerful characters are honest non-believers like Hazel Motes in Wise Blood, with his "church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified," and the murderous Misfit, in her story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," who breaks out of prison and terrorizes a family on vacation. O'Connor relishes these figures for their lack of hypocrisy, and for the linguistic richness that ensues from their liberation from respectability. (It was Weil's refusal to embrace Catholicism that made her seem to O'Connor a plausible character for a novel.) Kafka said there is hope, but not for us. "I don't say he wasn't crucified," Hazel says, "I say it wasn't for you."

Like something straight out of Dostoevsky, the Misfit's cascading rants are so interesting that we are sorry when they come to an end:

"Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead," The Misfit continued, "and He shouldn't have done it. He thown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can--by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness," he said....

He shoots the annoying grandmother three times through the chest. "She would of been a good woman," he says deadpan, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."

O'Connor's stories seem to come from the same rich trove of nasty invention as traveling-salesman jokes, chickens and all. "Good Country People" is a joke of this kind, with a Bible-salesman seducing a Heidegger-reading girl with a wooden leg. Gooch is sorrowful that O'Connor liked racist jokes--he calls them "racial"--but some of her best stories are versions of these, as when the white Mr. Head and his grandson gaze at a dark-skinned lawn-jockey, "as if they were faced with some great mystery, some monument to another's victory that brought them together in their common defeat," in an upscale white neighborhood in Atlanta. Mr. Head is surprised to hear himself say, by way of explanation, "They ain't got enough real ones here. They got to have an artificial one."

As often as not, in O'Connor, the joke is on the respectable white people anyway, as in Mrs. Turpin's great pigsty vision in "Revelation," that the people who "had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior" would enter Heaven last, after "whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs."

Flannery O'Connor's most astute friends knew that her writing would last not because it was intentionally Catholic or unintentionally lesbian, New South or Old, experimental or thirteenth-century, but because she wrote so well, so distinctively, so unmistakably. She admired Hawthorne for his ability to steer a story "in the direction of poetry." Elizabeth Bishop rightly admired O'Connor for the same thing, the way she could "cram a whole poem-idea into a sentence." Randall Jarrell had his aspiring student-poets study these gorgeous sentences, reminiscent of Van Gogh in their confident animism amid ordinary things, from the first paragraph of "The Artificial Nigger":

The straight chair against the wall looked stiff and attentive as if it were awaiting an order and Mr. Head's trousers, hanging to the back of it, had an almost noble air, like the garment some great man had just flung to his servant; but the face on the moon was a grave one. It gazed across the room and out the window where it floated over the horse stall and appeared to contemplate itself with the look of a young man who sees his old age before him.

Bishop confessed that she was "green with envy" reading such things. "The writing is so damned good compared to almost anything else one reads: economical, clear, horrifying, real."

posted by Luís Miguel Dias terça-feira, junho 02, 2009

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