1973 - when I started asking questions, like, "Why are we all dressed so funny?"

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Violent Grace: Flannery O'Connor and the Nature of Art

The following is the "script" followed for the Crossroads Cultural Center presentation, "A Violent Grace: Flannery O'Connor and the Nature of Art" on Friday, March 15, 2013 at the Knights of Columbus Hall (Council #539) in Denver.
Presenters included David Hazen and Matt & Teresa McGuiness
DAVID: Prologue: (On Flannery O'Connor's utter lack of Political Correctness.) In what follows, you may be offended. There are racial slurs, violence against women, violence against men and domestic abuse. In this regard, please listen carefully to the words of Miss O'Connor herself:
What leads the writer to his salvation may lead the reader into sin. (The Church of the Fiction Writer 810)
You've been warned.
MATT (Concise explanation of the story thus far): The Grandmother is traveling with her son and his family. The Grandmother gets them lost and causes an accident. They are set upon by three escaped convicts headed up by a fellar who calls himself The Misfit.
NARRATOR: Alone with The Misfit, the grandmother found that she had lost her voice. There was not a cloud in the sky nor any sun. There was nothing around her but woods. She wanted to tell him that he must pray. She opened and closed her mouth several times before anything came out. Finally she found herself saying,
GRANDMOTHER: "Jesus. Jesus."
NARRATOR: Meaning, Jesus will help you, but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing. As if he agreed, The Misfit said,
MISFIT: "Yes'm, Jesus thown everything off balance. It was the same case with Him as with me except He hadn't committed any crime and they could prove I had committed one because they had the papers on me. Of course, they never shown me my papers. That's why I sign myself now. I said long ago, you get you a signature and sign everything you do and keep a copy of it. Then you'll know what you done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see do they match and in the end you'll have something to prove you ain't been treated right. I call myself The Misfit because I can't make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment."
NARRATOR: There was a piercing scream from the woods, followed closely by a pistol report.
MISFIT: "Does it seem right to you, lady, that one is punished a heap and another ain't punished at all?"
GRANDMOTHER: "Jesus! you've got good blood! I know you wouldn't shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people! Pray! Jesus, you ought not to shoot a lady. I'll give you all the money I've got!"
NARRATOR: Looking beyond her far into the woods, The Misfit said,
MISFIT: "Lady, there never was a body that give the undertaker a tip."
NARRATOR: There were two more pistol reports and the grandmother raised her head like a parched old turkey hen crying for water and called out for her son as if her heart would break,
GRANDMOTHER: "Bailey Boy, Bailey Boy!"
THE MISFIT: "Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead, 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."
NARRATOR: The Misfit's voice had become almost a snarl.
GRANDMOTHER: "Maybe He didn't raise the dead"
NARRATOR: The old lady mumbled. She didn't know what she was saying and feeling so dizzy that she sank down in the ditch with her legs twisted under her
MISFIT: "I wasn't there so I can't say He didn't, I wisht I had of been there."
NARRATOR: As The Misfit said this he hit the ground with his fist.
MISFIT: "It ain't right I wasn't there because if I had of been there I would of known. Listen lady, if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn't be like I am now."
NARRATOR: His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother's head cleared for an instant. She saw the man's face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured,
GRANDMOTHER: "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children !"
NARRATOR: She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them.
Hiram and Bobby Lee returned from the woods and stood over the ditch, looking down at the grandmother who half sat and half lay in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child's and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky.
Without his glasses, The Misfit's eyes were red-rimmed and pale and defenseless-looking.
MISFIT: "Take her off and thow her where you thown the others"
NARRATOR: The Misfit picked up a cat that was rubbing itself against his leg.
"She was a talker, wasn't she?" Bobby Lee said, sliding down the ditch with a yodel.
MISFIT: "She would of been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."
NARRATOR: "Some fun!" Bobby Lee said.
MISFIT: "Shut up, Bobby Lee. It's no real pleasure in life."
MATT: The first time I read this story I was confused but fascinated.
Q. Who out there has read a Flannery O'Connor story?
One way to MISREAD Flannery O'Connor is to stay on the surface. In a letter of 1961, Miss O'Connor pointed out the following to a puzzled reader:
This story [“A Good Man Is Hard to Find”] is, of course, not meant to be realistic in the sense that it portrays the everyday doings of people in Georgia. It is stylized and and its conventions are comic even though its meaning is serious” (LOA, p. 1148).
MATT: On behalf of Crossroads Cultural Center, Aggiornamento and the Knight's of Columbus Council #539, we welcome you to A Violent Grace: Flannery O'Connor and the Nature of Art.

Crossroads Cultural Center was established in New York in 2004 by a few members of Communion and Liberation, the international movement in the Roman Catholic Church that was founded in Italy in 1954 by Msgr. Luigi Giussani. These friends shared an interest in the relationship between religion and culture, more specifically on the ways in which Christianity, by revealing the ultimate meaning of reality, gives new impulse to the human desire for knowledge.

Our goal is to offer opportunities for education, making it possible to look with openness, curiosity, and critical judgment at every aspect of reality. Our ideals are summed up by the suggestion of Saint Paul "Test everything; retain what is good."

In our experience, the mark of a Christian culture is that it fosters interest in the full spectrum of reality, rather than focusing on a predetermined set of “religious” issues.

A sign of its authenticity is the ability, or at least the desire, to encounter people from all walks of life, and to look for and appreciate everything that is true, good, and worthwhile in the various expressions of human life. These expressions include science, the arts, politics, journalism and the media, theology, history, economy, sociology, and education. This openness and desire is the fruit of the education received in the Roman Catholic Church.

Crossroads currently operates in New York, Washington (DC), New Bedford (MA), Houston, Chicago, and Denver!

This is Teresa McGuiness, David Hazen and I'm Matt McGuiness. Together we want to give you a very short introduction to Flannery O'Connor.

Our task tonight is a bit overwhelming. We have an hour to say something profound and interesting about a woman who is one of the top ten writers of the 20th century. In light of the sheer impossibility of our task, I was inspired by something Flannery wrote in this regard:

The writer [or speaker!] learns, perhaps more quickly than the reader, to be humble in the face of what is. What is is all he has to do with; the concrete is his medium; and he will realize eventually that fiction can transcend its limitations only by staying within them” (The Church and the Fiction Writer)

MATT: Within our limited time, we have decided to give you as much of Miss O'Connor as possible and only as much of ourselves as seems necessary. Our selections come from three of her short stories: “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” “The Displaced Person” and “Revelation.”

Three things about art struck me as I went back and re-read these stories:

1. Art should mostly SHOW not tell (thus art is not pedantic)

2. Art reveals us to ourselves and helps to explain our place in the Cosmos (art is not indifferent to reality)

3. Art, good art, is open to multiple interpretations (so while art can sometimes seem simple, it contains an inner depth or complexity)

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, all three of these artistic factors are at work in O'Connor's “Good Man.”

The next selection is from “The Displaced Person.” The protagonist is a Polish refugee who has survived World War II and its aftermath and is now working on the McIntryre farm. Unfortunately, Mr. Guizac {GWEE-ZAC} has a strong work ethic and has a bad habit of telling the truth. He excites envy and resentment from everyone on Mrs. McIntyre's farm – black and white, good people and trash alike.

At this point in the story, Mrs. McIntyre has finally worked up her courage and has decided to fire Mr. Guizac.

DAVID: There was a heavy frost on the ground that made the fields look like the rough backs of sheep; the sun was almost silver and the woods stuck up like dry bristles on the sky line. The countryside seemed to be receding from the little circle of noise around the shed. Mr. Guizac was squatting on the ground beside the small tractor, putting in a part.

TERESA: Mrs. McIntyre hoped to get the fields turned over while he still had thirty days to work for her. The colored boy was standing by with some tools in his hand and Mr. Shortley was under the shed about to get up on the large tractor and back it out. She meant to wait until he and the Negro got out of the way before she began her unpleasant duty. She stood watching Mr. Guizac, stamping her feet on the hard ground, for the cold was climbing like a paralysis up her feet and legs. She had on a heavy black coat and a red head-kerchief with her black hat pulled down on top of it to keep the glare out of her eyes. Under the black brim her face had an abstracted look and once or twice her lips moved silently.

DAVID: Mr. Guizac shouted over the noise of the tractor for the Negro to hand him a screwdriver and when he got it, he turned over on his back on the icy ground and reached up under the machine. She could not see his face, only his feet and legs and trunk sticking impudently out from the side of the tractor. He had on rubber boots that were cracked and splashed with mud. He raised one knee and then lowered it and turned himself slightly.

TERESA: Of all the things she resented about him, she resented most that he hadn't left on his own accord.

DAVID: Mr. Shortley had got on the large tractor and was backing it out from under the shed. He seemed to be warmed by it as if its heat and strength sent impulses up through him that he obeyed instantly. He had headed it toward the small tractor but he braked it on a slight incline and jumped off and turned back toward the shed.

TERESA: Mrs. McIntyre was looking fixedly at Mr. Guizac's legs lying flat on the ground now. She heard the brake on the large tractor slip and, looking up, she saw it move forward, calculating its own path. Later she remembered that she had seen the Negro jump silently out of the way as if a spring in the earth had released him and that she had seen Mr. Shortley turn his head with incredible slowness and stare silently over his shoulder and that she had started to shout to the Displaced Person but that she had not. She had felt her eyes and Mr. Shortley's eyes and the Negro's eyes come together in one look that froze them in collusion forever, and she had heard the little noise the Pole made as the tractor wheel broke his backbone.

DAVID: The two men ran forward to help and she fainted.

COMMENTARY: between DP & Revelation
MATT: What does Miss O'Connor show us in this short extract?
Well, here's one of many things: this is what Original Sin looks like:
[Mrs. McIntyre] heard the brake on the large tractor slip and, looking up, she saw it move forward, calculating its own path. Later she remembered that she had seen the Negro jump silently out of the way as if a spring in the earth had released him and that she had seen Mr. Shortley turn his head with incredible slowness and stare silently over his shoulder and that she had started to shout to the Displaced Person but that she had not. She had felt her eyes and Mr. Shortley's eyes and the Negro's eyes come together in one look that froze them in collusion forever.”
MATT: O'Connor doesn't tell us about evil, she makes us feel it. Ouch.
This brings me to something that may be offensive to some. Broadly speaking, it touches upon religion and the artist. More specifically it has to do with us Catholics and our secret expectations about Catholic artists:


I once received a letter from an old lady in California who informed me that when the tired reader comes home at night, he wishes to read something that will lift up his heart. And it seems her heart had not been lifted up by anything of mine she had read. I think that if her heart had been in the right place, it would have been lifted up” (Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction).

MATT: Ah, yes, pious platitudes. That's what the people want. Or do we? Perhaps we, the “consumers,” of art need to be educated in the nature of art itself. Art becomes something perverse when it is “fraudulently manipulated” in the name of some higher good. Again, Miss O'Connor:
When fiction is made according to its nature, it should reinforce our sense of the supernatural by grounding it in concrete observable reality. If the writer uses his eyes in the real security of his faith, he will be obliged to use them honestly and his sense of mystery and his acceptance of it will be increased. To look at the worst will be for him no more than an act of trust in God; but what is one thing for the writer may be another for the reader. What leads the writer to his salvation may lead the reader into sin” (The Church and the Fiction Writer).
MATT: Thus art (literature included) can serve to educate us. My favorite explanation of what education ought to do, comes from Luigi Giussani who stole it from Josef Jungmann, the Austrian theologian:
Education ought to be an introduction to the whole of reality.” [repeat]
Miss O'Connor surveyed the whole of reality of the human: sin, redemption, human destiny. She affirmed the ultimate positivity of reality in the most grotesque of circumstances.
If we are provoked by an artist, we can begin a journey of verification: Is it true? Is it beautiful? Is it good? This is a path toward maturity if we are willing to admit that cheap piety is not what we seek but reality in all it's depths.
Our final selection is from the last story O'Connor ever wrote. It is entitled “Revelation.” In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” the violence is overt, visible. But in “Revelation,” the obvious violence is short-lived; the real violence is a painful interior struggle.
Mrs. Turpin's revelation is a painful discovery of her place in the Cosmos. Painful though it may be for Mrs. Turpin, there is also humor along the way.

TERESA (Mrs. Turpin before Mary Grace):
The Doctor’s waiting room, which was very small, was almost full when the Turpins entered and Mrs. Turpin, who was very large, made it look even smaller by her presence.
[As she waited, she occupied] herself with the question of who she would have chosen to be if she couldn't have been herself. If Jesus had said to her before he made her, "There's only two places available for you. You can either be a nigger or white trash," what would she have said? "Please, Jesus, please," she would have said, "Just let me wait until there's another place available," and he would have said, "No, you have to go right now", and I have only those two places so make up your mind." She would have wiggled and squirmed and begged and pleaded but it would have been no use and finally she would have said, "All right, make me a nigger then-but that don't mean a trashy one." And he would have made her a near clean respectable Negro woman, herself but black.
MATT (Mrs. Turpin during/after Mary Grace):
[Sitting next to Mrs. Turpin in the Doctor's waiting room] was a fat girl of eighteen or nineteen [named Mary Grace. She was] scowling into a thick blue book which Mrs. Turpin saw was entitled Human Development. The girl raised her head and directed her scowl at Mrs. Turpin as if she did not like her looks.

[This] ugly girl beside [Mrs. Turpin] cast an eye upward at the clock, smirked, then looked directly at her and smirked again. Then she returned her eyes to her book. [The girl's blue eyes] appeared alternately to smolder and to blaze.
There was no reason the girl should single her out for her ugly looks.
This raw-complexioned girl snapped her teeth together. Her lower lip turned downwards and inside out, revealing the pale pink inside of her mouth. After a second it rolled back up. It was the ugliest face Mrs. Turpin had ever seen anyone make and for a moment she was certain that the girl had made it at her. She was looking at her as if she had known and disliked her all her life-all of Mrs. Turpin's life, it seemed too, not just all the girl's life.
Why, girl, I don't even know you.”
Mrs. Turpin said silently.
The girl gripped the book in her lap with white fingers.
All at once the ugly girl turned her lips inside out again. Her eyes were fixed like two drills on Mrs. Turpin. This time there was no mistaking that there was something urgent behind them.
Girl, I haven't done a thing to you!”
Mrs. Turpin exclaimed silently. The girl might be confusing her with somebody else.
[Surveying the room,] the girl looked as if she would like to hurl them all through the plate glass window.
Mary Grace made a loud ugly noise through her teeth. The girl's face was almost purple.
The book struck [Mrs. Turpin] directly, over her left eye. It struck almost at the same instant that she realized the girl was about to hurl it. Before she could utter a sound, the raw face came crashing across the table toward her, howling. The girl's fingers sank like clamps into the soft flesh of her neck.
[Later] Mrs. Turpin's head cleared and her power of motion returned. She leaned forward until she was looking directly into the fierce brilliant eyes [of Mary Grace]. There was no doubt in her mind that the girl did know her, know her in some intense and personal way, beyond time and place and condition.
TERESA: "What you got to say to me?" ...
[Mrs. Turpin] asked hoarsely and held her breath, waiting, as for a revelation. The girl raised her head. Her gaze locked with Mrs. Turpin's.
… “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.” …
Her voice was low but clear. Her eyes burned for a moment as if she saw with pleasure that her message had struck its target.
[Soon afterwards, the Turpins went home to their farm. Mrs. Turpin thought and thought and thought]
"I am not a wart hog. From hell."
But the denial had no force. The girl's eyes and her words, even the tone of her voice, low but clear, directed only to her, brooked no repudiation. She had been singled out for the message, though there was [white] trash in the room to whom it might justly have been applied. The full force of this fact struck her only now. The message had been given to Ruby Turpin, a respectable, hardworking, church-going woman. The tears dried. Her eyes began to burn instead with wrath.
[low, fierce voice] "What do you send me a message like that for?"
"How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?"
[mad] "Why me? It's no trash around here, black or white, that I haven't given to. And break my back to the bone every day working. And do for the church.”
"How am I a hog? Exactly how am I like them?"
[getting angrier] "There was plenty of trash there. It didn't have to be me. If you like trash better, go get yourself some trash then. You could have made me trash. Or a nigger. If trash is what you wanted, why didn't you make me trash?"
[sarcastically] "I could quit working and take it easy and be filthy. Lounge about the sidewalks all day drinking root beer. Dip snuff and spit in every puddle and have it all over my face. I could be nasty.”
[now yelling] “Go on! Call me a hog! Call me a hog again. From hell. Call me a wart hog from hell!
A final surge of fury shook her and she roared:
[shouting] "Who do you think you are?"
DAVID (Mrs. Turpin's revelation):
The color of everything, field and crimson sky, burned for a moment with a transparent intensity. The question carried over the pasture and across the highway and the cotton field and returned to her clearly, like an answer from beyond the wood.
TERESA: She opened her mouth but no sound came out of it.
At last she lifted her head. There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound.
A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire.
Upon it a vast horde of souls were tumbling toward heaven. There were 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.
And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right.
TERESA: She leaned forward to observe them closer.
They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They, alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away.
COMMENTARY: after Revelation
MATT: THE DRAMA OF INTERPRETATION: Flannery O'Connor lamented the fact that she like so many artists was not understood. This was not her fault, but, if I may be so bold, our fault. The interpretation of art takes hard work and patience; two things lacking in contemporary culture.
Catholic readers are constantly being offended and scandalized by novels they don’t have the fundamental equipment to read in the first place, and often these are works that are permeated with a Christian spirit (The Church and the Fiction Writer, 811).
I don’t believe you can impose orthodoxy on fiction. I do believe that you can deepen your own orthodoxy by reading if you are not afraid of strange visions... Catholics are much given to the instant answer. Fiction doesn't have any. (The Catholic Novelist in the South, 863).
MATT: Artists have their responsibilities. As artists, it is to stay true to the art form that has called you. Another way to put this is to say: tell the truth.
What the fiction writer will discover, if he discovers anything at all, is that he himself cannot move or mold reality in the interests of abstract truth. The writer learns, perhaps more quickly than the reader, to be humble in the face of what is (The Church and the Fiction Writer, 808).
MATT: The artist works with what is given. Not only is there a “given-ness” to pen, ink, paper, clay and metal. His audience is also given to him. Yet the audience too has a responsibility. I know, this may sound strange in our entertainment-driven society!
It is popular to suppose that anyone who can read the telephone book can read a short story or a novel, and it is more than usual to find the attitude among Catholics that since we possess the truth in the Church, we can use this truth directly as an instrument of judgment on any discipline at any time without regard for the nature of that discipline itself.
When people have told me that because I am a Catholic, I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am a Catholic I cannot afford to be less than an artist (The Church and the Fiction Writer, 808-9).

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