The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

September 05, 2015

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The Poet and the Disquieting Shadow of Being: Flannery O'Connor's Voegelinian Dimension
Marion Montgomery (IR 13:1, Fall 1977) - 05/12/08


Flannery O’Connor speaks of herself as a “realist of distances,” as a “prophetic poet,” and the complexities of such a claim in a specialized age such as ours, in which intellect is fragmented and the fragments seized and elevated to absolute authority, points to the difficulty of valuing not only her claim but her accomplishment as artist as well. She reminds us that the prophet she means to be is the one who recalls us to known but forgotten truths, to the necessity of our casting backward in our thought to some point where thought went astray. The relation of poetry to truth is a vexing one in itself, not so easily satisfied by paradox as we desire. That beauty is truth, truth beauty is itself a claim that arrests, though it is with difficulty riddled. But for a poet to complicate the problem by engaging reason in prophecy, as a guard against the poet’s old easy dependence upon intuition and a too easy comfort in paradox, well nigh confounds the attempt to value the poet. In Miss O’Connor wehave interesting and helpful assistance beyond this prophetic poet herself, to which she gives us clues. She asserts a kinship in her thinking with a variety of minds in whom common problems are addressed, minds as various as Hawthorne and Aquinas, Faulkner and Eric Voegelin. We may discover through her suggestions of such kinships at least what she understands to be the relation of truth to beauty and her role as prophetic poet in revealing that relationship.

Like Eric Voegelin, Flannery O’Connor is particularly interested in the effect of Enlightenment thought upon the “popular spirit of each succeeding age.” That erosive process is, as she sees it, a force integral to her fiction, a force against which her protagonists come at last to set themselves with a violence that speaks the heroic. For that reason, a work such as Eric Voegelin’s From Enlightenment to Revolution or Josef Pieper’s In Tune with the World: a Theory of Festivity reveals a vitality and an intellectual dimension to Miss O’Connor’s fiction as yet insufficiently acknowledged by her more strictly literary critic. It is evident that she knew neither of these particular works, the first appearing in 1975 and the second in 1965, but she knew other work by the two. Pieper’s Leisure: the Basis of Culture is in her library. Voegelin’s tribute to the Western mind, Order and History, is conspicuously present—the first three volumes—heavily marked in her hand. (These volumes she reviewed for the Bulletin, adiocesan periodical).

There are a number of reasons, however, that I should prefer to use the later works, which appear only after her death, a principal one being to suggest the importance of a community of thought, rather than be led too easily astray into the cause-effect over-simplification which one is tempted to in the study of “influences.” Independent minds do often agree. Another advantage of using Voegelin’s recent book is in particular that it addresses itself systematically to that tangled intellectual background which Miss O’Connor studies in a variety of critical minds, a background to which she repeatedly alludes, often cryptically, and which she carefully involves in the dramas of her fiction. In that growing intellectual confusion since the Renaissance, as Voegelin says, “The Christian credo ut intelligam, which presupposes the substance of faith, is reversed into an intelligo ut credam.”It is against this change that Miss O’Connor develops the assurance in her “intellectual” agents of their own purchase upon the truth, in characters like Rayber in The Violent Bear It Away or in Asbury and Hulga and Mrs. Turpin of the stories. The comedy of her self-assured psychologists and sociologists and would-be writers, however, is also accompanied by the pathos of their emptiness. Not seeing the relation, a critic may too hastily conclude that she is anti-intellectual, that she calls reason in question, when in truth it is inordinate or inadequate reason that she rebukes. Through the pathos in such characters one begins to recognize them, in Miss O’Connor phrase, as “Christ-haunted.” They know, though not intellectually, a spiritual disorientation such as results when (in Voegelin’s words) “The transcendental constitution of mankind through the pneuma of Christ is replaced by faith in the intraworldly constitution of mankind through ‘compassion.’” Though such a replacement still requires the assurance of some authority, the only authority remaining after the attrition of authority is the individual’s belief in the sufficiency of his own feelings, a new faith buttressed as well as intellect can manage with the sciences of the intraworldly.

It is against the chaos of such thought, born and bred in the Enlightenment and grown up to dominate the present moment, that the resonance of her fiction takes dramatic form—not against the local “Southern” materials she adeptly turns to the service of her art. Haze Motes, of Wise Blood, mayappear an ignorant Georgia country boy, but appearance is shockingly deceptive. Thus one finds on reflection that the semi-literate Haze has certain origin in Locke’s position that “Good and evil are nothing but pleasure and pain, or that which occasions or procures pleasure and pain to us,” a proposition Voegelin sets in its historical perspective. We read in this light also her Misfit’s sad words that “It’s no real pleasure in life” except in “killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness.” So often in her fiction, wherever the hunger for spiritual food is thwarted by a substitute appeal to what Voegelin calls the “intramundane spirit of man,” violence and destruction ensue, though not always without some triumph for the spirit in itshunger, as with Hazel Motes and Tar-water, Julian, Mrs. Turpin, Mrs. Cope.

Locke’s central point, distorted in its dissemination, infects Western thought and festers in it. It does so because it is a principle pragmatically convenient to individual and collective appetites for power, serving as well the lowest dimension of being, both social and private, reducing life to the primitive and thence to the animal. At the same time natural wit, through which the principle is exercised, creates a complicated facade of civilization exhibiting the orders of power—commercial or political or social. The result is the now famous “machine in the garden.” Haze has his machine, his Essex, which he attempts to transform into an immortal God, though Miss O’Connor’s humor makes the Essex rather a machine in the zoo of the city than in any garden. The contemporary products of our natural wit are exhibited in a spectrum from the advertising of deodorants to the advertising of political programs, each of which must be convincingly newto attract the satiated, whose pleasures have been increasingly anchored in the senses alone, since the time of Locke, by the entrepreneurs of power. (For the development of the intellectual program, in the interest of power, see particularly Voegelin’s “Helvetius and the Genealogy of Passions” and “Helvetius and the Heritage of Pascal” in From Enlightenment to Revolution.)The meaning one finds in Miss O’Connor’s “wise blood,” as explored through Haze Motes and Enoch Emory, is very much a commentary on this strain of Western thought.

Speaking of this secularization of Western thought, Voegelin remarks that “with Voltaire begins . . . the concerted attack on Christian symbols and the attempt at evoking an image of man in a cosmos under the guidance of intraworldly reason.” The crucial shiftis in the meaning of virtue so that virtue is concerned not with the individual soul’s relation to God but to social man. In his Dictionnaire Philosophique, Voltaire speaks prophetically: “Virtue among men is a commerce of good deeds; who has not part in this commerce should not be counted.” As Voegelin remarks, “Behind the phrase that a man who is not socially useful in this restricted sense does not count looms the virtuous terreur of Robespierre and the massacres by the later humanitarians whose hearts are filled with compassion to the point that they are willing to slaughter one half of mankind in order to make the other half happy.”1 Miss O’Connor comments on the same idea in ironic references to the easiness of compassion on modern lips, a compassion much changed in the interval since Voltaire’s remark toward Voegelin’s logical extension. It is “popular pity,” through which (Miss O’Connor says) “In the absence of . . . faith, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. Itends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.” And Miss O’Connor’s “tender” characters whose compassion is “wrapped in theory” reveal again and again, in her sharp reading of the narrowing of vision, our heritage from the Enlightenment. One notices particularly such characters as Rayber and Sheppard and those scattered characters whose religion is social man.

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