"to expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness."
allow me to set the scene: the year is 2013, i am a mousy, bookish sixteen-going-on-seventeen year old, and i have just started my senior year of high school, which would be my last year of catholic education (i had attended catholic schools all my life). i walk into my sixth period class, which, i believe, was called “christian existence” (preceded by morality in 11th grade, church history in 10th, and scripture in 9th), and quickly take my seat in the front row. i laze through the class prayer and christian music video that my teacher liked to start class with (she always turned the lights off, and it was always so hot in that classroom) and take my books out. in class we were reading the book letters to a young catholic (which, for the record, i don’t necessarily recommend. just want to be as accurate as i can!), and i flip the book open to the page number written on the board to find out that today, we are reading about another mousy, bookish young person. her name was flannery o’connor.
the portion of ltayc dedicated to o’connor discussed her work as a great catholic apologist, which put her in ranks with the apostle paul and st. augustine of hippo. the book included a snippet from her posthumous collection of letters called the habit of being where o’connor recounts a discussion about the eucharist with novelist mary mccarthy at a dinner party. this occurred when flannery was still a young novelist at the beginning of her career, and mccarthy (who was more than ten years older than o’connor) had already released the company she keeps (a succès de scandale, but a succès nevertheless), was awarded a guggenheim fellowship, and had a career as a critic). i would try to give you the gist of the exchange, but no one says it better than flannery herself:
Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. [Mary McCarthy] said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the 'most portable' person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, 'Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it.’
my fascination with o’connor started in that class, with that quote. o’connor had been quiet all dinner, conscious of the reputation she had to keep and i’m sure she wanted to impress mccarthy. but when the subject of something she was passionate about came up, nothing could stop her sharp tongue. i long for a passion like that in my life.
soon after this afternoon in christian existence, i read my first flannery o’connor short story, “a good man is hard to find,” the essential o’connor. there’s even a sufjan stevens song based on it. i was shocked, and the fascination increased exponentially. have you read it? it’s merciless. she does not hold back. i almost couldn’t believe it was written by the same woman who had spoken up only to defend the eucharist. to borrow from whitman: she is large, she contains multitudes.
if you’re unfamiliar with o’connor’s work, allow me to write quick summaries of a few stories: entire family murdered by a band of thieves (“a good man is hard to find”); a child witnesses a baptism in a river and thinks it looks like fun, drowns (“the river”); a man spends a bus ride thinking of ways to mess with his racist mom, only for her to die the minute they get off the bus (“everything that rises must converge”); a polish refugee turned southern farm hand is run over by a tractor driven by a man who’s wife just died of a stroke (“the displaced person”); a civil war veteran dies on stage at his granddaughter’s college graduation (“a late encounter with the enemy”). do you see the pattern here? (these descriptions barely give the stories justice, please read her words.)
a little while ago i was reading patricia lockwood’s memoir priestdaddy, and in it i read an incredible quote about o’connor that i had not thought of. lockwood wrote,
All the while I walked more than ever. I walked past Flannery O’Connor’s house and I thought about her grotesques and her misfortunates, and I wondered, as I always did, where the mercy was located in her stories. They seemed so pitiless, as pitiless as reality, but somehow the mercy was there. Suddenly I thought, “It is located in us, it is external, she shows us the sores of the world and we are filled with a great raw feeling for them.”
i was struck by the truthfulness of this. o’connor was a catholic, and chose to write about the tragedies of life as an exercise in empathy. maybe to make the reader say, this is bad, my life is not this bad, i should be kinder, etcetera. say what you want about the catholic church, but it was built on teachings of service to others, and to an extent, empathy is necessary for good service. we read about these trials and maybe, we go through our lives viewing the world as an unforgiving place, and we help each other through it. however, the mercilessness and the grotesqueries are still there.
i hope i stretched well because i am now going to reach really, really far. have you read the book a little life? if you have, good, you’ll be in the loop. if you haven’t…whatever you do, don’t read the wikipedia plot summary, please. i’m being so serious. maybe read the book, maybe don’t; i’ll try to give a spoilerless recount. anyway, there is a lot of mercilessness in a little life. the main character, jude st. francis, faces trial after tribulation until the book ends exactly the way you think it’s going to. but i want to focus on one specific piece of mercilessness that may get overlooked in discussions surrounding all. about 100 pages from the end of the book, something significant happens, and jude is sent into the final despair of the novel. downward spiral doesn’t really describe it, because it wasn’t really a spiral. (sorry the writing here is so clunky but i am trying hard to not spoil anything because this isn’t even a piece about a little life.) but part of this fall included a little lawsuit. i say little because it’s barely mentioned, but if you had been on the other end of this lawsuit, it would really be anything but little. Jude decides to sue everyone even slightly related to the…er…incident. it is explicitly stated that he wants the lawsuit to ruin the people involved. he doesn’t care at all that the truck driver has a sick kid at home. it’s a very take them for all they’ve got scenario. this is not really a unique reaction for jude that only happens because he is angry and upset, another detail that gets overlooked is jude’s job as a litigator for a law firm that represents basically the devils incarnates (iirc, they rep. big pharma, banks, stuff like that).
i think that jude was a character who was used to having his power stripped away from him. there were what i could only describe as atrocities commited against him. i think, that however disagreeable, being ruthless within his profession was an attempt to be in control of someone else’s life. and now time for me to make my point. flannery o’connor was diagonsed with lupus by the time she was twenty seven, in 1952. around this time, she published her fist novel, wise blood. over the following years, she made over sixty appearances to lecture and read her works, as well as published a good man is hard to find and the violent bear it away. aside from occasionally lecturing, her daily life was harshly impacted by the lupus. i once read that her days consisted of attending mass, writing, and then reading and recuperating from both her illness and the steroids used to treat lupus. i wonder (and hope since i just wrote all of this and am saying it…) if a comparison can be made between the terror written into o’connor’s stories and the ruthlessness jude has in his professional life. when you are feeling hopeless, do you not look for some kind of control anywhere you can get it? is it cruel for me to suggest that after losing power over her own life and body, flannery o’connor sought some solace in writing mystical grotesqueries? this is bad, my life is not this bad.
on the very last page of a little life, harold (jude’s adopted father) states, “and so i try to be kind to everything i see, and in everything i see, i see him.” i think this is how we should walk away from flannery o’connor’s words. she wants us to understand that in so many ways, the world is not our place, it was not made for us, and no matter how hard we try, sometimes it can only end badly. things that seem good can fool us, and things are good are always fleeting, and everyone is always a few steps behind. read her words and do not be afraid to enter the hostile world we have come to call home. treat people as well as you can and despite the risks, help those in need and always be kind. good men (“man” in the sense of all people) are hard to find, but they are out there and maybe humankind is worth it. if i may offer one firm piece of advice it would be to always check baskets for smuggled cats, and don’t turn down that dirt road, because your mother was thinking of tennessee, not georgia.