Ontological Splendor: Flannery O’Connor in the Protestant SouthGLENN C. ARBERY
Drawing on Thomas Aquinas and fortified by the work of Étienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain, and Josef Pieper, Flannery O'Connor added a Thomistic underpinning to her understanding of the poetic image and the particular thing.
Before she died from lupus at the age of thirty-nine, O'Connor spent her last fourteen years writing fiction and raising peacocks at her mother's dairy farm outside Milledgeville, Georgia. Given her illness, she had a limited range of experiences to draw on for her fiction, and her stories tend to focus repetitively on a few basic scenarios – often a mother who has to run the farm by herself, the tenants who are supposed to help but who present problems of their own, and a violent revelation. None more closely reproduces O'Connor's own circumstances than "Good Country People." The tenant woman who helps Mrs. Hopewell, Mrs. Freeman, stands in the kitchen "as real as several grain sacks thrown on top of each other," and she has "a special fondness for the details of secret infections, hidden deformities, assaults upon children. Of diseases, she preferred the lingering or incurable."
Mrs. Freeman takes particular pleasure in staring at Mrs. Hopewell's daughter, thirty-two-year-old Hulga, who has a wooden leg. Hulga – she was baptized Joy Hopewell but changed her legal name to reflect her self-fashioned identity – had her leg "literally blasted off" in a hunting accident when she was ten. She also has a heart condition that will probably kill her, which adds to her morbid appeal for Mrs. Freeman, who irritates her by using the name Hulga as though she can see some "secret fact" invisible to others. To her mother, though, Hulga is a constant trial. Sour and deliberately uglier than she needs to be, Hulga will not let Mrs. Hopewell keep a Bible in the parlor because she is an atheist. Even more embarrassing to her mother than her militant lack of faith or her bad attitude is the fact that she has a doctorate in philosophy. As Mrs. Hopewell reflects, "You could say, 'My daughter is a nurse,' or 'My daughter is a school teacher,' or even, 'My daughter is a chemical engineer.' You could not say, 'My daughter is a philosopher.' That was something that had ended with the Greeks and Romans."
Hulga clumps around the house full of contemptuous irony. Out of nowhere, in the middle of a meal, she will get enraged and say things that nobody else understands, such as "Malebranche was right: we are not our own light. We are not our own light!" Once Mrs. Hopewell turned over a book that Hulga had been reading, and found a passage underlined with a blue pencil:
These words – they come from Martin Heidegger's essay "What Is Metaphysics?" published in a volume that O'Connor owned called Existence and Being – work on Mrs. Hopewell "like some evil incantation in gibberish."
Hulga, needless to say, does not share the typical Southern "distrust of the abstract." For precisely that reason, the story comes to focus on a very specific physical thing, her wooden leg. As O'Connor would explain later to a group of writing students, "without ceasing to appeal to [the average reader] and without making any statements of high intention, this story does manage to operate at another level of experience, by letting the wooden leg accumulate meaning." How can she approach such matters as philosophical nihilism with a detail as stubborn as a wooden leg? Because she is the beneficiary of converging traditions that focus on things themselves as the way into other levels of meaning.
In part, O'Connor's writing relates directly to Southern biblical concreteness, the distrust of the abstract, especially as the Fugitive-Agrarians gave it voice in their poetic theory. In his major essay "Poetry: A Note in Ontology," John Crowe Ransom objects to the reductive nature of ideas drawn from things as opposed to the things themselves. If one finds it possible to "approach the object as such, and in humility," he writes, "then it unfolds a nature which we are unprepared for if we have put our trust in the simple idea which attempted to represent it." Ransom particularly finds the approach of science inadequate to the ontology of the image. It can "manage the image, which is infinite in properties, only by equating it to the one property with which the science is concerned." Allen Tate takes Ransom's insight a step further in his thinking about Dante and others in the Middle Ages. Tate quotes a passage from Charles Williams on Dante: "It was, however high the phrases, the common things from which Dante always started. . . . His images were the natural inevitable images – the girl on the street, the people he knew, the language he learned as a child. In them the great diagrams were perceived; from them the great myths open; by them he understands the final end." According to Tate, modern Catholic writers "have lost, along with their heretical friends, the power to start with the 'common thing': they have lost the gift for concrete experience." Instead, they have given themselves over to concepts:
As Southerners who had converted to Catholicism, Tate and especially his wife, Caroline Gordon, befriended O'Connor, who submitted every story she wrote to Gordon's exacting criticism before publishing it. O'Connor also took up the challenge that Tate poses here. She staked her career on the possibility that a writer in the Protestant South of the 1950s could do something like what Dante had done in fourteenth-century Italy – not on the same scale, certainly, but on the same basis. Drawing on Thomas Aquinas and fortified by the work of Étienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain, and Josef Pieper, O'Connor added a Thomistic underpinning to her understanding of the poetic image and the particular thing. As Pieper puts it, "The peculiarity of existing is just this, that it – existing, existence – cannot be grasped in a 'concept.' " Any abstraction about a tree, in other words, has to leave behind the tree's actual, particular existence. Trees may do things, such as grow, turn green, and bear fruit, Pieper says, but "in addition [a tree] does something else before all these other individual acts: it exists. This act of existing is not only something 'of the nature of doing'; it is 'doing' in a distinctive and wholly unique sense. The ancients called it 'doing' without restriction or further specifications; they simply termed it actus. The most marvelous of all the things a being can do is: to be."
Pieper goes on to argue that "first and foremost the step from nonexistence to actual existence is incomparably more crucial than the step from plant to animal or from animal to man. The crucial factor is 'the actus,' doing as such, the actual realization of the state of being." But this understanding of existence is rooted in an understanding of God not as unchangeable essence but as the pure Act of Being. To quote Pieper once more, "Wherever we encounter anything real, anything existent in any way whatsoever, we encounter something that has 'flamed up' directly from God. We are dealing with something that is similar to the Existence-in-itself – and not on the basis of an 'added' perfection, but on the basis of existence itself." Maritain draws on the same understanding when he describes beauty as the "radiance of the form" in what exists. In Art and Scholasticism – a book that O'Connor quotes frequently in both her letters and her lectures – Maritain explains that "by 'radiance of the form' must be understood an ontological splendor which is in one way or another revealed to our mind, not a conceptual clarity."
Practically speaking, this means that the real wonder lies at the literal level of the world. Artistically, this ontological splendor emerges not through concepts but through the images that attempt to make acts-of-being present to the mind – in other words, through what is sometimes belittled as imitation – and that establish this literal level in a convincing way. In speaking to the writing students, O'Connor says that "medieval commentators on Scripture found three kinds of meaning in the literal level." Notice that she does not say beyond the literal level, but in the literal level – and she goes on to explain the allegorical, moral or tropological, and anagogical levels familiar to students of Dante. "Although this was a method applied to biblical exegesis," she says, "it was also an attitude toward all of creation, and a way of reading nature which included most possibilities, and I think it is this enlarged view of the human scene that the fiction writer has to cultivate if he is ever going to write stories that have any chance of becoming a permanent part of our literature."
Much of what underlies Hulga's condition remains implicit – for example, the details about how Joy Hopewell lost her leg. It had "been shot off in a hunting accident when Joy was ten," and Hulga has heard Mrs. Hopewell give Mrs. Freeman the details of the accident – "how the leg had been literally blasted off, how she had never lost consciousness." O'Connor does not say how Joy happened to be out hunting. This is surely something that Mrs. Hopewell herself would never do. We would assume that if Hulga went hunting at all, it would have been with her father. But the only detail given about her father comes a paragraph earlier than the first description of how she lost her leg, almost as an aside. Mr. Hopewell is mentioned (though not by name) in one sentence: "Mrs. Hopewell, who had divorced her husband long ago, needed someone to walk over the fields with her."
Unobtrusively, then, O'Connor gives us just enough information to allow a series of inferences. Joy is clearly the only child of this marriage, and if Mr. Hopewell took her hunting, it's probably because he did not have a son; taking a daughter hunting was an unconventional thing to do in the Georgia of the 1930s, when Hulga would have been ten. What kind of hunting was it? The phrase "to walk over the fields" subtly suggests bird hunting, as does the name of Hulga's later seducer, Manley Pointer. If her leg was blasted off by accident, then the shot came from very close range, which suggests that the ten-year-old Joy, nervous and unfamiliar with weapons, tripped with a shotgun. (Mrs. Freeman would know the details.) We aren't told what happened between Mrs. Hopewell and her husband, except that she divorced him – not the other way around. Why would Mrs. Hopewell divorce him? Because she held him responsible for maiming their daughter. In effect, Hulga's adulthood stands on this empty space of what is unsaid. Not only does Joy lose her leg, but she also loses her father because of it. She clearly has to fill in for him:
Walking the fields with her mother, in other words, reminds them both that as Joy, she clumsily substituted for the missing son, and as Hulga, she inadequately replaces the missing husband. Despite everything she has done to break free and create herself as a figure of powerful will, she also continues to be the child her mother lost: "[Mrs. Hopewell] thought of her still as a child because it tore her heart to think instead of the poor stout girl in her thirties who had never danced a step or had any normal good times." All of this meaning comes to focus on the artificial limb, which both stands in for the living leg and signifies her missing father.
Earlier, I said that this story seems to be the one that most closely reflects Flannery O'Connor's own circumstances. O'Connor was thirty in 1955 when the story was published, just as Hulga claims to be. In the letters of this period, she speaks about walking with a cane; soon she would be on crutches. Like Hulga, O'Connor "may die," not from a heart condition but from lupus, and her illness keeps her from being in the center of the literary world, as she was in her early twenties. Mrs. Hopewell reflects that "Joy had made it plain that if it had not been for this condition, she would be far from these red hills and good country people. She would be in a university lecturing to people who knew what she was talking about." Hulga's absent father also parallels O'Connor's own. O'Connor's hereditary lupus came from her father, who died of the disease when O'Connor was fifteen. In her letters to Betty Hester (the woman referred to as "A" in The Habit of Being), she acknowledges Hulga as a version of herself, but not as an index to her own psyche. What interests her is using her own literal circumstances and finding in them "a coherent chain of analogies" – in Allen Tate's phrase – that can lead her to other levels of meaning in her art.
On the whole, O'Connor agrees with Mrs. Hopewell about Hulga: "She was brilliant but she didn't have a grain of sense." But to see why, one can't be satisfied with Mrs. Hopewell's account of her. For example, when Hulga says "here I am – LIKE I AM," "here I am" ironically echoes the young Samuel's response to his call to prophecy; "I AM" is God's name for Himself as the pure act-of-being in Exodus (as St. Thomas Aquinas interprets it); and "LIKE I AM" recalls the teaching in Genesis that man is made in the likeness of God. Not that Hulga herself means any of these things. She means that what she is includes both her wooden leg and her bad disposition, take it or leave it. Hulga's response to her life is to cancel out the possibility of any given meaning in it that needs to be interpreted and understood. She sets out to defy her bad fortune and create herself. The first step, needless to say, is rejecting with distaste the idea that there could be anything meant, anything providential, in her heart condition or the loss of her leg. In fact, these impediments, filtered through her education in modern philosophy, convince her that there is no given order or meaning in the world. In the Nothing where God used to be, the only truth is that there is no truth, the only meaning that which one makes for oneself.
This self-fashioning can come about only if one boldly confronts the Nothing. For Hulga, the artificial leg is in effect the only real part of her, since it is a made thing that she controls in the act of making herself. Her name also reflects her self-making: "She considered the name her personal affair. She had arrived at it first purely on the basis of its ugly sound and then the full genius of its fitness struck her. She had a vision of the name working like the ugly sweating Vulcan who stayed in the furnace and to whom, presumably, the goddess had to come when called. She saw it as the name of her highest creative act." She understands the name as working in a masculine way, but also having the power to call the goddess. Does she mean Venus, wife of Vulcan? She pretends that the self-created woman can summon a seductive self at will – which brings us to her lamentable encounter with Manley Pointer.
She has this "tall, gaunt, hatless" boy pegged from the start – the absolutely typical country Southern Protestant, the embodiment of "good country people," Bible in hand. Everything in his system of belief, she thinks, centers on the Bible, which is both a text and a kind of talismanic object to be wielded against the world. He appears guileless and simple, humbly aware of his class differences from the Hopewells, artless in his pronouncements – for example, that he lost his father in an accident and that he has a heart condition and "may die." Best of all, he seems altogether smitten with Hulga. Everything about him is a lie, we later discover, but Hulga suspects nothing. She devises a plan to liberate him into the truth by seducing him. She imagines that he will be remorseful, but she plans to turn his remorse into "a deeper understanding of life," since "true genius can get an idea across even to an inferior mind." What her deeper understanding is, we discover when Manley and Hulga have climbed to the loft of the barn.
"We won't need the Bible," Hulga tells Manley as he heaves his suitcase up the ladder, to which he replies – for reasons that soon become obvious – "You never can tell." He begins "methodically kissing her face, making little noises like a fish." He mumbles that he loves her, and when she does not respond, he stops and says that she has to say she loves him back:
Obviously without intending it, Hulga inverts a famous passage in Book 7 of St. Augustine's Confessions: "When I first knew you, you lifted me up, that I might see that there was something to be seen, though I was not yet fit to see it . . . and I trembled with love and fear. I realized that I was far away from you in the land of unlikeness." Making her own confession, Hulga admits to Manley that she is not seventeen, as she first told him, but thirty, and that moreover she has "a number of degrees." Manley says he doesn't care, he just wants to know if she loves him, and when she finally says yes, he tells her to prove it. At this point, of course, she thinks that she has summoned Venus and seduced poor Manley without even trying: " 'How?' she asked, feeling that he should be delayed a little. He leaned over and put his lips to her ear. 'Show me where your wooden leg joins on,' he whispered."
Childlike Hulga finds herself deeply moved. She is so innocent that she thinks he's innocent: "with an instinct that came from beyond wisdom, [he] had touched the truth about her." She feels that she is surrendering herself to him completely: "It was like losing her own life and finding it again, miraculously, in his."
What are we to make of this experience that, in another context, would be one of spiritual surrender and conversion? All the deeper meanings coming into play require the revelation of the wooden leg itself as the inmost truth of Hulga's life: "Very gently he began to roll the slack leg up. The artificial limb, in a white sock and brown flat shoe, was bound in a heavy material like canvas and ended in an ugly jointure where it was attached to the stump. The boy's face and his voice were entirely reverent as he uncovered it and said, 'Now show me how to take it off and on.' " As an object by now invested with great symbolic potency, the leg has to be ritually unveiled. We have to see it as the most literal of literal things. What makes the story funny as well as a little horrific is the fact that, after reverently taking the leg off and reattaching it a couple of times, Manley Pointer unceremoniously puts it aside, "setting it on its foot out of her reach." It stands there by itself without Hulga, an odd, self-standing little idol. "Without the leg," O'Connor writes, "she felt entirely dependent on him. Her brain seemed to have stopped thinking altogether and to be about some other function that it was not very good at."
Manley Pointer opens a suitcase and takes out his Bible, but far from being the sacred object Hulga had taken it to be, the deepest symbol of Southern Protestant belief, it is hollow inside, and he has in it "a pocket flask of whiskey, a pack of cards, and a small blue box with printing on it." The printing says: "THIS PRODUCT TO BE USED ONLY FOR THE PREVENTION OF DISEASE." When she sees that the deck has an obscene picture on the back of each card and that Pointer is offering her a swig of whiskey, there comes the moment of recognition, the Aristotelian anagnorisis: "Her voice when she spoke had an almost pleading sound. 'Aren't you,' she murmured, 'aren't you just good country people?' – 'Yeah,' he said, curling his lip slightly, 'but it ain't held me back none. I'm as good as you any day of the week.' " Hulga is so outraged that she sarcastically calls him a "fine Christian," to which he replies with a "lofty indignant tone," " 'I hope you don't think I believe any of that crap!' " She last sees her wooden leg slanted forlornly across the inside of his valise, and as he disappears down the ladder from the loft, he tells her that she "ain't so smart either. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!"
She did, by the way, intend to steal his faith and replace it with Nothing. In a way, it's possible to understand the especially harsh comedy O'Connor seems to reserve for Hulga only because this character most closely resembles herself. I say Hulga, but the character we're seeing now is Joy. O'Connor brilliantly returns us to the moment of Joy's accident at ten. Now, as then, she lies in shock, never losing consciousness, missing her leg and needing help. Thrust back into the context of her philosophical belief in Nothing by the Bible salesman's parting words, Hulga at last experiences the nothing that Heidegger describes in "What Is Metaphysics?" where he writes, "This 'being beyond' what-is we call Transcendence." It is, as Hulga has told Manley, "a kind of salvation," but such transcendence Hulga would now happily forgo. Nothing turns out to be nothing but helplessness and humiliation – an agonizing but also somehow cosmically funny crucifixion of ego. How is she going to explain to stolid Mrs. Freeman how she happened to lose her artificial leg (and her glasses, by the way) in the loft of a barn shortly before "that nice dull young man" from the day before disappears across the field with his suitcase?
Allen Tate writes that "to bring together various meanings in a single moment of action is to exercise . . . the symbolic imagination." O'Connor exercises it here, certainly. "The symbolic imagination," Tate says, "conducts an action through analogy, of the human to the divine, of the natural to the supernatural, of the low to the high, of time to eternity." O'Connor explains to the writing students, "A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. . . . The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of the story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully." O'Connor asks her readers not to hurry through her stories as though they were items in the supermarket tabloids Mrs. Freeman probably reads, but to wait patiently for insight, which means reading with care and experiencing the accumulated meaning of the details to which she is pointing. In this case it means dwelling on what at first seems to be grotesque – Hulga's artificial leg, which O'Connor explicitly compares both to Hulga's soul and to a peacock's tail.
In a piece that she wrote for Holiday magazine, O'Connor describes the undistinguished look of the peacock before he spreads his tail: "His end feathers are the color of clay; his legs are long, thin, and iron-colored; his feet are big; and he appears to be wearing . . . short pants. . . . The fact is that with his tail folded, nothing but his bearing saves this bird from being a laughingstock. With his tail spread, he inspires a range of emotions, but I have yet to hear laughter." She goes on to explain that when the peacock first spreads his tail, he turns his back to the person looking at him:
"Amen! Amen!" an old Negro woman once cried when this happened, and I have heard many similar remarks at this moment that show the inadequacy of human speech.
Reading one of O'Connor's stories, we have to wait, in effect, until the peacock decides to face us and spread its tail. What sometimes happens at that point is that the story itself achieves the radiance of form that Maritain describes as ontological splendor. Our response may simply be silence, or an hour's lecture, or a whole book. Or it may be an "Amen!" before a revelation of the real to which any concept would be inadequate.
Flannery O'Connor tried to understand the narrow circumstances of her life not as an occasion for bitterness – though she was constantly exorcizing that possibility – but as a gift of meaning that opened onto mystery. As Maritain writes in Art and Scholasticism, "Mystery exists where there is more to be known than is given to our comprehension. To define the beautiful by the radiance of the form is in reality to define it by the radiance of a mystery." To me it seems peculiarly fitting that in a letter she sent on Christmas Eve of 1961, Caroline Gordon – still O'Connor's friend and mentor – sent Jacques Maritain "peacock feathers from Flannery O'Connor's peacocks." The gesture in itself seems a kind of valediction. Who would have thought that the last great writer of the Southern Renaissance would be a woman dying of lupus who wrote her fierce – and fiercely Southern – stories in a milieu almost entirely antithetical to her Catholic vision? To think that feathers from O'Connor's birds made their way at last to the old philosopher in France, this man who first taught her from afar about the habit of art and the radiance of form, enters a circle of the gift too graceful for commentary.
Reprinted with permission of ISI and The Intercollegiate Review.
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