Her life bore such eloquence of pain that when she left it—August 3, 1964—her friend Thomas Merton could recall no other writer of the last century to compare her with. Rather, he said, she summoned the voice of Sophocles: an artist whose vision had likewise reached into the dark places of the human heart, there to reveal with “all the truth and all the craft…man’s fall and his dishonor.”
Flannery O’Connor has been dead a half-century now, and the weight of her reputation remains as fixed as Faulkner’s. A remarkable achievement for someone whose actual published work amounted to a couple of novels and a handful of short stories. But altogether astonishing in light of her last years, the fourteen or so she spent literally dying of lupus. A rare and terrible disease, its cumulative debilities failed utterly to diminish the grace of her spirit. “All my life,” she would say, “death and suffering have been brothers to my imagination.”
Acceptance of her end would appear to have come fairly early. It could hardly have come easy. For all the brave talk of brotherhood, is any bond ever possible with enemies as fearsome as these? Amid the ruinous terms of this world, death remains the ultimate evil, and in every brush with suffering, be it ever so brief, there is always some foreshadowing, some showing of the skull beneath the skin. Yet she steeled herself to submit to both suffering and death, cheerfully acquiescing to whatever losses each in turn would exact. Always she sought passive diminishment, that condition of suffering whose meaning she’d first learned from Teilhard de Chardin, which taught her to endure every affliction she hadn’t the capacity to escape. All this she set about doing because, not unlike the sufferings of Christ, the terrible diminishment of his cross, such sufferings bring to those who have borne them well a triumph and consummation equal to his own. It is nothing less than the Christian life itself, pressed to the point of sheer anagogical extremity, without, however, any correlative loss of freedom or hope. Instead, there accrues such enlargement of soul that grace alone may account for it. Of which the outpouring exists in complete, scandalous disproportion to the data of one’s own crushing debility.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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It was the winter of 1950, and she’d been staying with friends in Connecticut. There, intent on the discipline of her work, a novel (her first) slowly began to take shape. Suddenly she fell ill. Subsequent diagnosis revealed the worst: symptoms identical to those that, exactly ten years before, had killed her father. Returning to Georgia, to her mother’s farm, she resolved to remain there to the end, fourteen pain-ridden years away. Here she would get her dying done every day.
Nowhere is the testimony of this extraordinary woman more compelling, more self-disclosing, than in the letters she wrote, beginning at age 23, and continuing until the end, at age 38, in an Atlanta hospital. Compiled by her long-time friend, Sally Fitzgerald, in a single volume called The Habit of Being, they reveal the profound character of her soul, even as they showcase the high quality of her prose.
“I have come to think,” writes Mrs. Fitzgerald in her moving Introduction, “that the true likeness will be painted by herself, a self-portrait in words, to be found in her letters….” Reading through them, she confesses to having “felt (Flannery’s) living presence” throughout. Even the ravages of disease, so obvious from photographs taken at the time, seem at once to vanish in the light of something more. “Her letters wipe them all away, not in a cosmetic sense certainly, but by means of something that lay within…”
I have never been anywhere but sick. In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.
With one eye squinted, she told the poet Robert Lowell, she could take it all as a blessing. “What you have to measure out, you come to observe closer, or so I tell myself.”
Such a telling sentence that is. What you have to measure out, you come to observe closer… Not, heaven knows, in any Prufrockian sense. The weary aesthete emptying out his life with so many discretely measured coffee spoons. O’Conner may have been under sentence of death, but it was not ennui that would kill her. How well, then, the sentence succeeds in telescoping that quality of her life and work that remains so incisive, so incandescent. It is that which so moved Merton, on the occasion of her death, to pronounce that when he read her he remembered, “not Hemingway, or Katherine Anne Porter, or Sartre, but someone like Sophocles. What more can you say for a writer?”
So what was it that lay within? Could it be her faith, attachment to which burned most fiercely throughout her life? “Her intellectual and spiritual taproot,” Mrs. Fitzgerald called it, “and it deepened and spread outward in her with the years.” How marvelously articulate it made her, too. “I see,” she said, “from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that.”
Like Augustine before her, she was acutely conscious of her historical moment, of which the salient feature, then and now, was an accelerating descent into barbarism. Yet she wasted little time on lamentation. Such things served only to sharpen the immemorial distinctions: between the redeemed City of God, the unseen borders of which it became the Church’s business everywhere to extend, and the degenerate City of Man, whose boundaries, alas, belong anywhere in this world. On that sundering basis, she saw the Church as the only credible instrument of salvation around: a blazing sacramental Bride whose mystic wedding to the Word enabled her to elevate all that was human onto the plane of grace.
I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed.
What a stunning defense of the Catholic Thing! And always there was this awareness that she was writing against the grain of an age determined on disavowing the deepest things she knew and loved. “One of the awful things about writing when you are a Christian,” she admitted ruefully, “is that for you the ultimate reality is the Incarnation, the present reality is the Incarnation, and nobody believes in the Incarnation. My audience are the people who think God is dead.”
How does one disabuse the godless? By telling tales that render most truthfully the consequences of their belief that he is. Here she would flesh out what clearly must be among the more ludicrous aspects of our fall from grace, to wit, our persisting and sentimental refusal ever to acknowledge that we had.
How incisive she was in cutting through the sentimental syrup, straight to the bone and marrow of real meaning. “The stories are hard,” she would allow, “but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. I believe that there are many rough beasts now slouching toward Bethlehem to be born and that I have reported the progress of a few of them.”
It is a superb gloss on the stories, the Yeatsian echo of which intimating all that is most deeply abiding in her work. In short, to see all that was there, her faith the pure light by which she was enabled to see. “The Catholic novel,” she wrote, “is not necessarily about a Christianized or Catholicized world, but one in which the truth as Christians know it has been used as a light to see the world by.”
How otherwise is the writer to make stories? By lying? What else save reality has the writer to go on, or to reckon with? The craft of fiction requires a sensible world, filled with real people, whose trajectory is always towards bedrock. But every quarry begins at eye-level, with whatever is most visibly real. Fiction can only function through the senses, with concrete particulars that are seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched. All that the writer confronts, therefore,
must first take on the form of his art and must become embodied in the concrete and human … because every mystery that reaches the human mind, except in the final stages of contemplative prayer, does so by way of the senses.
How can it be otherwise given the finite and limited nature of art, especially the art of fiction? Fiction—she never tired of saying this—“is the most impure and the most modest and the most human of all the arts…closest to man in his sin and his suffering and his hope.”
I will never weary of her stories. How her mind and soul found their way into the characters of them is, to me, a kind of miracle. I see the names of the great prophets stalking the pages of her fiction…. Moses, Elijah, Daniel, the Baptizer. I think of fiery young Tarwater, hero of her last novel, The Violent Bear It Away—“a very minor hymn to the Eucharist,” she called it, and only the adjective is wrong (it is very far from being minor)—whose hunger at the very end for the Bread of Life, she said, “was so great that he could have eaten all the loaves and fishes after they were multiplied.” When he is summoned at the last—“GO WARN,” he is told, “THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF GOD’S MERCY”—the words are her words, and yet how perfectly they describe all that she too was summoned to do … her face set, like young Tarwater, “toward the dark city, where the children of God lay sleeping.”
From the eulogy preached at her Requiem, I find these words, which are as moving and true an account of her life as anything I have read:
Truth—the living God—is a terrifying vision, to be faced only by the stout of heart. Flannery O’Connor was such a seer, of stout heart and hope. From her loss we salvage the memory of a ‘stranger from that violent country where the silence is never broken except to shout the truth.’ May she rest.
And may her stories—the strange settings she chose to shout out the truth without compromise or surcease, their telling interrupted only by her passing—be marveled at for so long as stories are read, and there are people to read and savor them with delight.