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Abstraction and Intimacy in Flannery O'Connor's "The Violent Bear it Away".

 ... abstraction is the death of religion no less than the death of
 anything else
 --Allen Tate, "Remark on the Southern Religion" 

Flannery O'Connor's humor is sometimes so effective that its purpose seems almost to divert us from our own. I have in mind, for example, Manley Pointer's telling Mrs. Hopewell that he's "not even from a place, just from near a place" (CS 279), or Sarah Ruth's impressive outrage at the tattoo of the Byzantine Christ on Parker's back, an affront so complete and convincing that her accusing Parker of idolatry is the least of it: she also beats him with a broom until large welts form on the face of Jesus, then stomps on the broom and at last shakes it out the window "to get the taint of him off it" (CS 530). The humor is high, and we understand why O'Connor had to prepare for public readings of her work by rehearsing it aloud straight-faced in private.

But both of these jokes speak to conditions conducive to a kind of moral failure about which O'Connor felt very strongly, especially by the time she resumed work on this, her second novel. Manichean is the word she often used for such conditions, eager as she was to point out that an ancient and pernicious dualism exists in the modern habit of mind. But she especially wanted to scrub clean that old residual suspicion of the flesh and of the material order of creation--even as she herself was occasionally obliged to admit astonishment at the emphasis the Church places on the body (HB 100). One of her principal tutors in this was Fr. William Lynch, who taught her that the infinite is achieved by the "penetration" of, not contempt for, the finite. (1) She was, of course, amicably predisposed to this hard affirmative doctrine, but Lynch's articulation of it was clearly central in the development of her thought. Thus, by the 1950s the lack of a sense of place--which isn't limited to "Good Country People" and certainly impinges upon The Violent Bear it Away--was not only an artistic concern of hers but a theological one as well. Absence of roots tells us something about the sort of scoundrel who believes in nothing and runs off with other people's wooden legs or glass eyeballs. Such "placelessness" is not a morally neutral condition for the writer who said that "somewhere is better than anywhere" (MM 200).

And the taint that Sarah Ruth tries to shake off the broom is Parker's only for readers as dull and analogically obtuse as she is. She's trying to shake off the taint of Jesus, and we realize a half-sentence too late that we have been laughing at a grimly comedic reenactment of the via dolorosa. Lake Manley's rootlessness, Sarah Ruth's outrage tells us something about the failed vision of those whose lives are essentially variations on George Rayber's: they are ghostly denizens of a world that is dense and heavy and palpable--that is, intolerable, for in it God has taken on human flesh and ratified its primal goodness. (2) Sarah Ruth is the consummate idolater of a world in which God is dead: she cannot countenance an image because she cannot see what stands on the other side of it. Indeed, for her there can be no such thing as an "image." There are only "idols" in the literal and, therefore, limited world of her conjuring. So another joke--and Sarah Ruth's greatest offense--is what amounts to a flat denial of God: God "don't look. ... He's a spirit. No man shall see his face." That she seems quite capable of beating that face with a broom only confirms what she unwittingly admits: that the God tattooed on Parker's back--the incarnate God--"ain't anybody I know" (CS 529). The welts she causes are the stripes with which she might be healed, but like Lucette Carmody, the child-preacher in The Violent Bear it Away, who has plenty to say about the Word but precious little to say about the Word-made-flesh, Sarah Ruth's is the God of the Gnostic, who holds, as one eminent literary critic unapologetically maintains, that Creation and the Fall were one and the same event (Bloom 261). And, once again, O'Connor tells us something about the conditions conducive to abuse given what The Violent Bear it Away calls the "threatened intimacy of creation" (VBA 22). Posit an incarnation, and you cannot live in contempt of the flesh; live in contempt of the flesh, and you deny the incarnation. Lacking a Word-made-flesh, we are at liberty to be as placeless as Manley Pointer and as literal as Sarah Ruth. We prepare an airy world inhabited by such displaced persons as they--a world in which it is impossible for the prophet Francis Marion Tarwater to trudge "off into the distance in the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus" (VBA 221), for in such a world Jesus can neither bleed nor stink.

I cite these examples from the short fiction for two reasons. One is that they remind us of how thoroughly suspicious O'Connor was of abstraction, which is Rayber's besetting malady in The Violent Bear it Away. (3) That so many early readers should have identified with him only speaks to the pervasiveness, and perhaps the insidiousness, of the condition. (4) It is nothing less than the default mode of the machine age; Rayber is the emblem of that age no less than its dependant.

The second reason is that these examples testify to the compact consistency of O'Connor's way of seeing: When O'Connor says "somewhere is better than anywhere" she is speaking about writing fiction, not about a central Christian mystery; when she allow Sarah Ruth to declare her utter ignorance of the second person of the trinity, she is speaking about a central Christian mystery, not about fiction. And yet both instances suggest that the making of good fiction, like the making of amoral life, is grounded not in the general but in the particular, not in the abstract but in the concrete, not in rootlessness but in place, not in the idea of God but in the person of Jesus, born of Mary. (5) Manley's lack of a center and Sarah Ruth's inability to see the face of God are theological offenses for which there are artistic corollaries. Like Mrs. Hopewell, Sarah Ruth is good "Chrustian" folk, but whatever she believes in is not an improvement upon the nothing in which Manley believes. She may as well join Onnie Jay Holy's Church of Christ Without Christ or some other absurd sect.

Belief is certainly one of Rayber's problems in The Violent Bear it Away. But O'Connor suggests that such a problem is not an island entire of itself. It bears with it a host of other problems and is marked by conditions and symptoms that--given the modern tendencies to idolatry that ensnare Sarah Ruth--only the vision of a prophet and his hunger for the bread of life can reveal. I call these symptoms and conditions "abstraction"--as does O'Connor in an important scene preceding the murder/baptism of Bishop. The etymology of abstract--to pull or draw away from (6)--is instructive: it implies a measurable physical distance despite implying a departure from all that is physical. That is, the word signifies in two important ways: in theory and in actuality. You may be abstracted (drawn up into thought or into a flight of fancy, too lost in theory to grow a rutabaga) just as you may also be abstracted--that is, physically distant--from the sources that give you your rutabagas. A philosopher theorizing in his ivory tower is no less abstracted than a sexton eating at a downtown diner: both are far removed from the fields that yielded their food. One of the grimmest lessons of history is that abstraction of the first kind inevitably leads to abstraction of the second kind, and that abstraction of both kinds leads to abuse. We have been told this time and time again--by Jonathan Swift, who railed against absentee English landlords prospering at the expense of an Irish peasantry they never set eyes on, and Wendell Berry, who has railed against the absentee corporations that control and profit from industrial farming. And yet no one seems to notice what happens to bodily health when people devote themselves to mental work, or what happens to topsoil and aquifers when too many people who like to eat and drink live too far from the sources that sustain them. From the so-called research and development sector to absentee landlords to absentee colonial powers, whether national or industrial, abstraction--distance from--permits ruin and encourages abuse as certainly as intimacy or proximity does not.

The concept of all this abstraction may seem tangential to The Violent Bear it Away, but it clearly applies to Rayber. He is abstracted--drawn up into thought--as much as he is disengaged from the life of the flesh. He wishes to live in the realm of pure thought, which is to say the world of the machine, the difference between the two being negligible. That he carries a machine with him at all times is the salient indicator of this: the man who forgets the body and its life in the created order to live only in ideas will necessarily need machines to do what his body does not or cannot do--as surely as the Manicheans, against whom St. Augustine raged, nevertheless needed food, which they enlisted others to pick for them. (7) Rayber may intuit the power of proximity to disrupt his abstraction; he may have a dim knowledge of an intolerable intimacy that threatens it. But he is a modern Manichaean. The food "system" feeds him and a machine hears for him. It is the burden of this essay to build a case against Rayber by implicating him in the theological offense--call it Manichean or gnostic or technological--of abstraction and the violence that necessarily attends it.

WE KNOW THAT Mason and Rayber provide the governing tension in The Violent Bear it Away, that they contend in spiritual, physical and imaginative warfare for Tarwater's soul. (8) But two scenes involving minor characters may also serve as the conceptual markers between which the novel's thought and action take place, and I point to them in an attempt to enlarge our thinking about the novel. One, involving Buford, was already part of "You Can't Be Any Poorer than Dead" out of which the novel grew; the other, involving Lucette Carmody, the child-preacher, grew out of a failed story O'Connor had "laid by" and then pulled out to help solve the "difficulty" of Rayber, a problem frequently mentioned in her letters in the spring and early summer of 1959. (9) In the first of these scenes Buford says that Mason "deserves to lie in a grave that fits him" because "he was deep in this life, he was deep in Jesus' misery" (VBA. 48). That he says this to a boy poised to follow in the "bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus" (VBA 221) only adds to the novel's emphasis on the body: any talk of mind or spirit that holds the flesh at a discount will not be permitted, and O'Connor makes Mason amply corpulent lest we forget.
 In the second of these scenes the child-preacher says,
 Listen, world ... Jesus is coming again! ... The mountains will
 know Him and bound forward, the stars will light on His head,
 the sun will drop down at His feet, but will you know the Lord
 Jesus then? ... If you don't know Him now, you won't know
 then. Listen to me, world, listen to this warning. The Holy
 Word is in my mouth (VBA 133). 

That she says this to Rayber--she "turned her eyes again on his face in the window" (VBA 133)--only adds to the novel's countervailing attention to mind, to gnosis: Rayber, too, believes that salvation comes by knowledge. He is the modern gnostic who harbors the comfortable but fragile Manichaean heresy about which O'Connor so often remarked in her letters and essays. (In fact we learn later that Rayber's eyes are "shadowed," not illumined, "with knowledge" [VBA 56].) Julian Chestny, to whom "true culture is in the mind, the mind" (CS 409), speaks in his story the only language Rayber can understand. Both are spiritually akin to Thomas Paine, whom O'Connor might have invented for fiction had he not already been real--Paine, who famously proclaimed that his mind was his church. Gnostics such as Julian and Rayber populate O'Connor's fiction because they inhabit the concrete world she set out to render. She fully believed that her readers would identify with these characters, and they did. (10)

These two scenes involving Buford and Lucette Carmody illustrate the fundamental difference O'Connor wants to make clear between Mason and Rayber: one is, and one is not, deep in this life. Even a dead Mason seems deeper in this life than a living Rayber: Rayber can't hear much of anything; he denies "his senses unnecessary satisfaction" and pays "scarce attention" to food, whereas even in death Mason Tarwater sits with "his stomach caught just under the edge of the table" and his eyes "focussed on the boy across from him" (VBA 11). In life Mason always insisted on being put in the ground; Rayber attempts to float above it in the airy realm of thought. Rayber is abstracted from the life of the body, a condition that turns out to be a great convenience to him and a grave danger to others.

The evidence for this abstraction is everywhere, of course, and it ranges from the obvious to the subtle. One of the first things we learn about Rayber--in the novel's second paragraph--is that he wants to raise his nephew, Tarwater, according to his "ideas" (VBA 4), which is a remark sensible and common enough until, in short order, Rayber emerges as a man of ideas only, a man unlike Mason Tarwater, who is made of "dust" and "blood and nerve and mind," made "to bleed and weep and think" (VBA 91). O'Connor's descriptions of Mason Tarwater's and Rayber's homes underscore Rayber's abstraction. Whereas the house at Powderhead is cluttered with sacks of feed and scrap metal and wood shavings, and the downstairs is "all kitchen" (VBA 10), Rayber's house has "little in it but books and papers" (VBA 19), and Rayber himself keeps a "rigid ascetic discipline" by sleeping in a "narrow iron bed," sitting "in a straight-backed chair" and eating "frugally" (VBA 114). (11) It is only because be once spent four days at Powderhead that he has ever "seen woods before or been in a boat or caught a fish or walked on roads that were not paved" or plowed a field (VBA 64). In short, Rayber's is a life abstracted from the created order; to him the body is an impediment to the life of the mind. One of his senses is deficient, and there is little doubt that he would gladly suffer the other four to fail as well. One critic has perceptively said that Rayber is "trying to turn flesh into word" (Lake 51).

Rayber's abstraction from dust and blood and nerve accounts for his enthusiasm for technology and all the man-made emblems of what he is pleased to think of as progress. He takes Tarwater on escalators. He takes him to railroad yards. He tells Tarwater that he can have his own car when he's sixteen. Rayber even says there is something wrong with Tarwater if the thought of flying doesn't stir his imagination. But Tarwater, like his great uncle, prefers doing to thinking, and he seems to intuit what his schoolteacher relative is too sophisticated to see: that the machine represents an assault on the body. Own a car? Tarwater "could walk on his two feet for nothing without being beholden" (VBA 108). Ride in an airplane? He's already been in one, he says, and the "houses weren't nothing but matchboxes and the people were invisible--like germs. I wouldn't give you nothing for no airplane" (VBA 173).

There is a grave seriousness to this, which I will discuss presently. But not surprisingly there is also a good joke at work. Tarwater's deft dismissal of what Rayber predictably calls "the greatest engineering achievement of man" prompts Rayber to say to him that Old Tarwater has "warped your whole life. ... You're going to grow up to be a freak if you don't let yourself be helped" (VBA 173)--this from a man strapped for life with a hearing aid inside a clumsy metal box, a comic prop that O'Connor serves up to Tarwater, who dutifully executes the joke by wondering whether Rayber's head lights up and by suspecting that Rayber thinks with the box rather than with his head. O'Connor apparently believed that a man who lives in contempt of the body and yet needs a machine to help the body perform a necessary function is ridiculous and deserves ridicule. So ignorant is he of his condition as a physical as well as an intellectual creature that he has to be told by an uncle whom he takes to be a lunatic that "you can't change a child's pants in your head" (VBA 75).

The desire to live by thought only, the desire to abstract oneself from the conditions of an earthly life has consequences that can be rightly named only by red-eyed prophets sensible enough to make cracks about changing a child's pants. Nothing necessary for the body can be done in the head. You can't grow food in your head. You can't keep dry or warm in your head. Literary criticism feeds and shelters no one. Trees and sweet basil don't take root in the pages of PMLA, nor do streams flow therefrom. Tarwater's remark about the airplane is important because it directs Rayber's attention--and also ours--to the earth, to the conditions of life, which are material, not theoretical. They are conditions in which even God says, "I thirst."

Rayber is not prepared to admit that the reduction of houses to matchboxes, and of people to germs, is a great convenience to those who, like him, live only by thought. He cannot see that such a reduction is a fundamental necessity to his way of thinking. If you are going to live in contempt of the flesh and turn everything into a piece of information that fits into your head, you will need to abstract yourself from the flesh; you will need the distance that the view from outside affords. Proximity will destroy that comfortable contempt; only abstraction can preserve it.

The novel bears this out, and the implications of it aren't exactly trivial. That Rayber sees his uncle as a "type" (VBA 15) is obvious from Mason Tarwater's outrage at being the object of a study. But even Rayber's "normal way of looking on Bishop was as an x signifying the general hideousness of fate" (VBA 113), and Tarwater knows that under Rayber's care he would be "in school, one among many, indistinguishable from the herd" (VBA 18). Unable or unwilling as he is to distinguish an individual from his class or type, Rayber could conceivably be anything from a sex researcher to a sexual predator, and so here we must introduce a third meaning of abstract: when you see others as mere undifferentiated members of a group, you have turned them into abstractions; you have created the conditions that can lead to horrors like the gas chamber or rape or pillage. The mind given to abstractions necessarily generalizes, and when it sees the general rather than the particular it becomes predisposed to abuse.

If Rayber knows this, he knows it only intuitively. Not so O'Connor, which is why she sometimes permits Rayber to look long and carefully enough to see a person rather than a type. This allows something quite unexpected--and, for Rayber, unbearable--to happen: in the case of Bishop, he experiences "a love for the child so outrageous" that he is left "shocked and depressed for days, and trembling for his sanity" (VBA 113). (12) Is it any wonder Rayber prefers abstraction, especially if it fends off shock and depression?

What could so affect a man whose habit is to grind things up in his head until he can spit out a number--what but the very proximity that made God weep for Jerusalem? For the likes of Rayber nothing so threatens the cherished heresy as the heft of a child on his lap: "When he finished tying the shoes, he [Rayber] continued to hold the child, sprawling and grinning, in his lap. The little boy's white head fitted under his chin. ... Without warning his hated love gripped him and held him in a vise. He should have known better than to let the child onto his lap" (VBA 141).

Which is to say that there's a threatened intimacy of creation, to be sure, but there is also a created intimacy that threatens. A man whose "guts" are in his head could not be thus moved. "That Rayber feels a similar tenderness toward the child-preacher means only that his guts are in the same place as everyone else's. At such moments he might be capable of extricating himself from the ancient grip of the Manicheans, save that he has neither eyes to see nor ears to hear. It is true that when he hears the drowning Bishop bellow he will grab the metal box "as if it were clawing his heart" (VBA 202)--which at that moment he certainly will not believe is in his head--but by then he will have successfully converted all flesh into a piece of information ready to be spat out like a number. As critics have rightly noted, we are not left wondering whether Rayber is complicit in the murder of Bishop. By now it is clear that abstraction is a kind of violence--a violence perpetrated against a created unity, a sundering of what God has joined together and built into the moral structure of the universe, a violence that, like all violence, continues to generate more violence.

I have said Rayber's abstraction is a great convenience to him. He could test this by thinking a little about the greatest achievement of the technological age: high above the earth, a fighter pilot might find easy permission to push a button and annihilate a village from which he is comfortably abstracted. But, standing before a child from that village, that same pilot will wait a long time--forever, let us hope--before he strangles her while she looks into his eyes. Again: there is a threatened but also a threatening intimacy of creation.

And then there is the airplane itself to think about, and the button and the bomb--that is, the machines. Tarwater's distrust of machines that do the body's work makes perfect sense to anyone who takes seriously the doctrine of the incarnation. The flesh matters; that which replaces it, and in so doing sets it at a discount, must give us pause.

RAYBER COMMITS ONE more egregious act of abstraction that cannot go unremarked simply because O'Connor apparently doesn't subject it to the usual ridicule. It is significant as a measure of the kind of judgment about which I will have more to say at the end.

Bishop and Rayber have left Tarwater in the Cherokee Lodge and gone for a drive: "The car apparently of its own volition had turned onto a dirt road which without warning pierced ... [Rayber's] abstraction with its familiarity." Without meaning to, Rayber has come to the road that leads to Powderhead. Suddenly he realizes that, Mason being dead, Powderhead is now his:
 The trees stood rising above him, majestic and aloof, as if they
 belonged to an order that had never budged form its first
 allegiance in the days of creation. His heart began to beat
 frenetically. Quickly he reduced the whole wood in probable board
 feet into a college education for the boy.
 His spirits lifted (VBA 185). 

We already know that familiarity has a way of piercing Rayber's abstraction and leaving him shocked and depressed; the effect is always salutary, and this scene is no exception. He will presently do Bishop a kindness (pick him a berry) even as he begins to consider a benefit to Tarwater. But Rayber lives by abstraction, by drawing away, and even here his "selflessness" involves the quick reduction of the majestic trees into something else: a college education ultimately, but into board length--that is, cash--first, To do this he must disrupt "an order" that has "never budged from its first allegiance in the days of creation." "Reduced" is the right word: in an economy based on abstract as opposed to real wealth, simplification--reduction--is always the requisite first move; nature must be reduced to the price it can fetch in the here and now. The health of a place, its future productivity, the real costs of converting it to money--especially those costs that are obviously charged to the future--all these bookable charges must be kept off the books if the likes of Rayber are to have their way. And they have their way precisely because, having defended such acts of abstraction in the name of charity, they succeed in reducing a mystery to the limiting terms of their own limited understanding. In this scene the name for that mystery is fertility; it is something about which Tarwater knows a thing or two, else why would he think to bury his great uncle under the fig tree where his rotting corpse can do the tree some good? Fertility isn't a subject upon which O'Connor ever expostulated, but she certainly would have noted that a kind of death and resurrection presents itself both actually and analogically in the processes of fertility. But Rayber can no more see analogically than Manley Pointer or Sarah Ruth can, so down with the trees.

To object at this point on grounds that O'Connor never proffered anything like a criticism of the extractive economy would be a serious mistake. (13) It would blind the critics to that compact consistency mentioned earlier. That she isn't critical of Rayber's economy does not amount to a wider application. But reducing the complexity of the forest to "board length" is an act of economic simplification that accords with all of Rayber's other acts of simplification--and it confirms something Allen Tate understood thirty years earlier: "economy is the secular image of religious conviction" ("Remarks" 168). Rayber's economy could be none other than what it is. But whatever frustration Rayber caused O'Connor in the spring of 1959, he is certainly no longer a "difficulty." He never once steps out of character.

So after reducing the forest to mercantile terms what does he do? Explanations do not deepen mysteries for him. He limits a mystery--an order that has never budged in its faithfulness to the creation that God pronounced good and then died for--to the limiting terms of his own limited understanding:
 He decided that he would put the whole thing verbally before
 the boy. He would not argue with him but only tell him, tell him
 in so many plain words that he had a compulsion and what it was
 Whether he answered, whether he cooperated, he would have to
 listen. He could not escape knowing that there was someone who
 knew exactly what went on inside him and who understood it for the
 good reason that it was understandable (VBA 187). 

This is the language of idolatry, the language of someone who says that a sound doesn't exist because he can't hear it--even though all the dogs around him are howling. It is the language of those for whom O'Connor consciously wrote.

The intimacy of creation is plenty frightening, for it presents itself as the kind of mystery that explanation only deepens. Bishop presents himself to Rayber in just this fashion. But the majestic trees, mysterious in their way, do not elicit the hated love that Bishop does. Rayber is armed against them in the manner of a confirmed city-dweller and absentee owner: he cannot love them because he has spent his life distanced and abstracted from them. All that he does, thinks and schemes in this scene accords perfectly with his intellectual habits and commitments. He may as well be in an airplane--as poised there to push a button as he was elsewhere to hold a boy's head under water. But note which of these two conditions is inimical to violence: when the victim is intimate, proximate, the murder fails. When Bishop does finally die, Rayber will be at a comfortable distance. That is, he will be abstracted. And, as usual, violence will ensue.

For Rayber cannot see the whole Bishop any more than Sarah Ruth can see the whole Parker, certainly not that part of him that bears the imago dei--cannot see what Tate says religion always insists upon, which is everything: the whole horse. Rayber's is the modern mind, the mind, Tate says, that "sees only half of the horse--that half which may become a dynamo, or an automobile, or any other horsepowered machine. If this mind had much respect for the full-dimensioned, grass-eating horse, it would never have invented the engine which represents only half of him. The religious mind, on the other hand, has this respect; it wants the whole horse, and it will be satisfied with nothing less" ("Remarks" 157). But Rayber is always satisfied with less--believing, always, that the less he has is more. He is, as Tate says, "trying to discover the place that religion holds with logical, abstract instruments, which of course tend to put religion in some logical system or series, where it vanishes" ("Remarks" 163).

I SUGGESTED THAT we think of the scenes with Buford and Lucette Carmody as conceptual markers, not because O'Connor makes much of them but because, inasmuch as they involve minor characters, they show the extent to which a mind-body opposition pervades the novel, an opposition dramatized principally in Rayber and the dead old man, who engage in a battle over Tarwater's soul. But more is at stake than the boy's soul; a doctrine of God and therefore a doctrine of man are also at stake: a theology, an anthropology, a cosmology, and issuing from them an economy, an ecology and a mode of consciousness--that is, a habit of being. When abstraction does violence to any one of these, it perpetrates a disruption in all of them. A first allegiance to creation has been broken, and with it the moral and physical orders--which are not really two orders but one--also snap.

If we see the child-preacher as a version of Rayber--they are both in their ways gnostics, not to mention physically deformed--we should be able to complete the case against him. That Lucette happens to believe in God and Rayber doesn't hardly matters: all that either of them demands is knowledge. Even the girl speaks only of the word, not the word made flesh. Like Manley Pointer she is placeless and rootless, poised like her parents (who come from Texas and Tennessee and who travel the world but belong nowhere) to become an itinerant charlatan. The bleeding stinking Jesus whom Tarwater follows is no one any of them knows; they would be as likely as Sarah Ruth to thrash the nearest Parker. Some critics have argued--properly, I think--the importance of Lucette's sermon. She is the vehicle of a partial truth, but her message, like her body and her mode of living, is defective. Ultimately hers is a theology impermissible to someone who said, "better somewhere than anywhere." Place matters. That fact must occur to any reader of the Old Testament. (14) If Lucette is not careful, she could become an "innerleckehul," which is an incorrigibly gnostic champion of unconscionable hyper-mobility.

MY AIM HERE has been twofold: to go to work on the novel and to ask it to go to work on us--in the manner of those, descended from Dr. Johnson, in whom the tradition of ethical criticism still had some purchase: scholars who were capable of learning not only about but also from their books. For it is futile reading O'Connor if all we bring to the task is a strained nervousness and sterile "objectivity." Certainly we do no violence to O'Connor's vocation as a writer--and none to Tarwater's as a prophet--if we allow that those who judge books are also judged by them. The children of God may make short work of Tarwater, and even of O'Connor, but only because the children of God, like Rayber, are in the thrall of an ancient heresy. They have preferred horsepower to horses; they have preferred uncarnation to incarnation. A neglected flesh and a despoiled creation are none other than the physical manifestations of such theological confusion as bedevils Rayber and the moral offenses he necessarily perpetuates, for (again) the physical and moral orders are not two orders but one.


(1) Lynch 61; O'Connor, MM 163. I have elsewhere suggested the influence of Lynch on O'Connor; see The Source 48-53.

(2) Christina Bieber Lake reminds us that "In the view of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Claude Tresmontant, writers O'Connor read and respected, Christ's incarnation validated the created world and encouraged people to be a part of its ongoing creation, growth, and evolution." See Called 52. I have discussed this validation at some length; see Flannery 31-40.

(3) As Richard Giannone, among others, has noted. See, for example, Giannone 122, 128.

(4) See, e.g., O'Connor's letter to Janet McKane on 27 August 1963 (HB 536).

(5) And the novel's "truths are more particular than general" (HB 438).

(6) [A]bs off, away + tractus, pa. ppl. of trahere to draw.--OED

(7) "As for your not plucking fruits or piling up vegetables for yourselves, while you get your followers to pluck and pull and bring them to you, that you may confer benefits not only on those who bring the food but on the food which is brought, what thoughtful person can bear to hear this?" See Augustine 84.

(8) O'Connor tells us this (HB 350); Lake offers a useful warning (45).

(9) "Lucctte was part of a story I started a long time ago and saw it wasn't going to come off and put it up. I am glad I had it laid by" (HB 342). On the "difficulty" of Rayber. see HB 327, 329 and 332.

(10) The modern reader will identify himself with the schoolteacher," she said of Rayber, "but it is the old man who speaks for me" (HB 350).

(11) It must be noted that Rayber does not understand the spiritual and intellectual effects of physical askesis. His "rigid ascetic discipline" is not a spiritual discipline; it is an example of his according the body little attention and in doing so setting it at a discount.

(12) We do well to remember that O'Connor said that this "is the purest love I have ever dealt with" (HB 379).

(13) And at any rate, the extent to which economic relations had become abstract did not escape her notice: "everybody wants the good things of life, like supermarkets," O'Connor said in an interview with Robert Penn Warren. "Everyone wants the privilege of being as abstract as the next man." See O'Connor, Conversations, p. 30.

(14) Philip J. Lee has a fine discussion of this in Against the Protestant Gnostics 30ff, 214. On the importance of place to O'Connor, see for example her letter to Cecil Dawkins from July of 1957: "I stayed away from the time I was 25 with the notion that life of my writing depended on my staying away. I would certainly have persisted in that delusion had I not got very ill and had to come home. The best of my writing has been done here" (HB 230).

Augustine, On the Morals of the Manicheans. Trans. Richard Stothert. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 4. Ed. Philip Schaff. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1994.

Bloom, Harold. Where Shall Wisdom be Found? New York: Riverhead, 2004.

Giannone, Richard. Flannery O'Connor and the Mystery of Love. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1989.

Lake, Christine Bieber. "Called to the Beautiful: The Incarnational Art of Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear it Away." Xavier Review 18:1 (1998), 44-68.

Lee, Philip J. Against the Protestant Gnostics. New York: Oxford, 1987.

Lynch, William. "Theology and the Imagination." Thought 29 (1954): 61-86.

O'Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971.

--. Conversations with Flannery O'Connor, Ed. Rosemary M. Magee. Jackson and London: University Press of Mississippi, 1987.

--. The Habit of Being. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979.

--. Mystery and Manners, Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1957.

--. The Violent Bear it Away. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1960.

Peters, Jason. "Flannery O'Connor on Fiction and a Mood for 'Christian' Intellectual Labor." Integrite 4:2 (Fall 2005), 31-40.

--. "The Source of Flannery O'Connor's 'Flung' Fish in The Violent Bear it Away." American Notes and Queries 18:4 (Fall 2005), 48-53.

Tate, Allen. "Remarks on the Southern Religion." Twelve Southerners. I'll Take My Stand. 1930. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1977.
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Title Annotation:60th Anniversary - Flannery O'Connor Issue
Author:Peters, Jason
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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