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Carnival in the "Temple": Flannery O'Connor's dialogic parable of artistic vocation.

Faced with a dreaded pilgrimage to Lourdes in 1958, Flannery O'Connor consoled herself by gleefully anticipating the conversations of her fellow pilgrims. They could not fail to be, as she put it, "professionally rewarding" (The Habit of Being 264). She considered her comedic art to be her vocation, and she tamed neither her tongue nor her wild imagination in pursuing it. She dismissed edifying fiction like Cardinal Spellman's The Foundling for "tidy[ing] up reality" (HB 177). Self-consciously religious fiction she called a "smoothing-down" (Collected Works 830) that distorted reality and violated the demands of art. "Stories of pious children tend to be false" she wrote in her preface to "A Memoir of Mary Ann" (CW 822), and she peopled her fiction with impudent, even vicious, brats typically locked in mortal combat with domineering elders. O'Connor intended for her outrageous art to shock, perhaps even to scandalize her readers, but she repeatedly defended the comic mode as a fitting vehicle for prophetic vision. She went so far as to claim that she looked for the "will of God through the laws and limitations" of her own art (CW 812). What God seems to have willed for O'Connor was an acid-tongued species of comic-prophetic writing that operates by unveiling human malice in unlikely characters, especially children.

Readers familiar with O'Connor's letters know the pleasure she took in portraying herself as a socially challenged curmudgeon known for her vernacular reductions of academic cant and her delight in the ludicrous aspects of her fellow humans. Her sole function at her mother's social gatherings, she said, was to cover the stain on the couch. In her letters she spoofed her significant theological learning by calling herself a "hillbilly Thomist" (HB 81), and she memorialized her social awkwardness among the artsy set at Mary McCarthy's sophisticated New York dinner party by telling the story of how gracelessly she blurted out her belief in transubstantiation: "Well, if it [the Eucharist]'s a symbol, to hell with it" (HB 125). The staunchly Catholic persona of the letters is nowhere to be found in her fiction, of course, but in the 1954 story, "A Temple of the Holy Ghost" O'Connor makes a rare departure from custom. In the unnamed adolescent protagonist she traces, not very obliquely, the lineaments of the O'Connor of the letters. The story can be read, in fact, as a wry (if cartoon-like) portrait of the artist.

In "A Temple of the Holy Ghost" O'Connor presents a twelve-year old "born Catholic" protagonist who is as acid-tongued and socially awkward as the O'Connor of the letters. O'Connor takes the artistic risk of creating a Catholic child protagonist (the only one in her canon) in a Catholic setting. The child can be read as a projection of O'Connor herself. The author admitted to Betty Hester that in some ways she was a perpetual twelve-year-old: "the things you have said about my being surprised to be over twelve, etc., have struck me as being quite comically accurate. When I was twelve I made up my mind absolutely that I would not get any older. I don't remember how I planned to stop it" (CW 985). The child of the story is isolated from society, uninitiated into the mysteries of sexuality, smug (if immature) in her Catholicism, and proud of her (sophomoric) intellect. She replicates O'Connor's gaucherie in McCarthy's living room when she gracelessly blurts out a defense of the Eucharistic hymn, Tantum Ergo. "You dumb Church of God ox," (CW 202) she shouts to the farm boy who cannot understand it. The prepubescent child has a precociously developed imagination that she uses to satirize the (supposed) fools around her. Surprisingly, by the end of the story, without suffering the scourge of O'Connor's signature ironic twists and violent epiphanies, the child is initiated--in a church setting--into the traditional Catholic mysteries of the Trinity and the Eucharist. While these biographical parallels are worth noting, what is significant from a literary perspective is that the protagonist--a prototype of the Catholic comedic artist--struggles with the edifying language of saints until she discovers the validity of her own comic voice. She is redeemed at last from the path of cynicism and bitterness, not by abandoning her laughter (a conventionally sappy ending that O'Connor would have scorned) but rather by uniting her comic perception to her apprehension of mystery.

Critics as perceptive as Richard Giannone have read "A Temple of the Holy Ghost" as a conventional humbling of the proud protagonist in the spirit of the desert fathers, when the child "prayerfully reflects ... 'hep me not to talk like I do'" (Giannone 102). Christina Bieber Lake claims, more plausibly, that the child's imaginative experience with the "grotesque" hermaphrodite puts her in "a position of exceptional spiritual openness and potential fecundity" (137). O'Connor herself argued in 1955 that the conclusion reveals "the acceptance of what God wills for us, an acceptance of our individual circumstances" (HB 124). However, what O'Connor saw as God's will is neither a Hollywood plaster saint for her protagonist nor a parochial aesthetic for herself as writer. Through a complex interplay of contending voices, O'Connor allows the child's own comic discourse to emerge validated despite the efforts of authoritative language to suppress it. Rather than blunting the sharp edge of comic satire in the name of piety, O'Connor appropriates it as an unconventional weapon in the arsenal of grace. I will argue that the last laugh, in a story pervaded by laughter, is O'Connor's own sly endorsement of herself as comic-prophetic artist, the artist whose vocation is predicated on the inherent connection between the comic and the holy, between the carnival and the temple.

"A Temple of the Holy Ghost," can be a stumbling block even for experienced O'Connor readers because it has neither her paradigmatic plot nor her signature ironic ending. (1) Although there is relentless laughter in the first part of the narrative, the story stands out in O'Connor's corpus as singularly uncomic. It seems rather to be a meditation on the springs (and pitfalls) of comedic vision. Further, the story is filled with pre-Vatican II Catholic "insider" references and allusions: Benediction; the monstrance; St. Scholastica, the brilliant sister of St. Benedict; St. Perpetua, the beautiful martyr in the arena with wild animals (who also had a prophetic vision of a kind of androgyny); St. Thomas, the "dumb-ox" Scholastic; the Stations of the Cross; the legendary medieval miracle of the bloody host; and the Latin office of Corpus Christi. In this story, a vintage nun tells her charges how to handle fresh boys; the child's convent-school cousins sing the Tantum Ergo in Latin; and the protagonist herself winds up in the convent chapel kneeling next to a nun and recognizing that she is in the "presence of God" (CW 208). This is a rare and risky excursion for O'Connor into Catholic territory, and the precocious child with a sharp eye (and tongue) for the ridiculous bears a strong family resemblance to Mary Flannery herself. Moving from the protagonist's childish derision to her transcendent epiphany, the story traces the child's initiation into sacramental vision and O'Connor's vocation as a Catholic comedic artist.

The Jesuit scholar William Lynch, one of the formative influences on O'Connor's aesthetic, makes a forceful case for comedy as a fitting mode for the divine. He argues that comic vision is the enemy of rigid ideology, or as he calls it, the "univocal mind" (107). Comedy dispatches demonic abstract thinking that substitutes "phony faith for faith in the power of the vulgar and limited finite" (97). Comedy's descent into the concrete, with all its interstices and smells (95), makes it a genre well suited to the "scandal" of the Incarnation. Lynch argues that comedy serves as an antidote to angelism, the dualistic thinking that divorces the material from the spiritual. It combats pure intellectualism by depicting ludicrous human duality, insisting on images of "ugly human actuality" (98) as a path to God. The comic writer celebrates the mysterious union between the earth and Christ "with all the logic removed" (109). Lynch writes "[t]he mud in man ... is nothing to be ashamed of. It can produce [...] the face of God" (109).

O'Connor appropriated Lynch's terminology in her letters and essays. In "The Nature and Aim of Fiction" she speaks of the "concrete details of life that make actual the mystery of our position on earth" (Mystery and Manners 68), and near the end of her life she wrote approvingly, "I agree with W. Lynch's general theory ... in good fiction and drama you need to go through the concrete situation to some experience of mystery" (HB 520). She added, however, "I am no good at theory" (HB 520). The parade of freaks and marginal trash (to Ruby Turpin's eyes) that scandalizes Ruby in that raucous vision of heaven; the tattooed back of O. E. Parker that scandalizes his "Straight Gospel" wife; and the rogues' gallery of characters that scandalizes readers looking for recognizable expressions of religious faith are the fruit of O'Connor's vocation as a comic-prophetic writer. She makes Mrs. Greenleaf wallow in the mud shouting "Stab me in the heart, Jesus!" and Hazel Motes blind himself with lime and walk on penitential glass, and young Tarwater drown a "dim-witted child" named "Bishop" while murmuring the words of baptism. So outrageous are her inventions that John Hawkes saw her as a closet nihilist (as cited in Wood, Comedy of Redemption 97). But O'Connor challenges the reader to see beyond the surface to the prophetic dimension of her art. In O'Connor's lexicon, the word "prophetic" means "seeing through' reality" (Magee 89), to extend the gaze "beyond the surface" (CW 818) to the realm of divine life. To be true to this vocation, "[t]he prophet in [her] has to see the freak" (MM 82), and the artist must accept the validity of her own voice.

While Lynch provides a theoretical framework for O'Connor's literary vocation, Mikhail Bakhtin provides a technical framework that helps to reveal the intricacy of her art. The work of the Russian dialogic critic bears striking similarities to that of the American Jesuit Lynch. What Lynch calls the univocal mind, Bakhtin calls monologic discourse. While Lynch finds univocal or abstract, rigid thinking to be demonic in its exclusion of the finite, sacramental dimension of reality, Bakhtin finds monologic discourse, an expression of repressive authority (be it Soviet or other forms), to be tyrannical in its exclusion of the multiple voices of humanity. Both of these critics, approaching fiction from their different perspectives, find an antidote in similar literary forms. For Lynch it is comedy; for Bakhtin, it is the "carnivalesque:' These forms give voice to the bodily, limited, phenomenological human condition. Lynch finds comic expression redemptive in its incarnational vision; Bakhtin finds in the carnivalesque a defense against and liberation from authoritative oppression.

Incarnation is central to the work of both Bakhtin and Lynch. Bakhtin saw all language as incarnate, the utterance of concrete persons. Further, Bakhtin's preference for "heteroglossia," a style that brings together "two 'languages,' two semantic and axiological belief systems" within a single syntactic unit (Diologic Imagination 304) can be traced to his orthodox roots. Bakhtin defines, according to Charles Lock, a "Chalcedonian, two-voiced, double-natured discourse" (98) that dispenses with clear markers between self-contained and singular voices, and especially in free indirect discourse, insists on "the incarnation of language" (111). Christ, he argues, is the paradigm for Bakhtin's Dialogic Imagination: "two natures, divine and human, in the one hypostasis of Christ ... becomes the paradigm for the dialogical: two voices in the hypostasis of one word" (98).

Both Lynch and Bakhtin define the need for literary devices that can explode monologic discourse and revive sacred discourse through parody. Lynch argues that it is "ridiculous, in a Catholic world, to be afraid of the irreverent in so many secret places" (110). Bakhtin argues in the same vein that only through the "carnival spark" of "cheerful abuse" can calcified sacred language be liberated from "narrow-minded seriousness" and revived. The fiction writer, he says, is free to import discourses from other contexts and genres--such as poetry, song, newspaper articles, and prayer--and thereby activate a dialogue across social and ideological boundaries. This "incorporation of genres" and particularly the carnivalesque and parodic treatment of this imported discourse, serves an almost therapeutic role. It can bring language (often sacred discourse) back to life. The very "degradation" and "uncrowning" of the word, Bakhtin writes, bring about its renewal (Rabelais and His World 309).

What we see in "A Temple of the Holy Ghost" is not theory dressed in fiction, but rather a fictional exploration of the role of the comic artist in service of the divine mystery. The child protagonist's precocious imaginative life, rendered in free indirect discourse, outdistances the very limited lines allowed to her by polite society. For example, in response to the direct question, "how does a child like you know so much about these men [the Wilkins boys]?" she develops a rich Walter Mitty-esque fantasy about saving the Wilkins boys from Japanese suicide divers in the war. Her actual spoken response is limited to: "I've seen them around is all" (CW 201). The story elevates the child's artistic / imaginative discourse above the diminished possibilities of ordinary discourse with the "morons" around her.

Above all, the child protagonist in "A Temple of the Holy Ghost" is endowed with a keen eye for the "mud" or freak in others. She is on the verge of becoming one of O'Connor's gallery of "curdled" intellectuals (Wood, Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South 200). The child, whose outrageous laughter, sharp tongue, and fertile imagination seem to be in need of reform or suppression, penetrates mysteries no less daunting than the hypostatic union and a sacramental universe, and she does so by employing the very qualities she believes to be at odds with the holy.

The child lives in a world of freaks: "Cheat" the goofy farmer whose face is the color of the red clay roads he travels; Alonzo the odoriferous and obese taxi driver; the Wilkins boys, who sit "like monkeys" (CW 201) on the porch fence. The child equates them with the dancing monkeys, the fat man, and the midget at the fair. The hermaphrodite is the freak that defies categorization, the one that activates the girl's hungry imagination. The child's eye for the freak, like O'Connor's grotesque art, is disconcerting. But if we consider the medieval folk tradition of the carnival, its licensed travesty of liturgy, its parody of sacred discourse, and its temporary replacement of the bishop by a boy / clown, we can situate O'Connor in a tradition that served, by its very excesses, to balance the church's formality and, as Bakhtin says, to renew its sacred discourse.

Both Lynch and Bakhtin identify the medieval Feast of Fools as the paradigm for the dialectic between the comic / carnivalesque and the sacred. As Lynch describes it, the "comic intrusion into the liturgy began with the singing of the Magnificat at vespers, with the words 'He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and the meek'" (108). With scripture intoning this ultimate comedic reversal, the carnival begins. Among the carnival travesties were mock sermons, reversals of class and gender roles, and clerics dressing in the clothing of women (Burke 182-89).

O'Connor develops the Feast of Fools motif from the outset: the visiting cousins doff their brown convent-school uniforms and don what can be seen as their "carnival" finery (red skirts, loud blouses, and lipstick). As brashly as carnival revelers, they perform an almost parodic rendition of the Tantum Ergo in the sacred language of Latin.

In a carnivalesque gesture, they literalize the trope of the "Temple" Sr. Perpetua has instructed them to fend off ungentlemanly behavior in an automobile by saying "Stop sir! I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost!" Calling themselves "Temple One" and "Temple Two" laughing uncontrollably with each utterance, the teenagers make sport of the sacred trope. Their parody reveals how diminished and calcified the sacred trope has become in the "official" discourse of the convent school.

But carnivalesque laughter, argues Bakhtin, uncrowns and debases the sacred language only to renew it. Because the child detests the mockery she witnesses, she is motivated to explore the trope of the "Temple of the Holy Ghost" that she accepts as a "present" The resulting transformation of the words "Temple of the Holy Ghost" closely conforms to a phenomenon described by Bakhtin in "Discourse in the Novel" He discusses the rare occurrence of unity between "authoritative discourse" and "internally persuasive discourse" Authoritative discourse "cannot be represented--it is only transmitted" and demands "unconditional allegiance" (DI344). It is semantically inert, a relic, monologic. "Internally persuasive discourse--as opposed to one that is externally authoritative--is, as it is affirmed through assimilation, tightly interwoven with 'one's own word'" (345). In the sequence the child goes through in responding to the Temple trope, O'Connor portrays the process by which authoritative words become internally persuasive and restored to life. The phrase, "A Temple of the Holy Ghost" is, as Bakhtin writes about sacred discourse, "not so much interpreted ... as it is further ... developed, applied to new material, new conditions.... [I]n each of the new contexts that dialogize it, this discourse is able to reveal ever newer ways to mean" (DI 346, emphasis in original.) The child begins by appropriating the trope imaginatively, first for herself "I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost" (CW 199), then for the pathetic Miss Kirby ("and she's a Temple of the Holy Ghost, too" (200), then for all humanity by having the hermaphrodite preach: "You are God's temple, don't you know?" (207). Finally, she sees the temple in the freak. The hermaphrodite in her dream-fantasy rejoices, "I am a temple of the Holy Ghost" (207). Her imagination endows the trope with "new ways to mean"

By means of carnivalesque travesty and materialization in the figure of the hermaphrodite, the trope is transformed from the static, diminished, official injunction against sexual misconduct. Authoritative discourse becomes internally persuasive, and the phrase emerges pregnant with meaning. Calling to mind the carnivalesque Feast of Fools, O'Connor introduces the language of the sacred, subjects it to parody, and finally reclaims the trope of the Temple of the Holy Ghost through an incongruous union of profane and sacred. The cousins, having fulfilled their carnivalesque roles, end their saturnalia, return to their brown uniforms, and disappear into the anonymous convent school choir singing the Tantum Ergo at Benediction. Order is restored, and the sacred discourse is renewed.

Just as the girls intrude into the child's world with their carnivalesque irreverence, so the hermaphrodite takes up the carnivalesque role in the child's imagination. As Susan Srigley reminds us in Flannery O'Connor's Sacramental Art, Thomas Aquinas viewed the imagination to be "the main receptor of the revelatory experience" (146). The carnival freak is a character made of words, never seen by the child, but given a voice by her imagination, nonetheless. Like a transdressing carnival participant giving a mock sermon, the hermaphrodite wears a blue dress and preaches like a revivalist in the circus tent. The hermaphrodite resides in her imagination, an "answer to a riddle that was more puzzling than the riddle itself" (CW 206). The physical mystery of the two-gendered freak is the gateway to the true mystery of the Temple of the Holy Ghost, a mystery that must be grasped by the imagination. The freak's speech becomes, through the child's interpolation, a version of the Magnificat. She assigns new words to him: "God done this to me and I praise Him.... A temple of God is a holy thing.... I am a temple of the Holy Ghost" (207). Like the medieval Lord of Misrule who intrudes into Vespers during the Magnificat, the carnival freak intrudes into the ceremony of Benediction. At the elevation of the monstrance, it is this discourse of the freak that the child "hears."

In order to understand the power of this unifying epiphany, we need to consider the duality or "doubleness" that constitutes the story's structure. O'Connor employs binary opposition and comedic doubling as the pathway for the child's encounter with mystery. The entire story is contrapuntal. There are two Catholic girl cousins (Temple One and Temple Two), dressed identically, and matched with two Protestant farm boy brothers; these two character pairs engage in an antiphonal duel between two religious musical traditions ("I've Got a Friend in Jesus" and "The Old Rugged Cross" versus the Tantum Ergo). There are two sexes in the hermaphrodite, a creature the child at first imagines having two heads, like the androgyne in Plato's Symposium (his mythic image of the whole human). There are two warnings that God will strike the mocker by two marginal characters: the Negro cook and the carnival freak. There are two expositions (in carnival tent and convent chapel), two ivory circles (sun and host), two narrative versions of the hermaphrodite (the cousins' story and the child's dreamlike reverie), two "Amens" (the cousins' parodic ending of the Tantum Ergo and the carnival audience's reverent response to the hermaphrodite in the tent). The story pulsates with two-ness.

Enter the child with the comedic mean streak. From the first paragraph in the story, this two-ness affects her role: "[i]f only one of them [the cousins] had come, that one would have played with her, but since there were two of them, she was out of it, and watched them suspiciously from a distance" (CW 197). The doubling forces the child to become a spectator, fostering both her derisive laughter and her creative imagination. As Lake remarks, the cousins are content "to live in a world of binaries defined by sexual desire" (136), but the child's ability to "see beyond the gender roles" leads her to "grasp profound spiritual concepts the girls only mock" (135).

Just as the hermaphrodite physically joins binary opposites, so the solitary child-as-artist brings together opposites throughout the story. She links the old farmer Cheat and the 250-pound Alonzo with the boy-crazy cousins, convulsing herself with laughter at the resulting incongruity. She matches the Catholic girls with the Protestant boys. She imagines martyrs wearing circus tights, and she imagines circus performers to be martyrs waiting for their tongues to be cut out. She unites the Temple of the Holy Ghost trope with the body of the hermaphrodite, seeing the sacred in the freak with "all the logic removed" (Lynch 109). Her quickened imagination introduces the words of the hermaphrodite at the elevation of the monstrance at Benediction, uniting profane and sacred. Finally, the child conflates the natural image of the sun, "like an elevated Host" (CW 209) with the supernatural presence of God in the Eucharist.

Comedic doubling and binary opposition, then, become for the child a kind of bipolar, dialogic pathway to an overarching unity--an encounter with mystery. The mysterious joining of two sexes in one body is a parodic reflection of the hypostatic union defined by the Council of Chalcedon, a mystery of the true union of two full natures with neither of them compromised--the scandal of the God-made-man. O'Connor's protagonist is mystified by the concrete reality of the hermaphrodite's body, complete with a double set of genitalia. Ironically, it is this bodily manifestation of mystery that leads the child to encounter (using Lynch's phrase) "the face of God." All these connections conspire at the end to reveal the sacramental, or as Bakhtin would call it, the tropic nature of creation in the child's epiphanic vision of the sun. The intractable two-ness of the world reveals an underlying one-ness. The incongruous realities of existence, then, become resolved in a new perception of congruence. Reality becomes eloquent of the sacred.

If the comic artist enjoys a double vision, O'Connor matches it with a double-voiced style in this story. O'Connor wages the battle for the comedic artist's vocation most definitively through language. As noted above, Bakhtin argues that dialogic narrative defends against the rigid reductionism of "authoritative" or monologic language. Three aspects of O'Connor's dialogic technique in this story--incorporated genres, the forging of a hybrid narrative discourse, and the contest with authoritative language--bring about the validation of the child's comedic voice.

O'Connor incorporates the genre of hymnody--both Catholic and Protestant--in a way that suggests Bakhtin's theory of uncrowning and renewing. Like Bakhtin's rebellion against the "official speech" of communism, O'Connor's parody suggests that for a secularized, desacralized discourse, the carnivalesque response can be renewing. When the "Church of God" Wilkins boys and the Catholic convent cousins engage in their musical duel, it would be a mistake to dismiss this exchange as a bit of vaudeville humor in the story. The scene "dialogizes" the narrative by introducing voices from vastly different discourses. In the process it mystifies those from other discourse traditions and excludes those who do not take pains to appropriate the discourse. "That must be Jew singing" (CW 202) says the farm boy when he hears the Latin hymn. By placing the Latin words into the story with neither translation nor footnote, however, O'Connor also makes the words inaccessible even to the Catholic schoolgirls and presumably to much of O'Connor's pre-Vatican II Catholic readership who knew the hymn only by rote. In similar fashion, although she provides a couple of verses of "I've Got a Friend in Jesus" the narrator merely alludes to "The Old Rugged Cross" without providing the text, thereby excluding those unfamiliar with the Gospel tradition. By alienating or hiding these discourses, O'Connor continues the "in-joke" mode she established through her allusions. Only when the reader reclaims these incorporated genres, translating or supplying the texts, will the words reveal their web of connections with the central symbolism of the text.

Just as the cousins caricatured the phrase "Temple of the Holy Ghost" they also make entertainment out of the words of the Tantum Ergo. Ironically, it is through their parody that the voice of Thomas Aquinas enters the dialogue, in the hymn commissioned by Pope Urban IV in 1264 for the newly-founded feast of Corpus Christi (Body of Christ). Thomas's hymn introduces references to the Eucharist (mysterious union of God and Man united mysteriously in the host) and to the equally mysterious union of three persons in the Trinity. In a different way, the narrator's allusion to "The Old Rugged Cross" taxes the reader to supply the missing discourse. Only then can its connections with the imagery of the child's inner life materialize. For example, the child is described as sometimes "think[ing] of Christ on the long journey to Calvary, crushed three times under the rough cross" (CW 205). Here O'Connor mixes the discourses of Protestant and Catholic traditions, because this is a distinctly "Catholic" meditation, based on the practice of the Stations of the Cross, not on Gospel accounts which make no mention of Christ's three falls.

The cross of the gospel song is "despised by the world" but also holds a "wondrous attraction"--language that can easily be applied to the child's meditation on the hermaphrodite. The cross of the gospel song is "stained with blood so divine" like the sun-host "drenched in blood" (CW 209) at the end of the story. In the gospel song, the cross itself will be "exchanged some day" for a "crown"--echoing the crown of martyrdom to which the child aspires, but which she hopes to achieve without the tedious journey of the cross. The gospel hymn points to the child's task in the story: to trade her romanticized fantasy of quick martyrdom for the slow way of the rugged / rough cross.

The hidden discourses of both the Tantum Ergo and "The Old Rugged Cross" therefore, point to the mystery the child will encounter. These incorporated genres create a multi-voiced narrative, a chorus of voices all echoing the same mystery, and reaching a crescendo when, at the second singing of the Tantum Ergo, the mystery of the "Temple of the Holy Ghost" comes alive to the child in the words of the carnival freak.

The two key images of the story--the hermaphrodite (half man and half woman) and the host (Christ's body under the appearance of bread)are supported by a series of subordinate hybrid forms that surround and amplify the mysterious unions of incarnation, Trinity, and Eucharist. The images include the gospel song that is "half like a love song and half like a hymn" (CW 201), the child's dream of sainthood--half Hollywood and half hagiography, (2) and the hybrid discourse of the carnival freak--half Magnificat and half tent revival. Most significantly, O'Connor's hybrid narrative discourse works particularly well in this story to adumbrate the central theme.

The smooth discourse of the narrator is readily distinguished from the child's. Narrator: "the revolving searchlight ... widened and shortened and wheeled in its arc" (CW 204). The narrator's voice tends to be objective, "It]he sound of the calliope coming from the window kept her awake and she remembered that she hadn't said her prayers and got up and knelt down and began them" (205). The child's own direct discourse, in stark contrast to the narrator's, is laced with childish epithets and colloquial grammar: "You big dumb Church of God ox!" (202), "I ain't eating with them" (202), "Those stupid idiots" (203).

While these two idioms are readily distinguished from one another, O'Connor introduces a strategic hybrid discourse. This form of "heteroglossia" according to Bakhtin, brings together two utterances, two speech manners, in a "double-accented, double-styled" construction (DI 304). (3) From the very first page, the child's "character zone" or field of action for a character's voice, (DI 316) infiltrates the narrator's discourse, blurring the distinction between the two. O'Connor develops double-voiced sentences that shift from narrator to child within one syntactic unit: "The child decided, after observing them for a few hours, that they were practically morons and she was glad to think that they were only second cousins and she couldn't have inherited any of their stupidity" (CW 197, emphasis added). The sentence begins with the narrator's voice reporting the child's thoughts, but it ends by shifting to the child's language (italicized) through free indirect discourse. Throughout the story, the telltale idiom of the child erupts into the narrative, jostling the narrator's, and making the source of such claims as "the girls giggled idiotically" (202) ambiguous at best.

This extension of the child's character zone into the narrator's territory also leads to a struggle with "calcified" official language in the story. Just as Huck Finn's "conscience" (which speaks in the monologic, official language of society) nearly overrides the voice of his instinctive morality when he tries to pray, so too, the child's authentic voice in "Temple" struggles for survival. Huck and the "Temple" child have much in common. Both are at a threshold age, innocent of sexual awakening, exempted from polite decorum, free to follow their wits (or wit), free to be ill-mannered, to "lie" creatively or to tell the truth crassly, to see through the falsified language of the grown-up world and properly name it as "flapdoodle" and "talky-talk" (Twain, 180, 187) or "twaddle" ("Temple" CW 208). But Huck's voice--the triumph of Twain's work--is almost drowned out by the socially approved discourse of prayer. The problem is a real one for O'Connor, too, as she reveals in a 1956 letter to "A" regarding the language of novenas. "I hate to say most of these prayers written by saints-in-an-emotional-state. You feel you are wearing somebody else's finery and I can never describe my heart as 'burning' to the Lord (who knows better) without snickering" (HB, 145). By referring to the language of saints as "somebody else's finery" O'Connor points facetiously to the conflict between the discourse of others and authentic discourse in prayer. For the child in "Temple" this struggle with authorized language leads at last to the validation of her own voice.

Two crucial moments in the story, the child's meditation on sainthood and her prayer in the chapel during Benediction, often serve as proof-texts for critical judgments about the nature of her development in the story. Looking at them from a dialogic perspective, we see an internal struggle between two kinds of discourse. When the child reflects on sainthood, she concludes that her "ugly" mode of speech disqualifies her from being a saint:
 she did not steal or murder but she was a born liar and slothful
 and she sassed her mother and was deliberately ugly, to almost
 everybody. She was eaten up also with the sin of Pride, the worst
 one. She made fun of the Baptist preacher who came to the school at
 commencement to give the devotional. She would pull down her mouth
 and hold her forehead as if she were in agony and groan, "Fawther,
 we thank Thee," exactly the way he did and she had been told many
 times not to do it. She could never be a saint, but she thought she
 could be a martyr if they killed her quick. (CW 204, emphasis

The child's language of self-knowledge becomes self-accusation, rendered in free indirect discourse. The passage mixes the child's own idiom with the (italicized) language spoken in the confessional box, signaled by the use of a capital "P" for pride. This authoritative voice condemns the child's fertile inventiveness as "lies," labels her contempt for stupidity as "Pride" and ranks her sin at the top of the hierarchy. It requires that she suppress her outrageous language. The child "has been told many times" not to do her comic parody of the minister, a send-up in the classic carnivalesque mode (and, interestingly, precisely the sort of mimicry that O'Connor herself delighted in throughout her life, as her letters attest). From the monologic perspective, the child's sassy, comic discourse is the enemy of sanctity, but this judgment smacks of angelism, the dualistic thinking that divorces the "vulgar concrete" from the holy. The only route to sainthood in the world of monologic discourse, the child concludes, is to leapfrog over concrete reality and its slow and often ludicrous journey, and to get herself killed "quick." Comical as the wording is, the passage reveals the child's voice to be in combat with a life-denying discourse. She must be liberated if she is to fulfill her comic vocation, and, more importantly, if she is to enter into an authentic dialogue with God.

The second passage deals precisely with that dialogue with God. It is easy to hear conventional piety in the child's prayer at Benediction: "hep me not to be so mean ... [h]ep me not to talk like I do" (CW 208). But we must remember that O'Connor believes that stories of pious children are usually "false." If we place the child's prayer in its linguistic context, we get a different result. Earlier in the story, the narrator had mocked the child's mechanical night prayers: "[s]he took a running start and went through to the other side of the Apostle's Creed" (205). Similarly, the narrator comments that her prayer at Benediction begins "mechanically" (208). Her rote recitation echoes the monologic catalogue of self-accusations. On the verge of renouncing her comedic role--"hep me not to talk like I do" (208)--the child is rescued by the unbidden voice of her imagination. The hermaphrodite intrudes as if in answer to her prayer: "I don't dispute hit. This is the way He wanted me to be" (209). Audaciously, O'Connor provides a vehicle for God's "voice" in the child's awakened imagination, turning her monologue into a dialogue. O'Connor described a similar dialogical process in her essay, "Catholic Novelists and Their Readers": "The Lord doesn't speak to the novelist as he did to his servant Moses, mouth to mouth. He speaks to him as he did to those two complainers, Aaron and Aaron's sister, Mary: through dreams and visions, [...] and by all the lesser and limited ways of the imagination" (MM 181). The child's acceptance of God's will, then, comes not from abstract angelism, but from its shocking opposite--from the discourse of the freak. Marshall Gentry reads the scene as a validation of the child's meanness (66), and Joanne McMullen sees it as evidence of her "non-redemption" (106), but it can be more convincingly read as the validation of her comic / satiric voice and vocation.

O'Connor provides a richly dialogic ending to the story, governing the exit scene by hybrid discourse: "[a] s they were leaving the convent door, the big nun swooped down on her mischievously and nearly smothered her in the black habit, mashing the side of her face into the crucifix hitched onto her belt" (CW 209, emphasis added). The cheeky idiom of the child in "mashed" and "hitched" takes the hex off the potentially maudlin tableau. One could also argue that in this passage O'Connor cannot resist embedding the pun that the cross "makes an impression" on her. On the drive home, the child, like O'Connor on her pilgrimage to Lourdes, gathers professional (comic) material in the backseat of the taxi. Looking at Alonzo's ears, she sees them "pointed almost like a pig's" (209). After the epiphany, the comedic voice endures. No "pious" ending here.


In "A Temple of the Holy Ghost" O'Connor sets in motion a complex series of reverberations, a dialogic echo chamber that reenacts the tropic/ sacramental nature of reality into which the child is initiated. Like a hall of mirrors at a country carnival, images of mysterious incarnation and containment correspond to this verbal echoing. The host of the Eucharist is God; God is three persons; the incarnate Christ unites God and humanity; the "temple" houses the Holy Ghost and therefore all three divine persons; the hermaphrodite is both male and female and is a temple of the Holy Ghost; the sun mirrors the host, and the host embodies the divine mysteries (Trinity, Incarnation); the "sign of the cross" signifies the God-made-man's suffering, naming all three persons of the Trinity. The concluding epiphany points to the metaphoric way of the cross that the child and the hermaphrodite (and by implication, all human beings) must travel. Waves of refracted and resonating meaning overtake the child; the world becomes eloquent of mystery--a mystery she can participate in without being a "saint." This dazzling array of reverberations can be read as O'Connor's approximation of sacramental vision, the spiritual illumination and liberation which the child--as uniter / artist--experiences at the end of the story.

As Bakhtin claims, carnivalesque laughter and dialogic narratives are liberating. Lynch, too, argues that the comic medium reminds us that "a thing need not step out of the human ... to achieve the liberty of the children of God. The mud in man, the lowermost point in the subway, is nothing to be ashamed of" (109). The child in "A Temple of the Holy Ghost" is liberated to see the freak in herself as well as in Alonzo and the hermaphrodite, to see the freak as the temple of God, and even to see the freak in Christ in the Eucharist, Christ who was willing, as St. Paul tells the Philippians, "to assume the condition of a slave" (i.e. a freak) for our salvation. The child is liberated, as well, to see her own outrageous voice as God's calling. The child's unifying vision can be seen as a gateway to what Susan Srigley calls O'Connor's "ethic of responsibility" the possibility of moving beyond "a life ordered solely by love of the self" (5). The isolated spectator-child with her "ugly" mean streak and sense of superiority becomes a creative unifier. She gives voice to a freak that is both mocked and mysterious, investing this "grotesque" character with prophetic utterance.

At the end of the story, the officials (preachers and police) with their univocal minds make an attempt to suppress the carnivalesque by shutting down the fair. The child is indeed silent in the last scene, but she is temporarily "shut up" more than permanently "shut down." The carnivalesque is alive in the child's comedic imagination, populated by the freaks and fat men, monkeys, farmers, and pigs she has the gift to see as both ludicrous and holy. O'Connor makes sure that the artistically risky sacramental image of the blood-drenched host in the sky (4) is followed by a vision of "a red clay road" (CW 209) the very road on which travel old farmer Cheatam and his Negroes, not plaster saints. The child's comic imagination and voice are placed at last into the necessary dialogue with the sacred, and the comic artist is born.

Saint Anselm College


Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holmquist. Ed. Michael Holmquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

--. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.

Burke, Peter. Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.

Gentry, Marshal Bruce. Flannery O'Connor's Religion of the Grotesque. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1986.

Giannone, Richard. Flannery O'Connor: Hermit Novelist. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2000.

Lake, Christina Bieber. The Incarnational Art of Flannery O'Connor. Macon: Mercer UP, 2005.

Lynch, Willliam F. "Comedy." Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1960. 91-113.

Lock, Charles. "Bakhtin and the Tropes of Orthodoxy." Bakhtin and Religion: A Feeling for Faith. Eds. Susan M. Felch and Paul J. Contino. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 2001. 97-119.

Magee, Rosemary M., ed. Conversations with Flannery O'Connor. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1987.

McMullen, Joanne Halleran. Writing Against God: Language as Message in the Literature of Flannery O'Connor. Macon: Mercer UP, 1996.

Herbert Musurillo, ed. The Acts of the Christian Fathers. New York: Oxford UP, 1972.

O'Connor, Flannery. Collected Works. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Library of America, 1988.

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

--. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Eds. Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.

Srigley, Susan. Flannery O'Connor's Sacramental Art. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 2004.

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 1884. Ed. John Seelye. New York: Penguin. 1985.

Wood, Ralph C. The Comedy of Redemption: Christian Faith and Comic Vision in Four American Novelists. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1988.

--. Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.


(1) The relationship between the mother and child in this story also departs from the O'Connor formula. The mother is neither domineering nor smugly complacent. Rather, she laughs (guardedly) at her daughter's rude jokes, speaks kindly to correct the child's insolent humor, and confides in the child about the horrors of the teenage visitors. This mother is so far from speaking in the cliched discourse typically assigned to O'Connor's mother characters that she rescues the trope of the "Temple of the Holy Ghost" from the clutches of the cousins, validates it as true, and gifts her daughter with this metaphoric and mysterious "present."

(2) There are striking parallels between the child's reveries about the hermaphrodite and the account of Perpetua's visions before her martyrdom. While awaiting death in the arena, Perpetua records a vision in which "all those who stood around said: Amen!" From this dream she learns, as does O'Connor's protagonist, that she "must suffer" (Musurillo, Acts of the Christian Fathers). In a later vision, Perpetua is called into an arena, surrounded by an "enormous crowd who watched in astonishment. ... My clothes were stripped off, and suddenly I was a man" Perpetua becomes a woman (referred to as "her" and "daughter") in a man's body. When she dispatches her adversary in the dream, Perpetua writes "I began to walk in triumph towards the Gate of Life. Then I awoke" Her actual martyrdom proves difficult to accomplish, "as though ... feared as she was by the unclean spirit, [she] could not be dispatched unless she herself were willing." At last she helps the gladiator to cut her throat. O'Connor's depiction of the child's martyrdom fantasy makes an interesting comparison: the lions will not maul her, and the Romans do not succeed in burning her, so "finding she was so hard to kill, they finally cut her throat." It seems to be hagiography more than Hollywood that informs the child's fantasies.

(3) This dialogic form most closely approximates Bakhtin's understanding of the hypostatic union in Christ, according to Charles Lock in "Bakhtin and the Tropes of Orthodoxy."

(4) McMullen argues that O'Connor gives the "commonly understood symbol" of the sun "uncharacteristic couplings" that disorient the reader. She cites the blood-drenched sun / host as a case in point (33). Other critics have seen the bloody host image as a symbol of martyrdom, of the cross, or even of the impending onset of the menses for the prepubescent protagonist. In fact, O'Connor is more likely alluding to a story that would have been familiar to pre-Vatican II Catholic school children: the story of Peter of Prague, the thirteenth-century priest whose doubts about transubstantiation were miraculously dispelled at Mass when, at the moment of the consecration, the host began to drip with blood. Partly in response to this miracle, Pope Urban IV instituted the Feast of Corpus Christi soon thereafter to honor Christ's presence in the Eucharist. Here we see another of O'Connor's "insider" allusions to the mystery celebrated by the Tantum Ergo.
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Author:Askin, Denise T.
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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