Flannery O'Connor: Writing a Theology of Disabled Humanity.
Hard Sayings: The Rhetoric of Christian Orthodoxy in Late Modern Fiction. By Thomas F. Haddox. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2013. ISBN: 9780-8142-9310-2. Pp. 218. $59.95
Passing by the Dragon: The Biblical Tales of Flannery O'Connor. By J. Ramsey Michaels. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013. ISBN: 978-1-62032-223-9. Pp. xi + 212. $22.00
When I (Jessica) was in graduate school, a professor at another university advised me not to write my dissertation on Flannery O'Connor. "Everything has been done on O'Connor," she told me. I bristled at this assertion in disbelief. Almost a decade later, it still is not true. O'Connor scholars, students, and fans have all found new lenses that, when directed at her life and oeuvre, bring new discoveries into focus. Two of the books reviewed here solely attend to O'Connor and her fiction--J. Ramsey Michaels' Passing by the Dragon considers her fiction as interpretations of Scripture, and Timothy J. Basselin's Flannery O'Connor: Writing a Theology of Disabled Humanity (reviewed by Stratman) discusses her work in light of her theology and her illness. The third book, Hard Sayings by Thomas F. Haddox, offers O'Connor as one in a lineup of six modern writers who possibly--though unintentionally--undermined Christian Orthodoxy through their rhetoric.
As a biblical scholar by profession, Michaels approaches O'Connor as one of her many fans, though one with a history of teaching O'Connor at seminaries, sometimes co-teaching her alongside a Rabbi or a literature professor, or learning about her at a conference at a Benedictine monastery--somehow I think O'Connor would have appreciated the variety of settings. Michaels acknowledges common readings of O'Connor's work and attempts not to reiterate familiar interpretations of her stories but rather contest them when necessary or lend biblical support. Within a couple hundred pages, he tries to assess all of her fiction, except for "A Stroke of Good Fortune" and "A Late Encounter with the Enemy" because he acknowledges that making a case for their biblical themes may "sound like a special pleading" (20). The humility in such an assertion should gain the reader's confidence that here is a scholar who does not force O'Connor's works to comply with a set rubric for reading.
In a 1963 letter, O'Connor advised a graduate student to write her thesis on the "Bible and what it means for my fiction" (Emory. MARBL. Folder 13. Letter to LaTrelle Blackburn. Feb. 14, 1963). If this student followed O'Connor's advice, it was never disseminated for public consumption; thankfully, Michaels fills in the gap. While he contends that O'Connor was not an "inveterate Bible reader" and adheres to William Sessions' assertion that O'Connor primarily sought Christian meaning through Catholic Mass, he neglects to draw the connection between the two; in Catholic Mass, most of the Bible is read over a three-year period. Based on O'Connor's supposed Mass attendance, she would have heard the entire Bible more than a dozen times over the course of her life. Michaels does walk through how O'Connor read the Bible, delineating not only the passages that receive her marks and annotations from her library, but also her reviews of biblical commentaries, scriptural references in her letters and lectures, and, of course, allusions within her stories. In fact, Michaels argues that her stories may be analogous narratives of the Bible--"a kind of rewriting of Scripture"--that would speak to contemporary readers (9).
Within his examination of O'Connor's readers, Michaels makes a claim that he does not explore further but one that Haddox takes up for the majority of his chapter on O'Connor in Hard Sayings: "O'Connor herself seems to have assumed that those who are familiar with the Bible in all its earthly realism and dark violence are those least likely to be shocked by her fiction and best equipped to understand it" (19). If O'Connor assumed that Bible readers would be the best audience for her work, then why did she allege to write for those who think that God is dead? Haddox discerns that "she failed at least as often as she succeeded" with this audience, based on readers' reactions to her work (24). While O'Connor wanted to shout at the deaf and draw caricatures to attract her blind readers, Haddox worries that the stories themselves--for instance, "A Good Man is Hard to Find" with its pile of dead bodies--cause more resistance to Christian orthodoxy than acceptance. Like Michaels, Haddox desires to read O'Connor afresh, which he achieves by challenging O'Connor's own interpretations of her stories with the texts themselves, specifically in the aforementioned story as well as "The Artificial Nigger" and "Judgment Day."
Haddox accomplishes bracing readings of fiction too often picked clean by Christian literature scholars, including that of Muriel Spark, John Updike, Marilynne Robinson, Mary Gordon, and Walker Percy. Although these writers intended to embody Christian theology and to persuade readers outside of the faith to consider its doctrine as truth claims, Haddox challenges whether they have fulfilled their aims. He compliments Spark more than the others, labels Updike a "Christian narcissist," and accuses Percy, Gordon, and Robinson of using faith in their writing. In Percy's fiction Haddox sees Catholicism as an antidote to the boredom experienced by the main characters. Though Percy would have hated such a description of his work, Haddox rightly indicates moments in Percy's fiction in which "therapeutic play or cultural critique take precedence over the truth" (160). In his final chapter, he worries that both Gordon as a Catholic and Robinson as a Protestant subordinate the demands of the Christian faith to their own purposes and ends, using their beliefs for the good of their art and that of culture. Haddox's book is full of controversial and challenging readings of these six authors, and his assertion of his own faith as a Christian in the academy is welcome and inspiring. Too often religion and literature professors preach about how writers represent their faith in their art, yet we hesitate to be as bold and genuine in our scholarship. Haddox provides a good model for an authentic profession of faith through academic work.
In a similar vein, Timothy J. Basselin in Flannery O'Connor: Writing a Theology of Diabled Humanity has chosen a lens that invites compassion to join interpretation. The title is provocative enough--to suggest that O'Connor intentionally writes a theology of disability in her fiction. That, as Basselin suggests, her lupus maintains a central role in the themes and characters of her fiction: "O'Connor was a good woman because lupus was there every minute of her adult life. Lupus was her mercy, it was appropriate, because lupus fashioned the good within her. Such a mystery cannot be explained or understood, but can only be pushed into, lived and expanded" (3).
Basselin's major argument is that disability as explored in O'Connor's fiction is an antidote to how the body is depicted in both the Enlightenment and Modernity. As Basselin states early in chapter one,
This study explores O'Connor's use of illness, limitation, and human physical imperfection as sites for appropriate visitations from God. Modern culture's obsession with unflawed bodies rarely allows for speech about death or sickness, much less their being appropriate. [...] In O'Connor's fiction, however, we find that grotesqueries are mysteriously transformed into loci for God's mercies. (2)
Supporting this thesis, Basselin first explores O'Connor's essay "Introduction to a Memoir of Mary Ann" in order to suggest that her fiction "prophesies against our need to fix everything and tells us our falsely perfected world leaves no room for the mysterious activity of God. We suffer from a lack of recognizing and experiencing God's presence within broken humanity" (5).
In subsequent chapters, then, the reader is introduced to a disability reading of "Revelation," "The Lame Shall Enter First," "The Temple of the Holy Ghost," "Enduring Chill," and The Violent Bear it Away, where, for example, Basselin analyzes Rayber's use of the term "idiot" in reference to both Bishop and Mason as an attack on modernity's definition of ability: "For Rayber, an idiot is the opposite of rational, and the goal and purpose of humanity is to rationally understand everything so it can be made better" (74). But to better understand O'Connor's fiction, especially in light of disability, Basselin suggests, by using O'Connor's words from her essay "In the Protestant South" that "evil," or in one sense, disability, is not a "problem to be solved" but a "mystery to be endured."
In the final chapter, "The Image of Christ and a Disability Perspective," Basselin departs from close-reading and uses O'Connors life as an artist as a vehicle for a very thoughtful theology of disability. In my mind, this chapter is most suited for scholars and teachers of disability studies that also happen to enjoy reading O'Connor. In my course on "Disability and the Popular Imagination," my students will have to wrestle with the following excerpt: "As communion with God is dependent upon the broken body of Christ, so communion with one another is dependent upon realization of a participation in our universal human brokenness. O'Connor's characters who most fervently deny this brokenness are the characters whose relationships are least whole and healthy" (91).
To conclude, my only slight frustration with Basselin's book pertains to the notes. Many times I wished that the information found in the endnotes would have been included into the body of the text to give more scholarly depth to the literary analysis. This editorial decision made it clear to me that the book's focus centers more on disability than on O'Connor scholarship. That said, Basselin's is a book that I will use in the classroom. His insights, analysis, and prose style are useful not only for O'Connor teachers but also for O'Connor scholars, and especially those who teach Disability Studies.
Jessica Hooten Wilson and Jake Stratman
John Brown University
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|Title Annotation:||'Hard Sayings: The Rhetoric of Christian Orthodoxy in Late Modern Fiction' and 'Passing by the Dragon: The Biblical Tales of Flannery O'Connor'|
|Author:||Wilson, Jessica Hooten; Stratman, Jake|
|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2014|
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