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Southern Orientalism: Flannery O'Connor's cosmopolis.

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come To the holy city of Byzantium.

--W. B. Yeats

IN THIS ESSAY I WANT TO EXPLORE the weird connections among tattoo culture, Cold War imperialism, and Flannery O'Connor's funky love of the Southern vernacular. We will scratch file underbelly of O'Connor's passion for Christianity, a Western religion obsessed with the geography and myths of the Middle East (a way of life that is not only an epistemology in O'Connor's fiction but a formula for exoticism). We will ask whether an author as locally grounded and vernacularly driven as Flannery O'Connor can be described as cosmopolitan. If so, which brand of cosmopolitanism does she espouse? Is her sophisticated Christianity proof that she believes in the West's superiority, in the "higher" values held by Western elites, or can she be co-opted for new brands of cosmopolitanism propounded by theorists of global flows or diasporas who say that every "local" is globally inflected, who see fleeting mixtures of vernacular and multiworld cultures dispersed within any locale?

Within the fleeting locales of America, the multiverse of Christian kitsch has finally caught up with Flannery O'Connor. In all era in which tattoos are as common as tictacs and the Midwest can be hard to discriminate from the South, a local Presbyterian church sports a group of eye-catching posters that reach out to today's multi-pierced teens. One features a close-up of Christ's triple stigmata and decorates the wounds with this slogan: "Body piercing is nothing new to us. A lot of people have pierced body parts. But every single one of us has holes in our heart or soul. Jesus Christ suffered on the cross so you wouldn't have to suffer today." How do you sell Christianity to the cosmopolitan teens who come "after Gen X? Another poster zeroes in on the fad for extreme sports. Underneath the likeness of a careening downhill skier we discover the sportiness of today's Christianity: "You fearlessly push yourself to all kinds of achievements. So why do you find church so formidable? After all, Jesus Christ knows something about extremes himself. And he's waiting to show you some truly awesome things." The final poster in this triptych offers the ultimate in empathic cool: a classic Sunday school portrait of the lonely figure kneeling at Gethsemane, accompanied by this earnest caption: "if you think your parents expect a lot, you're not alone."

These church posters grabbed my attention because they clarify the ways in which postmodern Christianity and Madison Avenue go hand in hand; they also made me think twice about my own high seriousness as I've tried to make sense of the relations among Christianity, "Orientalism," and Xtreme tattooing in "Parker's Back," a story O'Connor finished in the last months of her life. The posters' loopy sales pitch reminds me of O'Connor's wild out-takes on Protestantism--her attempts to take Christianity to extremes and her irreverence for any form of cant or piety. As she writes to Maryat Lee: "That grasshopper you left in the cage ... reminded me so much of the poor colored people in the jails that I let him out and fed him to a duck. I'm sure you'll understand." (1) O'Connor loves to shock. Her frank sadism in the grasshopper story suggests her ultra-conservatism in racial matters, but it also demonstrates the ways in which she refuses to domesticate any religious or political movement that comes her way.

This irreverence is an attitude the youth-group posters cannot muster. Each is a gem of kitsch showmanship; each tames its passionate subject. Xtreme sports aren't so dangerous, these Sunday School placards say, nor is body-piercing cutting edge; after all, Christ tried it first. In contrast, O'Connor's stories spin these body metaphors out of control. While triple-piercing may seem promisingly profane for millennial teenagers, for O'Connor, obsessive tattooing or body-piercing could lead to something more progressive: to mind-boggling, soul-penetrating, theos-bending pain.

While these youth group posters use mod marketing techniques to flash past a series of themes that O'Connor treats with greater wit and comic seriousness, they also suggest a path into this essay. Why not be as cheeky about O'Connor's sacred texts as these posters are about Christian doctrine; why not take a few Xtra roads into her story? "Parker's Back" lashes out against easy truisms. Here O'Connor dallies with multi-national psychodrama when she explores an ex-sailor's stigmatized skin. She parodies fundamentalist Christian themes and revisits the church's Middle Eastern origins even as her words envelop the soft body of a Southern boy who joins the Navy--meeting, in a fashion both global and vernacular, the forces of global capitalism and the pressures of mid-twentieth-century American imperialism as they impinge on bodies in extremis.

Parker, a one-time sailor and ex-apple salesman, tries to win the affection of his mean-spirited wife by having the huge face of a Byzantine Christ tattooed on his back, the only portion of his limbs and torso that remains tattoo-free. The two-faced result is strange and erotic: O'Connor recreates Parker as both top and bottom, as all front and no back. His extra face terrifies his drinking buddies, who throw him into the street; it prompts his wife to beat him brutally. In a queer replay of the Christian passion, his astonishing, backwards face bleeds and swells. For all its rural and vernacular resourcefulness, "Parker's Back" is a tour de force of cosmopolitan story-telling; it provides a fascinating look at the suture between cultures we now call "East" and "West," as well as a commentary on the relation between local customs and international politics in the nineteen-fifties and sixties when O'Connor was writing her best fiction.

"Parker's Back" also defines an itinerary for examining the American academy's recent interest in new brands of cosmopolitanism that refute the self-congratulations of worldly intellectuals and expand our sense of what we mean by "the local": the ways every locale is globally crosshatched. While most scholars use O'Connor's Southernness or Catholicism to explain the force of her craft, I will suggest that not only is her localism supra-national but it also asks ns to reconsider a South that is distinctly unregional. A place riddled with the "foreign" experiences of poor Southern men who joined the Navy, this South is also obsessed with the Asiatic sources of Christian culture. What does it mean for the impoverished white man at the center of "Parker's Back" to stagger through Georgia with a Byzantine Christ on his back? Is it plausible that a Southern ex-sailor has "sailed the seas and come / To the Holy City of Byzantium"?

Despite assertions about her rootedness in place, O'Connor often blurs realms we expect her to separate. As she says in a letter to Maryat Lee:
 Lance's (2) pageant [for a local Civil War centennial] was such
 a smashing success that the Chamber of Commerce hopes to put it on
 during the season and make this another Wm'burg. The Civil War is
 just beginning to pay off its investment.

 I have bought 100 shares of Keystone B and 100 shares of
 Thrifimart & I feel like a bloody capitalist. (Habit, p. 432)

The South may be a local phenomenon, but it is shot through with expansive economic hopes and pretensions. The spiritual O'Connor sees herself as a "bloody capitalist"; in a modernizing Milledgeville the local Chamber of Commerce still wants to recoup its Civil War investments.

But if these profits are claimed by a local elite, their global impact can only be measured upon proletarian bodies. The blood on the back of the protagonist of "Parker's Back" suggests labor's difficulty in getting its fair share of extra-regional investments. For Parker is not only an artist of the extreme, a man whose body is covered with tattoos, but his sojourn in the Navy is quilted by U.S. imperialism; his skin is encrusted with the silty insignia of other nations. O'Connor insists that Parker's earliest tattoos bear the stamp of American militarism. On his "stubby reddish hand ... emblazoned in red and blue was a tattooed eagle perched on a cannon." (3) His supernumerary tattoos reflect America's colonizing adventures: "I got most of my other ones in foreign parts," he tells his prickly, tattoo-hating wife-to-be; "These here I mostly got in the United States" (p. 512). How does one local body combine "other foreign parts" with "these here"? I want to use the insignia on Parker's front and back to advance our sense of how to decipher O'Connor's vernaculars as they connect with her cosmopolis, to reveal the ways in which local, national, and international preoccupations inflect her fictional world. Although O'Connor plays the role of Southern bumpkin, her fictions etch complex versions of an imperial political unconscious.

Caught in the thick of transnational conglomerates, serial commodification, outsourced oceans of labor, and witness to the trauma of state-sponsored terrorism and statelessness, contemporary academics share in a general frenzy to understand the ways in which the local and global intersect. Playing catch-up, scholars dissect the ghosts of colonialism, the costs of postcolonialism, and the explosion of global poverty and wealth. Newspapers light up with the planet's interconnections. In the summer of 2002, when huge forest fires raged in the once-more-wild U.S. West, the news on page two of the New York Times was just as frightening. Pakistani garment workers had to submit to massive lay-offs when U.S. companies, worried about terrorism and a Pakistan-India war, began sending their representatives and their orders elsewhere. Since the United States rewarded Turkey for its assistance in the 1991 Persian Gulf war with a fifty-percent increase in textile quotas, Pakistan expected a similar boon for its risks in America's war against Afghanistan, but America only gave symbolic thanks; the U.S. government lowered its import quotas on leather gloves and hand-knotted carpets--consumer goods trivial to Pakistan's factory system. America's noblesse oblige is no minor matter: textile and garment factories account for sixty percent of Pakistan's industrial employment. As one laid-off worker protested, "America is like poison to me.... I'm still bitter about it. I felt they were our friends." (4)

What do Pakistan's textiles have to do with Flannery O'Connor--or she with them? If we want to find an analogue to Asian textile making in the annals of American literature, we could look to Hawthorne' s Hester Prynne, whom Hawthorne accuses of a fulsome Orientalism. In addition to crafting Pearl's rich clothing and the voluptuousness of the scarlet letter itself, Hester bruises her fingers making garments for the poor:
 It is probable that there was an idea of penance in this mode of
 occupation, and that she offered up a real sacrifice of enjoyment,
 in devoting so many hours to such rude handiwork. She had in her
 nature a rich, voluptuous. Oriental characteristic, a taste for the
 gorgeously beautiful, which, save in the exquisite productions of
 her needle, found nothing else, in all the possibilities of her
 life, to exercise itself upon. (5)

Edward Said has taught us to read the assumptions behind Hawthorne's signs: "Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, 'us') and the strange (the Orient, the East, 'them')." (6) In citing Hester's "orientalizing" strain, Hawthorne calls on a passel of stock responses: "The Oriental is irrational, depraved (fallen) childlike, 'different'; thus the European is rational, virtuous, mature, 'normal'" (Said, p. 40). Hawthorne asks the adulterous Hester with her needle, the spontaneous Hester in the forest, to call up these "easterly" associations; she is exotic, "fallen," "different," unlike her virtuous, Western, unadventurous peers. (7) O'Connor admired Hawthorne immensely; she praises the way his symbols deepen with each reading. And the marks on Parker's back call to mind the fondness for symbol as allegory that O'Connor shares with Melville and Ellison as well as with Hawthorne. In his obsessiveness, Parker, like Ahab, lives for a set of flagrant, body-searing symbols: the Byzantine Christ that adorns Parker's back flays him, body and soul, as does the scarlet "S" adorning Hester's front, Ahab's whale-carved leg, and the secret marks that scarify Dimmesdale's skin. But bow far can we push this "oriental" connection? The shirts that come so quickly off O. E. Parker's back were probably made, in the years O'Connor's story was percolating, in a Southern textile mill--a thoroughly local production. With a pregnant wife, Parker has moved from an itinerant job as fruit hawker to the settled role of impoverished Southern farm worker. Still, if we look through the shirts on Parker's back to the marks that cover his body, we find an enduring dependence on the coverture of the East: many of Parker's tattoos were made in Japan. As he sits patiently in a Southern tattoo shop (receiving his Near Eastern emblem, the mosaic glossolalia of the Byzantine Jesus), "Parker felt no particular pain. In Japan he had had a tattoo of the Buddha done on his upper arm with ivory needles; in Burma, a little brown root of a man had made a peacock on each of his knees using thin pointed sticks, two feet long; amateurs had worked on him with pins and soot" (p. 523). Like Hester's scarlet letter, these figures set Parker apart and give his character an orientalist spin. The first tattooed man Parker sees at a sideshow is exotic, "different," out of the ordinary:
 The man, who was small and sturdy, moved about on the platform,
 flexing his muscles so that the arabesque of men and beasts and
 flowers on his skin appeared to have a subtle motion of its own.
 Parker was filled with emotion, lifted up as some people are when
 the flag passes. He was a boy whose mouth habitually hung open.
 He was heavy and earnest, as ordinary as a loaf of bread. (pp.


O'Connor's insistence on the tattooed exotic constructs the usual orientalist binary. An "arabesque" is an ornate design of intertwined leaves and flowers: subtle geometries that create a powerful contrast to Parker's American dailiness--his inability to register, at least in O'Connor's similes, a thrill beyond the excitement of waving the flag. The flexed muscles of the tattoo artist create a contrast between "American" and "arabesque," a term derived from the Italian arabesco, "made or done in the Arabic fashion." To have "men and beasts and flowers on his skin" is to have an identity that travels East, beyond Merita or Wonder bread, the staff of the ordinary; it means venturing beyond the slouch of Parker's Southern vernacular. O'Connor scholars have mapped the religious portent of dais rhapsodic body imagery quite eloquently. But I want to ask, instead, what happens when we consider the world stage these tattoos provoke and the ways they create a portal for Parker--and for the reader--into several Americas and at least two different "Orients," the "Near" East and the "Far" East, and two different histories, one close in time, the other far away. Parker's bodily geography recreates the East (in Said's words) as "a theatrical stage affixed to Europe" (p. 63); it also recreates the dynamics of Western colonization. His body offers a theater for U.S. policies of Pacific imperialism that continued to play themselves out during the Cold War.

If Orientalism is a delusional, pain-creating habit, a Western appropriation of the symbols, goods, and lands of vast numbers of non-Europeans, and if "European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self" (Said, p. 3), then how does our analysis of this practice mobilize the complexities of O'Connor's most easternizing story? What we might call an "orientalist longing" re-emerges every time Parker's sense of his own exoticism starts to fade:
 Parker would be satisfied with each tattoo about a month, then
 something about it that had attracted him would wear off. Whenever
 a decent-sized mirror was available, he would get in front of it
 and study his overall look. The effect was not of one intricate
 arabesque of colors but of something haphazard and botched. A huge
 dissatisfaction would come over him and he would go off and find
 another tattooist and have another space filled up. (p. 514)

Parker's body fills up like a map of the world, as place after place that he visits becomes spatialized on his skin. Said's analysis invites us to see the ways in which the subliminal politics of this story could be said to replicate America's own story of conquest, its steady march from the Philippines toward Guam and Vietnam and finally into the Middle East, that source of all oil. But rather than reducing O'Connor's story to an old binary (an occidental world that uses its idea of the Orient for self-aggrandizement, for constructing a shadow self), I want to suggest another pattern in the carpet. Scholars have begun to explore alternate routes for reading global histories by touting a new brand of cosmopolitanism that reexamines the multiple influences that construct any vernacular. These new cosmopolitanists insist that we discover, in discrete locales, "mixtures of things believed to have been previously unmixed." Even though it would be easy to charge O'Connor with Orientalism, with using the East as a shadow figure to draw exoticism into her story in order to establish the otherness (or foreignness) for docile readers of her vision of Christianity, "Parker's Back" is more complicated: a weirdness best illustrated by way of a parable.

In a recent trip to Copenhagen, missing one train and waiting for another, I wandered into the Tivoli Gardens--Copenhagen's jewel of an amusement park. There, in the oh-so-Western heart of this city, I found what looked like another world: minarets with trembling rides attached, pagodas overlooking a sampan pond, walls encrusted with tilework as if from Arabian Nights, a giant tree clouded with pumpkin-sized Japanese lanterns: a potpourri of Orients scrambled together without rhyme or reason except to elicit desire and renewable pleasure; a site "irrational" and "childlike" that has now served for more than a century as foil and erotic underself to this occidental city.

"Ah, the guilty delights of Orientalism are all around me," I thought with scholarly pleasure. And then, in the midst of these musings, I opened my eyes to a sign etched in stone. In 1993, at Tivoli's one-hundred-fifty-year jubilee, the Hankyu corporation of Osaka, Japan, donated a monumental Japanese stone lantern and a small and beautifully maintained Japanese garden to Tivoli as a gesture of capitalist friendship between Japan and Denmark. And there it beckoned, between the sampan pond and Denmark's ideas of Arabia. What was I to make of Tivoli now? Its Islamic moons, its oasis with inflatable palm trees and leaping Burmese tigers suggest one source of nineteenth-century Europe's wealth and fantasmatic pleasure. But when the Japanese themselves embark on a conversation with these fantasies--what then? If globalization is a complex extension of colonialism, a mode of exporting inequality and a new hunger for Western trademarks throughout the planet, it meets an alternative plot-line in the idea of "cosmopolitanism": not the older form of this concept whereby urbane, elite Europeans and American expatriates show those mired in uncivil life a "higher set of values," but a more recent notion of cosmopolitanism asserting that the local is always globally inflected. "In port Parker wandered about comparing the run-down places he was in to Birmingham, Alabama. Everywhere he went he picked up more tattoos" (p. 514). Could Birmingham, Alabama, also be the Orient?

In the manifesto-like introduction to Cosmopolitanism, the editors argue for the creation of intellectual tools that will provide "new archives"--a fresh set of" quasi-objects" that can be "located at a series of intersections among cultures." (8) What happens if we look at "Parker's Back" as such an intersection? While Flannery O'Connor is busy writing a Christian parable about the overpowering cost of redemption, she is also fretting over relationships between global and local that now consume students of postcolonialism. How do we distinguish between the dangers of globalization, the costs of imperialism--and this phenomenon scholars have named the new "cosmopolitanism"--the attempt to create a more generative category that explores the ways in which localities are always globally striated?

While much can be gained by reading O'Connor's story through this lens, we will also encounter this paradigm's dangers. To make her fictional world into a global romance--to make her vernaculars too worldly--may not do justice to either O'Connor's story or scholarship on the new internationalism now underway. At the same time the connections between local and global, between provincial vernaculars and the swing of Parker's hybridized, mixed-up, minority-bred travels, provide a powerful frame for organizing O'Connor's last tale. Parker's tattoos are the gift of his early nomadism and his adherence to the rules of his class--the ways in which enlisted men (instead of naval officers) experienced the quiddities of American Empire. That is, tattoos were the provenance of the sailor class: a way to mark America's conquests on laboring men's conquered and conquering bodies. But even though these markers of American, class-based machismo are much admired in local bars, these tattoos fall off the map; they seem merely disreputable to fundamentalists like Parker's wife, Sarah. In fact, Parker's sense of being frustrated or misunderstood is heightened, as Sarah Gordon points out in her recent book on O'Connor, by the limitations, the parochialism, of his wife's unworldliness. (9) Although she has memorized the Bible, a script based on "eastern" stories that dominate the Christian "west" (and have also scattered the globe), Parker's wife remains untraveled, provincial, far more parochial than either Parker or the story's narrator, who has a good sense of the "Western" history carried on Parker's back in the form of a Byzantine Christ--that other East that blossoms in this story, making it a tale not only of the multivalent South but of the South as it encounters multiple orientations and Orients.

"Parker's Back" has always held a magnetic power for me; it feels so talismanic that I've been reluctant to write about it, in part because this tattoo-laden narrative dallies with the fantasy of what it would mean to have all one's stories written out in public, etched oil one's skin. Peggy Phelan describes the ways in which, in Renaissance painting,
 skin suffers as it tries to contain the form of drama in which we
 love. Such dramas exceed the elasticity of skin; the skin cannot
 hold all we ask it to contain. Skin lacks the depth, the
 interiority, we want it to give us. If skin would give us this
 depth we might actually have proof that we do have such interiority,
 that the precarious feelings, dreams, phantasms, inner speech that
 we call subjectivity is real, that it can be embodied, enclosed in
 skin's own form. But this is precisely what skin, as surface
 covering, cannot offer us. Hence we suffer our skins and our skins
 suffer us. (10)

Skin is an important site of psychic disturbance in O'Connor's South. The tattooed body exists in an indeterminate zone--neither white nor black. It is a vehicle for registering both national and local phantasms: what is on the surface of Parker's skin also rages within. In contrast, the surface of his wife's face is "drawn as tight as the skin on an onion and her eyes were gray and sharp like the points of two icepicks" (p. 510): so tight that it leaves no space for interiority--no seepage--and yet her eyes threaten file flesh of anyone who comes into view (p. 524). Illegible, her body becomes a powerful container: "she was pregnant and pregnant women were not his favorite kind" (p. 510). Her flesh turns multiple; her hand becomes "a terrible bristly claw" (p. 511) when she punishes Parker for cursing. She seems to change at will between a creature with scales and a hawk-eyed angel, depending on her mood. In contrast, something is always spilling out of Parker's multi-colored body--something like desire--that can only take the particular, local forms available to him in the tattoo parlors of the world. By making her protagonist a sailor and nomad, O'Connor brings together a potpourri of sign systems. What I love about this story is the everyday confusion these sign-systems promulgate when taken together. How do we think simultaneously about Southern race and class systems (the ease with which Parker's employer can threaten to replace him with a black man in order to keep Parker low wage), about protestant fundamentalism, about sideshows focused on exhibitionists (who have been recklessly tattooed by wild "Indians"), about a sailor stigmatized in the Garbo-esque ports of Asia and about an owl-headed tattoo artist whose work is so powerful that it makes Parker an immediate outcast when the story takes its weird, wild swing from the working-class South toward another location--toward not only the Holy Land of the burning bush but the universe of Constantinople, a land Muslims and Christians fought over for centuries. Does it matter that, in the 1960s, while O'Connor was writing her story, this religious conflict murmured at home, in America, as African Americans revisited their own Muslim heritage? (11) As O'Connor writes to Maryat Lee:
 About the Negroes, the kind I don't like is the philosophizing
 prophesying pontificating kind.... King I don't think is the age's
 great saint but he's at least doing what he can do & has to do.
 Don't know anything about Ossie Davis except you like him but you
 probably like them all. My question is usually', would this person
 be endurable if white? If Baldwin were white nobody would stand him
 a minute. I prefer Cassius Clay ... Cassius is too good for the
 Moslems. (Habit, p. 580; O'Connor's ellipsis)

The battle of Istanbul versus Constantinople rages speechlessly on Parker's pagan-singed body and sings out in O'Connor's letters. Here a "Moslem" vies with Christians like King for moral and narrative authority: "Cassius Clay says he don' t like all this talk about hate. Says, a tiger come in the room with you you gonna either run or shoot him. That don't mean you hate the tiger. It just means you know you and him can't make out. Did you see Cassius interviewed by Eric Sevareid on CBS? Worth seeing" (Habit, p. 571). Parker, of course, has "a tiger and a panther on each shoulder" as well as "Elizabeth II and Philip over where his stomach and liver were respectively." Although Parker "did not care much what the subject was so long as it was colorful" (p. 514), all this rich, ambiguous history, is at play across his body, as well as the question of how class, race, and religion play themselves out in the local worldliness of O'Connor's story.

If we can define the new "cosmopolitanism" as a set of scholarly convictions insisting that, when we follow the multiple story-lines intersecting at any place or moment of history to their multiple sources, we catch glimpses of a "minoritarian modernity," a mode of looking at the world "across time and space" and "outside the box of European intellectual history" to "see how people have thought and acted beyond the local" (Cosmopolitanism, p. 10), tattooing is a powerful place to explore this beyond. It was practiced as a minor art form in Europe for centuries but became newly popular with Western exploration and colonization of the South Seas. In fact, "tattoo" is a word, as well as a craft, appropriated from Tahiti that O'Connor literalizes by sending Parker to Asia. This is the first site where Said's ideas about Orientalism become complicated by the drama of class. While Orientalist fantasies were profitable for the high bourgeoisie, the dominant class of world occupiers and travelers did not bring every tag-end of the Orient home. They left remnants like tattoos to be adopted by sailors, working men, vagabonds, global riff-raff. The tattoo becomes, for this class of men, a mark of travel--of having been elsewhere, just as, in the Early Modern period many pilgrims to the Holy Land had themselves marked or stigmatized with what we now call a "tattoo" to prove that they had seen Jerusalem. As he participates in this nomadic tattoo culture, is O.E. Parker an "Orientalist"? Or, do we see, in his obsession with tattooing, the meeting of several vernaculars, a stalwart hybridity where a traditional Asiatic cultural practice becomes, in America, a way of hyper-sexualizing the lower-class male body by expanding its claims to territorialize others?

Tattooing came to public prominence in America as a sideshow or fairway practice in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries--another portal for popular fantasies about Asians and Native Americans. Almost every tattoo spectacle, from P. T. Barnum's inky men to those who were self-employed, touted a fantastic biography. If, according to sideshow legend, one tattooed man was "taken captive by Maoris in New Zealand ... and forcibly tattooed" in order to be adopted, another was known as "The Tattooed Man of Burma" or "The Turk," while still others transposed this story to the "Wild West" and described acts of forcible tattooing perpetrated by American Indians (who would have had to appropriate a bizarre range of predictable Western symbols in order to explain the deeply conventional references plastered all over these Barnum and Bailey bodies). (12) As Parker's wife says, "All that there ... is no better than what a fool Indian would do" (p. 515).

Before pursuing the ways that sideshow imperialism pervades "Parker's Back," I want to examine O'Connor's own refusal to be a "cosmopolitan" in the traditional sense of pretending to be a cultural elite, one who tries to spread Western values to less fortunate non-elites. O'Connor, of course, claims to be solely in favor of the local, to have little truck with worldly pretensions. A letter written July 4, 1963, makes fun of Euro-highbrow culture. "Katherine Anne sent me a review out of L'Express of Les braves gens ne Whateveritis [the French edition of A Good Man Is Hard To Find]. It seems to be favorable but not sensible except it says I live on a vast estate among many beasts" (Habit, p. 528). O'Connor is at her most hilarious when she is pillorying intellectual or high cultural pretensions. She describes a TV interview in which an "arty young man" from "the museum in Boston" chats with Chagall. After a long and involved question designed to show off the young man's keen erudition, O'Connor delights in Chagall's ironic insistence that "his greatest influence was his mother. It took the poor young man an instant or two to get his bearings after that." But then O'Connor goes on to show--immodestly--her own erudition: "Roualt doesn't come out very well in this does he? And when Chagall speaks of 'the Spaniard' does he mean Picasso do you suppose? You see the Jewish sensitivity very well in this" (Habit, p. 531). Although she plays the role that many of her narrators play in making fun of self-importance or affectation, although her constant mantra is to chant and enchant us with her conviction that "the writer's check of himself is local where place still has meaning," this local is piebald and variegated (Habit, p. 495). She tells John Hawkes that her city of choice is New Orleans--where she delights in a nightclub called "Baby Green's Evening in Paris," a place "which I might some day like to investigate" (Habit, p. 500). Just as the South and Baby Green's version of Europe come together in her letters, so O'Connor makes fun of Esquire as "littry" (Habit, p. 504), but later shows the reach of her reading: "I am reading Eichmann in Jerusalem.... Anything is credible after such a period of history. I've always been haunted by the boxcars, but they were actually the least of it. And old Hannah is as sharp as they come" (Habit, p. 539).

O'Connor's critique of local boosterism shows her astute grasp of the trajectories of Southern capital. Ackbar Abbas has argued that "'preservation' and 'heritage' do not act as brakes against development: in some strange way, they further a developmental agenda. The problem of cosmopolitanism today still remains how we are to negotiate the transnational space that global capital produces." (13) In letters from the period in which "Parker's Back" was percolating (it was published posthumously in Esquire), we hear a similar critique from O'Connor about the marriage of heritage-boosting and capitalism in local Georgia pageantry:
 We have been vigorously celebrating Secession here--parade,
 pageant, pilgrimages, etc. I sat over the hole in the upholstery
 in the living-room sofa and shook the hands of all and sundry....
 Everybody is falling around now tilting to get the copyright out
 of [Lance Phillips], so they can make this thing like the Paul
 Green business in North Carolina. He is holding out for a rising
 percentage of the net profits, which is certainly what he should
 get. They spent $1000 for fireworks and $600 for floats, and
 would not pay him but $200 for the pageant. (Habit, p. 451-432) (14)

Her analysis of the trajectory of capital and the national aspirations of the local merchant class gets interrupted by a description of the "antics" of the African Americans who work for her family, as if they were a costly form of local color who flew right to her kitchen from "Amos 'n Andy" ("Louise recently stuck an icepick in Shot but otherwise we go on our peaceful way around here" [Habit, p. 432]). And yet O'Connor infuses her descriptions of the boosterism and Idealism around with her with a sense of her Georgia community's desire to use provincialism to go global--and to begin by attracting a national audience, like the one visiting "Unto These Hills." She recognizes the local as a prime site of exploitation and "place" as a complex site of profit. Despite her asseverations, we can call O'Connor "cosmopolitan" in the old-fashioned sense of the word, suggesting that she owns knowledge that is "native" to Western elites. But she is also interested in the second form of "cosmopolitan practices," in "mixtures of things believed to have been previously unmixed" (Cosmopolitanism, p. 12).

Let's think about the mixture that is Parker's body. In The Communist Manifesto Marx argues that "the need of a constantly expanding market for its goods chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere." (15) To make this happen, the bourgeoisie exploits not only native peoples but its own proletariat or working class. Parker's skin offers a lonely parody of the way the West's bourgeoisie settled and nested in every crevice it could find: a fact brought home when British royalty settle over Parker's heart and liver, respectively. Is it any wonder he goes AWOL?
 After one of his furloughs, he didn't go back to the navy but
 remained away without official leave, drunk, in a rooming house
 in a city be did not know. His dissatisfaction, from being chronic
 and latent, had suddenly become acute and raged in him. It was as
 if the panther and the lion and the serpents and the eagles and the
 hawks had penetrated his skin and lived inside him in a raging
 warfare. (p. 514)

Parker carries out the white man's burden, but he also carries that burden on his body; he is that burden, and also the means of implementing it. He cannot escape from this knowledge because it has gone inside him, and yet, he is not an elite, someone capable of discoursing about "this raging warfare." Instead of "O. E. D.," his initials are "O. E. P.," and sure enough, the liquid of his "words seemed to leave his mouth like wraiths and to evaporate at once as if he had never uttered them" (p. 525). A word-empty product of America's capital-driven conquest of the Pacific as well as its South, a cipher of U.S. dependence on the Near East for its theophanies, the O. E. Parker who is in love with tattoos is no longer the yokel whose heart rises when the flag passes. Instead of red, white, and blue, his body shines with "red and blue and ivory and saffron squares," white turning into ivory, that expensive good imported from Asia and Africa, and saffron, a spice that moved along the silk road, bringing wealth and color to those who traded or pilfered it from elsewhere.

And yet the best, most Easternizing moments are still to come. Covered with the frightening mosaic energy of the Byzantine Christ, Parker is uncertain who he is. Transported back in time eight hundred years, he is at once crusader and pagan: "Parker fell back against the door as if he had been pinned there by a lance" (p. 528). He abandons his Western for his Near Eastern name:
 "Who's there, I ast you?"

 Parker bent down and put his mouth near the stuffed keyhole.
 "Obadiah," he whispered and all at once he felt the light pouring
 through him, turning his spider web soul into a perfect arabesque
 of colors, a garden of trees and birds and beasts. "Obadiah Elihue!"
 he whispered. (p. 528)

Sarah cannot recognize the epic drama Parker is part of: the weight of East/West history on his back, the freight of imperialism covering the rest of him and Christian imperatives tearing him up inside. "I might have known you was off after putting some more trash on yourself" (p. 529).

Western culture is made out of this trashing, as is the institutional history of Christianity. Ignoring the vast of this history, it simply seems doomed to repeat itself as large welts form on the face of the tattooed Christ and O. E. Parker is lost, once again, in someone else's body. O'Connor's story--with its tale of fragile, embodied suffering--may carry the weight of Christian parable. But it is also written by a dying woman whose own history is at her back and whose regional history is compounded of many regions. "But at my back I always hear, / Time's winged chariot hurrying near." (16) What this chariot carries is not only mortality but the epic history of the East as it has mingled with and been mangled by the West--and the ways this mingling created, for O'Connor, an amazing cosmopolis as well as an Orient Express: a quick route for making her final short story into a clamorous American epic.


The method of this essay resembles the mathematical sublime: everything connected by "'and' and 'and.'" But this model of the sublime has also been the method of U.S. imperialism as the U.S. collects islands, bases, and dictators at whim to redefine the nation's changing economic needs. I have argued that "Parker's Back" refracts the trauma of living in a multiply inflected Cold War world--so replete with composite histories that it becomes impossible to make a smooth orientalist map of the many Easts that pop up in O'Connor's story: the "East" of the Cold War Pacific, the "East" of Old Testament prophecy as it has been grafted onto a fundamentalist South, the "East" of Byzantium (an antique version of beleaguered Christian ideals in conflict with other religions), and perhaps even the "East" of the Holocaust: of a Jewish world that calls out in scripture and reappears in the preoccupations of a postwar Israel. What I'm reaching toward in this analysis is a notion of American literature that is not so much coherently orientalist as it is confused; there are so many "Orients" and imperialisms to choose from, and none of them can be mapped neatly onto one another. Thus O'Connor's brief "epic" is something ambivalent as well as magnificent. Instead of arguing that O'Connor is politically progressive in creating these cross-global allusions, I'm suggesting that her writing is driven wild--or sent far afield--as it brushes against the bizarre political facts of Western imperialism: predatory acts supported by the ideologies of Manifest Destiny and WhiteMan'sBurden combined with the prophetic strains of Near Eastern stories. Culture is indeed a game of the in-between, of moves neither cosmopolitan nor local but so heterogeneous that the mind refuses to heap them together. Nevertheless O'Connor settles these paradoxa on the surface of one man's body; her story offers an intriguing experiment in moving this body too rapidly through incommensurable spaces (as the Pacific skims the parochial South) and incommensurable times (as the Old Testament temporality of the burning bush and the epochal time of Byzantium skirmish with "modernity").

To see how O'Connor both recreates and helps us sift through these transpositions, let's examine another set of visual sutures that travel even farther afield: the porcelain portrait heads created by the Beijing-born, Australian-based sculptor Ah Xian. In an art that teeters boldly between East and West, Ah Xian takes the bust (a form fixated on the surplus nobility of the individual) and laminates this occidental convention with traditional Chinese porcelain designs: dragons, floating landscapes, fat babies, floral arabesques, copulating couples. The result is beautiful and frightening. Butterfly wings smother one man's eyes while flowers stop his mouth; dragons, birds, and waterfalls beat wild tattoos or float serene cloud patterns over the brows and lips of another. Like the Byzantine Christ on Parker's back, the effect is dehumanizing, but it is also painfully, rhapsodically descriptive of the ways bodies are encrusted by culture, both made and limited by ideologies that striate our skirls. If traditional porcelain patterns represent the "transcendent" beauty of Chinese form as ecstasy and as a cruel limit to vision, the suture between these patterns and the cogito that malingers in the Cartesian bust suggests the bewildering predicament of transculturation. As Grace Glueck writes in the New York Times,
 In every case, the potent cultural symbols of an earlier China
 appear like birthmarks--at once an ornament and a blemish--on
 contemporary faces from China and the Chinese diaspora in the
 West, evoking questions. What does "Chinese" mean in a global
 context? Is it intrinsic or cosmetic, something you inescapably are
 or something you choose to be? Is appropriation of art of the past
 a way to connect to that past, or to gain distance from it? Does it
 create a new Orientalism giving the West the Asia it thinks it knows
 and wants? Or is it a signal that an increasingly insular
 contemporary Western art is having less and less relevance for
 artists with strong formative roots elsewhere? (17)

These questions suggest the undecideability of the new cosmopolitanism. Ackbar Abbas says that "cosmopolitanism has been seen as an ability to acquit oneself, to behave well, under difficult cultural situations by juggling with multiple perspectives--even when these perspectives were forced upon ns or adopted in indifference." But how can bodies behave well when they are blinded by the very cultural patterns that direct individual seeing? These porcelain busts ask: what does it mean to be swathed in incommensurable cultures? Does it help our common predicament to suggest that every culture is incommensurable and juggles too many perspectives? By exposing the fact that other cosmoi inhere in the local (or is it that other loci inhere in the cosmopolis?), Ah Xian unhinges both Asian and occidental self-certainty; he asks us to feel ideology as a multiple force that laps up people's skins. And yet, as Bryan Jay Woolf argues in his book on Vermeer: "What ideology produces is not space and time, but a notion of space and time as universal and constant, as foundation for the solidity and rectitude and believability of the projects of the nation-state; this notion is essential to the world-historical success of colonialism." (18) O'Connor's story and Ah Xian's sculptures set these coordinates spinning. Bodies become vehicles in transit from one culture to another--sites of overwriting that refuse this wily foundationalism.

At the beginning of O'Connor's story, Parker's tattoos seem to support this foundationalism; he is tragic twin to the Marx Brothers' beloved Lydia, a "Tattooed Lady" whose torso offers a quick trot through occidental history:
 Oh Lydia, oh Lydia, say, have you met Lydia?
 Lydia, the Tattooed Lady.
 She has eyes that folks adore so
 And a torso even more so.

 Lydia, oh Lydia, that encyclo-pidia.
 Oh Lydia The Queen of Tattoo.
 On her back is file Battle of Waterloo.
 Beside it, the Wreck of the Hesperus too.
 And proudly above waves the red, white, and blue.
 You can learn a lot from Lydia! (19)

Again, the nonce body becomes epic; once again U.S. imperialism reigns supreme. If print capitalism is the begetter of a new world order in which state bureaucracies are supported by communities made out of novels, newspapers, television, and the World Wide Web, O'Connor, like the Marx Brothers, stumbles across a way of making this world order strange by Hebraizing rather than Hellenizing. Or does she blend both? In "Parker's Back," the print culture of the Bible becomes newly "oriental" as Parker finds his Byzantine tattoo by reading its pattern book from left to right, like Hebrew scripture, and the tattoo's exoticism calls lap for readers--what?--the Suez crisis (1956), the movie Exodus (1961), the concentration camp tattoo? The vernacular body becomes pastiche, a motley crew, a painful node where "for a dime you can see Kankakee or Paree / Or Washington crossing The Delaware." If we learn a lot from Lydia or Parker or Ah Xian, it is because their bodies open up the possibilities of a "minoritarian modernity" while encapsulating the sheer impossibility of operating within the space of global capital when so much is already written upon our backs.

(1) Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being. ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979), p. 592.

(2) Lance Phillips, author of Milledgeville's Secession pageant, is identified by O'Connor, in a letter to Ashley Brown, as "the Englishman whose house we went to for tea" (Habit, p. 431).

(3) Flannery O'Connor, "Parker's Back," in The Complete Stones (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979), p. 512.

(4) Keith Bradsher, "Pakistanis Fume as Clothing Sales to U.S. Tumble," New York Times, June 23, 2002, p. 3

(5) Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter: A Romance (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1962), pp. 80-81. My thanks to Jee Yoon Lee and Sara Blair for this comparison.

(6) Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1978), p. 43.

(7) Her "orientalist" associations are move fully explored in Bharati Mukherjee's The Holder of the World (New York: Ballentine Books, 1994), in which Hester travels to India and becomes known as "the Salem Bibi" before her long sojourn in America.

(8) Carol Breckenridge, Sheldon Pollock, Homi K. Bhabha, and Dipesh Chakrabarty, eds., Cosmopolitanism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), pp. 9-13. For a dissenting view, see Timothy Brennan, At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).

(9) Sarah Gordon, Flannery O'Connor: The Obedient Imagination (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000). Gordon explains that while "Parker's tattooed body surely demonstrates the fullness and unity of creation, Sarah R[uth]'s disapproval of the tattoo suggests her disapproval of the world and its flesh" (p. 250). Gordon sees Sarah as someone who falls into the Manichaean heresy, while Parker approaches the childlike stance of spiritual awakening.

(10) Mourning Sex (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 41.

(11) See Melani McAlister, Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East, 1945-2000 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), pp. 84-124.

(12) Stephen Oettermann, "On Display: Tattooed Entertainers in America and Germany," in Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History, ed. Jane Caplan (London: Reaktion Books, 2000), pp. 198, 200.

(13) "Cosmopolitan De-scriptions: Shanghai and Hong Kong," in Cosmopolitanism, p. 224.

(14) O'Connor distances herself from facile regional identification: "On the 20th & 21st, we have to go in town for the house opening in connection with celebrating the Civil War. I sure am sick of the Civil War" (Habit, p. 426). She also parodied local desire to make Milledgeville the next Williamsburg--or Hollywood: "Lance Phillips is going to write the Secession Pageant. The returns are going to a Youth Center. And Susan Hayward of Hollywood California and Carrollton Georgia is going to come and hep [sic] us celebrate--January the 20th" (Habit, p. 418).

(15) In Karl Marx: Selected Writings, ed. David McLellan (London: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 224.

(16) Andrew Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress," in The Selected Poetry of Marvell, ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Signet, 1967), p. 76.

(17) "Art in Review," New York Times, November 8, 2002, p. B35.

(18) Vermeer and the Invention of Seeing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), p. 229.

(19) E. Y. Harbourg, "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" (music by Harold Arlen), from A Night at the Circus <>.


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Author:Yaeger, Patricia
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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