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The Art and Vision of Flannery O'Connor.

In "The Regional Writer," Flannery O'Connor flatly rejects the modern writer's temptation to shape himself as an alienated figure, existing in what O'Connor describes tongue-in-cheek as an isolated "state of sensitivity" (quoted on p. 151). This escape into the self, according to O'Connor, only serves to separate the individual from the healing influence of community. In reaction to this turning inward, O'Connor often shakes and shoves her characters out of their isolated existences, thereby creating characters like the ailing writer Asbury in "The Enduring Chill" who sees himself as "a shell that had to be filled with something" after a visit from the blind-in-one-eye, deaf-in-one-ear Father Finn from Purrgatory.

In The Art and Vision of Flannery O'Connor, Robert Brinkmeyer explores O'Connor's attempts to free herself as Catholic, as Southerner, and as writer from this modern-age "monologic worship of self"(p. 150). Brinkmeyer suggests that in her attempts to rejoin community, to strengthen her religious faith, to convert her readers, O'Connor created dialogues between author and narrative consciousness, reader and narrator, author and character. Ultimately, these dialogues, created as O'Connor moves outside of self, are what, according to Brinkmeyer, bring O'Connor to a level of "artistic greatness" (p. 34) and are what created the grotesquery that we find in her mature work. An engaging study that considers O'Connor's comments on writing, region, and religion as a means of evaluating her authorial and narrative voices, The Art and Vision of Flannery O'Connor is a logically argued and carefully conceived book that presents a new approach in O'Connor studies. Brinkmeyer's book relies heavily on O'Connor's essays and letters to provide an analysis of dialogue in O'Connor's two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, and roughly a dozen of her short stories.

The shaping image for Brinkmeyer's examination of O'Connor's attempts to formulate dialogues for her readers and for herself is Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of dialogism and the dialogic imagination. For Bakhtin, the individual consciousness is made up of many voices, voices in dialogue with each other. This multiplicity of internal voices also find themselves in dialogue with external voices, for as Bakhtin said, "Life by its very nature is dialogic. To live means to participate in dialogue: to ask questions, to heed, to respond, to agree, and so forth" (quoted on p. 15). Dialogue is thus an integral part of our human existence. O'Connor echoes this human need for dialogue in "The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South," as she describes writing as not merely a practical activity but rather "a kind of personal encounter, an encounter with the circumstances of the particular writer's imagination" (quoted on p. 38). Brinkmeyer suggests that within all of us, these internal dialogues are carried on by voices that are expressions of our individual consciousnesses and of our regions. And indeed, the voices that rise from O'Connor's consciousness are ones that reflect the dual roles in her life - as Catholic and as Southerner - and are what add tension and complexity to her work. O'Connor explained once in a letter to Andrew Lytle that this duality was, in fact, what kept her from being a Southern writer or a Catholic writer.

Although Brinkmeyer deals in general terms with these Southern and Catholic voices and the complexities of their exchanges and conflicts, his primary focus in this text is more specifically on two religious voices: one a Catholic authorial voice and the other a fundamentalist narrative voice spawned from a Southern backwoods setting. Brinkmeyer describes this fundamentalist voice as an "internally persuasive discourse" that challenges O'Connor's Catholicism or "her authoritative discourse" (p. 61). According to Brinkmeyer, O'Connor saw region as instrumental in shaping the relationship between these two conflicting voices. O'Connor noted in "The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South" that as the Catholic writer explored his region, he was typically drawn to fundamentalism, or that part of Southern life that seemed farthest from his Catholicism, for in fundamentalism he found a "kinship strong enough to spur him to write" (quoted on p. 32). Brinkmeyer emphasizes that although O'Connor's Catholicism remained the controlling force in her life, at the same time she recognized that faith has a price tag. Yet, she held an abiding opinion that people do not recognize this price, an opinion that prompted her to write in a 1959 letter to Louise Abbot that people "think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross" (quoted on p. 62). For Brinkmeyer, O'Connor's fundamentalist voice in her stories challenges her Catholic authorial voice and prompts that authorial voice to question, to challenge, and to explore its own faith.

These voices also serve, according to Brinkmeyer, to convert O'Connor's unconverted readers from secularism to faith. The "monologic rage" of the fundamentalist batters the reader and his secularism to leave the reader open to dialogue and to the Christian charity that O'Connor associated with a Catholic voice. To make this point, Brinkmeyer examines the verbal exchange between The Misfit and the grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to Find." He concludes that in shattering the grandmother's romanticized view of the world, The Misfit leaves her open to a broader understanding of the world and its spiritual proportions; thus she can reach out her hand to him in a Christ-like manner and call him one of her children. Brinkmeyer suggests that The Misfit also tests O'Connor's faith as character and author "engage in a duel of sorts": a duel between the violence she associated with fundamentalism and the charity of Catholicism (p. 161). Thus, according to Brinkmeyer, O'Connor's narratives that seem at first to affirm, often end in challenging the reader, the narrator, the author, or a character, and in wrenching that individual consciousness from its short-sightedness. The distorted characters and situations created by these conflicting voices give shape to the strikingly grotesque quality of O'Connor's writing, according to Brinkmeyer. From her early story "The Train" (1948) to the later version of that story as the opening chapter of Wise Blood, the revisions O'Connor made in her first novel show the radical changes in her writing that brought her into an artistic maturity. Brinkmeyer points out that while the narrative consciousness of O'Connor's early versions of Wise Blood was "familiar and sympathetic," this narrative consciousness became disassociated and jarring in O'Connor's final version and ultimately this narrative voice "distorted and intensified character and situation with severe irony" (pp. 100-101). O'Connor saw this violence as necessary in bringing her reader down to the level of the freaks of her stories, for as she wrote in "The Fiction Writer and His Country," "To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling pictures" (quoted on pp. 175-176).

O'Connor's shouts and her "large and startling pictures" are at the center of The Art and Vision of Flannery O'Connor. Certainly Brinkmeyer's text provides us as readers with a clearer picture of our own role in O'Connor's dialogues as we, like Asbury in "The Enduring Chill," hear the fire-and-brimstone words of the Jesuit preacher:

Do you want your soul to suffer eternal damnation? Do you want to be deprived

of God for all eternity? Do you want to suffer the most terrible pain, greater than

fire, the pain of loss? Do you want to suffer the pain of loss for all eternity? (quoted

on p. 87)
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Author:Weaks, Mary Louise
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1992
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