What hath Hobbits to do with prophets: The fantastic reality of J. R. R. Tolkien and Flannery O'Connor.
I am not the first to discern the similarities between the artistic achievements of Tolkien and O'Connor. Acknowledging and attempting to overcome the vast dissimilarities between these two authors, David Sandner compares Tolkien's literary art to O'Connor's, arguing that the central similarity between the two artists rests in the distinctive "movement of grace through their stories" that allows for the unexpected encounter with grace. (5) While Sandner's article introduces a widely ignored critical conversation and insightfully examines several of the surface similarities between the works of Tolkien and O'Connor, the article falls short of accounting for the inherent theological foundations that underpin the particularly fantastic depiction of reality presented in the literary art of each author. In other words, Sandner draws out some of the thematic (and even stylistic) similarities between the two authors as a result of their common Catholic faith without necessarily accounting for the specific philosophy that moves Tolkien to the fairy story tradition and O'Connor to her own unnerving Christian realism.
Before I can adequately discuss the commonalities between the artistic vision that resulted in Tolkien's fantasy and O'Connor's Christian realism, I must first examine the central aspect of their artistic styles that establishes their comparability--that is, the vision and depiction of reality that informs each artistic style. Central to the Thomistic theology espoused by Tolkien and O'Connor alike is a belief in the preeminence and ubiquity of God in creation, a belief that has direct and meaningful implications for the way in which each author experienced the physical world. (6) That reality consists of more than merely the material world is a belief that Tolkien and O'Connor shared, largely in opposition to the reigning secularism of their modern age. For the post-Cartesian, post-Enlightenment thinker, the term reality, in many respects, invokes a host of existential, dualistic, naturalistic, and pluralistic associations. Due largely to the secular connotations surrounding the term realism, O'Connor christened her fiction under the label "Christian realism," knowing that her realist vision was predicated upon more than a merely naturalistic perception of the world. Moreover, as the Cartesian split between body and soul grew in prominence, becoming a defining feature of the Modern age, so, too, did the belief that the material world was the measure of all things real. The result was a world that teetered between Cartesian Dualism (7) on the one hand and Hobbesian Materialism (or, what Brian Davies calls Physicalism) (8) on the other. In either case, the dualistic or materialistic mind of the post-Enlightenment West, defining reality in terms of the material world and man's perceptions of that material world, restricted (or altogether eliminated) humankind's access to a spiritual reality.
O'Connor, being professedly concerned with faithfully depicting reality in her fiction and recognizing the successive escalation of tensions between science and faith, suggests that reality cannot be explained by reason alone, but necessarily entails some mystery. To this point, O'Connor writes, "Since the eighteenth century, the popular spirit of each succeeding age has tended more and more to the view that the ills and mysteries of life will eventually fall before the scientific advances of man, a belief that is still going strong even though this is the first generation to face total extinction because of these advances." (9) In other words, the vision of reality that O'Connor depicts in her fiction reveals her deep-seated skepticism of the modern faith in scientific progress that promised to cure humankind's "ills" and solve the great "mysteries of life" that plagued the modern mind. More important, O'Connor describes mystery as being the life-giving and life-sustaining force at work in the world, the part of life that gives meaning to the manners that surround us. However, as John Desmond explains, the term mystery, which, for O'Connor has specific theological and metaphysical foundations, has been wildly oversimplified and applied in a "general or vaporized way" even by her "most sympathetic critics." (10) For O'Connor, the great mystery behind the manners is the reality that all of creation is imbued with the image of the Divine creator who "is in all things because he makes and sustains them." (11) This belief, rooted firmly in the Thomistic tradition, does not collapse into a pantheistic system that deifies creation; rather, it asserts that the immaterial God is, in the words of Aquinas, "essentially everywhere" and "causally at work in the entire history of his created order." (12) The divine image of God is impressed upon and mediated through the material world that he created and continues to sustain.
Tolkien likewise had a sense of the indelible mark of the Divine Creator on his creation, and, where O'Connor uses the word mystery to describe this mark, Tolkien uses the word "Enchantment." (13) Of course, Tolkien employs the word enchantment so that it operates on multiple levels. Most obviously, enchantment refers to the process by which or state of being in which a "Secondary World" sub-created by the artist becomes inhabited (or incarnated) by the sub-creator and the spectator. (14) In other words, enchantment is the work of fantasy, a point that I explore more fully later in this article. On another, deeper level, enchantment is the work of the Divine Creator in his own creation; it is the Incarnation made manifest in the Primary World we inhabit together with God, the Creator of the world.
As a Thomistic thinker and literary artist, Tolkien sought to endow his literary work with this deep-seated vision of reality. Yet, Tolkien's dragons, elves, ents, and hobbits have endured a long history of being treated as markedly belonging to the realm of the unreal. Tolkien, in many ways anticipating this criticism, responds anecdotally with the classic Tolkienian humor, saying, "Not long ago--incredible though it may seem--I heard a clerk of Oxenford declare that he 'welcomed' the proximity of mass-production robot factories, and the roar of self-obstructive mechanical traffic, because it brought the university into 'contact with real life' ... The notion that motor-cars are more 'alive' than, say, centaurs or dragons is curious; that they are more 'real' than, say, horses is pathetically absurd. How real, how startlingly alive is a factory chimney compared with an elm tree: poor obsolete thing, the insubstantial dream of an escapist!" (15) The hint of sarcasm throughout this anecdote, and especially in the last phrase, reveals Tolkien's sense of reality as being more than merely a conglomeration of "observed 'fact[s]'." (16) For Tolkien, reality consists of more than the mere material, scientifically observable, and definable objects; it consists of essence, of divinely created life.
Yet, while both Tolkien and O'Connor maintained a vision of the enchanted universe, they perceived that the vast majority of their contemporaries did not also perceive this "underlying reality or truth" as being operative in the world. (17) Moreover, the audience for whom each author predominantly wrote warred against the reality Tolkien and O'Connor saw and depicted in their fiction. O'Connor, expressing her critics' opinions regarding the perceived conflict between her faith and her art, writes, "I have heard it said that belief in Christian dogma is a hindrance to the writer, but I myself have found nothing further from the truth. Actually, it frees the storyteller to observe. It is not a set of rules which fixes what he sees in the world. It affects his writing primarily by guaranteeing his respect for mystery." (18) While O'Connor's critics accused her of being short-sighted and having a misperception of reality, O'Connor believed that her faith freed her to see reality more fully. Where her critics saw only the material world, O'Connor saw a material world imbued with and made alive by the presence of the Divine. Thus, reality, as perceived by Tolkien's and O'Connor's Catholic imaginations, is multidimensional, or layered. To strip the world of a spiritual presence is, in the Thomistic tradition, to deny reality.
More important, for Tolkien and O'Connor alike, the reality they discerned beyond the material surface is not abstracted or ethereal, but instead is intimately bound up with the concrete physical world, and as such, is at least partially accessible to us through our senses. Here is where the shared Thomistic theology of these two authors takes on particular significance in developing their common view of reality and, moreover, their respective methods of depicting that deeper reality through their fiction. Operating in a sort of middle ground, or what Davies identifies as "the extremes of Dualism and Physicalism," a Thomistic perception of reality and of humankind's experience with that reality is predicated upon the belief that people are "composite individuals," meaning humans are not merely incorporeal or purely physical, but rather humans are "ensouled bodies." (19) As ensouled bodies, mankind cannot be reduced to either of his essential parts--that is, body apart from soul or soul apart from body. Instead, being human necessarily consists of the unified body and soul; we experience the individual soul only within the context of the physical body, and the physical body is endowed with life only through the presence of a soul. One cannot exist without the other.
With this theological principle in mind, Tolkien and O'Connor alike saw reality as necessarily physical and spiritual. As such, sensory encounters in the material world provide the context through which a holistic vision of reality might be achieved. In other words, reality--and, by extension, knowledge and truth--cannot be experienced in some disembodied state; rather, it is necessarily embodied. (20) Thus, as Desmond explains, the spiritual reality, though mysteriously hidden from us, is also mysteriously revealed to us through "the sensible world, the world of nature." (21) As already noted, the unredeemed post-Enlightenment mind generally conceives of reality (and truth) in two extremes: in a disembodied idealist sense or in a purely scientific, materialistic sense.
For Tolkien and O'Connor, both of these options necessarily limit the vision of the Christian artist by forcing upon him a false dilemma in which he must either look to the material world as the fullest manifestation of reality or to the spiritual world as the ideal, disembodied-- and thus, inaccessible--reality. Neither of these options allows for the possibility of the Incarnation. Verbalizing her distaste for the misconceived limitation, O'Connor writes, "Today many readers and critics have set up for the novel a kind of orthodoxy. They demand a realism of fact which may, in the end, limit rather than broaden the novel's scope." (22) Ross Labrie, emphasizing the "reality-centered" art of O'Connor, identifies the Incarnation as the full manifestation of the Divine reality, explaining, "The orientation of Catholic writers towards reality stems from their belief that the creational world was providential and meaningful in design--more so than ever after the intervention of Christ in it--and that the observation of creation would uncover aspects of this meaning." (23) Central to this Catholic estimation of the created world, the "concrete existential," Labrie continues, is the Incarnation, God's reality-altering intervention in the human experience. (24) Similarly, Desmond explains that, at the Incarnation, "Created by the Word, the world then receives the divine Word in human form, a paradox inconceivable to dualistic thought." (25) O'Connor's deep-seated belief in the centrality of the bodily Incarnation of Christ to the Christian faith, then, becomes the basis upon which she exercises the "anagogical vision" that makes her "able to see different levels of reality in one image or situation." (26) Moreover, this penetrating vision provides the means by which each author moves beyond the misapprehended limitations imposed by modernity.
Seeing beyond the veil, though, is not without its consequences. Tolkien and O'Connor, sensing among their contemporaries what John Milbank has identified as a "lapse of belief in an enchanted cosmos" (27) that assaulted their theological realism, employed their fiction as a means for escaping into the theological reality of the enchanted cosmos. The idea of escaping through fiction garnered its fair share of negative critical attention for both Tolkien and O'Connor. Each author felt the pangs of the escapist criticism thrust at them like swords meant to pierce their literary reality, but neither conceded the point that escape through literature necessitated the abandonment of reality. O'Connor, expressing her exasperation with the escapist criticism she received, writes, "I'm always highly irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it is very shocking to the system." (28) Tolkien had a similar reaction to the accusation of escapism, though his response to the accusation is slightly more nuanced and better developed than O'Connor's.
In Tolkien's estimation, fiction--and more specifically to his point, fantasy--offers a necessary escape, one that is more akin to the "Escape of the Prisoner" than to the "Flight of the Deserter." (29) It is helpful to examine this analogy because it serves as a foundational aspect of Tolkien's aesthetic philosophy and illuminates a largely misunderstood aspect of O'Connor's aesthetic vision. Perhaps no other modern author has suffered the criticism of escapism more than Tolkien. Writing during a time when realism reigned and was growing in prominence, Tolkien, along with a few of his peers, set out to revive a literary tradition that was largely absent in their generation--that is, of course, the fantastic or fairy story tradition. Tolkien writes, "Though fairy-stories are of course by no means the only medium of
Escape, they are today one of the most obvious and (to some) outrageous forms of 'escapist' literature." (30) While Tolkien's critics applied the term "escapist" to Tolkien's works in a derogatory manner, Tolkien espoused escape as one of the primary benefits of the tradition of the fantastic. Explaining his redemption and reapplication of the term, Tolkien writes,
It is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which 'Escape' is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers of Escape are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. (31)
Tolkien's last two questions and his concluding sentiment here get to the heart of what he really means when he says that "Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories." (32) Escape, in Tolkien's conception, is akin to return, to recovery; it is akin to cleaning the windows "so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity--from possessiveness." (33) In other words, escape is liberation toward the end of restoration.
Tolkien and O'Connor each recognized the enslavement of the modern mind to the dualistic and naturalistic philosophies of the age. To this point, Tolkien eloquently explains that "creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it." (34) Seeking to extricate themselves from the enslaving disenchantment that plagued the modern mind and limited the scope of vision of their contemporaries by stripping meaning from matter, Tolkien and O'Connor turned to fiction, which by its very nature offers an incarnational experience, whereby a subcreator, "made in the image and likeness of a Maker," (35) designs a Secondary World and invites his readers to inhabit that world with him. In so doing, the story-teller--the subcreator--presents a world that is reenchanted with the possibility of the Incarnation. For each author, fiction, in its best and most realistic form, is itself an incarnational medium.
It might be helpful at this point to introduce a third Catholic author and thinker whose indebtedness to the Thomistic tradition contributes indirectly to the effort to establish a theological and philosophical connection between Tolkien and O'Connor. G. K. Chesterton's Thomistic theology generated a vast and rich literary legacy paralleling that of Tolkien and O'Connor. Alison Milbank makes such a point in relation to Tolkien in Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real, in which she engages in an exploration of the art and imagination of these two prominent British Catholic authors of the Modern Age. Of particular importance for my discussion is Milbank's exploration of the way in which fantasy, for Tolkien and Chesterton, "became a way to import meaning into the natural world in a post-Darwinian age." According to Milbank, Tolkien and Chesterton employed the fantastic mode to "introduce a sense of the holy in an increasingly disenchanted and secularized society." (36) Explaining the significance of this sentiment within a Thomistic framework, Milbank writes, "In reaching out to understand the grass as grass in Thomistic fashion, rather than being trapped by the subjectivity of Kantian perception, Tolkien's story-maker becomes the lover of nature and not her slave." (37) In other words, Tolkien and Chesterton each employed the fantastic as a means for extricating themselves from the inherent limitations of post-Enlightenment naturalism and nihilism.
A similar parallelism exists between the literary and aesthetic works of Tolkien and O'Connor. Recognizing the disease of the disenchanted modern mind and espousing the belief that the artist must "make his gaze extend beyond the surface, beyond mere problems, until it touches the real which is the concern of prophets and poets," (38) Tolkien and O'Connor each sought to apply their Thomistic theology and vision of reality to their art so as to reenchant their readers, reorienting them to the multidimensionality of reality that makes the Incarnation both historically possible and presently immanent. For Tolkien and O'Connor, believing in the reality of the Incarnation dramatically alters the very nature of reality; seeing reality clearly necessarily means seeing reality theologically. Moreover, seeing the world theologically means encountering the spiritual distortions of humanity that come to light when the person of Christ and his presence in this world are recognized as the true spiritual foundation of humanity and as the proper measure of human spiritual formation. For Tolkien and O'Connor, seeing those distortions encumbered them with the responsibility of exposing the distortions as such to the unbelieving, disenchanted mind. The modern mind, diseased and enslaved, has had its vision distorted over time like the man who lingers too long in a dark room and forgets that he can see more clearly by the light than in the darkness. O'Connor, believing that "art proceeds from a healthy, and not a diseased, faculty of the mind," (39) sought to turn on the light for those men lingering in the dark room. Her vision--redeemed, and thus, healthy, though not perfect--allowed her to see the disease that surrounded her. Making this point, O'Connor writes, "To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man." (40) O'Connor's theological vision provided her with that picture of the whole man. Tolkien likewise understood that seeing clearly meant recovering a theological vision of reality: "Recovery (which includes return and renewal of a health) is a re-gaining--regaining of a clear view. I do not say 'seeing things as they are' and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say 'seeing them as we are (or were) meant to see them'--as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity--from possessiveness." (41) For each author, fiction, being inherently incarnational, provided the means by which they might recast a theological vision of the world for a modern readership.
Yet, though similar, Tolkien's hobbits--or the fantastic mode that Tolkien's hobbits represent--and O'Connor's prophets--or the distortions they embody in a grotesque form--are not the same, and this is what makes the connection between their respective aesthetics especially meaningful. While they share common theological and philosophical foundations, Tolkien and O'Connor built two widely divergent literary styles from those foundations. Seeing, as it were, layers (or levels) of reality, Tolkien reorders the materials of the Primary World to form a Secondary World in which he can depict both disease and health in fantastic binary pairs for the reader to experience vicariously. O'Connor, on the other hand, designing her fiction within the parameters of the Primary World, aims to expose the distortions already present in this world and to present the mysterious insertions of grace in the midst of those distortions without necessarily healing her characters. This seemingly minor distinction, then, explains why Tolkien inclines toward the fantastic while O'Connor inclines toward the grotesque; both authors distort physical reality for the purpose of revealing spiritual distortions, but, where Tolkien, through fantasy, aims to reorient his readers evangelically toward a future reality, O'Connor aims to shock her readers with their present reality.
Now, I turn to fantasy, and, more specifically, the way that Tolkienian fantasy draws from the deep well of Thomistic theology to recover the anagogical vision--the enchanted vision--of the world that has waned in the post-Enlightenment West. According to Tolkien, fantasy, is, first and foremost, a work of "subcreation"--that is, a work that combines imagination--the "faculty of conceiving images"--with art--the "achievement of the expression" of the imagination "which gives (or seems to give) the 'inner consistency of reality.'" But, fantasy, being characterized by an "arresting strangeness" that provides a sense "of freedom from the domination of observed 'fact,'" consists of more than simply subcreation; it is specifically "the Sub-creative Art in itself and a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression derived from the Image." (42) In other words, fantasy is that mode of literary art that engages the imagination in the work of creating a strange sense of the otherness of the forms it produces.
The otherness established through the work of fantasy has, in modern criticism, led to the common categorization of the fantastic as that which "belongs to the realm of the non-real." (43) However, for Tolkien, the metaphysical foundations for defining and discussing the categorical distinctions between real versus the unreal necessarily depend upon the presupposition of some Divine Other whose presence gives reality meaning. For this reason, Tolkien saw fantasy as a means for creating "an alternative view of reality in which questions could be asked with a fresh voice, and new answers to those questions could be explored." (44) More specifically, fantasy provides "an escape from a false view of human life and the world, to a more real view of human life and the world" allowing traditions and virtues to be "rediscovered because they are being portrayed in a fresh light." (45) With this metaphysical presupposition in mind, Tolkien writes,
But the true road of escape from such weariness is not to be found in the wilfully awkward, clumsy, or misshapen, not in making all things dark or unremittingly violent; nor in the mixing of colours on through subtlety to drabness, and the fantastical complication of shapes to the point of silliness towards delirium. Before we reach such states we need recovery. We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses--and wolves. (46)
Tolkien envisions fantasy as a means for altering or distorting primary reality so as to reawaken in his readers a sense of wonder in the Primary World; this is the recovery he believes fantasy offers. Thus, objects (like green grass) that were once perceived as merely physical in the Primary World suddenly take on more depth when viewed through the lens of a subcreated Secondary World.
Despite his willingness (and, in fact, even eagerness) to reshape and distort the elements of the Primary World, however, Tolkien maintained what he described as the love of a good craftsman for his material. (47) Though, perhaps, less obviously than O'Connor's own emphasis on the faithful depiction of reality, Tolkien's fantastic art also maintains what Tolkien calls "the inner consistency of reality" that commands "Secondary Belief." (48) Milbank, discussing the intrinsic consistency of reality in Tolkien's fiction, writes, "The world Tolkien invents is, of course, fictional, but it is famously realistic in its density and completeness of realization. To invent a world at all, as fantasy writers continue to do, is to commit to metaphysics." (49) Tolkien, committed to his Thomistic metaphysics, manipulates the materials of the Primary World--things such as the grass, trees, sun, moon, and stars--making these things "all the more luminous
by their setting." (50) Acknowledging the capacity of fantasy--and especially good fantasy--for capturing and faithfully depicting reality, O'Connor writes, "Even when one writes a fantasy, reality is the proper basis of it. A thing is fantastic because it is so real, so real that it is fantastic ... I would even go so far as to say that the person writing a fantasy has to be even more strictly attentive to the concrete detail than someone writing in a naturalistic vein--because the greater the story's strain on the credulity, the more convincing the properties in it have to be." (51) Tolkien likewise espoused the notion that despite basic distortion of the factual reality, fantasy, in order to be successful, must maintain and consistently depict reality. For Tolkien, setting up a convincing Secondary World meant endowing it with not only the necessary material consistencies to make it believable, but also those "more permanent and fundamental things"--such as good and evil--that make the world, in an even more significant sense, real. (52) In setting up a Secondary World replete with the all the necessary components to make it believable, Tolkien engaged himself and his fiction in a criticism of the emerging values and disease of the modern mind, a point that he believes many of his contemporaries failed to do in their own fiction. Tolkien explains this point rather cogently, saying of the vast majority of science fiction writers of his day,
These prophets often foretell (and many seem to yearn for) a world like one big glass-roofed railway station. But from them it is as a rule very hard to gather what men in such a world will do. They may abandon the "full Victorian panoply" for loose garments (with zip-fasteners), but will use this freedom mainly, it would appear, in order to play with mechanical toys in the soon-cloying game of moving at high speed. To judge by some of these tales they will still be as lustful, vengeful, and greedy as ever; and the ideals of their idealists will hardly reach further than the splendid notion of building more towns of the same sort on other planets. It is an age of "improved means to deteriorated ends." (53)
In this passage (as well as much of the context surrounding the passage), Tolkien engages quite directly in a criticism of modern scientism, by which I mean the belief that science holds the answers to all of mankind's questions and the cures to all his ills. Tolkien questions the capacity for science to free mankind from his most significant deficiencies--that is, from the moral deficiencies that ultimately lead in a Christian context, to death. For Tolkien, the only means by which mankind might legitimately hope to escape (to use this word in with its properly positive connotations) those deficiencies rests in the eucatastrophic--meaning "the good catastrophe" (54)--Divine intervention found in the Incarnation and Resurrection. Apart from this intervention, death is all that remains. For Tolkien, this tension between eucatastrophe--and dyscatastrophe--meaning, "sorrow and failure" (55)--must be present in order for a work of literature to appropriately reflect and represent the "underlying reality or truth" of human experience. (56)
To accomplish the presentation of this deeper reality, Tolkien not only includes distortions and disorders, but he also provides a picture of the radical insertions of grace, redemption, and recovery that he believes are just as real (if not more real) than the prevailing disease. Believing that the "Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man's history" and the "Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation," (57) Tolkien sets up a Secondary World that implicitly includes both of these elements in proportion. On this point, David Sandner gets his argument exactly right, interpreting Frodo's failure to destroy the ring at Mount Doom (and Gollum's startling achievement of sorts) in terms of its costs. Sandner explains it like this: "Grace comes as a realization of loss followed by what is perhaps only a partial recovery, or the promise of recovery some time long after the story itself is done." (58) This sentiment echoes Tolkien's own vision of the cost of the eucatastrophe.Tolkien explains, "Eucatastrophe does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure; the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief." (59) In other words, Tolkien's fantasy results in a happy ending or a "consolation" (60) of sorts, albeit one comingled with sorrow as Sandner suggests.
Happy endings are, of course, not generally a characteristic by which O'Connor's fiction might be defined, and it is to O'Connor's fiction that I now turn my focus, hoping to show how her grotesque distortions of reality parallel Tolkien's own fantastic distortions, ultimately achieving a different literary effect but a similar theological one. Writing from the position of what she believed to be a healthy mind, O'Connor famously comments,
The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock--to the hard of hearing you shout and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures. (61)
O'Connor, sensing the distance between Christian orthodoxy and the reigning nihilism of her day, attempts to close the gap between the two through her fiction, characteristically labeled grotesque. This label, though at times disputed by O'Connor due to its negative connotations, describes her literary work well. Milbank explains that
the grotesque, embracing a certain degree of "awkwardness," "recombines the forms of nature and art to make something new and surprising." (62) The result of this startling recombination, according to Milbank, serves a three-fold purpose in art: "The effect of the grotesque is first to destabilize perception; second to render unstable the human belief in itself as the centre of the universe; third to make the reader experience the wonder and ecstasy of pure otherness." (63) Milbank goes on to explain that the grotesque, being "faithful to the dual nature of humanity as bestial and divine," redeems man's vision by offering "a vision as well as describing what already is." (64) Thus, perception and vision become the aesthetic foundations for both designing and recognizing the grotesque.
For O'Connor, this capacity for seeing distortions rests in the anagogical vision, which allows a person--and, in this case, the prophet-artist- -to probe into the material reality and expose the meaning-giving spiritual reality beneath the surface. Explaining this prophetic-artistic vision, O'Connor writes, "In the novelist's case, prophecy is a matter of seeing near things with their extensions of meaning and thus of seeing far things close up. The prophet is a realist of distances, and it is this kind of realism that you find in the best modern instances of the grotesque." (65) Expanding on this idea O'Connor writes, "The fiction writer should be characterized by this kind of vision. His kind of vision is prophetic vision. Prophecy, which is dependent on the imaginative and not the moral faculty, need not be a matter of predicting the future. The prophet is a realist of distances, and this is the
kind of realism that goes into great novels. It is the realism which does not hesitate to distort appearances in order to show a hidden truth." (66) Seeing beyond distortions that pervade the modern perception of reality, O'Connor seeks to move her readers to an awareness of those distortions as well. While O'Connor, when exercising her prophetic vision, might herself perceive how the whole, healthy man looks, she does not necessarily aim to depict that perception in her fiction for her readers primarily because she believes she writes for an audience who is not yet ready to receive that vision.
Instead, O'Connor builds her art out of the distortions, making the distortions the central focus of her stories so that the lingering effect of the stories arises primarily from the grotesque elements. In other words, O'Connor creates an unsettling (or, as Milbank called it, a "destabilizing") (67) effect through her fiction, producing a negative emotion that repels or repulses both O'Connor's characters and her readers. Christina Lake makes a similar point regarding the way in which O'Connor's fiction employs the grotesque human body negatively as a means for repelling her characters away from a false view of the world. (68) Lake analyzes Haze's repulsion when he is finally confronted with the "new jesus" only to discover that it is merely a mummy. Being unresurrected, the new jesus presents Haze with an embodied picture of the reality that he prophesies, and Haze is repulsed by it. With this startlingly grotesque embodiment, O'Connor shocks both Haze and her modern reader with the nihilistic reality they have each embraced, and O'Connor does not seek to tidy up the story by providing it with a definitive resolution. Instead, she intimates that, through grace, there is a possibility of change, but this is a possibility that lingers inconclusively.
Tolkien, too, employs the grotesque within the structure of his Secondary World as a means to unsettle his readers, though he does so quite differently from O'Connor. Gollum is perhaps the most obvious example of a grotesque distortion in Tolkien's fiction in that he embodies the effects of unrestrained greed and possession in his altered physical form. The contrast between Gollum's unrestrained desire to possess the Ring and Sam's humble relinquishing of it demonstrates the fullness of Tolkien's literary vision. Through the contrasting pair, Tolkien evokes both positive and negative emotions, thereby simultaneously repulsing the reader from the distortion and providing a focal point for reorientation. Tolkien shows us, then, both the diseased man and the healthy (though certainly not perfect) one. By contrast, O'Connor does not provide her grotesque characters with a reorienting binary; she provides only the grotesque character, thereby providing a destabilizing effect that lingers without being necessarily reoriented within the confines of the fiction.
The lingering destabilization that results from O'Connor's fiction might justifiably be seen as a limitation, as a weakness of O'Connor's art. In an early letter to Betty Hester, O'Connor admits this limitation, and, in fact, even claims it as a necessary component for her art:
But if it does mean a doubt of the efficacy of love and if this is to be observed in my fiction, then it has to be explained or partly explained by what happens to conviction (I believe love to be efficacious in the loooong run) when it is translated into fiction designed for a public with a predisposition to believe the opposite. This along with the limitations of the writer could account for the negative appearance ... Another reason for the negative appearance: if you live today you breathe in nihilism. In or out of the Church, it's the gas you breathe. If I hadn't had the Church to fight it with or to tell me the necessity of fighting it, I would be the stinkingest logical positivist you ever saw right now. With such a current to write against, the result almost has to be negative. It does well just to be. (69)
O'Connor recognizes and even embraces her tendency toward employing the grotesque in a purposively negative fashion, attributing that tendency both to her own cultural context and her inability to overcome that context, which she identifies as being one aspect of her own personal limitations. Despite her best efforts to capture a holistic vision of the world and the human experience, O'Connor admittedly could escape neither her own finite perspective nor the cultural influences that shaped that perspective. Rather than railing against this limitation, O'Connor embraces it, embodies it, and attempts to redeem it, as much as possible, through her fiction. Moreover, although O'Connor professes a belief in the long-term efficacy of love, she hesitates to depict an efficacious love in her fiction because she recognizes it as being outside of her experiential knowledge in this world. She sees people as imperfect and unfinished, Rather than attempting to depict what she has not yet seen and cannot yet describe, O'Connor depicts the distortions she does see in the hope that others will sense the presence of grace implied by those distortions.
Drawing from a rich Catholic theological and literary tradition, Tolkien and O'Connor each employs fiction as a means for recapturing largely secularized imaginations and reanimating the material world with the presence of the Divine. Although O'Connor's mode of writing differs greatly from Tolkien's, it does so while still ultimately aiming in the same theological direction. That is, Tolkien and O'Connor alike draw from their rich Catholic understanding of the multidimensionality of reality and the capacity of fiction for properly orienting their readers to that reality, thereby awakening their readers to the distortions of reality in which we regularly engage, and providing the opportunity for a revelation that leads to a more holistic vision of reality.
(1.) Flannery O'Connor, Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979), 90.
(2.) For an in-depth analysis of the Thomistic thought of J. R. R. Tolkien, see Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real (London: T & T Clark, 2009).
(3.) For an in-depth analysis of the Thomistic thought of Flannery O'Connor, see Marion Montgomery, Hillbilly Thomist: Flannery O'Connor, St. Thomas, and the Limits of Art (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2006).
(4.) Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 32.
(5.) David Sandner, "Between Eucatastrophe and Grace: J. R. R. Tolkien and Flannery O'Connor," Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 89.1-2 (2006): 171-72.
(6.) Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992), 98.
(7.) Christina Bieber Lake offers an insightful analysis of the way in which O'Connor, responding to the Cartesian split, employs an incarnational aesthetic to reunite the body and soul in her fiction. (The Incarnational Art of Flannery O'Connor, [Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 2005], 14-54.)
(8.) Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas, 209.
(9.) Flannery O'Conner, Mystery and Manners, eds. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1957), 41.
(10.) John Desmond, Risen Sons: Flannery O'Connor's Vision of History (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1987), 6.
(11.) Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas, 99.
(12.) Ibid., 100-01.
(13.) J. R. R.Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories" in Tree and Leaf (London: HarperCollins, 1964), 53.
(14.) Ibid., 53.
(15.) Ibid., 62-63.
(16.) Ibid., 47.
(17.) Ibid., 71.
(18.) O'Connor, Mystery and Manners, 31.
(19.) Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas, 209.
(20.) Christina Lake writes, "Participation in the world is not only a genuine mode of knowledge--it is the only mode. Most of the thinkers O'Connor read would agree that the Cartesian shift was destructive of the possibilities for real knowledge because, as Gabriel Marcel explains, it substitutes abstract schema for the 'richness of experience.'" (The Incarnational Art of Flannery O'Connor, 21)
(21.) Desmond, Risen Sons, 8.
(22.) O'Connor, Mystery and Manners, 38-39.
(23.) Ross Labrie, "The Catholic Literary Imagination," U.S. Catholic Historian 17.3 (1999): 11.
(24.) Labrie, "The Catholic Literary Imagination," 12.
(25.) Desmond, Risen Sons, 8.
(26.) O'Connor, Mystery and Manners, 72.
(27.) John Milbank, "Fictioning Things: Gift and Narrative," Religion & Literature 37.3 (2005): 2.
(28.) O'Connor, Mystery and Manners, 78.
(29.) Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories," 61.
(30.) Ibid., 60.
(31.) Ibid., 60.
(32.) Ibid., 60.
(33.) Ibid., 58.
(34.) Ibid., 55.
(35.) Ibid., 56.
(36.) Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 8.
(37.) Ibid., 19.
(38.) O'Connor, Mystery and Manners, 45.
(39.) Ibid., 34.
(40.) Ibid., 44.
(41.) Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories," 57-58.
(42.) Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories," 46-47.
(43.) George Aichele Jr., "Literary Fantasy and Postmodern Theology," Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 59. 2 (1991): 37.
(44.) Thomas W. Smith, "Tolkien's Catholic Imagination: Mediation and Tradition," Religion & Literature, 38.2 (2006): 82.
(45.) Thomas W. Smith, "Tolkien's Catholic Imagination," 82.
(46.) Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories," 57.
(47.) Ibid., 59.
(48.) Ibid., 47.
(49.) Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 18.
(50.) Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories," 59.
(51.) O'Connor, Mystery and Manners, 97.
(52.) Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories," 62.
(53.) Ibid., 63-64.
(54.) Ibid., 68.
(55.) Ibid., 69.
(56.) Ibid., 7i .
(57.) Ibid., 72.
(58.) Sandner, "Between Eucatastrophe and Grace," 185.
(59.) Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories," 69.
(60.) Ibid., 56.
(61.) O'Connor, Mystery and Manners, 33-34.
(62.) Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 62.
(63.) Ibid., 64.
(64.) Ibid., 60.
(65.) O'Connor, Mystery and Manners, 44.
(66.) Ibid., 179.
(67.) Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 64.
(68.) Christian Bieber Lake, The Incarnational Art of Flannery O'Connor, 76.
(69.) O'Connor, Habit of Being, 97.
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|Publication:||Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2014|
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