“I use the grotesque the way I do because people are deaf and dumb and need help to see and hear.”
– Flannery O’Connor
A year ago I read the first book in British novelist Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honor trilogy, Men At Arms. It was a fine read with good humor, poignant moments, and some buried truths. I considered myself enlightened for having reached back to a British Catholic’s work from the previous century, and once done brushed my hands to prepare for my next literary adventure. But it wasn’t until recently while enjoying a pint with friends at a local establishment that I realized how many deeper truths I had missed in Waugh’s novel.
The works of Evelyn Waugh were introduced to by a close friend who has been a guide and mentor in my Catholic faith. Waugh, he would freely admit, was an unparalleled genius. He was a Brit with aristocratic sympathies, a biting wit, and a rich Catholic faith brought the world such masterpieces as Brideshead Revisited, the Sword of Honor trilogy, and Decline and Fall. However, when you are imbibing the work of a genius, you truly will not fully appreciate or understand it on your first pass. So my friend would tread and retread the grounds of Waugh’s novels finding each experience awash with new insights and deeper truths. It was the character, Mr. Crouchback (the father of Waugh’s Men At Arms main character Guy Crouchback),who was reintroduced to me with a beauty and clarity that I am ashamed to have missed when I read the book.
Mr. Crouchback plays the part of a minor, eccentric character in Men At Arms. At times, he would be superficially entering and exiting scenes while weightier issues are being wrestled with by Guy and other characters. At other times, he could be childishly lighthearted and awkward, he is simultaneously endearing and heartbreaking. Even further, he seems to be quaint and dated, late to the game and in need of correction by the more modern, sophisticated son. But in truth, he was the wise one – the one who kept the truths, knew the costs, and bore hidden pains with grace. My friend reminded me of this exchange:
Mr. Crouchback: “I should have liked to say goodbye to Tony (his grandson off to WWII). I didn’t know he was off so soon. There’s something I looked out for him the other day and wanted to give him. I know he’d have liked it – Gervase’s (his war-deceased son) medal of Our Lady of Lourdes. He bought it in France on a holiday the year the war (WWI) broke out and he always wore it. They sent it back after he was killed with his watch and things. Tony ought to have it.”
Guy Crouchback: “I don’t think there’d be time to get it to him now.”
Mr. Crouchback: “I’d like to have given it to him myself. It’s not the same thing sending it in a letter. Harder to explain.”
Guy Crouchback: “It didn’t protect Gervase much, did it?”
Mr. Crouchback: “Oh yes, much more than you might think. He told me when he came to say goodbye before going out. The army is full of temptations for a boy. Once in London, when he was in training, he got rather drunk with some of his regiment and in the end he found himself left alone with a girl they’d picked up somewhere. She began to fool about and pulled of his tie and then she found the medal and all of a sudden they both sobered down and she began talking about the convent where she’d been at school and so they parted friends and no harm done. I call that being protected. I’ve worn a medal all my life. Do you?”
Flannery O’Connor was a southern Catholic author blessed and afflicted with keen insights, powerful imagination, and debilitating lupus. Her letters were thoughtful, frank, and refreshing. Her novels are filled with figures that unsettle and jar. One walks away from her fiction grappling with the violence just witnessed, and simultaneously experiencing the grace that mysteriously and brilliantly emanates from it. In “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, a traveling family with a superficially religious grandmother unfortunately encounters a murderous fugitive, “The Misfit”, and his accomplices. In a moment of poignancy and violence, O’Connor portrays The Misfit brandishing a pistol confronts the Grandmother:
Grandmother: “Jesus!…You’ve got good blood! I know you wouldn’t shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people! Pray! Jesus you ought not shoot a lady. I’ll give you all the money I got!”…
Misfit: “Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead, and he shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off-balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do, but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can – by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.”
Grandmother: “Maybe He didn’t raise the dead.”
Misfit: “I wasn’t there so I can’t say He didn’t. I wisht I had of been there. It ain’t right I wasn’t there because If I had of ben there I would of known. Listen lady, if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.”
His voice seemed about to crack and th grandmother’s head cleared for an instant. She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest…
Misfit: “She would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life…It’s no real pleasure in life.”
Georges Bernanos was a French Catholic novelist and polemicist, disaffected by a country and culture which betrayed all he held dear in the agreement struck with Adolf Hitler in World War II to form a rump puppet state of Vichy France. His work on The Diary of a Country Priest portrays a poor, self-doubting yet God-affirming French priest (of Ambricourt) dying alone while recording in his diary:
“It has just occurred to me how my agony was that of a cruel sudden disappointment. What I had believed was so far away, beyond imaginary seas, stood out before me. My death is here. A death like any other, and I shall enter into it with the feelings of a very commonplace, very ordinary man. It is even certain that I shall be no better at dying than I am at controlling my life. I shall be just as clumsy, and awkward…My courage shall be to know that I have none, and as I am lacking in strength, I would now wish for my death to be a small one, as small as possible, no different from the other events of my life.”
Grotesque, as an adjective, refers to the state of being ugly, bizarre, unpleasant, and incongruous. A grotesque as a noun, according to one source, “refers to something that simultaneously invokes in an audience a feeling of uncomfortable bizarreness as well as empathic pity.” Just as Catholic cathedrals are adorned with the grotesques of gargoyles, so too Catholic literature is rich with the grotesques of characters – characters like Mr. Crouchback, the Misfit, the priest of Ambricourt. These figures seem far from the heroic protagonist with admirable traits and laudable deeds. Paradoxically, they can be curious, unsettling, repellent, confounding, and to the casual eye – like mine while reading Waugh’s Men At Arms – will remain that way unless we recognize them for who the authors intended them to be. Agents of Grace. Mr. Crouchback reinforces (as my friend educated me) that it is not the length of life that matters, but in fact the morally purposeful nature of life instead. The Misfit demonstrates a humanity that bestows grace upon the grandmother which allows her to think beyond herself for once, and sympathize with a fellow child of God, only to be brutally murdered. Likewise, the grandmother was a grotesque in her own way – shallow, petulant, hypocritical – who acted as an agent of grace for the Misfit demonstrating a moment of sympathy which, even after he commits vicious murder, he recognizes there is such a thing as goodness, and that it is derived from something other than the euphoria of violence. Finally, the priest of Ambricourt is dirty, dying, and alone, and yet in his self-abnegation he serves others around him – bestowing God’s grace in ways mysterious and unknown to him, yet life-transforming to others.
These grotesques serve their purpose not to trick or confound, but to awaken. As we squint and turn from the light upon emerging from darkness, so too do we wince at the grotesques. Grace and its agents are beautiful, but can burn. As George Bernanos’ priest of Ambricourt records, “Truth is meant to save you first, and the comfort comes afterwards.” And as Flannery O’Connor explained,
“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 you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways 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.”
God’s grace from the beginning of time has run wild in the world, only we have failed to recognize it. If we are to receive it, we need to see it and believe it in all of its forms. Glorious and Grotesque.