Only God is an Atheist, Part 2

It was not out of sheer flattery that Thomas Merton compared Flannery O’Connor to Sophocles, for the things at which she stared were the very pulp and pith of humanity. Her ability to express metaphysical profundities through her native vernacular is nearly as impressive as the profundities themselves. For it is one thing to express sadness with the objective correlative of a weeping violet; it is another to express the Noumenon by way of a folksy, backwoods serial killer.

In yesterday’s post, I commented on the young O’Connor’s journal to God, published in the September 16, 2013 edition of The New Yorker, insofar as it concerned her prayers about writing. Today, I’ll comment on some other aspects of the journal.

On Prayer:

Permeating both O’Connor’s correspondence and this journal is a candor about her spiritual limitations. Her thoughts about the four aspects of prayer reveal an undeveloped soul that she seeks to mature, but finds herself incapable of achieving:

Prayers should be composed I understand of adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication…. It is the adoration of You, dear God, that most dismays me. I cannot comprehend the exaltation that must be due You.

She worries that her assent to adore is only intellectual, a dispassionate fiat. God must even provide the grace to adore him, she acknowledges, mystified. Still, if that is the way it must be, she asks:

Give me the grace to adore You with the excitement of the old priests when they sacrificed a lamb to You. Give me the grace to adore You with the awe that fills Your priests when they sacrifice the Lamb on our altars.

However close she came to that attitude, none can doubt the transfixion of the protagonists in Parker’s Back, The Artificial Nigger, and Wise Blood, all of whom exalt their God with scorched eyes.

[Read more...]

Only God is an Atheist, Part 1

When she was twenty-one years old, far from home and as yet uncelebrated, Flannery O’Connor began keeping a journal to God. For the many who were moved by reading her correspondence with friends and admirers—a correspondence collected in The Habit of Being—the first publication of O’Connor’s journal in the September 16, 2013 edition of The New Yorker is a chance to revisit the workings of her mind.

Much will seem familiar. Always a seeker of knowledge, she nevertheless exhibits her characteristic wry wit regarding the limits of such pursuits: No one can be an atheist who does not know all things, she says. Only God is an atheist. The devil is the greatest believer & he has his reasons.

But much will also seem new. In the journal, the young writer speaks to God in direct address. And unlike the letters, which were always meant for at least some type of public audience—if only that of the addressee—the journal was likely never meant to be seen. As such, the candor found there unveils a raw, youthful side to the otherwise tough, wise-cracking, and often cocky, O’Connor—a side that to my knowledge was seldom shown in her correspondence.

In the balance of this two-part post, I will comment on some of the passages that are particularly striking, arranged by topic. Today, I will focus on her prayers about writing.

With only one story accepted at the time of her journal (1946), O’Connor displays both zeal and anxiety about her vocation:

I want very much to succeed in the world with what I want to do. I have prayed to You about this with my mind and my nerves on it and strung my nerves into a tension over it and said, “oh God, please,” and “I must,” and “please, please.” I have not asked You, I feel, in the right way. Let me henceforth ask You with resignation—that not being or meant to be a slacking up in prayer but a less frenzied kind, realizing that the frenzy is caused by an eagerness for what I want and not a spiritual trust. I do not wish to presume. I want to love.

[Read more...]

What We Learn

As he is evacuated from a battle zone, Chris Taylor—Oliver Stone’s protagonist in Platoon—marches us through What It All Means. Only minutes before, Stone the director exploded Stone the actor playing an embattled camp commander—using a suicide bomber, no less. There might be dullards in the audience, however, so Taylor explains that we are at war with ourselves. On Taylor’s head is the bandana of the movie’s Christ figure, juxtaposed with facial wounds that approximate the scars of its demonic figure. No matter, he must explain to us the duality of man.

Stone’s instinct to lecture is understandable. If readers can miss Flannery O’Connor’s symbolism, the same could be expected of anything less subtle. A woman gored by a god-like bull, Parker’s wife beating the face of Jesus on his back with a broomstick—this imagery is thick with Catholic dogmatism, but it’s lost on those ignorant of dogma and the heresies that shaped it.

Not that this bothered O’Connor so much: she believed symbols lose their richness when we undertake to explain them. Chris Taylor’s monologue at the end of Platoon, however, reveals that Stone’s mission is pedagogical, to “teach others what we know.” He’s not just making art, you see. He needs you to know what he’s learned. [Read more...]

The Unbearable Badness of Ayn Rand

My good friend Marcelo has decided to read Ayn Rand’s fiction, to “see what all the hype is about.”

He has started with Fountainhead, the story of Howard Roark, the architect who heroically refuses to sacrifice his individual principles to the collective, no matter how they treat him. Marcelo is an artist, and he likes Roark’s pluck, his faith in his own artistic vision. Plus, Rand speaks with such conviction, it’s hard to resist.

As many young people do—in my experience, mostly young men—I once went on a Rand bender: Atlas Shrugged, We the Living, The Romantic Manifesto. I devoured the book by her disciple Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.

She starts with existence exists, which is her axiomatic principle, the starting point from which she builds her belief system. From there she is quick to deny even the possibility of spiritual reality. Eventually she ends in a place where selfishness is a high virtue, altruism a despicable vice, and capitalism the only sane economic system.

Her philosophy is harshly categorical, and corresponds to the developmental stage of black/white either/or thinking of youth. No wonder the people I run across who take her philosophy seriously are always young, at least in their thinking. [Read more...]

From Sophocles to Twin Peaks: What Killed Laura Palmer?

One of the toughest and most important jobs I have as an English professor at a small, women’s liberal arts college, is teaching students to write well.

I would love to hold forth on Flannery O’Connor—my life-long literary crush—but getting students to care about writing involves helping them find something they’re interested in, not foisting my predilections upon them. My job in first semester English composition is to make sure students know how to write a thesis-driven essay that draws upon primary and secondary sources for support—something as enjoyable as hand-plowing with a team of oxen—and about as practical from a student’s perspective.

I’m keenly aware of this perception and always look for new ways of enlivening an otherwise deadly experience. This semester I decided to show the class several episodes of what is no doubt one of the kookiest, strangest, and downright scary shows ever on network television—Twin Peaks. [Read more...]


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