If the writer must be open to the manifestation of God in “what-is,” she must begin with the senses. Following Aquinas, Flannery O’Connor writes, “The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions.” Yet, “Most people who think they want to write stories are not willing to start there. They want to write about problems, not people; or about abstract issues, not concrete situations.”
O’Connor particularly emphasized that the writer must learn to see the world rightly. She insists that the writer must learn to “stare” at reality, and even to stare “stupidly.” Right-seeing is difficult; sight is a moral sense. As fallen human beings, we are apt to see only what we want to see, so we must have our eyes open if we are going to see “what-is” for what it is. Far from making fiction impossible, O’Connor believed, Christian faith enabled the writer to see reality in ways that the unbeliever cannot. Christian writers can see the twisted world as twisted. In an address on “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” she wrote:
“My own feeling is that writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eyes for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable. In some cases, these writers may be unconsciously infected with the Manichaean spirit of the times and suffer the much discussed disjunction between sensibility and belief, but I think that more often the reason for this attention to the perverse is the difference between their beliefs and the beliefs of their audience. Redemption is meaningless unless there is case for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause.”
In another address, “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” she emphasizes the necessity of clear-sightedness: “For the writer of fiction everything has its testing point in the eye, an organ which eventually involves the whole personality and as much of the world as can be got into it. Msgr. [Romano] Guardini has written that the roots of the eye are in the heart.”
Because of her emphasis on the visual, she was critical of the widespread opinion that Catholic writers should be edifying, insisting that the vocation of a writer is to see what-is, not to conform what-is to what-should-be: “What Mr. Wylie [a critic of Catholic writers] contends is that the Catholic writer, because he believes in certain defined mysteries, cannot, by the nature of things, see straight; and this connection, in effect, is not very different from that made by Catholics who declare that whatever the Catholic writer can see, there are certain things that he should not see straight or otherwise.” Catholic readers who want their writers to preach do not recognize the legitimacy of the writer’s calling.
A Catholic writer who wants to get to mystery cannot bypass the evil and pain and suffering of the world, because that is to bypass the cross. Rather, “If the Catholic writer hopes to reveal mysteries, he will have to do it by describing truthfully what he sees from where he is.” Exploring the “Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” she speaks of the prophetic vision of the novelist, which is a matter of “seeing near things with their extensions of meaning and thus of seeing far things close up.”
O’Connor’s realism is essential to understanding how she uses symbols. Her stories are strewn with symbols, but she knows that the symbol is pointless if it is not first itself, if we don’t first recognize the sign’s hard contours and edges. Commenting on one of her own stories, she wrote, “If you want to say that the wooden leg is a symbol, you can say that. But it is a wooden leg first, and as a wooden leg it is absolutely necessary to the story. It has its place in the literal level of the story, but it operates in depth as well as on the surface. It increases in every direction, and this is essentially the way a story escapes being short.” Elsewhere, she responded to critics who read symbolic meaning into the black hat worn by the Misfit in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by saying that countrymen in Georgia often wore black hats.
For O’Connor, even when symbols occur, they don’t do what Protestants expect symbols to do. They don’t signify. They act. In one of her letters, she describes a conversation on the Eucharist in which Mary McCarthy “said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the `most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, `Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’” Symbols in her fictional world have all the punch of a Catholic sacrament—not merely a sign of an absent something, but an action of God, an action of grace. In the same letter, she wrote “I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about [the Eucharist], outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”
Symbols separated from reality and reduced, as they are in much Protestant theology, to “mere signs,” cannot do anything, whether in reality or in fiction. They exist as sheer ornament, or, at best, as pointers to some something in some real realm of reality that can do something. But if this is so, then the moment of grace, whether in fiction or reality, never enters this world, into the realm of what-is. Without a sacramental theology, and specifically a theology of sacramental action, Protestant writers cannot do justice to this world or show that this world is the theater of God’s redeeming action.
Hence: Protestants can’t write. Blame it on Marburg.
It is already clear that O’Connor’s sacramental sensibilities are close to the heart of her calling as a writer of fiction. In this, she was deeply influenced by the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. O’Connor said that she “cut my aesthetic teeth” on Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism, and her emphasis on the artistic demand to see is a theme of Maritain’s work.
“This brilliance of the form, no matter how purely intelligible it may be in itself, is seized in the sensible and through the sensible, and not separately from it. The intuition of artistic beauty thus stands at the opposite extreme from the abstraction of scientific truth. For with the former it is through the very apprehension of the sense that the light of being penetrates the intelligence.”
O’Connor’s debt to Maritain is especially evident in her conception of an artist’s obligation to his art. Maritain recognized the truth in Oscar Wilde’s quip that “The fact of a man being a poisoner is nothing against his prose.” For Maritain, the purpose of art is not found in any good effect it might have on the viewer or reader, nor even in the conscious and overt pursuit of beauty. Invoking the Aristotelian distinction of “doing” (praxis) and “making” (poiesis), he argues that artistic production belongs in the latter category, and is concerned with, in Rowan Williams’s summary, “the production of some specific, determinate outcome, some product, in the material world.” Art is making, not fundamentally copying or self-expression, and, given this, “virtuous making aims not at the good of humanity but at the good of what is made.”
As an act of intellect rather than will, art is not a romantic overflow of deep feeling, nor does it aim at edification, a perversion of art that was one of Maritain’s regular whipping boys. Art is beautiful when it “engages the will by its own integrity and inner coherence,” but even beauty cannot be the aim of the artist if it is “sought as something in itself, independent of what this work demands.” The good of art does not lie in the object’s conformity to some pre-existing idea or standard, but to the “idea” that emerges, always already incarnate, within the very process of making. Art’s good is internal to artistic creation. If the artist aims to evoke delight, it must be a delight evoked by the character of the product. Art produces objects, things, and there is deep wisdom in Robert Farrar Capon’s comment that it is good and wholesome to delight in things because God delights in things—otherwise, He wouldn’t have made so many of them.
Like Maritain, O’Connor was hostile to “edifying” fiction and art, which she treated with even more scorn than she did obscene art and fiction. Again, this is rooted in her essentially sacramental aesthetics. If fiction aims to edify, Aesop’s parables will do. There is no need for character, or for the difficult discipline of staring stupidly at the world until it yields its secret depths. Choose a grasshopper to represent frivolity, an ant to stand for industry, and the story writes itself.
For O’Connor, a writer is first of all responsible to produce a written work that has integrity and a form of its own, whatever effect it might have on the reader. She recognized that the church was not in the same business as the writer, and might have to warn her members away from certain works. But that was the church’s business, and the Catholic writer is grateful, because this frees the writer to “limit himself to the demands of art.”
Yet, when Wilde has been given his due, there is more to say. After all, the most complete artistic delight, the beauty that most deeply arrests, is a response of the whole person, and persons are, among other things, moral beings. Precisely because art is an activity of intelligence rather than will, Maritain argues, it responds to what is real, it is ordered to being, and it makes claims about reality. He does not mean to endorse realism, another of his whipping boys. Rather, the artist attempts to discern and render overlooked patterns and connections within the world of experience, and thus, Williams explains, art “in one sense `dispossesses’ us of our habitual perception and restores to reality a dimension that necessarily escapes our conceptuality and our control. It makes the world strange.” Since the world is strange, the artist who estranges it for us is conforming to “what-is.”
The artist’s insight into the hidden coherence of things is not merely “perceptual,” but has moral and metaphysical dimensions. For Maritain, this means discernment and rendering of transcendence, a sensitivity to those places where the finite is “wounded” by the sharp intrusions of the infinite (it’s no accident that Williams spends a chapter of his book on O’Connor).
The poisoner or the pederast may write like an angel, but his metaphysical and moral “ineptitude . . . can easily spill over into other ineptitudes.” Tone deaf to transcendence, he may finally be deaf to the music that guides the creative process. Williams gives the example of a self-centered artist whose exploitative character leads him to misshape his materials for the sake of self-expression: On Maritain’s terms, that moral flaw quite directly produces bad art, art that is not aimed at the good of the artistic product. It is a flaw common among earnest Christian artists, intent on using art for evangelism. In any case, one cannot escape making the moral judgment of “whether a world laid before us by an artist is desirable for the kind of creatures we know ourselves to be.” Evaluation of art cannot dispense with the question “Is this piece of work congruent with what we know human beings are?”
O’Connor agreed. Fiction does not aim at edification. It aims to produce a work that obeys the demands imposed by the work, by the medium of the art itself. Yet, it does aim at truth, at a fictional representation of what-is. For a Catholic writer like O’Connor, what-is has to do with the incarnation and the redemption of the world through Jesus, and the fiction writer stares stupidly at the world that Jesus entered and redeemed until the world, without ceasing for a moment to be the world, opens transcendent horizons.
Blame it on Marburg. More precisely: Blame it on Zwingli. A Zwinglian poetics leaves us with three choices: Either a flat mimetic realism that gives literary expression to “the real” without attempting to penetrate beyond the surface; or a flat didacticism that ignores the real in its haste to get to the point; or an allegorism that forges arbitrary links between the real and the symbolic, and in the end swallows up the real in its meaning. (Mr. By-Ends, Mr. Worldly-Wiseman, Faithful, and Hopeful are silhouettes of characters rather than characters.) Although, to give Bunyan his due, he was here following a typical (and very Catholic) medieval pattern in literature, while adding the astounding innovation of homely and realistic dialog. Nevertheless, the cardboard charactizations strike us the way they do for a reason.
In a Zwinglian poetics, things cannot be both themselves and also—simultaneously, without ceasing to be what they are, for the very reason they are what they are—something else. Zwinglian will not permit something to be both real and symbolic, to be both wholly itself and yet, because of what it is, to disclose something more than itself. Zwinglian poetics does not permit Southern customs to be Southern customs and yet, precisely because they are Southern customs, to be haunted by Christ.
The renewal of literature, like the renewal of the world, begins in worship. The renewal of literature, like the renewal of the world, begins from the pulpit, to be sure. But the pulpit will renew literature only when it is nestled where it should be nestled, between the font and the table.
This is the second part of an essay originally published in Credenda/Agenda.