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Flannery O’Connor and Catholic realism

July 24, 2015
George Weigel

From this vale of tears, one can never be sure about the boundaries of acceptable behavior at the Throne of Grace. Is laughter at earthly foibles permitted? Encouraged? I like to think so. Which inclines me to believe that, this past June 3, Miss Mary Flannery O’Connor of Milledgeville, Georgia, was having herself a good cackle.

That was the day the U.S. Postal Service released a Flannery O’Connor stamp – a grand idea, unhappily executed by doing a Vogue makeover on Miss O’Connor. The iconic peacock feathers are there, but that doesn’t quite compensate for a portrait of the author that looks less like her than what someone fancied she ought to look like. And that, of course, would be another reason for Flannery O’Connor to laugh at her stamp. For if any modern American writer was better attuned to the foolishness of the modern cult of synthetic beauty, I don’t know who he or she might be.

In her fiction, Flannery O’Connor was one of the supreme contemporary exponents of Catholic realism. Like the less-remembered Paul Horgan, she believed that storytelling ought to help modern men and women see “things as they are,” cutting through the fog of a culture that tells us that everything can be just the way we’d like it to be. And here Miss O’Connor’s fiction was deeply influenced by her profound Catholic faith: She knew that an ice-you-own-cupcake world was a world that had forgotten its need for redemption, and an ice-your-own-cupcake religion was incapable of calling that kind of world to recognize the reality of sin and the need for conversion.

Flannery O’Connor’s novels and short stories are not everyone’s literary cup of tea; I once received an impassioned email from a Polish priest who had read “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” – and had found the story appalling. How could I promote such things? I tried to explain that Flannery O’Connor was very hard to translate. But the real problem, I suspect, was that my correspondent couldn’t quite grasp how Miss O’Connor’s genius lay in describing the work of grace (and the wickedness that grace seeks to repair) through what seems, at first blush, repellant, even horrifying.

Asked why there were so many grotesques in her fiction, Flannery O’Connor, who could be tart, responded that, in the South, “we like to think we can still recognize them.” Thus the southern sensibility she shared with writers like Walker Percy and Shelby Foote worked in tandem with her sacramentally-based Catholic realism: the South, the part of America that knew defeat and had in a certain cultural sense been formed by defeat, was instinctively realistic rather than pie-in-the-sky romantic. Mix the Catholic part of Flannery O’Connor with her Georgia roots and life, and the result was a high octane literary cocktail – too bracingly realistic for some tastes, but widely recognized by serious readers and critics as something unique and brilliant in American literature.

It’s not the Postal Service’s job to honor great Catholic apologists, but that, too, was part of the Flannery O’Connor package. Her apologetics, best displayed in her letters (gathered in “The Habit of Being”) are of more value now than ever, given the unrealities of 21st-century Western culture. For the roots of those myriad unrealities can be found in what the late Father Ernest Fortin called “debonair nihilism:” a blithe disregard for the givenness of things, an insouciance that leads people to live solely by the pleasure principle.

Flannery O’Connor saw this coming in the mid-1950s, writing to a friend, “If you live today, you breathe in nihilism...it’s the gas you breathe.” The way to push back, she understood, was through the Catholic Church. Why? Because the church teaches us that everything is of consequence, for the Son of God became incarnate, suffered, and died to redeem everything.

Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington, D.C.

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