Saturday, September 23, 2017

Mystery and Manners by Flannery O'Connor

It is when the individual's faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life; and when there is a tendency to compartmentalize the spiritual and make it resident in a certain type of life only, the supernatural is apt to be lost.  Fiction, made according to its own laws, is an antidote to such a tendency, for it renews our knowledge that we live in the mystery from which we draw our abstractions.

Mystery and Manners, a carefully curated collection of Flannery O'Connor's prose, opens with a hilarious article she wrote about raising peacocks.  "Most people, I have found," she writes, "are congenitally unable to appreciate the sight of a peacock.  Once or twice I have been asked what the peacock is 'good for'--a question which gets no answer from me because it deserves none."  O'Connor's rapidly multiplying peacocks eat everything in the garden, blow dust over what they don't eat, collapse fences, and fill the air with their loud, screeching calls, but as the title says, they remain "King of the Birds."  It's the kind of affectation one might expect of a personage like O'Connor (it contains, among other interesting things, the admission that she likes to knit clothes for her chickens, including one in a "white pique coat with a lace collar" named Colonel Eggbert), but it's also possible to read it as an oblique statement on the nature of art, which is useless outside of its aesthetics and its mysterious nature.

Most of Mystery and Manners is an elaboration on that theme.  The pieces are collected from various speeches and articles O'Connor wrote on the art of writing, and they have a limited and repetitive set of points to make.  There's the degenerate relationship between the burgeoning social sciences and literature, which O'Connor claims has come to embody a kind of narrow and despiritualized realism that fails to appreciate the particularity of human life.  Literature, she says, should be about "possibilities, not probabilities."  Another is the relationship between the writer and her geographical region; O'Connor says that any writer worth her salt is steeped in the traditions of folklore of where they come from.

Much is made of the proper relationship between the Catholic and art.  (O'Connor mostly rejects the label Christian, because "the word Christian is no longer reliable.  It has come to mean anyone with a golden heart.  And a golden heart would be a positive interference in the writing of fiction.)  She pushes back at the idea that an orthodox Catholic is too limited to write fiction:

...the Christian novelist lives in a larger universe.  He believes that the natural world contains the supernatural.  And this doesn't mean that his obligation to portray the natural is less; it means it is greater.

Mystery and Manners wasn't meant to be a single piece, so when it feels repetitive, it's hard to blame O'Connor.  Every now and then pithy aphorisms appear, and it's these you're likely to hear in other locations (as I did in Bird by Bird).  When asked why she writes, O'Connor replies, "Because I'm good at it."  She strikes at the heart of teaching when she says, "Like the college student who wrote in her paper on Lincoln that he went to the movies and got shot, many students go to college unaware that the world was not made yesterday; their studies began with the present and dipped bakward occasionally when it seemed necessary or unavoidable."  Preach.

The most interesting parts perhaps are where O'Connor talks about her own work.  She talks, for example, about the wooden leg in "Good Country People," which is, yes, a symbol, but started out merely as a quirk.  (Do writers really do this stuff on purpose?, my students ask.  O'Connor shows the answer is, yeah, sort of.)  She also insists that she didn't know the Bible salesman would run off with the leg until a few lines before he did so.  Tolstoy said the same thing about his characters, that they were always surprising him.  In this case I'm not sure I believe her.  But it's interesting, and encouraging, to know that some of the greats are making it up as they go like the rest of us.

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