Friday, December 28, 2012

Grace and purification in Flannery O'Connor's "Revelation"

A recent comment on an old post about Flannery O'Connor raises some questions that I thought I would respond to in a separate post, rather than depositing them in the obscurity of the comm box. Janet Baker left a long comment (you can read it in its entirety there), which says in part:
I'm currently working on the short story Revelation, looking at the text for what it says about Flannery's Catholicism, rather than listening to her pronouncements in non-fiction, like her letters. If you read the story, you will note that it is Mrs. Turpin's virtues that must be burned away before she enters heaven, and that people enter heaven in groups, racial and social. Perhaps you don't read either St. Thomas Aquinas, or Teilhard de Chardin, nor have I extensively, but if you begin to read about it, you'll see that St. Thomas promotes the virtues of which Mrs. Turpin is guilty--generous almsgiving, supporting the Church, helping others regardless of their worthines [sic] of help. It was Teilhard, whom Flannery really loved and read even when it wasn't time for bed, as she did Thomas. Teilhard, on the other hand, supports the idea that we enter heaven in groups and all enter, all, after their individual identities had been burned away. That's why he was a heretic and rejected by the Church, along with all his bogus evolutionary crap, although he influenced the Church deeply, and perhaps mortally.
Janet, thanks for your comments. I’m glad you like the blog; stop by any time! As a longtime student and teacher of literature (the field in which I hold a doctorate, from a Catholic university), and as sincere Catholic well-educated in the Faith, I can tell you that I see no sign in “Revelation” that O’Connor was espousing the kind of universalism that you impute to Teilhard de Chardin, nor do I believe that the burning away of the “virtues” mentioned in the story (which are actually faults) should be equated with the obliteration of individual identity.

Let’s look at the passage to which you refer. (I’ll assume the reader is familiar with the story in its entirety, and the context of this passage within the story.) This is the final scene, in which Mrs. Turpin has challenged God to explain why He allowed someone to call a respectable woman like herself “a warthog from Hell.” As she gazes toward the sunset awaiting God’s reply,
A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak [of purple sunset] as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in all their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. ... In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.
I think, Janet, you misunderstand what O’Connor is implying when she says that “even their virtues were being burned away.” This refers to the people at the end of the procession, those with whom Mrs. Turpin identifies (“people whom she recognized as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right”.) Statements by the omniscient narrator are filtered through Mrs. Turpin’s consciousness, including the approving description of those at the end of the procession; thus, what gets burned away in her vision are their self-imputed “virtues” which she shares, i.e., her sense of self approval, her self-righteousness, her mania for judging herself, along with everyone and everything else, according to a scale of middle-class respectability, which judges appearances rather than the heart. The purifying fire of God’s love burns away the dross of these “virtues,” leaving only real goodness, so that these souls may enter into His presence rejoicing. What we have here is something like what Dante depicted in the Purgatory section of his Divine Comedy – souls in the process of being purified, who rejoice even though the process is painful and difficult.

O’Connor liked to use the symbols of water and fire to indicate purification. In a letter to Dr. T. R. Spivey on 9 April 1960, she said:
Water is a symbol of purification and fire is another. Water, it seems to me, is a symbol of the kind of purification that God gives irrespective of our efforts or worthiness, and fire is the kind of purification that we bring on ourselves – as in Purgatory. It is our evil which is naturally burnt away when it comes anywhere near God.
In Mrs. Turpin’s vision, the freaks and lunatics are at the head of the line and the respectable middle-class people are at the end because “the first shall be last, and the last shall become first,” as our Lord promised. (Those whom comfortable, complacent people like Mrs. Turpin have despised in this life will enter the Kingdom of Heaven before those who despised them.) An allusion to this is made in the passage immediately preceding Mrs. Turpin’s vision, when she angrily yells to Heaven, “Go on, call me a hog! Call me a hog again. From hell. Call me a wart hog from hell. Put that bottom rail on top. There’ll still be a top and a bottom!” Clearly, Mrs. Turpin’s amour propre has been wounded and she blames, not the unpleasant girl who actually called her a wart hog, but God Himself. She goes on, almost apoplectic with rage, to shout at God: “Who do you think you are?” God’s reply is the vision of the procession in the sky.

Mrs. Turpin is not a bad woman, and she is, in her own benighted way, trying to be a good woman, but she doesn’t really know how to go about it. She is blinded to her own faults. That’s why she is so nonplussed when the ill-tempered college girl, Mary Grace, attacks her (she is both literally and figuratively “struck by Grace”); that’s why she is so horrified and humiliated to be called a “wart hog from hell.” I think Mrs. Turpin has something in common with the rich young man, who observed all the Jewish law quite willingly, to whom Our Lord said, “One thing only is lacking. Go sell all you have and give to the poor and follow me.” The difference is that the rich young man just didn’t get it and “went away sad.” Mrs. Turpin is more fortunate – God grants her a great grace, a vision of her true state, and, although she does not understand it, she is changed (converted) by it. In the end, she is humbled, not merely humiliated, and humility is the beginning of true virtue.

Flannery O'Connor's passive diminishment
didn't stop her from being a brilliant writer.
Every single one of Flannery O’Connor’s stories is about the transformative action of Grace in the soul – usually a stubborn, recalcitrant soul, the soul of the last person you’d expect to be transformed by Grace, the soul of someone like Mrs. Turpin, or the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” who doesn’t believe he or she is in need of transformation or salvation. The soul of a Pharisee who is given the grace to see that he/she and the Samaritan, the publican, the harlot, (as well as the “freaks,” the “lunatics,” the “white trash” and “niggers”) have a lot in common in the sight of God. God loves them all, despite their deficiencies, and it is clear that O’Connor loves them, too, and wants her readers to love them, not because of but despite their faults.

That’s pretty much the way I feel about my friend, Flannery, a woman who doubtless had her limitations but who was constantly striving to transcend them, by the grace of God, right up until the day she died. I see no evidence in this story that Flannery O’ Connor was influenced by Teilhard de Chardin and “all his bogus evolutionary crap”; rather, I see a perfectly orthodox theology of Grace, undoubtedly shaped by the writings of the Angelic Doctor, whose work she devotedly read every night before bed. With respect to her interest in Teihard de Chardin, she admitted that, being neither a theologian nor a scientist, she didn’t understand a lot of what he wrote; her admiration for him seems to spring more from the way he inspired her imagination, as well as his idea about “passive diminishment,” a concept which spoke to her own condition as one who suffered from an incurable, debilitating illness. Certainly, I see no taint of Teilhard’s unorthodox views on Original Sin or cosmic evolution in “Revelation” or any of O’Connor’s other short stories.

Was Flannery O’Connor a saint? I don’t know and don’t particularly care. She was a sincere and devout Catholic, although not a narrow one. She devoted her life to putting her one indisputable talent in the service of God, trying to awaken a culture that was busy abandoning Him, to the hope of repentance and spiritual regeneration. Perhaps she was too much impressed by some of the theological fads of her day, but I think it would be off the mark to brand her a “modernist.” I dislike the practice of applying shibboleths that divide Catholics (or other Christians) into tendentious dichotomies: “modernists” and “traditionalists,” “heretics” and “true believers,” “us” and “them.” To do so presents a temptation to sin against Charity, and puts us in the camp of the unregenerate Mrs. Turpin and other self-satisfied pharisees. More important is to distinguish between Truth and error (love the sinner, hate the sin), and I find plenty of truth, and Charity, in Flannery O’Connor’s stories.

7 comments:

  1. This is really an excellent meditation on that story. I'm always struck by Mrs. Turpin as Pharisee, as in the one who stood thanking God that he was not as that tax collector -- she's the Pharisee in a waiting room full of tax collectors (with, apparently, soul-revealing shoes, a detail of her character which I always find delicious and utterly true). And God is gracious to her as we don't see Him being to that biblical Pharisee . . . it's just that grace is far more violent than we envision, far more an unmaking (as in Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus), which observation on O'Connor's part I again think always rings true.

    Anyway, I've always read that final vision in exactly the same way -- as a vision of souls passing through Purgatory (though when I first read the story I wasn't Catholic, and Purgatory wasn't remotely on my radar) on their way to God, leaving -- as you say -- all their superficial temporal "goodnesses" behind in the ashes.

    PS: I'm really enjoying this blog, too. I never finished my higher degree, and it's been a long time since I taught literature to anyone but my own children (at whom I tend just to throw stuff and let them sort it out), but I write a good bit about poetry and fiction on my own blog, and you're making me want to do more of it!

    And I have a daughter who's currently an undergraduate English major at your alma mater. I guess I must have done something right in her education, because she thinks she's in some very hardworking version of heaven already. And I'm jealous, a little . . .

    Anyway, thanks for the good book conversation!

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Sally. I agree with you that the detail about Mrs. Turpin's interest in shoes as a way of classifying someone is a telling one. (I remember, as a student in Spain, how people on buses and trains would size me up by looking at my American shoes. I finally bought some Spanish shoes and found it easier to blend in.)

      BTW, if your daughter is an English major at the University of Dallas, she really is in a "very hardworking version of heaven." I'm a little jealous of her, too, as I didn't get to UD until much later in life -- but better late than never!

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  2. I also think I read the classing of the heaven-bound in racial and social groups is more a function of Mrs. Turpin's as-yet unpurged vision than of O'Connor's own vision. Mrs. Turpin is granted a vision as, perhaps, a catalyst towards her own salvation, but even in her vision she's still not able to see clearly enough to override her own entrenched tendency to sort and define people by caste (and shoes). This too seems to me like a particularly honest psychological/spiritual realism, and a particularly Catholic one: not being saved in one fell, emotional swoop, as in the tent revival altar call, but beginning a long and difficult process by realizing that goodness, even, is not what she has thought it was.

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    1. You make a good point -- Mrs. Turpin likes to pigeonhole people, and see them as members of classes, rather than as individuals. This is true even of the way she sees herself, which is why she is so outraged to be called a hog (unsuitable to the dignity of her class).

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  3. Bleah, let's see how many times a person can use the word "vision" in one short paragraph . . . mixing up the meanings (vision=sight/vision=glimpse of the divine).

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  4. For what it's worth, I'd take the "grouping" as biblical, from Apocalypse 7, rather than Teilhardian: "a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues".

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    1. You're right, of course. The story's title is a double entendre, as is Mrs. Turpin's vision.

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