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.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Kindle Freebie, from me to you

Kindle freebie Christmas present
As my Christmas present to all Kindle owners, especially those who just got a new Kindle for Christmas, I'm running a freebie promotion on my little book on all the helpful uses of diatomaceous earth around the home . From Wednesday, 26 December, through Friday, 28 December, you can download the book for free!

Those who don't have a Kindle can purchase the paperback version, which is currently eligible for Amazon's 4 for 3 promotion (buy four books and get the lowest priced one free).

Anyone interested in having a "greener" home, using healthier products to get rid of bugs such as fleas, ants, even bedbugs, or just "getting back to nature" will enjoy this book. Think of it as my little gift to you. If you like your gift, please post an Amazon review saying what you like.

Merry Christmas! Happy reading!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Fellowship of the Book: T. M. Doran's Toward the Gleam (Review)

Christmas is upon us, and Peter Jackson's new Hobbit movie has recently premiered, which reminds me of a great book I've been meaning to recommend. Anyone looking for a Christmas gift for fans of Tolkien's tales of Middle Earth should take a look at T. M. Doran's novel, Toward the Gleam (from Ignatius Press, available in hardback, ereader, and audio editions; get the Kindle version from Amazon .) It is both an homage to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and a gripping tale in its own right. The makers of the book's trailer definitely wanted to draw attention to the connection between Doran's novel and Tolkien's.

Toward the Gleam cover art, John Herried, Daniel Mitsui, T. M. DoranThe cover art design for the book should also remind readers of LOTR. Here's Toward the Gleam, cover designed by John Herreid and executed by a wonderful Catholic artist, Daniel Mitsui. You can see that it incorporates some of the design elements from the well-known covers of the 1986 Houghton Mifflin edition (below), such as the runic message around the edge, and iconic scenes from the story. Herreid's design actually incorporates lots of little visual clues to important elements of Doran's story, which takes place not in Middle Earth but in Britain and Europe during Tolkien's lifetime.

Lord of the Rings covers, 1986 Houghton-Mifflin edition
Without providing spoilers, I'll just say that Toward the Gleam is chockablock with thinly disguised fictional versions of real life figures from Tolkien's life and times, which readers will have fun recognizing. More importantly, however, is the way this real-world (but entirely fictional) tale parallels that of Tolkien's famous romance, Lord of the Rings. (To say more about that would spoil the fun.)  Additionally, imbedded in the plot is an exploration of the various modern philosophies that gave rise to the two great wars that plagued Europe in the first half of the twentieth century and which continue to cause grave problems in our own day. Besides all this, it is a suspenseful tale with a love story embedded in it. There's something for everyone!

No Tolkien or Inklings fan should fail to read this book. Even those who have not read Lord of the Rings or who know little about Tolkien can enjoy this novel, but I suspect they will be intrigued enough to want to read Tolkien after they have finished Toward the Gleam.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Dear Self-Published Novelists: Please tell the whole story

Barbara Nicolosi, founder of Act One, a Christian screenwriting school, often complains that her students just don't seem to understand what makes a story. My adventures in reading self-published novels on Kindle has shown me that even writers of novels seem to have trouble grasping this concept. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that many self-published novelists seem to think they can get by without editors, who would be able to point out when a story is not really a story. I used to laugh at the fact that Aristotle, supposedly so wise, said something as obvious as “Every good story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.” Now I see that this is apparently not obvious to everyone.

Last week I had one of those head colds that knock me out for about three days. My oxygen-starved brain was having trouble just trying to remain conscious, so writing anything was definitely out. So I turned to a freebie Kindle book I had downloaded recently, for something fairly mindless to read in my few, brief moments of wakefulness. I was quite enjoying it -- interesting premise (some sort of alternate or prehistory history earth?), promising characters, a developing mystery, an ancient monotheistic religion about to make a comeback.

Snoopy typing Not the endBy the time I reached midway point of this book, my breathing was starting to improve and my minds was regaining acuity, so I began to notice that, with only a hundred pages or so until the end, there were at least four different character plot lines wandering off in different directions, like a braided cord unraveling. I also noticed that the young boy being trained to become a secret warrior-priest of the mysterious religion about to make a comeback was being taught plenty about being a warrior and nothing about being a priest (he wasn’t even being taught the religion). And then I got to the end of the book, which was – I’m not making this up! – literally a cliffhanger. The last scene has the young warrior-priest jumping off a high cliff to escape the man pursuing him (his mentor, who has become somehow also his would-be assassin). The End. Not.

Turn the page and there is a notice that Book Two of this series can be purchased from Amazon. Perhaps you heard my response to that, dear reader, from whatever far-flung corner of the globe you inhabit – did you hear a distant roar of outrage and disgust coming from the direction of Texas? If I’d been reading a physical book, rather than my Kindle, you would also have heard a thump as the book hit the wall, followed by more thumps and growls as I jumped up and down on it. I had, once again, been duped into thinking that my freebie “book” was actually a novel, a story with a beginning, middle, and end, when it was actually just a fragment.
It's a good thing I don't practice voodoo,
or this might be the fate of a certain writer!
This writer (whom I will leave in anonymity; die in darkness, you dog!) evidently thinks that novels of a certain kind should be written – and sold – in three volumes. He might say, “Hey, it’s just the first volume of my trilogy!” However, the world “trilogy” means “three stories” that are intimately connected, not “one story in three parts.” The writer, undaunted by the actual meaning of words, might further defend himself by saying, “But it’s my homage to J.R.R. Tolkien. He did the same thing! He created a group of characters, then sent them off in different directions, and he published his Ring trilogy as three separate volumes! He set the precedent, and it turned out to be one of the best-selling stories of all time, so don’t blame me for following his example!” To which I reply, “(GRRRR) Listen, twit, learn history before you mine it for precedents.”

The fact is, sixty years ago, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien completed an enormously long romance he entitled The Lord of the Rings. His publisher insisted that such a lengthy tome could not be contained in a single volume; with the scarcity of paper in post-war Britain, a single huge volume would have been prohibitively expensive. (No doubt the publisher was also dubious that many people would want to read such a long story and didn’t want to invest too heavily in something that might not pan out.) At any rate, the publisher agreed to publish the story only if it were broken into three volumes – not an unprecedented practice, as many early novels were published in two or three volumes, for similar practical reasons. Tolkien was not happy with this arrangement, but he went along with the publisher's requirements. If you read Lord of the Rings, you can see that none of the volumes even tries to be more or less complete in itself; the first two volumes just sort of break off, but that’s okay because the reader knows that the physical end is arbitrary and the story itself goes on until Sam Gamgee returns to his home in Bywater after waving Frodo off on his voyage into the West, sits down by the family hearth, plops his infant on his knee, and says “Well, I’m back.”

Tolkien’s publisher wound up publishing all three volumes because that was the whole story, as the author had intended it, and because the readers wanted the whole story, not just part of it. There may be readers who have quit reading after the first volume because they just did not care what happened next, but there certainly have been no readers who quit reading after the first volume because they thought that was the whole story.

The practical considerations that, in the past, led publishers to bring out lengthy novels in multi-volume editions simply do not apply to novels written today. There are plenty of monster tomes, such as the lengthy novels of Edward Rutherford, that attest to the fact that modern printing technology can easily produce very long books in single volumes, even in economical paperback formats. With digital books, there really is no limit to the length of a single e-book file.

Now, I understand that there is some market pressure for writers who wish to attract readers to produce novel series (new novelists are often advised not to publish a novel until they have already written its sequel), but there is a big difference between writing a series of stories (with overlapping casts of characters, settings, and even plots) and writing a single story stretched out over the length of several titles. The former practice is acceptable, even venerable, but the latter is deceptive and crass, and no self-respecting novelist should engage in such trickery. At the very least, writers who do so should warn the prospective reader that a given volume contains only a fraction of the story, and that the reader will have to purchase several titles in order to get the whole story. Failure to do so is a dirty trick.

What this writer (I can’t call him a novelist) may not realize is that he has lost one reader forever, because he evidently doesn’t know what a story is. Too bad. He had some good fragments. If only he'd had a good editor, too.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Win a Kindle Fire!

Kindle Fire
I just entered a raffle to win a Kindle Fire, and so can you! Just head over to the blog of writer Diane Capri and enter like I did. You can also take part in the Holiday Blog Hop to the blogs of some 60 different writers and get a chance to win lots of other goodies, including Amazon gift cards. What are you waiting for? Get hopping!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

New Literary Journal: The Lost Country

The Lost Country, cover, volume 1 number 1
This week, phone and internet outages combined with a raging head-cold  to keep me from getting much writing done (although I've got plenty of things on the hob!). Let me suggest, then, that you take a look at the online edition of a new literary journal, The Lost Country, produced by some young scholar/writers of my acquaintance, who call themselves The Exiles. You can read it online or download a PDF, but if you like what you see, you should really consider subscribing to the print edition, which is very handsomely produced. You can also learn more about The Exiles, who describe themselves as "a literary club in the venerable tradition of the Inklings of Oxford and the Fugitives of Vanderbilt University." If you'd like to encourage them in their work, they accept donations!
a literary club in the venerable tradition of the Inklings of Oxford and the Fugitives of Vanderbilt University
a literary club in the venerable tradition of the Inklings of Oxford and the Fugitives of Vanderbilt University
a literary club in the venerable tradition of the Inklings of Oxford and the Fugitives of Vanderbilt University
a literary club in the venerable tradition of the Inklings of Oxford and the Fugitives of Vanderbilt University

In the debut edition of The Lost Country, you'll find an essay that I wrote called "Charity, the Key to Reading The Story of the Grail," which is excerpted and adapted from my doctoral dissertation. But just to set the record straight, my dissertation was about memory as the hermeneutic key to reading Chr├ętien de Troyes’s Perceval (a.k.a. The Story of the Grail), and it was Barbara Sargent-Baur of Princeton University who literally wrote the book on charity in The Story of the Grail. Memory and charity, of course, work hand in hand, but if you want to know how that works in Chr├ętien’s romance, you’ll have to buy a copy of my dissertation (just ask for no. 3317643) or wait until I publish it as a book. Or just keep reading this blog, because I’m bound to mention it one of these days. Not today, I’m afraid, because I’m still waiting for the pseudoephedrine to kick in so that I can breathe well enough to oxygenate my brain properly.

What are you doing still reading this? Go! Go check out The Lost Country.