Limitation as Strength

Author: Elena Buia Rutt

Limitation as Strength

Elena Buia Rutt

Admiring Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O'Connor — born in 1925 in Savannah, Georgia, to parents of Irish descent — had little time allotted to her and she knew it: Lupus erythematosus (a grave deficiency in the human immune system), inherited from her father, would lead to her death in the early hours of 3 August 1964, when she was only 39 years old. Her legacy would be a peacock farm and a small collection of writings, small but evidence of a rare and unmistakeable talent.

Major biographical elements of her life are hard to come by, apart from a two-month stay in New York State in 1948 and a trip to Europe where, already seriously ill, she attended a Papal Audience at the Vatican and made a pilgrimage to Lourdes. When in 1951 she left an Atlanta hospital, too weak to climb the stairs, O'Connor moved with her mother to Andalusia, the old family home not far from the town of Milledgeville, a small agricultural centre in Georgia. On the ground floor of that farmhouse she wrote her first novel (Wise Blood, 1952).

Despite her severe physical suffering, Flannery O'Connor considered the isolation brought upon her by her illness a blessing — "Lord, am I happy to be a hermit writer", she wrote to a friend — because she found herself face to face with what she considered to be the essential experience each one of us must in some way come to terms with: "the experience of limitation". Furthermore, she viewed her physical condition with a profound sense of humour, defining herself, because of her crutches, a "structure with flying buttresses", and ending a letter saying "I must go out on my two aluminium legs".

In spite of her illness and her limited productivity, success lay in store for Flannery O'Connor. Her 27 short stories and two novels earned her, during her lifetime, two honorary degrees and the O. Henry Award three times. In 1988, her complete works were included in the prestigious Library of America collection.

With regard to the Italian editions of her work, the current situation is dolefully sad: while her novels and short stories have been published unabridged, the same is not true of her essays and, especially, her extensive correspondence. Only small sections of these have been translated. In an attempt to interpret this writer's rather mediocre and no less arduous fate in Italy, one could agree on the fact that Flannery O'Connor's narrative is rooted in such a burning, personal and radical Catholicism that it is not unsurprising that it triggered prejudice and censorship. But this writing does not target that vaguely secular, rational and enlightened common sense of atheists and agnostics. It is meant to provoke the righteous and respectable reader — with irony and sarcasm — whose conventional expression of Catholicism is all too often hypocritical and bigoted.

In a clear, rapid style, she delineates the borders of an extreme territory where characters are eccentric and odd but uncompromising seekers of the absolute. They are souls who are stubbornly closed in on themselves until a violent and unexpected event occurs to undermine their convictions and bonds. This breaking open costs them tears and blood, but this is the only possible way to come close to the mystery — a mystery which, according to Flannery O'Connor, is the intuitive recognition of a God who transcends and saves man, healing his incompleteness and frailty which are synonymous with humanity.

Reading these texts, therefore, means entering an arduous spiritual area. It means looking at reality in the light of a sometimes disconcerting Christian realism that makes human limitation its strength. A look so merciless that it leads back to a greater and more unconditional piety.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
5 September 2014, page 9

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