Violence and Redemption

Author: Mark Bosco, SJ

Documentary entitled ‘Flannery’ to be released in the US

“Flannery O’Connor is unique. There is no one like her. You can’t lump her in with Faulkner, you can’t lump her with Walker Percy, you can’t lump her with anyone.” So proclaims American novelist Alice McDermott about Flannery O’Connor’s place in the canon of 20th century literature. Her statement echoes many of the novelists, artists, and literary critics who were asked the same question, all part of a feature length documentary called Flannery that premieres in the United States this fall [2019]. Part biography and part an exploration of O’Connor’s stories, the film offers a glimpse of this remarkable artist. Four aspects of her life converge in the Film: faith, race, gender, and disability. O’Connor was a devout and intellectually formed Roman Catholic; a person of white privilege during the dismantling of the Jim Crow South; a serious fiction writer in a predominantly male world of writers and publishers; and a person challenged by the autoimmune disease lupus erythematosus. The film places her amidst the social changes that happened during and following World War II, especially as women entered the workforce and the civil rights movement came to dominate the nation’s conscience. Her work vividly portrays narratives of cultural conflict in a nation “haunted” by religious belief.

O’Connor’s religious faith is central to her literary vision. The film struggles to find a way to honor her Catholic intellectual and imaginative world as part of the greatness of her work, all the while acknowledging that many who watch the film will have no understanding of Catholicism or be dismissive of religious faith altogether. Throughout her life O’Connor immersed herself in the currents of the 20th century Catholic revival, a hermeneutic that touched upon not only Catholic philosophy and theology, but literary aesthetics, as well. She maintained that “I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic... However, I am a Catholic peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness, that thing Jung describes as unhistorical, solitary, and guilty”.1 The critics and artists interviewed for the film spoke of O’Connor’s faith as an essential component that shaped her fiction, but we grappled with how to visually narrate the intellectual ferment of Catholicism and its larger historical moment in modern American life during the years when O’Connor was writing. The Canadian novelist and literary critic Randy Boyagoda was helpful in his responses by suggesting we look at the horror of the 20th century as a way to understand the rise of Catholic thought in the middle of the 20th century. A generation of writers who came of age during the rise of totalitarian regimes, world wars, and the terror of the Jewish and atomic holocausts, questioned the purpose of humanity as never before, looking for a higher order account of human purpose. Boyagoda notes that O’Connor’s Catholicism, “peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness”, blended the truths of medieval metaphysics with modern, existential categories. Her Catholicism became an asset in assessing the crises of modernity, and as a way for her to rearticulate the transcendental call to human flourishing. Her southern gothic vision was informed by this Catholic cultural moment. As O’Connor, herself notes to Betty Hester, “To possess this [sense of crisis] within the Church is to bear a burden, the necessary burden of the conscious Catholic. It’s to feel the contemporary situation at the ultimate level”.2

To capture this idea, we have included images that reinforce this existential crisis — fascist mobs of the 1940s, bomb footage from World War II, an atomic bomb blast, and images of societal changes in the United States during and after the war. Though Thomas Aquinas is mentioned once in the film, we spend more time exploring how O’Connor’s “Catholic” sense of modernity undergirds many of her stories and characters, whether from “The Temple of the Holy Ghost” and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” or to her novel, Wise Blood.

As the work on the documentary became more involved, it became clear that we had to tackle forthrightly O’Connor and racism. As a white woman of some privilege, she lived through the last years of the Jim Crow South and the rigid class system of peoples that it engendered. She was slow to grasp the magnitude of the developing civil rights movement and its effect on the country. Though comfortable acknowledging that O’Connor was shaped by the racist and segregated world in which she lived, I was concerned that we find a critical way to interrogate the complexity of racism in both her life, her work, and in her manners. We relay how O’Connor tells a friend that she became an integrationist on a bus ride from Georgia to Iowa in 1948, after seeing how an African American woman was forced to leave her seat and move to the back of the bus. Others comment on O’Connor’s use of the N-word in her short- story, “The Artificial Nigger,” the rightness in standing up for her title and the nuance that she is asking from her readers. We found archival footage of the African American choreographer Bill T. Jones, who adapted the story into a dance sequence, explaining why he thought the story a worthy exploration of how we learn to be racist. And we interviewed the New York stage director Karin Koonrod, who has staged O’Connor’s story, “Everything That Rises Must Converge” as a post-Rosa Parks bus ride through Atlanta. It made me realize more than ever that the question of race was everywhere in O’Connor’s work.

But perhaps the interview with critic and professor Bruce Gentry from O’Connor’s alma mater, Georgia State College in Milledgeville, helped us to find a way to understand the way race operates in O’Connor’s life and work. He comments that O’Connor is the best American fiction writer for “recovering racists, of learning not to be a racist,” implying that anyone who unconsciously lives within the categories of white privilege are, in fact, always recovering from the latent effects of racism:            “Recovering from white racism takes a long time”, Gentry notes, and O’Connor would have included herself in this recovery. Indeed, her stories are shocking and revolutionary in the way they bring home to her readers the assumptions of whiteness. Whether it is Mrs. McIntyre in “The Displaced Person” or Ruby Turpin in “Revelation,” her characters are always caught up short by their deformed understanding of status and race.

Over the last years there has been a rise in neo-Nazi white supremacist organizations looking for legitimacy in speeches and marches in the United States. We have come to a time in our culture where reading Flannery O’Connor’s stories offers us more than the rhetoric of politics and ideology. Her art draws us into the mysterious gray area of modern life, where the brokenness of our human condition plays out in parable-like dramas of violence and redemption. Novelist Mary Gordon judges that “Flannery O’Connor is one of the few writers who is not afraid to look into the darkness.” That darkness, what O’Connor might call the burden of original sin, haunts us today. O’Connor’s stories are redemptive acts because they send us, the readers, to look inside ourselves, where “something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored”.3

1 The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), 90.

2 Ibid.

3 Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970), 48.

L'Osservatore Romano 
Weekly Edition in English  
9/16 August 2019, page 15