Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Richard Giannone. Flannery O’Connor, Hermit Novelist. Urbana: Illinois UP, 2000.

Giannone performs close readings of O’Connor’s work through the lens of the ascetic experience. Beginning with Wise Blood, he works his way through her fiction and nonfiction and considers her work in light of the teachings of the fourth century Christian hermits who followed in the tradition of the eremitic Anthony the Great. 

He reads the stories in A Good Man is Hard to Find in two eremitic modes: stories such as the title one which take place in a desert environment, where the barrenness of the wilderness allows for a transformative encounter with the demonic; and stories such as “A Circle in the Fire,” where a forced encounter with the void (through her loss of property through fire—a fire instigated by her dwelling in a “dry place”) provides an opportunity for the Mrs. Cope to experience the “freedom that follows detachment” (79). I am particularly intrigued by his reading of “Good Country People,” which is an extended reading of what he characterizes as Hulga’s “perverse asceticism.” Giannone observes that, “Hulga Hopewell is an outcast living in a desert; and she is at war, not against her besetting demons but against her body and life. Anger is the trajectory of her desert life. Wrath seals her alienation and sustains  the momentum of her willful battle”(80). He describes her as having a “temperamental lopsidedness that is far more pronounced that the hobble made by her artificial leg” (80).

I’m also interested in his observation that “Hulga’s passion implicates her in the age’s wrath. In making ire the ground of her intellectual integrity, she shares in the belief that anger is a sign of strength and a vehicle of truth. Frightening when multiplied en masse, as it has been this century, anger in Hulga is also funny and delights the reader in the teeth of larger meanings. And it is those wider consequences (gas chambers and racism, for example) that O’Connor repeatedly invokes to make us understand, as Hulga does not, that anger is chilling and destructive” (82). I think this is related to my larger argument about why punk musicians find so much of O’Connor’s work appealing, even as they miss her larger point about the significance of this anger: she paints this picture so well that they ignore the second half of her statements. Giannone observes that “The lesson to be learned is that demons are not to be played with but cast out” (85): for those who identify with the demons, however, there is certainly a powerful portrait painted here. Also, it isn’t all nihilistic punk singers who are attracted to her work. Certainly, U2’s The Joshua Tree reflects a similar eremitic impulse in art; I might even try to draw a line between O’Connor and Howard Finster in their approach toward the religious impulse and the South and art. Does this explain the primitivist impulse, then?

I disagree with his characterization of Hulga, however, that “most readers understandably come away from ‘Good Country People’ with the judgment of Hulga as a dumb blonde with a Ph.D. whose dreamy sexuality ends up pathetic before Pointer’s refined fetishism” (83). I apparently take a much more sympathetic view of Hulga (and I’m not sure that she’s blonde). I am interested, however, in his observation that “Hulga’s erotic desire is a demonic as Pointer’s. For both, the sexual game is about contempt and mutilation” (83). There’s a lot to unpack there—and not just that he refers to Hulga by her first name and Manley by his last. His contention that “The intellectual removes the body; the rake dispenses with the spirit” is intriguing (84).

This perspective allows him an interesting reading of The Violent Bear It Away: “Whereas the clinician Walker Percy diagnosed the institutionalizing of death as the thanatos syndrome, and the cultural observer Don DeLillo later saw the proliferating technologies swell into a cult of death, the ascetic O’Connor defined the malady as an inner extinguishment. For the hermit novelist, the vortex of political and psychological turmoil is the inborn center of the person, of the spirit” (149). One of the most important aspects of Giannone’s study is his point that O’Connor’s characters lack any “lofty spiritual aims.” Rather, “Her solitaries never lose contact with the world. They seek no strange contemplative powers. Their gift is to recover in ordinary human life the essential self that provides a relation with God” (238)—and it is in the very ordinariness of her characters that a great deal of her force resides.