Flannery Friday: “Good Country People” (1955)

March 29th, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

In February 1955, just as she was readying the order of stories for A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories, Flannery O’Connor wrote a story, “Good Country People,” over the course of four days that she later gushed about in letters to publisher Robert Giroux (Feb. 26) and Thomas Mabry (March 1).  In her letter to Mabry, she outlines the story’s connections with her other fictions and and how her faith informs her writing:

I am glad you see the belief in mine because it is there.  The truth is my stories have been watered and fed by Dogma.  I am a Catholic (not because it’s advantageous to my writing but because I was born and brought up one) and at some point in my life I realized that not only was I a Catholic but that this was all I was, that I was a Catholic not like someone else would be a Baptist or a Methodist but like someone else would be an atheist.  If my stories are complete it is because I see everything as beginning with original sin, taking in the Redemption, and reckoning on a final judgment.  I have heard people say that all this stifles a writer, but that is foolishness; it only preserves your sense of mystery…

I have delayed my collection a little by writing a story two weeks ago called “Good Country People.”  It is the best thing I have done and they will include it if doing so doesn’t cost them too much money.  If they don’t include it, I am going to send you a copy of it because it is one of those examples of the will and the imagination fusing and it is so rare an experience for me that I am a little unhinged by it. (pp. 930-931, Library of America edition)

In many aspects, “Good Country People” lives up to O’Connor’s self-appraisal.  In it can be found the echo of themes that she explored in her earlier fictions, as well as a conclusion that might be, along with those of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “The River,” one of her best.  It, like several other tales in the 1955 collection, is an exploration of pride and the forms in which it manifest itself.  “Good Country People” also relies heavily on irony, as seemingly innocuous events early in the story are inverted by story’s end and recast as something darker, more significant than what otherwise might be expected.

The story opens with the reflections of a landlady, Mrs. Hopewell.  Although Mrs. Hopewell is not the central character in “Good Country People,” her meditations on people, particularly her tenants, the Freemans, and her daughter Joy, establish the dissonance between how the characters see themselves and how the situation actually is:

Since she [Mrs. Freeman] was the type who had to be into everything, then, Mrs. Hopewell had decided, she would not only let her be into everything, she would see to it that she was into everything – she would giver her the responsibility of everything, she would put her in charge.  Mrs. Hopewell had no bad qualities of her own but she was able to use other people’s in such a constructive way that she never felt the lack.  She had hired the Freemans and she had kept them four years.

Nothing is perfect.  This was one of Mrs. Hopewell’s favorite sayings.  Another was:  that is life!  And still another, the most important, was:  well, other people have their opinions too.  She would make these statements, usually at the table, in a tone of gentle insistence as if no one held them but her, and the large hulking Joy, whose constant outrage had obliterated every expression from her face, would stare just a little to the side of her, her eyes icy blue, with the look of someone who has achieved blindness by an act of will and means to keep it. (pp. 264-265)

There is more than just a faint echo of “A Good Man is Hard to Find”‘s grandmother or the child from “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” in Mrs. Hopewell and her miserable, bitter daughter.  The mother’s false sense of propriety finds its twisted mirror image in the daughter’s sneering, self-loathing self.  Joy, the victim of some childhood hunting accident that led to the amputation of a leg, is the object of her mother’s pity, which infuriates Joy (or rather, Hulga, as she legally changed her name to that when she reached adulthood) to no end.  If Mrs. Hopewell can be seen as a representation of the vacuous, self-blinding “good” member of society, Joy/Hulga in turn represents the frustrated, bitter pride of those who feel as though they have been denied fairness in life.  Further burdened with a “weak heart” that might curtail her life, Joy/Hulga has built up high walls of resentment and bitterness.  Possessing a Ph.D. in Philosophy and yet unable to find even a modicum of happiness or joy in her life, the now thirty-two year-old Hulga believes that by embracing nihilism (or what she understands to be nihilism) that she will gain a sense of superiority over others that her body has failed to allow her to do.  It is an ugly portrait of an character and yet that ugliness fascinates O’Connor.  She easily could have merely set Hulga up for a dashing of this false sense of herself, but she goes beyond Hulga’s petty self and delves into a deeper, societal-wide hypocrisy that presumes to know “good country people” (and by implication, its opposite) when they see it.

“Good Country People” turns from internal character analyses toward a metaphorical discussion of pride and self-blindness when an apparently naive, bumbling Bible salesman, Manly Pointer, makes his appearance, futilely trying to sell a Bible to Mrs. Hopewell:

He didn’t get up.  He began to twist his hands and looking down at them, he said softly, “Well, lady, I’ll tell you the truth – not many people want to buy one nowadays and besides, I know I’m real simple.  I don’t know how to say a thing but to say it.  I’m just a country boy.”  He glanced up into her unfriendly face.  “People like you don’t like to fool with country people like me!”

“Why!” she cried, “good country people are the salt of the earth!  Besides, we all have different ways of doing, it takes all kinds to make the world go ’round.  That’s life!” (pp. 270-271)

Embarrassed enough to ask him to stay for dinner, Mrs. Hopewell finds herself beguiled by Pointer’s seemingly simple earnestness, so unlike her own jaundiced view of people.  Yet somehow, he manages to catch Joy/Hulga’s attention enough to surprise Mrs. Hopewell.  However, for Hulga, this is little more to her than an opportunity to defraud a simpleton, a way to prove to herself that her belief that she can see through everything will be confirmed.  The two plan to walk together in the countryside the following Saturday.  Hulga makes vague plans on how to seduce this simple-minded salesman, but as the two walk and eventually climb into a barn loft, this apparent fool is nobody’s fool at all, as he casually crushes each of Hulga’s cherished beliefs in her superiority, leaving her forlornly to recognize the depths to which she has been duped, not just by “Pointer,” but also by her own self-pride in “knowing” that there was ultimately nothingness around which people constructed their fantasies.

O’Connor does an outstanding job in developing events leading up to Pointer’s unmasking of his true self.  The little self-deceptions that Hulga, her mother, and even the relatively worldly Mrs. Freeman engage in see their fruitions in the story’s final three pages.  Yet there is more to “Good Country People” than the revelation of the deficiencies of Hulga’s view of herself and the world.  There is the sense of multiple self-deceptions and self-blinding behaviors that can be seen in people from all walks of life.  O’Connor not only makes a statement regarding the limitations of “nihilistic” worldviews, she also presents in an unflattering light the self-importance that people attach to themselves.  Beyond Hulga’s prideful belief that nothing matters lurks the mother’s milder yet ultimately no better view of others around her or Mrs. Freeman’s more cynical view of society.  Even “good country people” is little more than the imagined prosperous lauding an equally imagined group of poor souls whose “goodness” is merely a cover for their inability to manipulate the deceit-ridden world around them.  O’Connor turns a bright light on this view, revealing its core of benign contemptuousness.  In this can be seen a greater sense of inflated pride, in that “we won’t be taken in like that!” while time and time again, this assumption is proven to be false.  “Good Country People” succeeds as a tale because it operates on more than just the plot level.  The irony of seeing Joy/Hulga’s preconceptions turned against her is only the surface level of a story that has deeper thematic levels, each of which reinforce each other and create a deceptively complex tale that reveals new layers upon successive re-readings.  Out of the ten stories that appear in A Good Man is Hard to Find, “Good Country People” is the equal to “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and the last story in the collection, “The Displaced Person,” for its prose, characterization, and thematic treatments.  Simply put, it is an outstanding short story, one that can be approached from multiple perspectives and still possess a vitality to it even after it has been dissected and its components probed extensively.

The Part About Amalfitano

March 26th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

I have been putting off writing this for one very simple reason: I haven’t the faintest idea what to say about it. Or rather, I have lots of vaguely inchoate ideas, but no sense of whether they might be made to cohere, or whether they in any way touch upon the mystery that is this part of the novel.

Was Bolaño serious in thinking that the various parts of 2666 might stand alone as novels? Could we imagine ‘The Part About Amalfitano’ being read without any reference to what has gone before, what might come later? This is, by some way, the shortest of the five sections that make up 2666, and it reads like an afterthought to the first part, ‘The Part About the Critics’. There are no beginnings in this section, and no endings, it is all middle; we don’t know how we got here, and nothing is resolved. Real life is like that, but fiction isn’t. One of the points of fiction is that it provides a sense, an illusion, of shape to something that we know to be shapeless. So when we encounter a fiction that offers no such shape, we are left floundering.

It is easy to read ‘The Part About Amalfitano’ as a pendant to the first section, but on its own it never gets going, never concludes.

So let’s begin by looking at how it echoes the first part. The most obvious way is that the section recounts a movement from the sophistication of Europe to the barrenness of the Sonoran desert. As the part opens, Amalfitano has been in Santa Teresa for just one week, but almost immediately we flash back to Barcelona where Amalfitano teaches at the university. His wife leaves him, we follow her for a while, then she dies, and the next thing we know Amalfitano and his daughter Rose have moved to Santa Teresa. We don’t really know why he has chosen to move to Santa Teresa; we may presume it is something to do with the loss of his wife, but we don’t know. Certainly he seems to be no higher up the academic pecking order, and has come down several notches in terms of the ranking of the university where he now teaches. We can only conclude that, like so many of Bolaño’s characters, he is seeking the emptiness of the desert.

But this primary movement from Europe to Mexico is not quite so simple as it is in the first part. There a trio of Europeans was drawn to Mexico, but Amalfitano is not European, he is Chilean (like Bolaño). Are we then meant to see him as some sort of avatar for the author? Somehow, I doubt it; but I think we are meant to see that whatever impulse draws Amalfitano to Sonora is not the same as the impulse that has drawn the three critics there. Though what that impulse might be remains mysterious. This section of the novel opens:

I don’t know what I’m doing in Santa Teresa, Amalfitano said to himself after he’d been living in the city for a week. Don’t you? Don’t you really? he asked himself. Really I don’t, he said to himself, and that was as eloquent as he could be. (163)

And that is as eloquent as he remains. We never do find out what he is doing in Santa Teresa, Amalfitano never finds out. What seems to be set up as the intellectual and emotional propulsion for this section fizzles out. By the end, the question hasn’t been answered it is just no longer being asked. And that is pretty much true of everything else we encounter in this section. I said, of the first part, that it was ‘the failure to penetrate Amalfitano, the failure even to recognise that there might be something to penetrate, that is the key to the failure of the Europeans’. But I think one of the things this section shows us is that there is nothing to penetrate. Amalfitano is revealed to be a hollow man, lost in his own life. The point is that there is no reason why he is in Santa Teresa.

When his wife leaves him, it is not because of any failing on either part. It is because there is no reason for her to stay, his hollowness provides nothing for her to latch on to. When she leaves, our viewpoint follows her; it is as though, despite the fact that this section is supposedly about him, there is nothing in him even for our attention to latch on to.

Her odyssey contains another echo of the first part when she travels to see a poet in an insane asylum, which replicates the visit by the critics to see the painter who cut off his own hand. In both cases, the visit is fruitless, the artist is so far detached from societal norms that they have no sensible message to give. What we are meant to gather from this repeated motif is not clear. True art is madness? Hardly, given how many artists crowd the pages of Bolaño’s fictions. Perhaps we are meant to notice the failure of communication, a psychological reflection of the failure to communicate with the ever-absent Archimboldi? All we can really say is that the critics, the wife, make a pilgrimage to see someone who has been locked away, and then retreat in confusion having learned nothing. Maybe there is nothing to learn.

Amalfitano’s wife travels restlessly, as Bolaño’s characters are wont to do, does some charitable work, eventually revisits her husband and daughter, but still there is no substance, no gravity, to draw her back into his orbit, and she dies away from the family home. Only then, with the liveliest and most interesting character in this section of the novel dead, can the focus of the story return to Amalfitano.

And we switch instantly to Santa Teresa, where we encounter a third link to the opening section. In that part there was a surreal moment when the three critics found a book pegged out on Amalfitano’s washing line. Here we find out a little more. Unpacking his books from Europe Amalfitano comes across a geometry text that neither he nor Rose can remember ever having seen before. He attempts to read the book, but gets nothing from it. He has no idea why it should have been among his books, or how it got packed and sent on to him. So he pegs it out on the line, where it remains for the rest of the section. In other words, we find out how that book got to be pegged out on the line, but we don’t find out why. Which is, I feel, typical of this whole section. Why did Amalfitano come to Santa Teresa? Why is the book pegged on the line? Why did Bolaño write this section? But this is not a text that answers questions, because an answer would be a resolution, and this is not a text that attains, or even aspires to resolution.

If we find echoes, fading resonances from the first part, they are precise or developed. In the end, the intersections with part one feel more accidental than developmental. The two main features of part one, the elusive Archimboldi and the company of critics, do not appear, their shadow does not even touch these pages. Instead we see that Amalfitano does not even notice that a female colleague is interested in him, we see that Amalfitano does not really understand why he feels discomfited by the (presumably homoerotic) interest of the son of another colleague. But these putative relationships seem to be always there in the background before we even meet his colleagues, and we do not know if or how they might develop because the section ends before either have a chance to take shape. No beginnings, no resolutions, only middles. And Amalfitano is the hollow man who seems unaware that he is the centre of his own world, or even to have any awareness that there is a world around him. We want to learn what is going on, but we do not learn.

And in the background, the whispers of dead girls that we barely heard in the first section becomes a little more insistent, a little more noticeable. Yet it still doesn’t impinge; Amalfitano seems unconcerned for the safety of his own daughter. ‘The Part About Amalfitano’ is an entr’acte, but coming between what and what? And what echoes from this part will sound in the next section?

Flannery Friday: “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” (1953)

March 22nd, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

In several of Flannery O’Connor’s stories, character foibles provide the main narrative drive.  There is something satisfying, in a Schadenfreude sort of way, in seeing a character’s preconceptions of the world torn to shreds.  This certainly can be seen in “A Circle in the Fire” and even within “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” but this narrative device is used most directly in O’Connor’s only Civil War-related story, “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” (1953).  This story, eleven pages long in the Library of America edition, is short, sharp, and succinct in its treatment of misplaced pride.  This story of an decrepit 104 year-old Civil War veteran, “General” Sash and his 62 year-old teacher granddaughter, Sally Poker, does not contain the depth of most of O’Connor’s other stories, but it does not need it, as it is so vicious and yet touching that the surface of the story should suffice for most readers.

“A Late Encounter with the Enemy” is seen through both the General and Sally Poker’s points-of-view.  The passage quoted below, taken from the first two paragraphs of the story, illustrate perfectly the story’s structure and development:

General Sash was a hundred and four years old.  He lived with his granddaughter, Sally Poker Sash, who was sixty-two years old and who prayed every night on her knees that he would live until her graduation from college.  The General didn’t give two slaps for her graduation but he never doubted he would live for it.  Living had got to be such a habit with him that he couldn’t conceive of any other condition.  A graduation exercise was not exactly his idea of a good time, even if, as she said, he would be expected to sit on the stage in his uniform.  She said there would be a long procession of teachers and students in their robes but that there wouldn’t be anything to equal him in his uniform.  He knew this well enough without her telling him, and as for the damm procession, it could march to hell and back and not cause him a quiver.  He liked parades with floats full of Miss Americas and Miss Daytona Beaches and Miss Queen Cotton Products.  He didn’t have any use for processions and a procession full of schoolteachers was about as deadly as the River Styx to his way of thinking.  However, he was willing to sit on the stage in his uniform so that they could see him.

Sally Poker was not as sure as he was that he would live until her graduation.  There had not been any perceptible change in him for the last five years, but she had the sense that she might be cheated out of her triumph because she so often was.  She had been going to summer school every year for the past twenty years because when she started teaching, there were no such things as degrees.  In those times, she said, everything was normal but nothing had been normal since she was sixteen, and for the past twenty summers, when she should have been resting, she had had to take a trunk in the burning heat to the state teachers’ college; and though when she returned in the fall, she always taught in the exact way she had been taught not to teach, this was a mild revenge that didn’t satisfy her sense of justice.  She wanted the General at her graduation because she wanted to show what she stood for, or, as she said, “what all was behind her,” and was not behind them.  This them was not anybody in particular.  It was just all the upstarts who had turned the world on its head and unsettled the ways of decent living. (pp. 252-253)

Here are dual narratives that parallel and compete with one another.  First is the old man, living his last days in a haze of forgotten memories and lustful desires, seeking to be the center of attention.  He lives in part because he cannot think of being anything else other than alive.  He knows his past is a partial fantasy; he cannot bear to remember (or so one might suspect, if he had a choice in the matter) what he had endured.  He has been reduced to nothing more than a living relic, but he still views himself as a handsome old codger whose greatest pleasure is being surrounded by pretty women.  He occupies only the Present; the Past and Future are equally meaningless to him.

His granddaughter, however, inhabits the past and the remembered failures of her life.  She embraces it as a refuge from the real and perceived humiliations of her life, such as the state forcing her after years of being a teacher to go to college in order to learn how to be a teacher or the wrong shoes that she wears for an important occasion.  Her pride is not in her present state but in the half-real, half-fictional past that she has constructed for her family from the living corpse of her grandfather.  There is no familial affection present in her relations to him; he is a means to her glorification, a symbol of her being able at long last to thumb her nose at those “upstarts” who are challenging the precious social order that she has held dear for decades.

Characters such as these immediately grab the reader’s attention, for their vanity and self-absorption made for a delightful comeuppance comedy or a searing moral tale.  O’Connor manages to capture elements of both in this story, all the while also succeeding in making these characters sympathetic even as we might take delight in seeing their pride crushed.  Although the story ends abruptly with the General’s “late encounter with the enemy,” “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” is one of O’Connor’s more memorable tales because the reader is able to delve deeper than normal into the characters’ mindsets.  It may not be her best tale, but “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” certainly one of O’Connor’s better character portraits.

Habemus Papam: Reviews of John Thavis, The Vatican Diaries (2013) and Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Pope Francis) and Abraham Skorka, Sobre el cielo y la tierra (2011)

March 17th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

In theory, the Vatican operates according to a top-down structure of authority; in actual fact, the Vatican is a patchwork of departments, communities and individuals, all loosely bound by a sense of mission but without comprehensive management or rigorous oversight.  And, I must admit, I prefer it that way.  I appreciate the fact that functionaries often shoot their mouths off when they’re not supposed to, that documents are leaked and that, at the end of the day, the Vatican is marked more by human flair and fallibility than ruthless efficiency.  I like the fact that even something as supposedly fine-tuned as a sainthood cause can be fumbled by an overzealous promoter.

The popular image of the Vatican is largely a myth.  In the news and entertainment industries, the Vatican is portrayed as an organizational behemoth – monumental, powerful and cloaked in secrecy, a well-oiled machine quietly pursuing a global agenda with a hierarchy that marches in lockstep.

The real Vatican is a place where cardinals crack jokes and lose their tempers, where each agency of the Roman Curia jealously guards its turf, where the little guys and big shots may work at cross-purposes and where slipups and misunderstandings are common.  It’s a place where the pope’s choice of a particular hat can become the raging controversy of the day, and where an American cardinal hell-bent on underground parking can evict a two-thousand-year-old necropolis.  It’s a place where the carefully orchestrated liturgies and ceremonies sometimes come unglued.  It’s a place where Paolo Gabriele and Sławomir Oder fit right in. (The Vatican Diaries, Introduction, p. 12 e-book edition)

For the past month, the affairs of the Vatican have been regularly featured in the news, first with the surprise resignation of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and the unlikely (at least in the views of those with little to no actual knowledge of affairs) election of the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, to the throne of St. Peter as the 266th pope, Pope Francis.  It is not difficult to find opinions on the two events (and numerous possible antecedents that might tie the two together even more closely than a succession).  Words like “conservative,” “reformist,” “hard-liner,” “out-of-touch,” “abuse,” “scandal,” etc. appear almost as often in newspaper articles as grammatical articles such as “a,” “an,” or “the” themselves.  Yet despite this frequent use of “hot topic” words as a short cut to defining what has been transpiring, there is the sense that there is a dissonance between what various national medias (and their respective publics) think the Vatican must be and what it might in actuality be.

Recently-retired Catholic News Service Vatican reporter John Thavis’ recounting of his thirty years covering the Vatican, The Vatican Diaries, benefited greatly from the timing of Pope Benedict XVI’s retirement, as the book was published just a week later.  In it, Thavis relates his impressions of various Vatican officials, ranging from various Cardinals down to ushers in the basilica, and the fractured, disjointed hierarchy that often worked as much against other segments of the Curia as in unison.  It is easy for those raised on media accounts to view the Vatican as a large spider in the middle of a vast web, controlling events with the efficiency of a spider.  Yet as recent events, which receive some interesting interpretations from Thavis, have borne out, the Vatican is more of an ad hoc affair, operating best within the framework of a theological interpretation of its acts rather than a materialist-oriented corporation.

Thavis, over the course of ten chapters, explores the seeming dysfunction of the Vatican leadership through chapters that focus on singular matters, such as the reason behind the delay in the ringing of the bells when Benedict XVI was elected in 2005 (Ch. 1), the horrendous scandal involving the founder of the Legion of Christ order, Marcial Maciel Degollado (Ch. 3), or the troubled cause of Pius XII’s sainthood (Ch. 7).  In each of these chapters, with some interludes (including the planned demolition of a recently-uncovered necropolis in Ch. 4 or the ribald Latinist Father Foster in Ch. 6) of a more comic nature, Thavis delves deeply into the murky world of Vatican interactions.  What emerges is a vividly-described series of events that reveal a Church hierarchy that is at a crossroads.  The ongoing scandal with pedophile priests and the coverups that some dioceses conducted during the reign of John Paul II in particular receives a lot of attention.  Thavis does not take a forceful, denunciatory stance regarding Benedict XVI’s handling of the matter; he mostly exculpates the recently-retired pope, noting that Benedict XVI was frequently stymied by a Curia who had certain factions who were more eager to protect the vocation-generated Legion and its leader, Maciel, than they were in eradicating the pedophile element from the Legion’s ranks.

This resistance to “reform,” if such a word has to be applied to a patchwork entity that has a surprisingly-decentralized structure, appears frequently in other chapters.  For Benedict XVI, it seems to have been a long, wearying affair that sapped him of energy and perhaps of hope for achieving his pastoral duties, as this passage taken from the final chapter, “The Real Benedict,” would seem to indicate:

By 2011 the real Benedict was beginning to look a little like Charlie Brown, convinced he couldn’t win in this world but plugging away regardless, with a demeanor that often seemed either dispirited or wistful.  As a concession to the crowds and the cameras, the pope occasionally forced a smile.  He launched what he hoped would be his legacy project, a Vatican agency to promote “new evangelization” in traditionally Christian countries.  The agency played to the pope’s primary theme of rediscovering the rightful place of God in personal life and in society.  But Benedict had no illusions about its success, speaking openly about the dominant “culture of death,” the powerful pull of materialism, the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between rich and poor and the fact that Catholics in Europe and the Americas were leaving the church in droves.  Benedict appeared resigned to the idea that the church was condemned to struggle against the cultural mainstream, perhaps as a minority – even in places where it had once shaped civilization.

The pope operated with such detachment that one might legitimately have suspected him of having given up hope on the sorry state of earthly affairs.  Visiting a Rome parish one day, he probably shocked his listeners when he posed these dark questions:  “If we look around the modern world, where God is absent, we have to say that it is dominated by fear and uncertainty:  Is it good to be a human being or not?  Is it good to be alive?” (Ch. 10, p. 354 e-book)

Although this chapter (and the book as a whole) was written some months before Benedict XVI’s abdication, it is easy to see here the germ of his resignation.  If, as it seems to be true in Thavis’s account, the Curia is divided deeply over matters such as the prosecution of the pedophile priests or how best to address contentious issues such as condom usage (Thavis quotes a high-ranking member of the Curia who notes that there likely will not be an official policy on condom use in toto due to dissenting opinions within the Curia), then the Pope Emeritus’ comments alluding to his inability to fulfill his pastoral duties adequately are more likely a reflection of deep, internal divisions than a new scandal that is about to be revealed.

As a look “behind the curtains,” The Vatican Diaries is a fascinating portrayal of a Vatican in turmoil.  It may also provide a preview of the sorts of challenges that await the newly-elected pope, Pope Francis, as he now ascends to the papal throne.  Yet what sort of pope will Pope Francis be?  If Benedict XVI was dogged for a time by his (involuntary) service in the Nazi Waffen SS, then what about a pope, who as a Jesuit provincial in 1970s Argentina, might have been complicit in some of the atrocities of the Dirty War?  This story of possible collaboration and turning in fellow Jesuits for torture is a salacious one at the moment, as it provides not just an opportunity to define the new pope before he has written his first encyclical, but it also can be tied in to the global web of coverups and denials that have plagued the Vatican for the past few decades.

Despite this possible black mark (after all, there is conflicting information in regards to the future pope’s actions during the Dirty War, not to mention that he as Archbishop of Buenos Aires issued an apology for the church’s inaction in protecting more citizens), there are those who expect that Francis will prove to be a “reforming” pope.  This, however, is not to say that he will overturn centuries of Church doctrine on matters such as abortion, same-sex marriage (over which he fought a bitter, losing campaign in 2010 in Argentina), or other social/religious matters, but that he might move the focus away from strict denunciations toward reconciliation with those who are poor and suffering.  There certainly is material in his 2011 book that he co-wrote with leading Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka, Sobre el cielo y la tierra (On Heaven and Earth), that can support these views.  Take for instance this comment on justice and religion:

Creo que el que adora a Dios tiene, en esa experiencia, un mandato de justicia para con sus hermanos.  Es una justicia sumamente creativa, porque inventa cosas:  educación, promoción social, cuidado, alivio, etcétera.  Por eso, el hombre religioso íntegro es llamado el hombre justo, lleva la justicia hacia los demás.  En ese aspecto, la justicia del religioso o la religiosa crea cultura.  No es lo mismo la cultura de un idólatra que la cultura que crea una mujer o un hombre que adoran al Dios vivo.  Juan Pablo II tenía una frase muy arriesgada:  una fe que no se hace cultura no es una verdadera fe.  Marcaba esto:  crear cultura.  Hoy, por ejemplo, tenemos culturas idólatras en nuestra sociedad:  el consumismo, el relativismo y el hedonismo son una muestra de ello. (Ch. 4)

I believe that s/he that adores God has, in that experience, a mandate to provide justice for his brothers. It is a highly creative justice, because it invents things: education, social welfare, care, relief, etc.. Therefore, the fully religious man is called the just man, for he leads justice to others. In that respect, the justice of the religious creates culture. Not the same culture of idolatrous culture but that which makes a woman or a man who worship the living God. John Paul II made a very bold statement: a faith that does not become culture is not a true faith. Mark this: to create culture. Today, for example, we have idolatrous cultures in our society: consumerism, relativism and hedonism are signs of this.

The statements here are all orthodox; there is nothing that runs counter to the Church’s teachings.  Yet the focus on justice, through God, on matters such as education, social welfare, relief, etc. is certainly not what one thinks of when the word “conservative” is bandied about.  There is little “conservatism” in a faith that seeks to redress societal wrongs and to address the aching need in people’s lives.  This is made even more explicit in Ch. 10, on Death:

En los Evangelios aparece el tema del juicio final, y se hace de una manera vinculada con el amor.  Jesús dice:  A la derecha irán todos los que ayudaron al prójimo y a la izquierda, todos lo que no lo hicieron, porque lo que cada uno de ustedes hizo, me lo hizo a mí.  Para los cristianos, el projimo es la persona de Cristo. (Ch. 10)

In the Gospels appears the theme of final justice, and it is in a manner linked with love.  Jesus says:  To the right will go all which help his/her neighbors and to the left, all who do not do this, because what you do to one, you do to me.  For Christians, the neighbor is the person of Christ.

Yet there are issues in which Francis would be considered “conservative,” especially in regards to abortion.  Here is his full comment on abortion in the book:

El problema moral del aborto es de naturaleza prerreligiosa porque en el momento de la concepción está el código genético de la persona.  Ahí ya hay un ser humano.  Separo el tema del aborto de cualquier concepción religiosa.  Es una problema científico.  No dejar que se siga avanzando en el desarrollo de un ser que ya tiene todo el código genético de un ser humano no es ético.  El derecho a la vida es el primero de los derechos humanos.  Abortar es matar a quien no puede defenderse. (Ch. 14)

The moral problem of abortion is of a pre-religious nature because in the moment of conception is the genetic code of the person.  There already is there a human being.  I separate the theme of abortion from any religious concept.  It is a scientific problem.  It is unethical to stop the further development of a being that has the genetic code of a human being.  The right to life is the first of all human rights.  To abort is to kill someone who cannot defend him/herself.

Similar comments are made in regards to marriage between individuals of the same gender, in that Francis notes the Church’s opposition to it as much on biological grounds as on moral ones (marriage being foremost for procreation).  Yet in the chapter on same-sex marriages (Ch. 16), he makes it clear that he separates the issue of marriage from the rights of gays and lesbians to live lives free of persecution.  This is a theme that appears repeatedly in other parts of the dialogue he conducted with Rabbi Skorka:  there are actions that the Church unequivocally considers to be sins, but that at the heart of it lies the commandment to love others as one would love God.  This would seem to set up a conflict between what is written and what is to be done, but Francis appears to emphasize the treatment of others over the actions of others.  This can be seen in his previous ministry to those who were afflicted with AIDS or those who were indigent:  one may or may not be able to “help themselves” in a situation, but this does not preclude caring for those fellow human beings who need assistance in order to make their lives slightly more bearable.

After reading Sobre el cielo y la tierra, it is difficult to view Pope Francis as being constricted by American political terms such as “reformist,” “conservative,” or “moderate.”  Easily his views and actions could move back and forth between that axis of political thought, leaving the observer struggling for words to define him.  If I were to hazard a guess, Francis’ papacy will be defined by a commitment to orthodox principles, but with a more direct, humble application.  As the Vatican’s foibles and scandals are revealed to the public, it appears that Francis was elected in order to redirect the focus of the Curia away from doctrinal interpretations and toward a simpler, more pastoral approach toward ministering to the needs of the Catholic Church’s parishioners.  Francis seems to not be as given to writing treatises as was Benedict XVI, but there is the hope that he will be a spark that will make the phrase renovatio mundi more meaningful in the changing world to come.  However, there will be resistance to this, if Thavis’s book is any indication.  For now, it will be interesting to wait and see what will come in the days, weeks, and possibly years to come from Francis’s papacy.

Flannery Friday: “A Circle in the Fire” (1954)

March 15th, 2013 § 2 comments § permalink

Out of the stories covered so far from her 1955 collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find, “A Circle in the Fire” (1954) might be one of the hardest of Flannery O’Connor’s stories to decipher on a thematic/religious level.  It’s not so much that the narrative is difficult (it is not), but rather that on the surface the “circle in the fire” metaphor appears to run counter to several of the themes that O’Connor addresses in her other stories.  Yet there is something about this story that tugs at the reader, as though reminding her that there is something being overlooked.  However, this “overlooked” element perhaps is as much an underdeveloped theme as it is a failure on the reader’s part to identify precisely just what that might be.

“A Circle in the Fire” opens, as do most of O’Connor’s works, in rural Georgia sometime in the early-to-mid twentieth century.  Two women, Mrs. Pritchard and Mrs. Cope, described through their contrasts and their former similarities, are discussing local calamities, such as the suffering of a woman who gave birth while hooked up to an iron lung, while gardening.  O’Connor’s vivid description of the land they are gardening, such as Mrs. Cope’s “work[ing] at the weeds and nut grass as if they were an evil sent directly by the devil to destroy the place” (p. 232), foreshadows the events that follow.  It is an arid summer and Mrs. Cope’s fields and woods are tinderbox-dry.  She and Mrs. Pritchard worry about fire, and yet that “fire” has a more sinister metaphorical connotation.  There is a tinge of judgment in how Mrs. Cope views the world, from the depravities of youth to the black servants of her neighbor:  “Her Negroes were as destructive and impersonal as the nut grass.” (p. 233).  In short, O’Connor devotes the first quarter or so of this eighteen-page story to contrasting Mrs. Cope’s harsh, judgmental view of the world with the sere landscape.

The story then turns to three youths, somewhere around 11-13 years of age, who appear on Mrs. Cope’s property.  One, Powell, is the second son of a former tenant, now recently deceased in Florida, and he has persuaded the others to come to Mrs. Cope’s plantation-sized farm ostensibly in order to remember older, more carefree days of walking the fields and riding the horses.  Mrs. Cope quickly becomes suspicious of the boys and their laconic, almost surly responses to her perfunctory hospitality:

“In the woods!” she said.  “Oh no!  The woods are very dry now, I can’t have people smoking in my woods.  You’ll have to camp out in the field, in this field here next to the house, where there aren’t any trees.”

“Where she can keep her eye on you,” the child said under her breath.

“Her woods,” the large boy muttered and got out of the hammock.

“We’ll sleep in the field,” Powell said but not particularly as if he were talking to her.  “This afternoon I’m going to show them about this place.”  The other two were already walking away and he got up and bounded after them and the two women sat with the black suitcase between them.

“Not no thank you, not no nothing,” Mrs. Pritchard remarked.

“They only played with what we gave them to eat,” Mrs. Cope said in a hurt voice.

Mrs. Pritchard suggested that they might not like soft drinks.

“They certainly looked hungry,” Mrs. Cope said. (p. 240)

This quoted passage contains the germ of the conflicts that constitute the remaining half of the story.  Mrs. Cope sets out to do what she feels she is obligated to do, but her actions are always tinged by the suspicion that the boys are up to no good and that they themselves might be as bad-hearted as a hardened criminal.  Her suspicions are fueled by reports from Mrs. Pritchard of the boys riding Mrs. Cope’s horses, smoking cigarettes, and perhaps purloining food.  In her eyes, the boys become less and less those on the cusp of adolescence and more and more like little devils sent to torment her.  O’Connor’s decision to tell this story strictly through Mrs. Cope’s limited perspective allows her to illustrate through dialogue Mrs. Cope’s inability to understand the boys with whom she has entered into a struggle for control.  Yet this narrative choices robs the story of some of its potential vitality, as the three boys by story’s end have been reduced to little more than symbols of Mrs. Cope’s misguided worldview; they are not fleshed out and their actions at the story’s end feel sketchy and incomplete.

On a thematic level, there seems to be an attempt to create a warped, twisted parallel to the Biblical story of the fiery furnace, with the three boys representing the defiant Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in their refusal to conform to the ways of Babylon.  The boys refuse most of the food that is offered to them, not out of fear of defilement but for other, possibly more nefarious reasons.  They go against the commandments that Mrs. Cope gives them regarding what parts of her land that they can visit and where they can sleep before they are to be picked up by Powell’s uncle. And then there is the “circle in the fire” that closes the story, their escape from a conflagration that they started themselves, seemingly in spite of Mrs. Cope’s fears of a brush fire.  Yet these parallels feel weak and underdeveloped.  Part of this no doubt is due to the lack of attention devoted to the boys themselves, yet part of it likely is due to O’Connor’s story feeling “stretched” and too insubstantial for the purposes she had in mind.  The result is a story that feels incomplete, sketchy, as though it were lacking the depth of O’Connor’s other stories.  It may not be as weak as “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” but “A Circle in the Fire” is one of the weaker stories in A Good Man is Hard to Find.

Flannery Friday: “The Artificial Nigger” (1955)

March 8th, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

It is little secret to anyone that the American South has had a long, troubled history regarding racial relations.  If anything, it likely is viewed as the epitome of racism, with its chattel slavery, Jim Crow laws, and being the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan.  If ever the doctrine of Original Sin could be applied so thoroughly to a region and to a whole class of people, doubtless it would be the South in regards to racism, even though a closer look would reveal some discrepancies.  Today, it is hard to look at a story written in the 1950s by a white Southerner entitled “The Artificial Nigger” (1955) and wonder how there isn’t at least the decent asterisk-marking of the offending racial epithet, if not an outright condemnation of a story that almost certainly has to contain objectionable language, if not repulsive, outdated views regarding a minority group.  Yet such knee-jerk reactions would rob the reader of the chance of reading a work that makes a profound statement about the ridiculous societal views through the image of an “artificial nigger.”

The story opens with a sixty year-old grandfather, Mr. Head, awakening during a moonlit light on the eve of his trip with his ten year-old grandson, Nelson, to Atlanta.  O’Connor has imbued this story with several symbolic metaphors and the passage describing Mr. Head’s view of himself and the reason for their travel to the city foreshadows later events:

Sixty years had not dulled his responses; his physical reactions, like his moral ones, were guided by his will and strong character, and these could be seen plainly in his features.  He had a long tube-like face with a long rounded open jaw and a long depressed nose.  His eyes were alert but quiet, and in the miraculous moonlight they had a look of composure and of ancient wisdom as if they belonged to one of the great guides of men.  He might have been Vergil summoned in the middle of the night to go to Dante, or better, Raphael, awakened by a blast of God’s light to fly to the side of Tobias.  The only dark spot in the room was Nelson’s pallet, underneath the shadow of the window. (p. 210)

It is fairly obvious that Mr. Head’s view of himself as a sort of “guide” for his young grandson is going to be upended by the narrative.  But within this passage is a wealth of images:  the raw, drawn-out features of a rural inhabitant; the “miraculous moonlight” that mirrors the light of the day (and of the divine); the references to Dante’s The Divine Comedy and to the biblical book of Tobit; the “darkness” of the boy’s sleeping spot, presaging the grandfather’s view of the boy’s insubordinate pride.  As discussed in my earlier review of “A Stroke of Good Fortune” (1954), pride is one of the seven capital sins that O’Connor addresses frequently in her fiction.  But instead of the hurt pride of one who perceives herself to be “lost” to the charity of others, pride here in “The Artificial Nigger” takes different forms.  There is the pride of the white Southerner who does not want to “lower” himself to address the downtrodden African Americans; the pride of a grandfather wanting to demonstrate his worthiness and world-traveler qualities to his young grandson; and the fear that the young boy has too much pride in a city (Atlanta) in which he was born but from which he was taken at the age of one to the countryside.  Over the course of  twenty-two pages, O’Connor explodes these prideful elements in a story that mixes dark comedy with a sharp, keen critique of mid-20th century racial prejudices.

The plot of the story revolves around the grandfather’s pride (of which he is blissfully unaware until several calamities befall him) getting in the way of both him and his grandson making their way through Atlanta.  From his refusal to admit that he (only a three-time visitor to the city) does not know the way around the city (exacerbated by the circles they make before the boy points out the obvious to him) to his reluctance to seek help (forcing the young boy to be his proxy and see help from a matronly black woman; a key moment in the story) to the trick he pulls on the boy that backfires, the grandfather’s pride in recognizing that the “guide” is perhaps the one who is in most need of guidance occupies center stage.   This pride is not limited to the grandfather; in him, we can see traces of it in our own self-views and in how we choose to treat others.  It is no accident that the true “guides” of this story are from the social/ethnic group that the grandfather dismisses so readily.  And certainly it is the image of the “artificial nigger” that simultaneously reveals the limits of human pride and which brings the grandfather and grandson back together after the series of calamitous events had threatened to sunder their relationship:

He had not walked five hundred yards down the road when he saw, within reach of him, the plaster figure of a Negro sitting bent over on a low yellow brick fence that curved around a wide lawn.  The Negro was about Nelson’s size and he was pitched forward at an unsteady angle because the putty that held him to the wall had cracked.  One of his eyes was entirely white and he held a piece of brown watermelon.

Mr. Head stood looking at him silently until Nelson stopped at a little distance.  Then as the two of them stood there, Mr. Head breathed, “An artificial nigger!”

It was not possible to tell if the artificial Negro were meant to be young or old; he looked too miserable to be either.  He was meant to look happy because his mouth was stretched up at the corners but the chipped eye and the angle he was cocked at gave him a wild look of misery instead.

“An artificial nigger!” Nelson repeated in Mr. Head’s exact tone.

The two of them stood there with their necks forward at almost the same angle and their shoulders curved in almost exactly the same way and their hands trembling identically in their pockets.  Mr. Head looked like an ancient child and Nelson like a miniature old man.  They stood gazing at the artificial Negro as if they were faced with some great mystery, some monument to another’s victory that brought them together in their common defeat.  They could both feel it dissolving their differences like an action of mercy.  Mr. Head had never known before what mercy felt like because he had been too good to deserve any, but he felt he knew now. (pp. 229-230)

Mercy.  It is a strange thing to encounter in a tale that starts off with an old pompous fool and which journeys through a maze of self-deceit and undeserving contempt for a downtrodden race of people, but mercy certainly lies at the heart of this tale.  O’Connor is rather explicit about this in the concluding paragraphs, as Mr. Head elaborates upon this feeling that he first recognizes in the passage quoted above:  mercy is not ever something that humans merit, but which is instead a fountain that springs from God’s love and which can envelop even the most inveterate sinner.  Although today using an entire race of people to serve mostly as a backdrop for a singular person’s realization of his faults likely would be considered to be at least in poor taste, in the 1950s South, doubtless it was a sobering, blistering message regarding the sin of pride and the resultant degradation of the African American communities at the hands of white Southerners who could not bring themselves to admit that their pride had led to horrific treatment of a whole race of people.  Yet limits must be placed on interpreting O’Connor’s story as being part of a greater civil rights struggle.  She certainly was no social progressive, merely one who did not like the excesses of segregation.  Several of her letters during this time period bear this out quite clearly.  Yet nearly sixty years after this story was published, “The Artificial Nigger” is relevant today not for its views regarding African Americans but in its carefully constructed series of metaphors for sin and mercy.  Such religious imagery may not be for everyone’s tastes, but it certainly does capture a Catholic view of the matter very well.

Flannery Friday: “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” (1954)

March 1st, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

If “A Stroke of Good Fortune” can be considered one of Flannery O’Connor’s least substantive stories, then the next story found in the 1955 collection A Good Man is Hard to Find, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” (1954) is perhaps one of her deepest, most symbol-laden stories.  It is a tale that encompasses the pervasiveness of pride; the search for love and acceptance; and the acquiescence of the soul to God’s will.  “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” perhaps is the most “Catholic” of O’Connor’s tales in this collection, as it covers not just the sins of the soul but also the redemptive power of faith.

Like most of her tales, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” is set in contemporary 1940s-1950s Georgia.  An unnamed twelve year-old girl is the protagonist and her caustic, malicious behavior toward those around her serves as the catalyst for this tale.  The story begins with the girl’s mother having picked up the girl’s two twin fourteen year-old cousins for the weekend from a convent school 45 miles away.  The twins at first glance are shallow, vain, boy-obsessed girls who possess their own traits of maliciousness.  When the mother despairs of how to entertain them for the weekend, the girl suggests two unflattering male chaperones out of mirthful spite.  Changing the topic, the mother asks them why they’ve nicknamed themselves “Temple One” and “Temple Two”:

She asked them why they called each other Temple One and Temple Two and this sent them off into gales of giggles.  Finally they managed to explain.  Sister Perpetua, the oldest nun at the Sisters of Mercy in Mayville, had given them a lecture on what to do if a young man should – here they laughed so hard they were not able to go on without going back to the beginning – on what to do if a young man should – they put their heads in their laps – on what to do if – they finally managed to shout it out – if he should “behave in an ungentlemanly manner with them in the back of an automobile.”  Sister Perpetua said they were to say, “Stop sir!  I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost!” and that would put an end to it.  The child sat up off the floor with a blank face.  She didn’t see anything so funny in this.  What was really funny was the idea of Mr. Cheatam or Alonzo Myers beauing them around.  That killed her. (p. 199)

At this point, the story easily could have devolved into a tearing down of the twins (Susan and Joanne) for their slightly impious behavior, but O’Connor is playing a deeper game here.  It is the girl, who is mostly ignored by her older cousins, who is the centerpiece.  When the twins are introduced to two strappin’ farm boys who are likely bound to be Church of God preachers (after an observation from the girl that they are going to be so “because you don’t have to know nothing to be one.” (p. 200)) and they slyly mock their ignorant fundamentalism by returning their singing of songs such as “The Old Rugged Cross” with an a capella singing of “Tantum Ergo,” it is not their behavior that elicits commentary but rather the girl’s.  Hidden from view, her yelling of “You big dumb ox!”  “You big dumb Church of God ox!” (p. 202) leads to a lecture from the cook:

“Howcome you be so ugly sometime?” the cook asked.

“Those stupid idiots,” the child said.

The lanterns gilded the leaves of the trees orange on the level where they hung and above them was black-green and below them were different dim muted colors that made the girls sitting at the table look prettier than they were.  From time to time, the child turned her head and glared out the kitchen window at the scene below.

“God could strike you deaf dumb and blind,” the cook said, “and then you wouldn’t be as smart as you is.”

“I would still be smarter than some,” the child said. (p. 203)

Here the child’s pride can be seen.  She has rejected a seat at the garden table with her cousins and the two boys she has just ridiculed from hiding.  She would rather pretend that she is superior to them and that she is rejecting them rather than admitting that they do not desire her company.  She has cloaked herself with pride, believing that her loneliness is the result of her superiority rather than due to the ugliness of her character.  She reflects upon the upcoming fair and how she was denied a visit to it outside of the one designated for young schoolchildren.  She suspects that the fair’s “adult” tents contain things of medicine, thus revealing her own ignorance of the cruel maliciousness of such things as “the freak show.”  She ponders on the evening’s events, the bit about the “temple of the Holy Ghost” and the cook’s lecture:

She would have to be a saint because that was the occupation that included everything you could know; and yet she knew she would never be a saint.  She did not steal or murder but she was a born liar and slothful and she sassed her mother and was deliberately ugly to almost everybody.  She was eaten up also with the sin of Pride, the worst one.  She made fun of the Baptist preacher who came to the school at commencement to give the devotional.  She would pull down her mouth and hold her forehead as if she were in agony and groan, “Fawther, we thank Thee,” exactly the way he did and she had been told many times not to do it.  She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick. (p. 204)

Here the child’s true character is laid bare.  Behind pride’s cloak lurks a sense of insecurity, that she is ultimately small and mean and perhaps insignificant when the sums of her life are totaled.  Yet she is not without hope.  When the twins return around midnight, talking almost breathlessly about the “freak” they saw (a hermaphrodite) going across a curtained divide from a male audience to a female one, showing her body and proclaiming:

“God made me thisaway and if you laugh He may strike you the same way.  This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain’t disputing His way.  I’m showing you because I got to make the best of it.  I expect you to act like ladies and gentlemen.  I never done it to myself nor had a thing to do with it but I’m making the best of it.  I don’t dispute hit.” (p. 206)

the girl is affected by this and she imagines a dialogue between the “freak” and the people that would encapsulate the body, no matter its form, being “a temple of the Holy Ghost.”  This thought lingers with the child the next day, as she, her mother, and the twins drive to the convent of Mount St. Scholastica.  As they arrive at the convent and the nuns hurry them in, as the benediction was beginning, the child is struck by the mystery of the Mass and how it tied into her worried thoughts:

The child knelt down between her mother and the nun and they were went into the “Tantum Ergo” before her ugly thoughts stopped and she began to realize that she was in the presence of God.  Hep me not to be so mean, she began mechanically.  Hep me not to give her so much sass.  Hep me not to talk like I do.  Her mind began to get quiet and then empty but when the priest raised the monstrance with the Host shining ivory-colored in the center of it, she was thinking of the tent at the fair that had the freak in it.  The freak was saying, “I don’t dispute hit.  This is the way He wanted me to be.” (pp. 208-209)

If in the other stories grace is not truly found (even though desired by several of the characters, particularly the young boy in “The River”), here at the end of “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” when the child looks out the car window at the end and sees that the sun “was a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood and when it sank out of sight, it left a line in the sky like a red clay road hanging over the trees” (p. 209), there is the sense that this character at least might indeed find some semblance of redemption.  Doubtless this is intentional, that in contrast to the various Protestants and former believers in her tales who seek (and fail) to find forgiveness or redemption in their actions, here in the mystery of the Mass and in the use of the “freak” to underscore just how “freakish” unredeemed humanity is that O’Connor closes a tale not with a smirk or a sad sigh but with a glimmer of hope.  While doubtless some readers may find the religious symbolism to be off-putting, their use in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” is effective and poignant.  It may be one of her best-executed tales because it encapsulates much of her own self within these pages, not to mention that the juvenile protagonist perhaps reminds us more clearly of our own foibles and desires to reform.

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