Seeing What You See: On Imagery

You have probably heard me talk about the importance of inviting a reader into a scene–presenting information to your reader as closely as possible to the way she would receive information in real life. In real life, we collect information via our five senses, and then our minds go to work on that information to make judgments, have ideas, feel feelings, reach conclusions, etc. I wrote about this idea at length in an earlier issue of The Habit called The Eye Is an Organ of Judgment.

Imagery is the most basic and most important tool for writing that invites a reader into a scene rather than telling the reader what to think. Imagery is simply language that appeals to the five senses by depicting concrete facts.

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Mystery and Manners

“There are two qualities that make fiction,” wrote Flannery O’Connor. “One is the sense of mystery and the other is the sense of manners.” Since yesterday was Flannery O’Connor’s birthday (she would have been ninety-four), I thought this would be a good week to think about mystery and manners.

Mystery and Manners, as you may know, is the title of a collection of O’Connor’s “occasional prose.” It contains some of the most insightful writing about writing that you can ever hope to read. I commend it to you.

But what does O’Connor mean by those terms “mystery” and “manners”? The gist is that the fiction writer is always looking to approach the deepest mysteries through the surfaces of things. A storyteller may be interested in big, abstract ideas about ultimate meaning—love, hatred, sin, judgment, grace, etc.—but those big ideas are not the raw material of a story. The raw materials of a story are found in manners, not mystery. Manners are what we see with our eyeballs when we look out at the world of human interaction. “You get the manners from the texture of existence that surrounds you,” writes O’Connor.

The quotes above come from “Writing Short Stories” in Mystery and Manners. So does this remarkable passage:

Fiction operates through the senses, and I think one reason that people find it so difficult to write stories is that they forget how much time and patience is required to convince through the senses. No reader who doesn’t actually experience, who isn’t made to feel, the story is going to believe anything the fiction writer merely tells him. The first and most obvious characteristic of fiction is that it deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched.

The essay is a form that allows a writer to go straight to the big idea (though I encourage even essay writers to be as concrete as possible). Fiction, on the other hand, doesn’t give the writer nearly so much leeway. Fiction demands that we deliver meaning through experience—through manners.

O’Connor was never shy about the moral dimension of storytelling. She could be judgmental in her stories; but more to the point, she expected her readers to exercise moral judgment. The fiction writer’s job, according to O’Connor, is to present to the reader a sequence of experiences that will engage his (the reader’s) moral judgment.

The [inexperienced writer] thinks that judgment exists in one place and sense-impression in another. But for the fiction writer, judgment begins in the details he sees and how he sees them.

It is hard to resist the urge to tell the reader what to think. It is so easy for a writer to pass judgment and hope that the reader falls in line. But unless a reader agrees with you already, he is rarely so cooperative. As O’Connor said, if the reader doesn’t experience a story, doesn’t feel it, he isn’t going to believe anything the writer tells him.

And yet…when you present the right images to the reader, those images are persuasive in ways that mere persuasion can never be. Judgment doesn’t exist in a separate place from sense-impression. If you can believe that, it will transform your storytelling. The sensory experience of a story isn’t window-dressing; it’s the story’s truest machinery. (I have discussed this idea at length in an earlier issue of The Habit, so I will refer you to it rather than go through it all again).

Do you believe that the world is shot through with meaning? If so, you can trust that all you have to do is to give a true account of the world as you have experienced it. You just tend to the manners. The mysteries will take care of themselves. This should give you freedom and hope in your writing.

Bonus Quotation:
This idea of mystery and manners, by the way, is important not just for writers, but for readers as well. If you feel insufficiently literary to “get” serious fiction, consider what O’Connor says on the subject:

The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.

Yes and amen.

The Eye Is an Organ of Judgment

I often tell people that Flannery O’Connor once wrote “the eye is an organ of judgment.” Turns out, she never wrote that. When I typed “the eye is an organ of judgment” into the Google machine, the only thing that came back was a picture of me, from a previous issue of The Habit in which I had misquoted Flannery O’Connor. Sorry about that.

In my defense, however, I will say that my misquotation is a pretty good distillation of something that Flannery O’Connor actually did write, in her essay “Writing Short Stories,” which you can find in Mystery and Manners

For the writer of fiction, everything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be gotten into it. It involves judgment.

She goes on to say that the student-writer is often so interested in thoughts and emotions that he neglects the concrete and sensory details where storytelling actually happens: 

He thinks that judgment exists in once place and sense-impression in another. But for the fiction writer, judgment begins in the details he sees and how he sees them.

The eye is an organ of judgment. O’Connor is specifically talking about fiction-writing in these passages, but she could be talking about any kind of writing. In fact, she could just as easily be talking about everyday life.

A familiar scenario will demonstrate what I mean: You are at a stoplight, waiting for a left-turn arrow. You’re the fifth car in line, but you know from experience that six, sometimes seven cars usually make it through before the arrow turns, so you’ll be fine. You get your arrow. The first car starts through the intersection, then the second and the third. You take your foot off the brake to move forward. Then you put your foot back on the brake because you realize that the fourth car, the one in front of you, isn’t moving. You see that the driver in front of you is looking down at his phone. You give a little tap on your horn. Nothing. The turn-arrow turns yellow. You lean on the horn. The driver ahead of you jerks his head up as if from a deep sleep and lurches forward and through the intersection just as the light turns red again. You, meanwhile, are left to wait for the next arrow.

Consider how many judgments you make in that moment. You judge that driver’s character and his home-raising. You reach conclusions regarding his ability to consider the feelings of others. You wonder how a person with such convoluted priorities could ever hold a job or otherwise contribute to society. 

How did this cascade of judgments start? It started with your eyes. You saw an arrow turn green. You saw three cars move. You saw a fourth car not move. You saw that the driver of that fourth car was looking down rather than looking ahead (you didn’t, by the way, even see a mobile phone). Those few visual stimuli were more than enough. The eye is an organ of judgment.

This brings us to the oft-repeated writing advice, “Show, don’t tell.” What’s the difference? “Showing” is simply presenting to your reader what she would see and hear (and perhaps smell, taste, and touch) if she were present in the scene where the action is happening. “Telling” is everything else–explaining, editorializing, describing what’s going on inside a character’s head, providing backstory, summarizing action, etc. Imagine there was a video camera set up in the room where the action takes place. Anything that could appear in the video is showing. Anything you write that couldn’t appear in the video is telling.

Here are two samples describing the same event; the first is all showing, and the second is mostly telling.

Sample 1 (all showing):
When the light turned green and the cars started to move, the car in front of me didn’t go anywhere. The driver just sat there, his head pointed down toward his lap, until I honked my horn…

Sample 2 (mostly telling):
When the arrow turned green and the cars started to move, the jackass in front of me just sits there, gawping at his phone as if it’s the Holy Grail or something, as if there’s not a whole line of people behind him who might have places to be. But God forbid that he should have to wait until he gets wherever he’s going to look at his texts or update his MySpace page or watch his cat videos or whatever he’s doing up there while the rest of us sit there and wait for him to notice that the world hasn’t stopped turning.

In Sample 2, everything before the first comma is showing–what anybody at the red light would see–and everything after the first comma is telling–interpretation and commentary and speculation by the writer.

The idea behind the “Show-Don’t-Tell” principle is that showing more closely approximates the way experience comes to us in real life. We gather information through our senses, then our logic and judgment go to work making sense of those inputs. When the person in front of you holds up a line of cars because he’s looking at his phone, you don’t need a narrator to tell you that he’s a self-absorbed jackass. You take in the sensory data (green arrow, no movement, driver looking down instead of looking at road), and you reach your own conclusion. And, by the way, almost everybody presented with that sensory data would reach a similar conclusion.

When you choose to show rather than tell, you are trusting that your readers’ judgment apparatus is intact, and that she will reach the appropriate conclusions without being told what conclusions to reach. But you are also trusting your own ability to show the right things that will lead the reader to the appropriate judgments. Telling is a shortcut: Here’s what I want you to think about this.

One important thing to note about showing and telling: it is hard to resist telling when you’re really trying to make a point. You want to leave sensory language behind and instead use emotional language, or maybe do a lot of explaining to drive your point home. But as counterintuitive as it sounds, writing tends to be more emotional when, instead of telling readers what to feel, you provide them with the kind of experience that evokes the emotion you want them to feel. In the two samples above, the second, more “tell-y” sample may have been more entertaining and interesting, but if you want to evoke the righteous anger we all feel when somebody else is texting and driving (a righteous anger that we don’t feel, by the way, when we text and drive), you’re better off writing something more like Sample 1, which gives the reader more space to exercise his own judgment. 

Along the same lines, if you’re trying to persuade, readers are more easily persuaded when they think they’ve reached a conclusion on their own, by exercising their own judgment, than when you tell them what to think. In both his fiction and his essays, Wendell Berry makes the case for agrarian values and rural living. When I read his essays, in which he is being openly persuasive, I want to argue back: Well, Wendell Berry, I’m glad you like living in rural Kentucky, but I quite like living where I can get decent Vietnamese food. When I read his novels, on the other hand, I want to sell out and move to rural Kentucky.

But I digress. Let us return to showing and telling. While most of us need to do more showing and less telling, it’s not at all true that you should always show and never tell. Some of the most memorable writing you’ll ever see is very tell-y (even in the two samples above, I think the second, tell-y sample is more memorable than the first). I often tell writers, however, that the way to earn the right to tell is by showing first.

If you want to read a story that is all showing and no (or almost no) telling, check out Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” It might leave you hankering for some good, old-fashioned telling. I will say this, though: every time I read that story, I like it a little better. For better or worse, telling tends to bring more meaning to the surface, whereas showing allows for more discovery by the reader.

For further reading: The best thing I’ve ever read about showing ann telling is the chapter, “Why You Need to Show and Tell,” in Alice LaPlante’s creative writing textbook, The Making of a Story.

Beyond the Region of Thunder: Flannery O’Connor’s Last Days

 This Sunday, August 3, will be the fiftieth anniversary of Flannery O'Connor's death. This memorial is adapted from from my biography of O'Connor,  The Terrible Speed of Mercy.

This Sunday, August 3, will be the fiftieth anniversary of Flannery O’Connor’s death. This memorial is adapted from from my biography of O’Connor,  The Terrible Speed of Mercy.

Fifty summers ago, Flannery O’Connor was thirty-nine years old. She had battled lupus for most of her adult life, managing the disease with massive doses of corticosteroids, which themselves had serious side effects. As she wrote to a friend, “So far as I can tell, the medicine and the disease run neck & neck to kill you.” In the spring of 1954, a major surgery reactivated O’Connor’s dormant lupus; the tell-tale “lupus rash” broke through the protective steroid barrier, signaling that the disease was back in earnest. O’Connor spent a month in Atlanta’s Piedmont Hospital–from May 21 to June 20.

A prodigious letter-writer, O’Connor kept up her correspondence from her hospital bed. Through her many hospital stays, she almost always kept up her letter-writing. But she tended to put off fiction-writing until she could get back to her typewriter. The fact that she wrote much of “Parker’s Back” in Piedmont Hospital, in longhand, suggests a sense of urgency that was unusual for this most deliberate writer. O’Connor seemed to understand that there was something different about this hospital stay, about this recurrence of a disease that had come and gone but had been mostly manageable to that point. The letters she wrote that month didn’t have the same cheery tone that she usually assumed in her hospital letters. “I don’t know if I’m making progress or if there’s any to be made,” she wrote her friend Maryat Lee. “Let’s hope they are learning something anyhow.”

Writing from the hospital to Janet McKane, a favorite pen-pal, O’Connor mentioned that she admired the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins–and especially the sonnet titled “Spring and Fall.” The poem is a meditation on death, the transience of life, and the nature of sorrow, spoken to a girl named Margaret, whose first taste of grief comes with the dying of the autumn leaves:

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By & by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep & know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Flannery O’Connor would never see autumn leaves again. The day after she wrote this letter, her doctor sent her home–not because she was improving, but because there was nothing else that he could do for her.

It is heartbreaking to think of O’Connor in that hospital room, out of medical options, not yet forty and heading home to die, scratching out those sorrowful words to a woman she had never met: Margaret, are you grieving?

Once home at Andalusia, O’Connor cycled through ups and downs for six more weeks. She finished “Parker’s Back” and rewrote “The Geranium” her first published story, as “Judgement Day.” Originally a story about pathological homesickness, “Judgement Day” became a meditation on death.

In early July, when a priest came to the house to give her communion after so many weeks away from Mass, she asked him to give her the Sacrament of the Sick—the sacrament formerly known as Extreme Unction.

Flannery O’Connor lived another three weeks after receiving the Sacrament of the Sick. On Wednesday, July 29, she fell ill and was taken by ambulance to Baldwin General Hospital in Milledgeville. On Sunday, August 2, family and local friends were alerted that the end was near. O’Connor received the Eucharist that day in her hospital bed. She lost consciousness that night, and shortly after midnight on Monday, August 3, 1964, her kidneys failed and she died.

O’Connor’s funeral was the next day—a low requiem funeral Mass at Milledgeville’s Sacred Heart Church. None of her out-of-town friends could come on such short notice; only local friends and family were there to see the red clay cover her casket.

Two weeks before she died, O’Connor wrote Janet McKane a letter in which she reproduced a prayer to Saint Raphael that she prayed every day:

O Raphael, lead us toward those we are waiting for, those who are waiting for us: Raphael, angel of happy meeting, lead us by the hand toward those that we are looking for. May all our movements be guided by your Light and transfigured with your joy.

Angel, guide of Tobias, lay the request we now address to you at the feet of him on whose unveiled Face you are privileged to gaze. Lonely and tired, crushed by the separations and sorrows of life, we feel the need of calling you and of pleading for the protection of your wings, so that we may not be as strangers in the province of joy, all ignorant of the concerns of our country. Remember the week, you who are strong, you whose home lies beyond the region of thunder, in a land that is always peaceful, always serene and bright with the resplendent glory of God.

It is an amazing thing to think about, this woman who made a name for herself with stories of earthly terror and grotesquerie, meditating every day on the province of joy, preparing herself lest she be ignorant of the concerns of her true country. All that darkness was in the service of eternal brightness. All that violence was in the service of peace and serenity. The writer whose every story was a thunderclap took her place beyond the region of thunder.

Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club–“Everything that Rises”

Rosaparks_bus

Rosaparks_bus

I’m terribly sorry about my absence right in the middle of the Summer Reading Club. I hope to circle back around to the stories we missed–“Greenleaf,” “A View of the Woods,” and “The Enduring Chill.” Meanwhile, I figured it was best just to pick up with the story that was scheduled for this week.

Flannery O’Connor referred to “Everything that Rises Must Converge” as “my reflection on the race situation.” Indeed, though race figures into most of her stories one way or another, “Everything That Rises” is the only story that so consciously and directly addresses the changing dynamics of race in the South as a “situation.” The story mostly takes place on a city bus, that crucible of racial politics in the American South of the 1950s and ’60s.

Julian and his mother form a dyad that we have seen already in “Good Country People” and that also appears in “The Enduring Chill”–the the overbearing mother and the over-educated, progressive, and naive adult child. Then there is the mother’s black doppelgänger. She personifies the convergence that will inevitably result from the rising fortunes of African Americans. The white characters—the liberal no less than the reactionary—find that they are ill-prepared for such a convergence.

One of the most remarkable things about this story, I think, is the fact that in the end it turns out not to be a reflection on “the race situation” after all. O’Connor could have hardly chosen a setting that was more politically/racially charged. She wrote the story in the spring of 1961. Just five years earlier, Rosa Parks’s act of civil disobedience launched the Montgomery bus boycott. That spring–1961–saw the Freedom Riders traveling the South in buses. And yet, on Flannery O’Connor’s bus, the most important dynamics at play are family dynamics, not racial dynamics. The more I reflect on this story, the more I realize how little it has to say about “the race situation” in the segregated South. O’Connor never adjudicates between Julian’s views and those of his mother. Both of them are wrong about the black woman and her son, and for the same reasons: neither sees black their black neighbors as fully human. Julian rejects his mother’s supremacist views, but for his purposes, the black mother and son are useful symbols, not actual people. The white mother’s patronizing of the little boy is matched by Julian’s patronizing of the black mother.

Julian’s great revelation at the end of the story has little or nothing to do with race. The black woman and son are gone, and he is left alone with his dying mother. When he enters into “the world of guilt and sorrow,” his guilt is over his sins against his mother, not over his or his society’s sins against the black woman on the bus or black people generally. Perhaps O’Connor’s “reflection on the race situation” is that even as the races rise and converge, we are still accountable to one another as individuals, not as races. As deep as the “race problem” goes, it is still not our deepest problem; it is one of the most obvious symptoms of our deeper problem of sin.

Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club, Week 7: “Good Country People”

hayloft

hayloft

I’m at the beach this week, so I’ll keep this short and rely on you, dear reader, to do the heavy lifting–which you often do anyway.
The irony in “Good Country People” is thick and layered. The joke is on Joy-Hulga, and it is an especially mean joke–or, in any case, it appears to be. But the episode in the hayloft, ironically, is also an offer of grace. Hulga has poured her whole self into that wooden leg (I’ll let you work out all the symbolism contained therein). It’s what she has instead of a soul (“She took care of it as someone else would his soul, in private and almost with her own eyes turned away.”) For this devilish figure, the Bible salesman, to take her wooden leg is the cruelest thing he could do. It is as if he is stealing her soul. Except that being stripped of that ugly idol of self is exactly what Joy-Hulga needs from a spiritual standpoint.

I don’t know that there is any evidence in the story that Joy-Hulga receives grace. But the shock of self-realization, as painful as it is, is at least a step in that direction. A few weeks ago we discussed O’Connor’s idea that the devil is always achieving ends that are not his own. Do you see that dynamic at work in this story?

Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club, Week 6: “The Artificial Nigger”

lawnjockey

lawnjockey

Happy Wednesday, FOC summer reading clubbers, and forgive my tardiness in posting this week. I haven’t relished the thought of having the “n-word” prominently displayed on my blog for all search engines to find. But it probably is time we addressed the question of race in O’Connor’s fiction.
By way of entry into the question of race, I will tell you a story about the editorial process for my forthcoming O’Connor biography, The Terrible Speed of Mercy (which, I recently learned, has a new publication date of August 22, six weeks from today). The book had gone through a few rounds of edits when somebody at Thomas Nelson said, “Wait just a minute…we don’t use the ‘n-word’ in books published by Thomas Nelson.” A perfectly legitimate concern.

Indeed, the n-word appears thirteen times in my manuscript, and twice before you even make it out of the introduction. One solution would have been to “bleep out” the word, substituting “n—–” for the offending word. But eight of those thirteen instances appear in the title “The Artificial Nigger.” Which is a problem insofar as you can’t very well bleep out part of a story title. Somebody raised the possibility of keeping the title intact, bleeping out the other five instances of the n-word, and writing a Publisher’s Note explaining that, as far as that particular word goes, things were different in O’Connor’s time. I didn’t much like that solution, largely on the grounds that the word–especially among O’Connor’s readership–was as offensive then as it is now.

Lest you think this is a story of a publisher being overly cautious and politically correct, let me say that Thomas Nelson was correct to think long and hard before putting out a book that includes thirteen instances of a word as inflammatory as that. In the end the publishing team decided to leave the manuscript as it was in and include the following note at the beginning:

A Note About Diction

A highly offensive racial slur occurs some thirteen times throughout this book, in each case quoted from Flannery O’Connor’s fiction or correspondence. The publishing team discussed at some length how best to handle this word in light of the sensibilities of twenty-first century readers. In the end, we decided to let the word stand in its full offensiveness, on the grounds that the repugnance the reader feels at the word is a key reason O’Connor used it in the first place. It may be true that there was more open racism in the 1950s and 1960s than in the twenty-first century, but that hardly explains why O’Connor used the “n-word” in the thirteen instances quoted in this book. A reader of literary fiction in the 1950s would be no less offended by the word than a reader of literary fiction in 2012. To expurgate O’Connor’s language would be to suggest that we understand its offensiveness better than she does, or perhaps to suggest that the readers of this book are more easily offended than O’Connor’s original audience. We have no reason to believe that either is true. So we leave O’Connor’s language intact, and we leave you with this warning: you may find some of the language in this book offensive; that is as it should be.

This article by Rachel D. Held gives a sense of how much courage it has taken on the publisher’s part to let such offensive language stand.

So then, race in “The Artificial Nigger.” It is common in O’Connor’s fiction to see white characters express racist attitudes. I can’t think of a single instance of O’Connor endorsing those attitudes in any of her stories or novels. From a race perspective, the troubling thing about “The Artificial Nigger” isn’t that a couple of hillbillies turn out to be racist. More troublesome is the fact that this is one of the few O’Connor stories in which a character clearly sees the error in his ways and appears to receive the offer of grace. And yet Mr. Head’s racism doesn’t get fixed.

Consider this remarkable moment at the end of the story, when Mr. Head realizes what an awful thing he has done in denying his grandson:

He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. He had never thought himself a great sinner before but he saw now that his true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair. He realized that he was forgiven for sins from the beginning of time. . . . He saw that no sin was too monstrous to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise.

This moment of self-awareness immediately follows a moment of reconciliation between Nelson and Mr. Head. And that moment of reconciliation is signaled by their sharing of a joke–an unmistakably racist joke!

What I’m suggesting is that if you or I were were writing a story about a racist coming face-to-face with his own sin, you or I would probably show him becoming less of a racist. Not Flannery O’Connor.

What do you make of that?

Bonus reading recommendation: The best discussion of O’Connor and race and sin and redemption can be found in Ralph C. Wood’s book, Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South, Chapter 3.

Discussion Question: The End of the Carnival

What do you make of the fact that the local preachers band together to shut down the carnival at the end of “A Temple of the Holy Ghost”? It seems clear that the freak show (or, in any case, a second-hand account of the freak show) brings our young protagonist closer to a place where she is ready for the Eucharist to do its work on her. That being the case, there is a certain irony in the preachers shutting the thing down. On the other hand, if part of the preachers’ job is to raise the moral tone of a community, you can hardly blame them for taking a stand against freak shows in general and the hermaphrodite’s unseemly exhibit in particular.
I’ll just throw this little tidbit out there as a discussion starter: In one of her letters, Flannery O’Connor wrote, “I think most people come to the Church by means the Church does not allow, else there would be no need their getting to her at all.” I suspect that quotation has some bearing on this question. (Forgive me for wrenching that quotation entirely out of context; you can find it on p. 93 of Habit of Being if you prefer your quotations in context).

Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club, Week 5: “A Temple of the Holy Ghost”

Freak_show_1941

Freak_show_1941

For those who view Flannery O’Connor’s fiction as a freak show, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” would appear to be Exhibit A. Its most memorable scene describes a hermaphrodite in an actual carnival freak show. But O’Connor doesn’t offer up the hermaphrodite simply as an object of curiosity for gawkers and voyeurs. She doesn’t, in other words, offer up this freak in the spirit of the freak show. The hermaphrodite, to my way of thinking, is surprisingly human, a figure of pathos and even a strange dignity, calling the audience to a civility and charity that one wouldn’t necessarily expect from freak show attendees:

“This is the way [God] 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.”

I realize that my impression of the hermaphrodite’s dignity is subjective and that another reader might interpret his/her speech entirely differently. A better clue to the meaning of the hermaphrodite comes from the Tantum ergo, the Latin hymn sung by the Catholic schoolgirls on the porch and sung again during the benediction at the convent. The hymn was written by Thomas Aquinas, whom O’Connor read every night before bed. Here is a translation of the first stanza:

Down in adoration falling,
Lo! the sacred Host we hail,
Lo! o’er ancient forms departing
Newer rites of grace prevail;
Faith for all defects supplying
Where the feeble senses fail.

The hermaphrodite, like the rest of the freaks in O’Connor’s fiction, stands for all of us, broken and needing the grace that supplies our defects. The people who go to the freak show expecting to see a sub-human creature are instead challenged to be more humane, more charitable.

O’Connor once helped some nurse-nuns in an Atlanta with a book called A Memoir of Mary Ann. Mary Ann was a little girl in their hospital whose face was terribly deformed by cancer, but who shone nevertheless with a loveliness that made an indelible impression on everyone who met her. O’Connor wrote the introduction to the book, and in it she provides perhaps the best explanation of what the grotesquerie in her fiction means. I expect to write more about “An Introduction to A Memoir to Mary Ann” in a later post, but for now here is a quotation from the piece that is relevant to the hermaphrodite in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost”:

This action by which charity grows invisibly among us, entwining the living and the dead, is called by the Church the Communion of Saints. It is a communion created upon human imperfection, created from what we make of our grotesque state.

That call to charity is one important role that the hermaphrodite plays in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost”; the twelve-year-old at the center of the story is deeply uncharitable from our first sight of her. She is also beset by an unearned and premature sense of her own superiority. It is the story of the hermaphrodite that brings her face-to-face with the truth that she is living in the midst of mysteries that she cannot fathom. The story of the hermaphrodite is to her “the answer to a riddle that was more puzzling than the riddle itself.” That, perhaps, is the hermaphrodite’s most important role in the story. When the girl finally understands how little she understands about the world she lives in, she is a step closer to receiving the grace that can make up for her shortcomings.

To return to the Tantum ergo, the hermaphrodite’s story is where “the feeble senses fail” for our protagonist. The Eucharist bridges the gap that her human wits cannot cross. Where the girl’s judgmental self-satisfaction had always held sway, “newer rites of grace prevail.” That great blood-soaked elevated Host of the sun makes a red dirt road across the heavens, inviting her to something new.

The Misfit’s Hat, Mr. Shiftlet’s Car, and Symbolism in O’Connor’s Fiction

Earlier this week, Madeleine asked the following question:

Did FO write these stories with all sorts of symbols and hidden meanings like a rich treasure hunt waiting for persistent readers, or was she writing good stories with some meat to chew on? I’m just wondering if I should be thinking every detail is important to extra meaning or just a detail important to setting a mood or a backdrop for her story. (And yes, the answer can be both, but some writers lean more one way or the other.)

That’s a tricky question, and one that gets at the very heart of what we’re doing in the Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club. Madeleine is asking, in effect, “How do we get from the concrete details of the story to the meaning of the story?” If there’s a more fundamental (or important) question a reader can ask, I don’t know what it is.

The last thing I would want to do would be to dissect O’Connor’s stories (or anybody’s stories) in such a way that they are drained of the pleasure that is to be had in them. If I had to choose between enjoying a story and understanding it, I would choose to enjoy it every time. However, I’m convinced that, when it comes to reading, enjoyment is one of the surest paths toward understanding. So was Flannery O’Connor. She wrote:

In most English classes the short story has become a kind of literary specimen to be dissected. Every time a story of mine appears in a Freshman anthology, I have a vision of it, with its little organs laid open, like a frog in a bottle.

I realize that a certain amount of this what-is-the-significance has to go on, but I think something has gone wrong in the process when, for so many students, the story becomes simply a problem to be solved, something which you evaporate to get Instant Enlightenment.

A story isn’t really any good unless it successfully resists paraphrase, unless it hangs on and expands in the mind. Properly, you analyze to enjoy, but it’s equally true that to analyze with any discrimination, you have to have enjoyed already, and I think that the best reason to hear a story read is that it should stimulate that primary enjoyment. (Mystery and Manners p. 108)

So then, whatever we do with the concrete details of O’Connor’s stories, let us not turn our reading into an exercise in dissection. O’Connor told a story about a run-in with an English teacher: “‘Miss O’Connor,’ he said, ‘why was the Misfit’s hat black?’ I said most countrymen in Georgia wore black hats.’ He looked pretty disappointed.” There is symbolism in O’Connor, but I don’t think symbol-hunting is especially helpful as an initial approach to a story. A good fiction writer uses concrete details to create a world that the reader can believe and inhabit. If those concrete details can also serve as symbols, all the better.*

There is a kind of symbol that is more or less arbitrary. We all agree that a wedding ring is a symbol of marriage. But it’s a symbol only because we choose to agree it’s a symbol; I’ve heard the preacher say the thing about the ring having no beginning and no end, etc. etc., but if somebody hadn’t told me that a gold band was a symbol of holy matrimony, I wouldn’t have guessed it in a hundred years. Consider, on the other hand, the car in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” It’s a symbol too, but a very different kind of symbol than the wedding ring. It symbolizes freedom, independence, a sense of being unmoored, for better or for worse. And anybody who has ever turned sixteen understands that without needing any explanation. When Mr. Shiftlet’s yearns after the Craters’ car, there is symbolism at work, but it’s not a secret code by any means. Or consider Mr. Shiftlet’s missing arm; it’s an outward expression of an inward incompleteness and brokenness; it’s a symbol. But it’s a “natural” symbol–something that any reader is equipped to pick up on if he or she is paying attention.

So when Madeleine asks if O’Connor included “symbols and hidden meanings” in her stories, I would have to say that there are plenty of symbols, but I don’t think there are all that many hidden meanings. In the comments on the previous post, there was some discussion about what peacocks represent in traditional symbology. I don’t mean to suggest that those discussions are irrelevant or uninteresting, but they are secondary to what O’Connor offers right there in the plain text:

The priest let his eyes wander toward the birds. They had reached the middle of the lawn. The cock stopped suddenly and curving his neck backwards, he raised his tail and spread it with a shimmering timbrous noise. Tiers of small pregnant suns floated in a green-gold haze over his head. The priest stood transfixed, his jaw slack. Mrs. McIntyre wondered where she had ever seen such an idiotic old man. “Christ will come like that,” he said in a loud gay voice and wiped his hand over his mouth and stood there, gaping.

The peacock symbolizes glory because anybody who has ever seen a peacock knows that it is glorious.

Or to return to the Misfit’s black hat, there is a long tradition in American storytelling whereby black hats represent bad men. Okay, but of all the ways O’Connor shows us that the Misfit is a bad man, surely that is one of the least interesting and least compelling. An English teacher stands in front of Flannery O’Connor herself, and that’s what he wants to talk about? A serial killer wearing the kind of hat that old boys in Georgia wore in the 1950s–I’m more interested in that detail as a piece of world-building than as a symbol of evil. And, as Madeleine has observed already, it can be both.

I want to conclude with one more observation that is not directly related to Madeleine’s question but is relevant to the larger project of the Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club. I have written at some length about the fact that there is typically a moment of revelation (which is also a moment of violence) in an O’Connor story, and that in that moment, a main character has an opportunity to receive grace. I still think that’s one helpful way into a story. But I don’t want to give the impression that I have given you the formula for reading and understanding all of O’Connor’s work. These stories are complex–and none of her short stories are more complex than “The Displaced Person.” The “moment of revelation” is just one tool on the reader’s tool belt. Keep pulling out your other tools.

 

*An allegory works the other way around, by the way; any concrete detail is there to symbolize some abstraction, and if it helps to create an inhabitable world, that’s ok too. I have to say, however, that I don’t really know of any allegories that depict an inhabitable world. That’s why I’m not very interested in allegory–not even Pilgrim’s Progress. (I realize I’m not supposed to say that out loud.)

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