In her study of the South’s preeminent fictionist, Flannery O’Connor’s Sacramental Art, Susan Srigley reconsiders three of Flannery O’Connor’s most significant figures: Hazel Motes, Francis Tarwater, and Ruby Turpin. The former are, respectively, the curious protagonists of O’Connor’s two and only novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away. The other is the protagonist of “Revelation,” one of O’Connor’s last and finest short stories. The burden of Srigley’s book is to show that much of the criticism heretofore concerned with these spiritual journeyers has either misunderstood them or not fully examined their ethical significances. Exegetically exacting and morally instructive, the book bears its burden well, compelling the Flannery O’Connor scholar to rethink these characters in light of Srigley’s extraordinary insights into the upshot and resolution of each of their trials.
With most assessments of Wise Blood, Srigley agrees that Mr. Motes blinds himself because, to put it simply, he fails to make a satisfied nihilist of himself or anybody else. Her reconsideration of what Motes hopes to see without his eyes, however, departs from the standard interpretation of the novel. Despite what critics have said to the contrary, she argues convincingly that Motes does not blind himself to the natural world in order better to see a supernatural one. He destroys his sight, she maintains, in a selfishly defiant but futile attempt to lock himself away in a Cartesian prison house of independence and moral autonomy.
To be sure, necessity forces Motes to remain in the human community of interdependence, insofar as blindness renders him physically dependent on the assistance of his landlady, Mrs. Flood. But the spiritual significance of that community eludes him, Srigley insists in contradistinction to what others have said about the novel’s dénouement. She invites us look beyond the death of Mr. Motes, intriguing though it is, to the spiritual awakening it precipitates in Mrs. Flood, who begins to see what Hazel Motes could not—the mysterious co-inherence of human beings in a creaturehood of the spirit.
The crux of Srigley’s reconsideration of Francis Tarwater centers round the rape he endures. Many readings of The Violent Bear It Away have, understandably, ascribed this bizarre incident to God’s divine retribution for Tarwater’s baptismal drowning of his handicapped nephew, Bishop. Srigley acknowledges the theological plausibility of such an explanation but insists that nothing could be further from O’Connor’s understanding of God’s grace. Through the pain and horror inflicted by the rapist, Tarwater, according to Srigley’s rigorous assessment of the novel’s conclusion, experiences not the wrathful punishment of God, but what Flannery O’Connor called the “terrible speed of God’s mercy” (qtd. in Srigley 133). Though it is not the revelation itself, the humiliation of the rape causes Tarwater’s vision to clear, and what he sees “as a prophet who has suffered and come to understand the implications for his irresponsible behavior” is precisely that which Hazel Motes resisted, namely, “a community” that beckons one out of “his own self-interest” (131).
Srigley’s reconsideration of Ruby Turpin includes a necessarily extensive overview of what critics have said about the strange, disconcerting vision in which her trial culminates. To many it has seemed obvious that the vision is divinely punitive, inasmuch as it apparently puts Ruby in her place, so to speak, when she envisions herself marching last among the souls called to heaven on Judgment Day. Others have argued that, when she strikes Ruby in the face in the story’s opening scene at the doctor’s office and orders her to get “back to hell,” Mary Grace acts and speaks for God, whose judgment Ruby denies (qtd. in Srigley 149). For these critics Ruby’s vision becomes the mere self-delusion of a piously self-righteous bigot who would rather find herself at least somewhere, if not first, in the line of blessed souls than accept that she has been damned, as “all are damned,” according to Harold Bloom’s typically unorthodox comment on the story’s religious imagery (qtd. in Srigley 147.)
Despite what Bloom and others have said about it, Srigley insists that Ruby’s vision is neither punitive nor damning. She adduces evidence from the story’s particulars and from O’Connor’s published letters to show that the themes of “Revelation” are purgatorial in the sense described in St. Catherine of Genoa’s Purgation and Purgatory, on which Srigley draws heavily in her discussion of Ruby’s ordeal. Induced by grace, the vision and all that leads to it are intended, says Srigley, not to damn or to expose Ruby as evil, but to make her aware of her own self-righteousness: for in her self-righteousness is most clearly manifest her self-love, which has so inflated her “image of herself and her Christian virtue” that Ruby has come to “love her own goodness more than she loves God” (138). In the story’s ending consists a hope that the vision has purged Ruby of disordered self-love and enabled her to know herself in relation to God’s love, the ordering force of morality in O’Connor’s universe.
In the final analysis, Srigley’s book is about the art of embodied ethics. It brings to mind what Rachel Bespaloff argued half a century ago in a sapient essay recently republished in War and the Iliad(2005): “Just as aesthetic contemplation is never complete outside a work of art, so the ethical experience lives only in the acts that embody it. What would remain of this experience if poetry did not bear witness to its reality? What would become of its permanence if it were not assisted by creative imagination and verbal genius that accomplish on the plane of poetry the miracle of impossible repetition?” (91) Essentially, Bespaloff’s are the same questions with which Srigley deals in her study.
Embodied in O’Connor’s art is what Srigley calls “an ethic of responsibility” (10). What informs this ethic is O’Connor’s belief in the intrinsic value of persons, a belief which stems from the Christian teaching that all human beings are creatures of God, Who has enabled them to recognize the supreme good in every individual. That is not to say that O’Connor was blind to obvious differences of worth between persons. To be sure, she knew that the hardened criminal is unequal, on a strictly moral scale, to the good and virtuous man. But she realized that the fundamental and most difficult ethic of Christianity, the “ethic of responsibility” examined in Srigley’s book, enjoins the faithful to regard such differences and moral disparities as finally trivial. For only when they do so can men and women begin to see the suffering Christ and image of God in their fellow man.
Flannery O’Connor’s Sacramental Art calls to mind Thomas Carlyle’s observation in The French Revolution: “[T]he eye sees in [every object] what the eye brings means of seeing” (pt. 1, bk. 1, ch. 2). While Carlyle was here speaking of historical events, the adage applies no less certainly to the study of literature. Srigley, to come to the point, brings to O’Connor’s fiction what others seeking to understand it have not: a truly Catholic frame of reference informed by another Thomas, whose Summa Theologica O’Connor pondered lovingly each night before sleeping. There is not room here to rehearse all that Srigley’s eye has brought means of seeing. But a few words ought to be said about Srigley’s important retroduction to the meaning of reason in O’Connor’s thought and craft.
Srigley rightly observes that O’Connor’s understanding of reason in relation to art is foreign to modern conceptions of either, for it is based firmly on Saint Thomas’s definition of art as “reason in making” (qtd. in Srigley 33). She shows that critics insufficiently acquainted with Thomistic philosophy have been too quick to assume that O’Connor mistrusts reason because she is highly critical of intellectuals. Nothing could be more untrue, contends Srigley. What O’Connor mistrusts is not reason, according to Srigley’s account of her philosophical views, but a reductive form of rationality with which critics confuse it. Nor does O’Connor loathe intellectuals per se; after all, Srigley reminds us, O’Connor was herself an intellectual par excellence. That which she condemns in her stories and novels, writes Srigley, is the secular intellectual’s idea “that his reasoning powers are entirely human and autonomous without connection to any revelatory or spiritual insight” (32).
Srigley’s retroduction to O’Connor’s understanding of reason is significant. For it shows that O’Connor understands reason to be something more than merely human cognition. She understands it to be one of the first graces of God (to read between the lines of Srigley’s commentary) impressed in the soul like the natural moral law. For O’Connor reason is an extension of divine intellection, not the exclusive possession of the human mind. O’Connor’s understanding of reason is notable, inasmuch as it contradicts many dangerous assumptions in our time about the source of moral authority, Peter Singer’s being among the most dangerous.
Flannery O’Connor’s Sacramental Art is an astute study of its subject. Its author has taken O’Connor seriously, listened attentively to her case against secular presumption, and demonstrated an uncanny capacity for understanding literature in the light of eternity. What recommends her analysis above all else is the critical virtue it shares with George A. Kilcourse’s Flannery O’Connor’s Religious Imagination (2001) and Ralph C. Wood’s Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South (2004): a painstaking concentration on what is truly meaningful in O’Connor’s symbolism. Like Kilcourse’s and Wood’s, Srigley’s focus is right where O’Connor said it ought to be—not on the dead bodies or grotesqueries, but on the working of God’s grace in the lives and souls of her characters.
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